Sarah Glazer confesses her weakness for historical fiction even as some historians bash it.
I learned most of my history from historical fiction—at least at first. Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy hooked me on Alexandrian Greece. Shakespeare’s history plays, on public television during my childhood, thrust me into a fascinating world of intrigue and assassination among England’s royal families. Of course, much of what I read wasn’t true at all—it reflected the agenda of the writer more than a pure distillation of the era.
Recently, some critics have expressed indignation at the way TV history dramas and historical novels play fast and loose with the facts, condemning the trend as “faction.”
British World War II historian Antony Beever says he’s “deeply concerned about the irresponsibility of the entertainment industry.” In a recent lecture to the Royal Society of Literature in London, he cited several disturbing examples.
The movie Loose Change, which supposedly proves that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the U.S. government, has been watched by 150 million people on the internet and is shown in Russia as a bona fide documentary, according to Beevor.
In case you think this is a silly theory that most people will dismiss out of hand, take a look at former Islamist radical Ed Husain’s column about the roots of the anti-American riots taking place in Muslim countries.
The idea that the U.S. attacked itself is “buttressed by preachers in mosques, on satellite television channels and in glossy Arabic books,” throughout the Muslim world, Husain writes. In London, I’ve heard religious Muslims tell me the same thing.
At the other end of the spectrum, historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel insists she sticks closely to the facts, in some cases correcting popular misconceptions about history. Take her unsympathetic portrayal of King Henry VIII’s advisor and Chancellor Thomas More as a narcissistic prude in Wolf Hall, her historical novel about Henry’s separation from the Catholic Church so he can get around the prohibition on divorce. Most of us remember More from the movie The Man of All Seasons as a man of conscience who refuses to compromise his principles so Henry VIII can divorce his queen. But according to Mantel we’re wrong to think that More was the 1960s liberal portrayed by actor Paul Scofield in the 1966 movie, which seems to her more a product of the ‘60s than a reflection of Henry VIII’s era.
Mantel's advice to would-be writers of historical fiction: “Don’t rearrange history to suit your plot. Make a virtue of the constraints of the facts, or find some other form of fiction.”
That might make for boring reading unless you have the literary mastery of Hilary Mantel, with her terse hard-driving prose. I’m reading Bring up the Bodies, her sequel to Wolf Hall, and right now I find myself in suspense over whether Henry will really rid himself of Anne Boleyn-- even though I know full well her head will get chopped off in the end.
For some historians, biography helps fill the hole left by traditional male historians about the lives of women and the losers in history. Claire Tomalin’s biography The Invisible Woman, tells the little-known story of the actress and lover of Charles Dickens Nelly Ternan. As she said in a recent interview, “I wanted to rescue women from the condescension of history.”
But Victoria Glendenning, biographer of Vita Sackville-West, says she couldn’t find out the intimate details of women’s lives-- like what they did when they had their periods in historical sources, so she strayed into writing historical novels. “You had to use your imagination in the end,” she explains.
At my London Salon a few nights ago, a panel of historical writers echoed that view. “There’s very little known about women in the period I write about,” said Lesley Downer, author of the historical novel, Across a Bridge of Dreams, a love story set in 1870s Japan.
Clare Clark, who has a degree in history from Cambridge University and has published four historical novels, said she wants to counter the view that historical novels are just escapist costume drama. “The past was much grimmer than it is now, and women were more resilient than we are,” said Clark, author most recently of Beautiful Lies, set in Victorian England.
As for my favorite historical fiction writers, who was the worst offender playing fast and loose with the facts? William Shakespeare. I had been enthralled by Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as an evil hunchback who murdered the Little Princes in the Tower so he could seize the throne--a picture now seen as inaccurate.
But that just made me all the more fascinated when I later read Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time, about a Scotland Yard detective who concludes that Richard was innocent of the princes’ death. For Tey, as for some modern historians, Richard III turns out to be a courageous and virtuous king.
Shakespeare probably relied on accounts by Richard's Tudor rivals and later successors and on historians under Tudor reign, who blackened Richard’s reputation. Richard’s hunchback? Probably exaggerated for dramatic effect.
As I would learn when I pursued a degree in history, there are many versions of history, not just in novels but also in the history books themselves.