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Is Historical Fiction Irresponsible?
Written by
State of the Art
September 2012
Written by
State of the Art
September 2012

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.

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  • State of the Art

    This week's discovery of the skeleton that probably belongs to Richard III tells us that his hunched back was not an invention though it may have been exaggerated in later accounts to make him seem more grotesque and evil. The curved spine reveals that he suffered from a form of scoliosis that would have taken a few inches off his 5 foot 8 frame, considered tall for the time. Loyal Ricardians of the Richard III Society, which financed the search and excavation of his bones, were quick to stress the positive points in Richard's favor. There was no evidence that he had a withered arm, their website noted, and a face reconstructed from the skull showed a "calm and thoughtful" visage in contrast to the narrowed eyes and "mean lines" of portraits made after his death, presumably in thrall to Tudor propaganda aimed at blackening his name. Philippa Langley, originator of the Society's Looking for Richard project, said the acute scoliosis he suffered was a sign of character: "he was working through the pain barrier every day just to do his job." Still no word on whether he really killed those princes in the Tower.

  • Becky Hirst

    As long as the historical fiction is well researched, I think they are great.  I just recently finished reading a really great heart warming historical fiction that centers around the Civil War era titled, "Up From Corinth: Book 2 of Journey Into Darkness" by J. Arthur Moore.  Amazing book In my opinion Colleges and universities should consider it as a teaching tool to help preserve our history through the use of historical fiction.  I really think that there are a lot of people out there who would learn their history better through historical fiction.  I know I do.

  • Robin Levin

    I write historical fiction and I think the writer has a responsibly to readers to stick closely to historical fact. A writer should have a sound knowledge of the culture, economics, and technology of the period about which he or she is writing. I have been reading a historical novel about Joseph's sojourn in ancient Egypt, and am amazed a the historical inaccuracies contained therein. I am not an Egyptologist, my area of interest is ancient Rome, but I know that Egypt of Joseph's time was not a monetized society, and the author depicts his characters as using gold coins. He also mentions the use of eucalyptus as medicine when eucalyptus was strictly confined to Australia and New Zealand until western colonization and there was certainly no trade between ancient Egypt and that region. His narrator uses the term Sapphic to describe the relationship between his two youngest wives, centuries before Sappho ruled in Lesbos, and uses the term gladiator more than a millenium before gladiators bloodied the Roman arena. Part of the reason I write historical fiction is to inform my readers of the facts of ancient history as well as to interest them in learning about history for themselves. It defeats the purpose when you incorporate falsities into your narrative. Brad Pitt was eye candy in the movie Troy, but I was amazed to learn that Paris survived the Trojan War but Agamemnon and Menelaus perished! You're never going to get everything exactly correct. Ancient history is like a very worn tapastry that has a lot of blank spaces and the writer needs to fill in some of the blanks to create a coherent narrative, but the writer does have an obligation to stick as closely as possible to what is known.

  • Heather Swanson

    I love historical fiction!  Thanks to writers of historical fiction (like Diana Gabaldon), I became interested in periods of history I had never before been interested, or paid attention to.  The authors imagination brought to life what were otherwise wooden and stale historical figures, and gave images to events I previously could not recall in any detail.  For the most part, though, I enjoy historical fiction that has been meticulously researched, and is as accurate as possible to historic events....although I confess Braveheart and Rob Roy to be on my top ten list of fav movies, and lord help me a lot of historic license was taken there!!

  • Therese M Handley

    The draw toward writing "historical" or "period" fiction to me, first and foremost, is the elimination of so much of the noise of modern life.  No cell phones, no jets soaring overhead, no televisions blaring day and night.  I find it so much more interesting to focus on character this way. 

    The draw toward reading such fiction is similar.  And though I appreciate accuracy of detail and lack of anachronism, I don't really read this type of fiction to learn history. 

  • Kim Fay

    Hi Sarah, I hope you enjoy the conversation you've started on the Historical Novel Society FB page: Best, Kim

  • Katherine Scott Crawford

    This is such a timely post (for me, especially), because my first historical novel comes out tomorrow. I'm always fascinated with how history and fiction can be interweaved--sometimes successfully, sometimes not. After spending two years writing and researching my novel (which is set mostly on the pre-Revolutionary Carolina frontier), pouring over history books, maps, old journals, military records, I came to the conclusion that you have to be as true to the "facts" as you can, and then you trust your story. (I'm also convinced that men and women had very much the same needs, hopes and desires 300+ years ago as we do now.) For example, I'd never--unless I was writing surrealist fiction--have the Cherokee Indians take over the U.S. government, or win the Civil War. But the story itself, the one I dream up? That's mine. And I really do believe, as a writer of historical fiction, that you have to be careful not to forget the story.


    Thank you for this wonderful post! I really enjoyed it.

  • Ashley LaMar

    Historical fiction is actually my favorite genre of fiction.  I have always been a fan of history and I love when authors take historical places, time periods and events and add fictional characters to make the events more relatable.  I also don't mind when authors take historical fictions and create fictional tales.  It helps me to draw connections between myself and the world we live in now and the people and the world that came before me.  After I read any historical fiction novel I research the facts and the data prior to formulating any review and, more often than not, find myself confirming the facts and also learning more than I did prior to reading the fiction book.  When I read, "Alice, I Have Been" by Melanie Benjamin earlier this year I found my stomache turning at the softly implied pedophilia on the part of the Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).  After reading the book I had the overwhelming urge to research his life and the rumors that haunted him and Alice throughout their lives.  To me, that is what a good historical fiction novel will do; it will spark curiosity about our history and lead the reader to research for themselves.  No one should ever take anything they read or hear at face value.  Even books that are written as true history should be fact-checked. 

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    Loved this post in its succinctness, sweep of books I've read, and vision of the problems and benefits in writing historical fiction. There are diaries of a few women who lived through the Mexican American War in New Mexico, but for the most part they are not New Mexican women. I had to create those characters, meanwhile making the factual history something with which my fictional characters had to contend.

  • Laura Seeber

    I think that the writer has a responsibility to be as historically accurate as he or she can, but the reader should certainly read with a critical eye.   It's a two way street, really.

  • Patricia Valdata

    Sarah, thank you for a fascinating post. As a writer of historical fiction, I like to do as much research as I can to get details right, although using a fictional setting helps when I need to fudge things a bit, such as having a major flood in my novel The Other Sister, alhtough the real town I based my fictional town on did not have an event like that during the time period I was writing about. But I think it's important to get period details correct whether the setting and characters are based on real life or made up. The details can serve the story well and provide the needed context. And it is so much fun to learn about them, but I wish we did have more details about women's lives throughout history. That would be a fun read!

  • Kennece Coombe

    As a student, I intensely disliked history classes. As an adult, historical fiction opened the door to a whole new world. More often than not, it prompted me to do my own research to know more about the characters and their time. As other comments have noted, fiction is fiction but historical fiction is seductive, enticing one onto paths previously left unexplored. Surely, it's down to readers to take responsibility for their own gullibility or lack of discernment. Thanks for the post and for the passion!

  • Kim Fay

    This is a wonderful post - thank you! As a writer of historical fiction, I think about this issue a lot. The one part of the issue I don't have to deal with, though, is character. All of my characters are fictional, and then I put them in a factual historic setting. I think one of the reasons I love sticking with facts when it comes to time period and setting is that I LOVE research. I love finding facts that fit into the story I've created. I can't wait to share this post on Facebook with members of the Historical Novel Society. I'm curious to see what members of that group think. Best, Kim Fay

  • Kate Braithwaite

    Somebody once said 'never let the truth get in the way of a great fiction' and I think it's a great line. I used to be more in the purist camp - I remember saying Oliver Stone should never have put excerpts from the Zapruder film in JFK because the mix of fact and fiction was misleading. But these days I tend to think readers (or movie goers in that case) should be given more credit. The clue is in the word - fiction!

    Great post Sarah - especially enjoyed being reminded of The Daughter of Time :-)

  • Carole DeSanti

    There is something wonderful about respecting the facts -- as Mantel, the master, advises -- it's a slow-cooking kind of miracle, though.  It allows us to open up a window into history where only a wall existed before. An  ignorant blindness; a failure of consciousness.  It's the genuine creative process that engages life, and the truth...and creates satisfaction.  Lies have been told, and will continue to be told -- but I don't think there's a time-limit on correcting the record.  Rescuing women from "the condescension of history" is an ongoing project, and we can move it forward.   Zola (and Balzac, and de Maupassant, and others) told the story of courtesans in 19th century France in one way; it made me prickly down to the roots of my being.  It was something like 20 years ago now, but I still remember the feeling of reading Nana.   Bringing truth into material form is worth doing, it is a creative work in the world.  It's also tricky and can take a long time.  Bending the truth is fast and easy.  With writing (as other things)  doing something once because it's the easier way out seems to set up a situation where you are called upon to do it again....which is why we have an epidemic of it.  Thanks, Sarah, for this post! 

    Carole DeSanti, author of The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. 


  • RYCJ Revising

    Sarah, your weakness is appropriate for the genre. Just reading your words I felt your genuine love for these books. What's odd is bashing fiction. I generally don't rely on fiction for the truth, although like you I often use my imagination to figure out which parts I want to believe is realistic.