Accuracy Redux

Over the past couple of days, a few posts have popped up dealing with the subject of historical accuracy in historical fiction, specifically with the question of how one should depict historical figures. Here, for instance, are posts by Nan Hawthorne and Literate Housewife.

It’s true, as Literate Housewife points out, that fiction is just that–fiction–and that readers should never take a novel as the last word on any subject. (For that matter, the same holds true with nonfiction; mistakes aren’t confined to novels.) But it’s also true that for many readers, fiction is where their reading stops, which means that a fictional portrayal of a historical figure is what sticks in a reader’s mind. Thus, I believe that at the very least, an author has the responsibility to treat historical figures with respect: that is, not to distort known facts or to invent episodes that paint the person in a grossly negative light.

Of course, there is the problem that with many historical figures, not that much is known about them, and even less about their motives. Writers therefore have to fill in the gaps; I’ve had to do so in both of my published novels and in the novel I’m writing now. But even then, there’s responsible gap-filling and irresponsible gap-filling. My work in progress involves many historical figures, including Richard III and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The two men are known to have encountered each other before 1483, but we don’t know how they felt about each other during those years. Were they friends? Were they indifferent to each other? Hostile toward each other? I chose in my novel to make them friends, which I think is reasonable given the alliance they formed in 1483.

But say I went further than that. Say I depicted Richard and Henry not only as friends, but as young men carousing about London, engaging in group sex and raping women and boys alike. After all, I might argue (if I had a chance to argue before my lynching at the hands of furious Ricardians), there’s no evidence that the two men didn’t do these things, and it makes for a good story. (I’m assuming, in all of this, that I haven’t added an author’s note fessing up to my invention.)

Now let’s go even further and say that instead of a relatively unknown writer like myself inventing a kinky Richard and Harry, someone like ______ (insert the name of the best-selling author of your choice) depicts the hapless pair in this manner. Suddenly, that portrayal has acquired a whole new credibility, hasn’t it? After all, ________ sells millions of books. Surely he or she must have some basis for what he’s writing. And if ________ adds a bibliography to her novel, lending it even more respectability, poor Harry and Richard don’t stand a chance.

Now, there’s one major flaw in my example above: Richard III is a well-known figure, who has been the subject not only of Shakespeare’s famous play but the hero of many historical novels. You can go to a bookstore and find an infinite variety of Richards: the romantic Richard, the scheming Richard, the naive Richard, the studly Richard, the murderous Richard, the unmurderous Richard. Even if you don’t read a single word of nonfiction about Richard III, you’ll–hopefully–realize that all of these contradictory accounts can’t possibly be accurate. For figures like Richard III and Anne Boleyn, then, their popularity with novelists and readers is their best protection, because no single account of them is likely to hold permanent sway over the public’s imagination. Thus, though a best-selling author who depicts Richard III or Anne Boleyn in an unflattering light might have an advantage in terms of credibility over lesser-known authors, her portrayal is still going to be weighed against those of others.

But what of more obscure folk? A while back, I read a historical novel that depicted a twenty-something Katherine Woodville, with the help of her sister the queen, forcing her twelve-year-old husband (the Duke of Buckingham mentioned above) into her bed to be used as a sex toy, thereby scarring the poor boy for life. Several other novels depict Katherine in a similar vein. Now, as primary sources reveal, the historical Katherine Woodville was younger than her husband at the time of their marriage: she was around seven and he was nine. Therefore, while it’s open to debate whether the couple’s marriage was a happy one, there’s simply no validity to the notion that Katherine was a grown woman who sexually abused her minor husband. But the average reader may not realize that, because unlike the case of Anne Boleyn, there are few competing fictional portrayals of Katherine Woodville. Worse yet, most readers can’t run out and pick up a nonfiction book on Katherine Woodville to learn the truth: there aren’t any, only the occasional paragraph in academic tomes that aren’t readily available outside of university libraries. So Katherine, poor lady, has no one but the occasional pedantic blogger to yell in her corner when her reputation is smeared.

So yes, it’s fiction, and yes, in most historical fiction, the historical figures in question are dead. But let me leave you with this thought: how would you feel if you read a grossly distorted fictional portrayal of a historical figure, knowing that he or she had living grandchildren or great-grandchildren? How would you feel if it was your own grandfather or great-grandfather who was treated in this matter?

And if slandering the recently dead is unacceptable to you, should it be any different simply because a historical figure died centuries ago?

23 thoughts on “Accuracy Redux”

  1. Lynn Irwin Stewart

    Personally, I enjoy a bit of slander…no, I’m kidding.

    You raise some good points (as always). I love history, minored in history in college, prefer reading historical novels over anything else — and I think I’m intelligent enough (some days I wonder)to know that fiction is, well, fiction. However, there are some folks who will take a fictional work and believe it to be the truth — and that’s not good.

    What I really like to see is historical authors writing as close to the truth as possible, give their sources and then add a preface which notes where they have “taken liberties”. That works well for me.

  2. Thank you for following my blog. I have always been obsessed with the Tudor period and once began a novel based around Mary. As you can tell, now, I am into more modern history specifically my year 1955. It is rather enlightening to focus so intently upon one year. I am excited to read your blogs and your books, though your books will have to wait until next year, sorry they haven’t technically been written yet.

  3. Michele at Reader's Respite

    As much as I understand that fiction is, well, fiction I admit that the gross skewing of known facts will ruin a novel for me. It then becomes, to use the term of one of my favorite reviewers, a “wall-banger.”

    I’ve learned that historical fiction readers fall into two categories: those who read a novel for the pure enjoyment of it and those seeking to learn something about a time period/figure in history. I fall into the latter camp, for the most part. Frequently, I’ll pair a historical fiction novel with a non-fiction book on the same topic. So I think I’m probably unreasonably picky.

    I also realize that the marketing of novels is sometimes out of an author’s control. They may have never intended their story to be anything other than a fanciful novel set in a certain time period, but the publisher may take advantage of a trend (Anne Boleyn, anyone?) and market the book differently.

    Well I’m just rambling now (too chatty, sorry). But you bring up such good topics….

  4. thank you for a great piece on what could be called the “life vs. art” problem. I am relatively new to reading historical fiction, unless you count Shakespeare of course. However, in some cases I cringe at irresponsible errors that are far from our received “factual” opinion.

    Slander isn’t a good thing in any case. A historical figure can’t take an author to court for blatant and malicious writing. It is one thing to embellish the facts of a figure, another to wantonly smear them, of course. Thank you, Susan for a great piece on this tension.

  5. As I said the other day, I think it’s impossible to write a 100% accurate historical novel. When it comes to a character, even one as well known as Richard III, there is going to be a fair bit of invention in there.

    Some writers see this as a licence to put in the topic that interests them most – incest for example. And some, frankly, with an eye to sales, put in what is thought sensational or fashionable to give the book ‘appeal’.

    I’m not sure this is ‘wrong’ because really HF is fiction first, history second. It’s more a matter of the author’s and readers’ taste. I tend to towards the conservative in these matters.

  6. I’m another of those that likes my historical novels as close to known history as possible. I understand that’s not always possible and there are times when a writer must make an assumption of what “might have been”. Sometimes they have to juggle the dates a bit to make their characters work into the story (even Dumas has done that on occasion), and that’s what the author notes at the end of the book are for, to explain to the reader what is known and what is supposition.

    For myself as a reader there is historical fiction that is just that – retelling of known history in a novel. Then there are novels that are simply that – stories in a historical setting – and that’s all I’m expecting is a good story. Say Daphne du Maurier, she’s a new found favorite of mine but when I pick up her novels I’m not expecting to get a history lesson, just to be entertained as a reader.

    I guess the real problem is how some of these novels of made up history are being promoted, and as Michele noted much of the blame might lie at the publisher’s door and not the fault of the author. If I see a book being promoted all over the internet and the book jacket as a historical novel and touting the author’s knowledge and extensive research and it turns out to be nothing but a made up “what if” piece of fluff, well I’m not going to be a happy reader. If I find out that a well known historian who has written many non-fiction books writes a novel and throws in a pregnancy that never happened that puppy is going to hit the wall and do some serious damage.

    Yes, I know the argument is out there that if I want to learn real history I should read NF. Well, that bores me to death and is not for me. I know it’s possible to write a darn good story and keep the facts as close to known history as possible, and those are the authors I am going to stick to going forward.

    Bottom line for me – if you’re going to promote yourself as a historian and researcher and your books as historical then that’s what I’m expecting from you. If you don’t and I’m disappointed its going to be reflected in my review of your book.

  7. I agree that Fiction is meant to entertain but can understand the grief it could cause the true historians (or ancestors). There isn’t anything we can do about it except hope that somewhere perhaps there is a credible non-fiction book to coorelate to whatever fictional accounts a character/person has.
    In my own perosnal experience I am very much like the commenter Michele above. I read the fictioanl account for the story, for entertainment and hope that the main thesis is as close to reality as possible. I would not enjoy a slanderous type of novel though. Gregory’s “The Other Queen” was such a chore for me to finish, mostly due to Mary’s attitude towards George and vice-versa. Little snippets stuck out of ‘events’ that were just utterly ridiculous.
    So, when we are talking about real people, dead or alive, I would prefer that it stuck to the facts as much as possible. Of course it is difficult for the more unknown people and I would hope that an author doesn’t take too much of a poetic license when writing their stories.

  8. Literate Housewife

    This really is an interesting topic. I was so glad to come across this post and be able to read the comments. There really isn’t one answer to this, is there. I tend to be more on the fiction is okay side of the argument, but I cannot disagree with anything said here, either. It really comes down to a matter of personal taste.

    Your comments about slander are dead on. No one should consciously write something that would slander another person – living or dead. I know that there are many who feel that Gregory’s portrayal of Anne and George as slander. I hadn’t thought about it in that way. I saw it more as a sign of just how desperate and terrified she was. Under normal circumstances she would never have thought to do such a thing. Was it right/okay to use that storyline? I can’t answer that question.

    Thank you for continuing the discussion here. I really did find your thoughts insightful and I respect your opinion.

    As a side note, I’m excited that your novel is being reissued by Sourcebooks. I haven’t read much from that time period at all and I’m looking forward to starting with your novel.


  9. Happy 400 post anniversary.

    For some reason Blogger didn’t let me comment on the other post; I only get the sidebar when I click on the comment option.

  10. Congratulations on your 400th blog Susan! Keep it coming!
    The historical fact/fiction debate is a very interesting one. I think to quote Shakespeare ‘to thine own self be true’ is my mantra and I hope my conscience keeps me there. Still every good story has a hero and a villain (at least one!)and it very much depends which side you take – which is just as it was at the time – Edward IV was illegitimate? Jaquetta Wydeville was a witch? Edward of Lancaster was not Henry VI’s son? Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville was invalid? Richard III murdered his nephews? Our medieval friends were no strangers to slander, rumour and propaganda. They really were just like us!

  11. I completely agree with you, Susan. An inaccurate or somehow misleading representation of history/historical figures bothers me. I think that’s why I never really enjoyed Phillippa Gregory, after the whole incest thing with Anne Boleyn.

  12. Your points are well raised and covered. I have been warned about my second manuscript as it takes place during a past historical period that there are historians out there who know the truth about some of the people I intend to write about. However, after reading your post I’m not worried anymore. I’ll complete what research I still need to do and write the darn thing.

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve had huge problems with ‘historical’ fiction authors when things are completely ridiculous, to the point where (besides names and maybe a few dates) there is almost no true history in their books. As a history major, it is even more frustrating when these books become best-sellers (or worse yet, movies) and the general public believe it to be an accurate portrayal of historical events.

  14. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve had huge problems with ‘historical’ fiction authors when things are completely ridiculous, to the point where (besides names and maybe a few dates) there is almost no true history in their books. As a history major, it is even more frustrating when these books become best-sellers (or worse yet, movies) and the general public believe it to be an accurate portrayal of historical events.

  15. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, all! ImKatWoman, that’s so true–think of all the people who are solemnly convinced, thanks to Braveheart, that William Wallace sired Edward III. That Mel Gibson wouldn’t steer anyone wrong, would he?

  16. Heck, look at all the people who think that they know anything and everything about Leonardo da Vinci because of The Da Vinci code! As someone who was minoring in art history at the time that book came out, and who had to listen to other students in the class assert the “truth” about Leonardo because of this book (the profs just tended to roll their eyes and go “aaaanyway…”), I really REALLY could have clawed Dan Brown’s eyes out.

  17. Julianne Douglas

    Great post, Susan! I heartily agree with everything you’ve said. For the first time, I’m writing a novel with mostly historical characters, and I must admit I often feel uneasy about it. No matter how much research one does, it’s ultimately impossible to know if one has portrayed a character’s thoughts and motivations and emotions accurately. I think in some ways it’s impossible for a modern writer to be able to think like a person from the past–our thought processes have been so conditioned by all the philosophy and history that has come before us, as well as modern conveniences and technology–it’s presumptuous on our part to think that we can understand the world the way a fourteenth-century nun, for example, did! A treacherous thought for an historical novelist, I’ll admit. Since so much of our work is necessarily imaginative, I think it’s all the more imperative that we are faithful to the known facts and not stray too far from them for the sake of the story.

    And I’m glad someone else agrees with me that fictional portraits of historical characters are often what stick in the reader’s mind (and are often the only ones they know!). I find myself recalling characterizations of historical personages from novels more vividly than the ones from history books, even for characters I know a lot about. I think the drama associated with their stories in novels makes these portraits more vivid and lasting. Again, an important reason not to distort the known facts.

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to link your excellent discussion to my blog. 🙂

  18. I came here via Julianne’s blog.

    I really like this post. I do feel we have an ethical responsibility, even to dead people, to try to depict them as accurately as we can.

    Somewhat related, I’m reading Sansom’s “Winter in Madrid” about the Spanish Civil War right now. To my great surprise, one of the major secondary characters is the real-life father of the man who was my doctoral advisor. It is a strange feeling.

  19. Catherine Delors

    Excellent point, Susan. I don’t believe in slandering the dead (or the living, for that matter.) Even if they are as famous as Anne Boleyn.

    And I don’t find non-fiction boring at all…

  20. Justine Kelly

    Thank you so much for this post! I completely agree with you. I'm such a fan of Tudor history but have had a hard time finding novels that I like because I oftentimes cannot get past the inaccuracies. For me, an author should only use creative license when there is information lacking. If there is a piece of information that most historians agree upon (such as the idea that Anne Boleyn almost certainly did not commit incest with George) then the author should respect the historical figures and keep this fact rather than make drastic changes. There is still so much that we don't know about certain historical figures that there is plenty of room for creative license in this respect, so long as the liberties that an author takes are within reason (i.e. plausible).

    I must admit I have never read any of your novels but I plan to after reading your blog. In my opinion, an author who does a superb job at combining fact with a bit of creative license is Anya Seton (RIP). It seems like she got her hands on any available research she could before she began writing, often visiting the locations she wished to use in her novels in order to look at records, etc. She only created her own story when there were gaps in historical evidence. And, to top it off, she always included an author's note to let the reader know what was fact and what was fiction.

    Anyway, thanks again for your post… I'll certainly continue reading your blog in the future!

  21. Rachel Fitzpatrick

    Susan, THANK YOU! I've been reccing this post all over cyberspace, but only now got around to commenting. I've read the posts you've linked to as well, and all I can really say is … what you said. I also endorse almost all the comments on here.

    I am heartily sick to death of the "IT'S FICTION!!!" response (yes, it seems obligatory to shout the word) … I mean, WE KNOW! That doesn't absolve an author from some measure of responsibility in dealing with the lives of real people. You make an interesting point about Anne and George Boleyn, Richard III etc being popular subjects which affords some measure of protection; however it has taken a lot of work by historians to rehabilitate their reputations in recent years, and still the same old myths keep resurfacing, with new ones being created.

    I love historical fiction, and do not expect complete accuracy – that's impossible. I am quite comfortable with dramatic licence, alternate universes, etc provided such is disclosed to the reader. But there are limits; I read historical novels to be immersed in the world, and far prefer books that give me a credible picture of what that world must have been like.

    Minor inaccuracies are one thing; completely trashing a real person who can't defend him or herself, or even just rendering him or her unrecognisable, is quite another. I've read books by some authors (and I tend to cut relative unknowns or first-time authors a lot more slack than experienced, best-selling ones who should know better) who have taken extraordinary liberties with characterisation, and while I may or may not have enjoyed those novels as stories, I have been very uncomfortable with the portrayal of some of the real historical figures. And I'll be completely blunt – I detested TOBG, which I found offensive on a number of levels.

    I do get annoyed by the claim of some authors that the more bizarre elements they included in their novel "could have happened." So Anne Boleyn "could have" slept with her brother to use him as a sperm donor, Piers Gaveston "could have" been a prostitute; lack of evidence that they *were* gets the response, "Well it doesn't mean they weren't!" True – and Thomas Cromwell could have been a drag queen in his spare time, and Thomas More a serial killer. Riiight. Furthermore, it has become fashionable to portray George Boleyn and his friends as homo- or bisexual in novels about Anne Boleyn, without acknowledging that only one historian has sought to argue this seriously (I don't count the throwaway remarks about Mark Smeaton in a couple of general histories) and her theories were not supported by compelling evidence. Don't get me wrong – I really like novels which explore what it may have been like for gay or bisexual characters in medieval or Renaissance times, but why does it necessarily have to be George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton or Francis Weston, especially when it really doesn't add much to the narrative? Why not use imaginary characters?

    I have much more respect for an author who upfront acknowledges, "I took these liberties because I wanted to explore 'what if?' etc but stress there is no foundation in fact for what I've depicted." For example Alison Weir in "The Lady Elizabeth."

    I stress these are just random thoughts from an avid reader; I'm not an author, but I can imagine how difficult it must be. But it was really refreshing to read such sensible, balanced comments after some of the over the top defensiveness you often see (on Amazon for example, and elsewhere). By the way, I really enjoyed "The Traitor's Wife" too!

  22. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks to all of those who have recently stopped by! Sorry, I tend to neglect the older posts as far as responding to comments.

    One of the instances of slandering the dead that annoys me the most is in a novel where William Hastings, known historically as a womanizer, is turned into a rapist who drugs and then violates a virgin peasant girl, who subsequently dies of the effects of the drug. The author touts her extensive research but doesn't bother to mention that the episode with Hastings is pure invention, so the unwary reader is likely to think that she's uncovered some source that actually depicts Hastings as doing such an act. That's despicable, in my opinion.

    I'm not looking forward to Philippa Gregory's novel about Elizabeth Woodville, which apparently depicts her as a witch despite the fact that there's no evidence of her practicing witchcraft, other than the accusations of Richard III, for which he never produced evidence. I'm curious to see how she deals with the issue in her author's note. Perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised.

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