Historical Accuracy, An Esoteric Reference to Dickens, and an Invite

Over the weekend, J. Peder Zane, the book columnist in the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer, had this to say about the topic of accuracy in historical fiction (here’s a link to the entire column):

“Of course, “The Da Vinci Code” is a novel. But it raises the question of what responsibility works of historical fiction have to the known record. My rule of thumb: The better known the subject, the more liberties the author may take. A novel about an obscure figure–which may largely shape our memory of the person–must hew closely to the facts.”

I don’t agree with this. (Not, mind you, because of any petty grudge I might hold against the N&O for not reviewing The Traitor’s Wife, even though I’ve been reading the damned paper for over 10 years now and even though I always stick up for it when Republican hubby says mean things about it. No, I’ll just continue to seethe until I spontaneously combust, like Mr. Krook in Bleak House–and then the jerks will have to mention my book. Ha ha!) I’m unhappy with authors who take liberties with the known facts about any historical figure, well known or obscure. Many readers may read only one book about a historical person, and if that book happens to be a historical novel which presents a distorted picture of that person, that may be the picture that stays in the reader’s mind, even though it’s amply contradicted by nonfiction works and by other historical novels. My own opinion remains firm: If writers alter known facts, they should let the reader know, unless the alteration is so obvious or ludicrous that an average reader couldn’t possibly take it seriously. After all, even with well-known people, there are often so many blanks to fill in–unknown motivations, conflicting accounts, private interactions, for instance–that there’s plenty left for a writer’s imagination to work on without having to distort known facts or invent grossly improbable ones just for the sake of being sensational.

So what do you think? (I should add that in writing the above, I was not thinking of The Da Vinci Code in particular–I’ve never read it and have done my best to ignore the hype surrounding it, because that’s the kind of perverse gal that I am.)

By the way, if you mosey over to my website, you’ll find a new section, Medieval Miniatures, featuring mini-biographies of historical figures. Octavia Randolph‘s got it started with one of Lady Godiva. I’d love to post some others (under the author’s own byline, of course), if you’d like to send me some!

3 thoughts on “Historical Accuracy, An Esoteric Reference to Dickens, and an Invite”

  1. I’ve read novels recently where Richard II was a rapist, Isabelle of Angouleme was impregnated (the future Henry III) by her half-brother, and King John was a paedophile who consummated his marriage to Isabelle when she was eight. There was nothing in the authors’ notes to state that this was solely fiction, with no historical evidence. If writers want to be this sensational, they should invent their own characters, rather than using real people unable to defend themselves.

  2. I always try to research books that deal with historical figures/periods…because it frustrates the bejesus out of me when I don’t know if the writer is sticking to what we actually know of history, or if the story is completely rewritten/inaccurate, or is an imaginative take-off from a real story using details we DO know but adding potentially POSSIBLE elements that we have no way of knowing about.

    I’m all for having a statement somewhere in the book that lets the reader know precisely what’s know/unknown/total fantasy/etc.

    Part of me wishes historical fiction included footnotes with references. lol. I suppose that’s too much to ask, but…!

  3. Susan Higginbotham

    Agreed, Alianor! And thanks for stopping by, hyperjoy7! I’m reading The Crown in Candlelight at the moment, and as it’s set in a period I don’t know too much about, I’m wishing for some footnotes myself. One of the characters, Isabeau of Bavaria, is portrayed as a callous mother and as a drunk, and I’m curious to know how far that picture is based on reality.

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