Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Liar, Liar, Pantaloons On Fire

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that writers of historical fiction are all liars.

Some engage in only minor bendings of the truth. Others drop clangers that are found out straight away. Most of us fall somewhere between these two spectrums, for no matter how fully we delve into our subjects – the clothing and politics and language and social history of our chosen eras – the data inevitably, at some point, dries up, and we end up having to make stuff up. Knowing when, how much, and what to lie about is the holy grail of the historical fiction writer, and the key to not alienating your reader.

Hilary Mantel is a master of this fine balance. The author of the 2009 Man Booker Prize winning "Wolf Hall" spent five years researching the life of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII's Britain. Apparently, she even had an index card system to make sure her version of events matched the historical records. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she explained, “You really need to know, where is the Duke of Suffolk at the moment? You can’t have him in London if he’s supposed to be somewhere else.” Still, even she engaged in a smidge of invention, and did so consummately well, when it came to writing the early years of Cromwell’s life. Very little is known of his childhood - it is virtually a blank page - and as such, she was free to use what little information was available, and then make the rest up.

These lies we writers tell take many forms. Lying by omission, is one. For example, in the setting of my novel, nineteenth century Paris, hired carriages were known as fiacres. I have to ask myself - do I use this somewhat uncommon term? Or do I omit it, and go with the more widely known English version, hackney? If I use hackney, more readers will be less confused ... but I will be lying.

Do author's notes go some way to absolving the writer of these fictions? Yes – and no. Good author's notes, and a story that has not strayed too far from the historical record, make it easier for us to forgive embellishments and slight manipulations of fact. But even so, author's notes will not save the writer of historical fiction, whose inventions are too far from the truth, from the dissatisfaction of their readers. "The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon’s Bird of Paradise", by Carolly Erickson, is an example that springs to my mind. I bought this book after reading good things about it in a review. And it is a good book. I thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous rendering of the life of Napoleon’s Josephine, of whom I knew not much more than Napoleon’s infamous protest, “not tonight, Josephine!" When I finished the book, I felt I knew a little more of the real Josephine and her life. Until I read the author's notes.

They begin with:-

“… The Secret Life of Josephine is a historical entertainment, not a historical novel … The historical Josephine never went to Russia, never had a lover named Donovan, never (so far as is recorded) delivered a baby in the midst of a slave rebellion.”

And end with:-

“Having written many biographies and histories, and several pseudonymous novels, I have turned very happily to historical entertainment as a way of blending fact and whimsy. Many thanks to my kind readers who have responded to this somewhat frothy mix with enthusiasm.”

Now, kudos to Erickson for fessing up to the fact that certain important events in her re-telling of Josephine’s life are products of her imagination. I’m sure there are some authors who would have kept quiet, committing the sin of letting their readers believe that what they had read was an accurate portrayal of the historical record. But even still, I was left feeling a little miffed, and as though I had been, well, had. There was nothing on the cover, and nothing inside the book (until the author's notes, that is) to alert me to the fact that I was reading “historical entertainment”, not historical fiction, and I know that a little forewarning would have prevented the lingering dissatisfaction I felt when I closed the book’s cover. But maybe that’s just me …

At the end of the day, lying - in the shape of creative invention and the stretching and massaging of facts - is a necessary part of writing historical fiction. How much is too much? It is all a matter of degree … but I would argue that the best barometer is the annoyance level of your reader. :-)

So tell me - how much – and what type – of creative license do you accept, as a reader or writer of historical fiction?


  1. I had no clue that Carolly Erikson was writing "historical entertainment" now. And that's a sad thing, in my humble opinion. It's the reason I *don't* write historical fiction even though I am a trained historian. I'll take the contemporary and science fiction route to write.

  2. I think events need to be accurate.

  3. Good author's notes, yes. I'm willing to forgive occasional changes if everything else about the book is meticulously researched and other nuances are explained in author's notes (or other paraphernalia. I love reading introductions, forewords, endnotes, etc.).

    I'd never heard of historical entertainment. I don't think I care for it. Actually, my first reaction was to frown and shudder in disdain, so maybe I'll refrain from further comment [g]

  4. Ooh, I'm with Deniz on that one. The very term "historical entertainment" sets my teeth on edge, for some reason. It's an interesting thing, that- possibly just the concept that the author led the reader merrily along, then at the very end saw fit to point out that none of it really happened as pretended.

    The thing is, I have no objection to authors playing fast and loose with history. I love the Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser, which are extremely liberal with their interpretations. But they're entertaining specifically *because* he knows his history so very well, and he makes it clear from the beginning that he's giving an alternative version. I think his books would be classified as historical entertainment, but that's clear from the minute you pick them up, rather that just mentioned in the notes. Authorial honesty from page one is what counts, IMO.

  5. Yes exactly - I had a great time reading Flashman because it was almost... well, maybe not satirical, but at least you knew up front what you were getting. Like watching Blackadder :-)

  6. Argh! Where did my comment go? Cries...