“It’s just a show!”
…Or just a movie, or just a book.
How many of us critics of historical fiction- in books, TV or movies- have had these words spoken to us? Probably everyone. We are told that since it’s meant to entertain not to educate, there should be no standard for content. “It’s only fiction.”
How soon until the alterations become “fact” in the minds of the consumers of such entertainment? And will it become a case of “common knowledge” in the future? This is the danger of twisting history around, for entertainment’s sake. Is it fun to watch or read? Of course! But at what cost?
Many readers/viewers turn from the stories into the history, and as a writer that should be the second goal (the first being to produce something of value through excellent writing). When I first read Katherine, by Anya Seton, I rushed to learn as much as I could about the life of the actual Duchess Katherine Swynford and her family. I was so excited when Alison Weir wrote her book, Mistress of the Monarchy, about the truth of Katherine’s life that I purchased it the day it was released. It not only gave me a concise and easy reference, some of the information I had been unable to locate independently was included in Weir’s book. The fictional accounts- books, television shows or movies- should encourage the reader/viewer to seek out the truth. This is best served in books by including Author’s Notes and bibliographies. It is worse served by foot-stomping “THIS IS THE TRUTH!”
Fifty years ago most of these books did not contain bibliographies. Historical fiction was often lumped in with romance, and as such I don’t believe the publishers ever expected them to be taken seriously. Most historical novels have the very attractive elements of romantic intrigue in them. We may not be sure of the day-to-day lives of the people we are interested in, but we have records of their marriages, children, and battles, which all work excellently to move the plot along. These torrid love stories were associated with the bored imagining of unhappy housewives looking for an escape from their lives. While these books gave their readers a smart form of entertainment, they remained very much part of the landscape of fiction.
I have been reading The Dragon and the Rose, by Roberta Gellis, which is a good example of the connection of romance to historical fiction. My 1977 edition surprised me because it was published by Playboy Books– a now-defunct division of Playboy Magazine. There is nothing in the book to explain the differences between the known historical documents and the author’s inspiration, but being so solidly included in a section of the book store with “bodice-rippers” meant that nobody would believe it ever actually happened, or would try to quote it as fact.
Today most historical novels are included soundly in the regular fiction section, and they have their own genre of TV shows and movies. They span anywhere from ancient Egypt to the events of the 20th century. Writing these stories still requires research of some kind. At a minimum, the author needs to read at least a handful of texts, because nobody can elaborate on something they have no education in. To get into the mud of the Wars of the Roses, I have stocked my library with as many books as I can (and still adding books today, especially delighting in the rarer volumes I have found), read countless articles both in historical journals and by other writers online, studied maps and genealogy tables, watched countless documentaries and lectures that are available, and immersed myself in the works of other fiction writers that take place either in the same time or with the same people. It is my job to make my work as close to the known facts as I can, and to explain when I don’t stick with the facts or when the facts are not known. I am trying to remain first and foremost a student of history, but I will be the first to admit that I have made many choices because they improved my plot or because of my personal belief, and as such do not constitute historical fact.
When historical fiction begins to cross the line into “near fact,” it often does so with no distinction between the writer’s imagination and the information contained in documents. The combination of these writings and an under-educated audience produces an environment where historians are “schooled” by these readers. This phenomenon is especially common online, where we can anonymously argue talking points with unknown posters. As much as I try to tell myself to get up and stop typing when I come across comments and posts like those, sometimes I can’t help but try to explain the reality. One person recently told me that “the Earl of Warwick was a horrible man who was responsible for so many deaths that I can’t believe you think he should have been king!” Upon probing, it became clear that this person had no knowledge of George of Clarence’s son Edward, the 17th Earl of Warwick who inherited the title from his executed father, and was eventually executed himself in 1499 by Henry VII for attempted support of Perkin Warbeck. This person claimed to have read “all of Philippa Gregory’s books” and therefore they claimed to be “educated” on the topic.
I have heard from countless other bloggers about the surge of people on their sites talking about how “Margaret Beaufort was a lunatic zealot who plotted and prayed for her son, Henry Tudor, to be king from the moment he was born, and was the one who ordered the deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ to clear the way for him!” Anyone who has done even minor research on Margaret knows that this is just not true. Posters like these do not want to hear that, because once they have it in their heads that she was such a crazy monster they won’t hear of anything else.
When an audience who has not had formal education in Historical Inquiry is told time and time again that a work of fiction is so close to the truth that everything except the conversations is a documented fact, how are they to tell the difference?
This is why I am writing this blog.
What are your experiences in historical fiction/drama? What author’s works have you enjoyed, and what has made your hair stand on edge? What have you learned from historical books, TV and movies? What has attracted you so much that you grabbed as much information from non-fictional sources when you were finished reading/viewing? I look forward to hearing about your choices!