Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction

I love to read historical fiction. My favorite kind is the type that has fictitious characters (or at least historical people about whom little is known) that occasionally interact with famous historical people, which allows an easy suspension of disbelief and lets me sink into the story without being jarred out of the narrative by thinking, “Hey! That particular Historical Figure did NOT do that thing the author just said s/he did!” However, I can also appreciate fiction as told from the point of view of an actual person from history, if it is done well and the author doesn’t deviate too far from acknowledged facts. I might not always agree with an author’s “take” on a historical figure, but if it is put within an reasonably accurate context then I can be very entertained by wildly speculative and romantic exaggerations. As with all writing, the skill of the author is the paramount factor in my enjoyment of a book.

Sometimes, not even the freely acknowledged expertise of a wordsmith can make me like a book if the historical inaccuracies are simply too much to bear. I’m not talking about flights of fancy; I can easily handle an alien invasion of the Plantagenet court or a zombie infestation during the Regency. No, I simply cannot abide badly done historical research masquerading as the factual framework for a fictional tale. There is at least one author I no longer read because the “history” part of his/her historical fiction is more suited for Victorian tabloids. This is made even more painful to me because s/he has defended his/her work in interviews and clearly the author thinks that s/he is portraying historical facts. That sort of uncaring and arrogant assumption of certainty in spite of a mass of academic work to the contrary drives me slightly bonkers.

Then there are authors of non-fictional and fictional history books whom I admire, both for their stories and their scholarship. One of those is very popular author, whom I won’t name in case it looks like I am trying to denigrate him/her with this post (which I assure you I am not). I’ll just call him/her “X”.

My respect for X was such that when I was working as a co-author on “A New Explanation of the Reproductive Woes and Midlife Decline of Henry VIII” (Whitely and Kramer, 2010) I relied heavily on his/her non-fiction for my historical research.  I was perplexed when that draft came back from the initial round of peer review with the message that the theory itself was fascinating and sound, but the sources used for historical evidence could NOT come from X. This perplexed me. Why on earth couldn’t I use X?

One very generous reviewer was enthusiastic enough about the theory, and kind enough to help academics who had wandered out of the their normal field, that he or she wrote a list of the most-respected historical authors in pencil along the margins of the returned draft so that we would know where to begin our search for accredited historical sources. I, of course, dove into those books with enthusiasm. Initially, the additional reading simply increased my confusion as to why X’s works were unacceptable to academic historians. The vast majority of what X wrote was what the Mega-Historians were also writing.

I soon became indignant. Was this simply a case of academia trying to act as a “gate-keeper” of knowledge to prevent a lay historian from obtaining the credit he/she deserved? Were official historians merely trying to retain their authoritarian knowledge in the face of research done by a non-authority? Was it professional jealousy that X’s work sold so well? After all, 90% of what X wrote was lock-step with the academic understanding of the facts!

Yet the more I read, the less indignant I became. I saw more and more clearly that the 10% difference was actually a big deal. It was mostly minor things that X was not getting right (possibly because he/she was relying too much on past historians and not following up with more recent discoveries) but there were a couple of major things that X was off base about as well. That 10% was a critical factor. I could see now why X is not considered a legitimate source of non-fiction history research. Frankly, it made me a little sad. I still read X’s fictional work, but it is impossible for me to “unsee” the mistakes now and that lessens my pleasure in the books, unfortunately.

Furthermore, X’s work also effects my happiness in reading novels by other historical fiction authors because those authors use X’s non-fictional books for their research. Thus, with the best of intentions and with a manifest desire for historical accuracy on the part of the writers, some fairly significant historical myths are being promulgated throughout the genre. A few of these drive me crazy, since they are based on some calumny aimed at an historical figure by an embittered enemy and are now bandied about as gospel truths. 

For a more modern example, take the the myth that feminists in the 1960s or 1970s burned their bras. This never actually took place. Feminists at one protest threw bras, girdles and high heeled shoes into a trash can because those items were ways of altering the female body to meet a cultural ideal … and were therefore symbolically standing in the way of women’s emancipation. Nevertheless, feminists continue to be called “bra-burners” to this day. If the events of an era as recent as the Baby Boomers can be misconstrued, imagine what kind of fabrications flourish about time periods of long ago.

That is something to bear in mind the next time you are reading historical fiction.

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