Historical fiction is a touchy subject for reasons that I, as someone with Asperger’s syndrome, have a hard time fathoming. There is fiction, and there is fact, and if the twain don’t meet 100% then it is historical fiction. In fact, historical fiction that is 100% accurate in historical details (how I do love Susan Higginbotham’s works) is still fiction because 1) the internal monologue and motivations of the figures involved are de facto made up nearly whole cloth and 2) a lot of historical ‘facts’ are vehemently disputed among academic historians.
Nonetheless, it can get real ugly, real fast when various fandoms and factdoms go up against each other.
I learned this first hand when I critiqued The Other Boleyn Girl. When I have explained that although The Other Boleyn Girl is excellent historical fiction, it is not axiomatically historical fact and is actually counterfactual in some areas, a few her more ardent fans have been shall we say, unhappy about what they see as an insult to her historical accuracy and thus as an attack on her writing and the quality of her books. They have expressed it in terms that are hurtful, but which can also be impressive in the use of metaphor and scatology. The rage aimed at my critique of her historical accuracy usually catches me flat-footed because I had no clue that such a construction could be made from my critiques.
I felt compelled to tell Philippa Gregory, who has been very supportive of the theory that Henry VIII had a Kell positive blood type, that while I do have to discuss the impact her book made on the popular perception of Anne in my own works — the popular construction of history and historical figures is a hugely powerful cultural force, and anthropologists are trained to examine it by pulling it apart and seeing what makes it tick – I enjoy reading her historical fiction. She was very gracious about it, and told me she had no animus toward criticisms of historical veracity.
On her end, Gregory has been trolled by some devotees of Anne Boleyn who dislike the way she depicts Henry’s second queen. Whether one is Team Anne or not, a ‘scheming’ Anne Boleyn is how Katherina of Aragon and many English people thought of her (fairly or unfairly, right or wrong), and is fertile ground for a fictional writer’s harvest. Furthermore, the portrayal of Anne Boleyn in Gregory’s fiction is not axiomatically a reflection of the author’s beliefs or opinions, but is a speculative conceptualization of historical figures through the eyes of those around them. As Gregory explained:
“I don’t believe in real life that if you sleep with your brother you miscarry a monster (honest) and I don’t think she slept with her brother anyway. I think that Mary Boleyn (from whose point of view the book is written) may have thought that she did…. a different thing altogether.”
Likewise, Hillary Mantle told Susan Bordo, “All historical fiction is really contemporary fiction … We always write from our own time.” She was reluctant to criticize other authors for their “choices.” “I never knowingly distort facts,” she told me. But history is full of factual chasms and moral ambiguities, and “I might this very day be generating some vast error.” “I make sure I never believe my own story” she said.
In short, historical fiction is fictional and authors are doing the best they can to depict a story with or without all the pieces of a factual historical framework. Their job is to entertain and that supersedes strict adherence to history. BUT when a fictional author tries to assure the reader they made an effort to stick to history, it can lead to the impression that historical fiction is historical fact. Fiction writers, especially fiction writers who are such able wordsmiths that their creations can seem ‘true’, need to be careful about that because what they write will help form and shape the cultural narrative … but the reader is obligated to understand the suspension of disbelief is not the same thing as ‘truth’.
The important thing to remember about historical fiction and academic history is that interpretation is everything. There is no such thing as unbiased history, or even unbiased interpretation of science evidence for the most part. As postmodernist theory explains, reality is ultimately inaccessible by human investigation because knowledge and facts are both social constructions, and the truth is subjective as hell.
Another important thing to remember from this post is that really cool, important historical writers and academics are friends with me.
I cannot stress the importance of this enough.