Fictional History Books

The lying art of historical fiction | Books
Yes, Khedive - An Egypt AAR for Victoria AHD 1.2

When Wolf Hall won last year's Booker prize some commentators suggested that the term "historical fiction" was itself becoming a thing of the past. So many novels these days are set prior to the author's lifetime that to label a novel "historical" is almost as meaningless as to call it "literary". Eight of the last 10 Booker prize shortlists have included a novel set in the 19th century, and with the inclusion of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in this year's longlist, there is a better than fair chance that 2010 will be no different. However, one issue still divides historical fiction and contemporary: the matter of historical accuracy.

Historical accuracy is like quicksand. Stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story. Too much attention to factual detail is undoubtedly an impediment to literary art. Adam Foulds's The Quickening Maze is described on the Booker prize website as "historically accurate but beautifully imagined", as if "historically accurate" implied a literary problem. In some respects it does. Ask a historical author: how do you stop that facts getting in the way of the story? And the novelist, driven by his or her imagination, will offer a wealth of answers. The historian will assure you that the facts are the story.

Ignoring the mythical holy grail of historical accuracy is even more problematic. By far the most commonly cited book in this respect is The Da Vinci Code, even though it is not a historical novel at all. The historical context of the plot is what excites criticism in this respect. The same could be said of many historical films. My particular favourite historical error appears at the end of Braveheart, where it is suggested that the future Edward III (born in 1312) was the product of a union between the Scottish rebel William Wallace (executed in London in 1305) and Princess Isabella of France, who was nine at the time of Wallace's death. It would be funny – if I had not met so many people who believed it.

The path a historical novelist has to tread is clearly beset by dangers. There is an inherent tension between trying to do something new and something old at the same time. One cannot have medieval characters using correct period language because no one would find the speech readable. Similarly, an accurate portrayal of a world in which most dutiful and conscientious fathers will regularly beat their sons is likely to alienate readers. If one was to write a novel about the real woman baptised in Dartmouth in 1737 as Constant Sex, it would have all sorts of double entendres and more basic entendres than she herself would have understood (the word "sex" having little or no connection with the sexual act in 1737). In describing the interactions of real individuals, one has to invent reactions or the character is just two-dimensional, and never develops. In creating good historical fiction, it is essential to tell lies.


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2008-11-13 00:29:32 by taruk2

I got most of my information from fictional history books.
The reason to read fictional history is to find out how people lived back then. What kind of culture they lived in. What was 'normal' and what wasn't nornal for them.
You see you little fool: people like McCoullough... jesus christ what a fucking name! Colleen McCoullough's Masters of Romes series took her 20 years of research. You read one of hers books: and you have assimilated 5 years of her research. And can pick up all the nuggets they worked their asses off to find.
The same goes for Mitchener

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