History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 March 2009

Beyond the Bar Sinister

The subconscious mind is a very strange place. Sometimes, I think of mine as a large props room, littered with detritus from different historical stage sets. There’s a lot of red velvet tufted furniture from a Victorian drawing room, Augustan busts for those Queen Anne scenes, and the odd doublet left by a passing Elizabethan. Beau Brummel is frowning at his reflection in a mirror while John Knox is preaching hellfire and tugging at his beard stage left.

This historical detritus, this furniture of the mind, has been piling up in there for a while. I’d like to claim that I went about acquiring it in a logical and responsible way, textbook by textbook. In fact, most of the jumble was acquired far earlier, from a far more haphazard source: historical fiction. Whether I like it or not, most of my images of what various historical periods feel, smell, or sound like were acquired well before I set foot in any history class. They came from Margaret Mitchell, from Anya Seton, from M.M. Kaye, and a host of other authors, in their crackly plastic library bindings. Whether historians acknowledge it or not, scholarly history’s illegitimate cousin, the historical novel, plays a profound role in shaping widely held conceptions of historical realities.

I can just picture various academic friends of mine shuddering at that, and shaking their heads over the misconceptions undoubtedly being perpetrated by these works of—gasp!—fiction. There are certainly overt abuses in the fictional canon. My favorite example comes from a work of fiction… mocking other fiction. In one of Rumpole of the Bailey’s cases, Rumpole pokes holes in an author’s probity by pointing out that she wrote a so-called “historical” novel by jumping over the Interregnum entirely, going straight from Charles I to Charles II with her heroine aging only a year or two in between. Most novelists aren’t quite so bold as to ignore the difference between 1649 and 1660 like that, but we all take liberties, some deliberate, some accidental. More insidious than the overt anachronisms are the unconscious ones, such as the use of modern slang (I was struck recently by how much Georgette Heyer’s Regency bucks sound like the men about town in her contemporary mystery novels) or the antedating of rituals such as afternoon tea, unwitting transpositions of the modern consciousness into the historical world.

On the other hand, scholarly history is prey to the same weaknesses. Novelist or scholar, we all view the past refracted through the lens of our own time and experiences. Geoffrey Elton, the grand old man of Tudor studies, brought to the field his experience of totalitarian Europe, creating a narrative of centralization and power. A whole generation of English scholars, educated in the height of Communist chic at Cambridge, did their very best to explain the English Civil Wars as a narrative of class struggle in the Marxist paradigm, a theory that has since been extensively refuted. Academic “certainties” come and go, leaving their mark on both scholarship and historical fiction. Don’t get me started on Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood.

In an age where history is often taught in a haphazard fashion, historical fiction can provide the fundamental historical literacy that was once the province of textbooks. I had a friend at Yale who had no idea who Henry VIII was. Thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl, hundreds of thousands fewer people will suffer from that handicap. Historical fiction also has the power to serve as a corrective to scholarly history, showcasing details, people, and events that fall between the academic cracks. Although scholars like Laurel Ulrich have brought material culture into academic view, for a long time those physical details of furniture and costume that are a novelist’s bread and butter—and that can tell one so much about the mores and economics of a period—were largely beyond the scholarly pale. The female players in history have also shown to much better advantage in fiction than in the classroom; Anya Seton’s Katherine put Katherine Beaufort on the map for a whole generation of readers, while Jean Plaidy’s Queens of England series shone the spotlight on everyone from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Caroline of Ansbach, narrating the distaff side of the historical narrative. Forgotten events and intrigues also come back into view. Susanna Kearsley’s recent novel, The Winter Sea, showcases the little known Jacobite rising of 1708, while Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly makes splendid use of the South Sea Bubble.

In a little over a week, I’m delivering a paper at the Popular Culture Association on the tangled relationship between historical fiction and the practice of history. What are your feelings about the interplay between scholarship and fiction? Does historical fiction have a role to play in the shaping and teaching of history? On the other side of it, what responsibility do we, as fiction writers, have to the historical narrative? Any and all thoughts, ideas, or advice much appreciated….

14 Comments:

Blogger catie said...

Good Lord, even my father--who only cracks open books on topics he finds fascinating--knows of Henry VIII!

While I adore historical fiction, I have some reservations about the way a number of people use it as a be/end all of the subject's study. It's a wonderful primer/supplement to actual data, but the laziness of substituting fiction for fact is more than a little disturbing.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Evangeline said...

I'd always loved history, but it wasn't until I began to read historical fiction, and later historical romance, that it came fully alive for me. Which is why I am so adamant about treating history in fiction as one would treat a character and why I am disappointed with the so-called "wallpaper historical." Fiction is a powerful medium that can shape how we perceive the past, present and future (most glaring: the continued presence of unchallenged colonialist images of non-Western people). When history is combined with fiction, authors have the power to pull a reader into an unfamiliar world that at times can seem quite familiar.

Besides colonialist imagery, my biggest pet peeves are by far the painting of the Victorian era as "prudish" and "repressed," and the assumption that African-American history consists solely of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. In both instances, the recycling of those inaccuracies is basically retelling a lie, and in the case of African-American history, it has stripped not only African-Americans of their ties to the fabric of the US outside of slavery, but the greater American society.

Sometimes the levels of historical detail I uncover during my research can be overwhelming, and at times I just want to stop writing a novel and present the information point-blank. No matter how much we say we read for leisure, or that we turn off our minds to read, it's rare that we aren't taken by some nugget of unfamiliar information, whether it be the voyage of Marco Polo to China to the proper procedure for baking a red velvet cake. By using the old "it's not a textbook" line, we're cheating readers, ourselves, the past and the future of the story of mankind.

2:39 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, Lauren, what a wonderful, wonderful post! Long before I majored in history in college, I got my early history lessons from historical novels and Masterpiece Theatre. Without that, I don't know if I'd have ended up studying history or writing historical fiction. Of course some of the novels (and television series and movies) were more accurate than others. My parents were great, though. When I asked "what really happened?" they always said "let's look it up." We'd pull out the encyclopedia and then often make a trip to the library (no internet yet), so that my earliest historical research was inspired by seeking the truth behind the fiction.

Also totally agree on academic historians not being free from filtering the past through their present consciousness. I remember how it was quite easy, studying the Reformation, to tell if the historian was a Catholic or a Protestant, and how in many eras one can determine where the historian falls on the political spectrum. This doesn't mean they're "wrong," it's just another layer (I had some wonderful history professors who encouraged me to ask those questions and pointed out that it's impossible to be completely unbiased--just the act of deciding what details to include and exclude shapes the narrative of what one is telling).

I do think historical novels have a role (quite an important role) in teaching history and drawing parallels and contrasts between the past and the present. Which is why as a novelist I try to be as accurate as possible, and to include author's notes explaining why I've changed things.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, again what a wonderful post and it's something that I've been thinking about lately as I plot and plan to get back to my historical YA that has been neglected lately. I just read two historical romance novels that I loved because I felt that they captured the late Victorian period in England and the author had a wonderful way of weaving in historical facts without stopping the story (something I'm always concerned with) but I was bothered by the use of the word "shag." It may have been period but it took me out of the story every time she used it (thanks Austin Powers!).

I also just watched a miniseries I picked up in the UK called The Devil's Whore set during the English Civil War that used a fictional heroine to tell the story although she interacted with many historical figures, even marrying two of them! I loved the fact that the English Civil War was finally getting some play but I had two problems, one the real life historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell were so much more compelling than the story of Angelica Fanshawe, the heroine, and two I was really bothered by the fact that she married two real historical figures and that the writers changed the death of one of those historical characters.

I agree wholeheartedly with Tracy with the role of historical novels. Which is why writers have to be so scrupulous and have to have really good reasons for why they change things.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Tracy, my parents did the same thing! Every novel or movie seemed to lead to a biography or monograph. My father was a former historian, so we had a pretty good historical library at home, which meant that any "did that really happen?" question you usually ended with a very heavy book being dumped in my lap.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Evangeline, that's so interesting and true what you say about the association of the Victorians with prudery and African-Americans with two distinct moments. We do seem to create these historical shorthands for ourselves-- or maybe shorthand isn't the best metaphor. It's more like a rut in the writing road, where certain eras or groups tend to be treated in the same way, over and over again. Another example that comes to mind are India-set novels, nine tenths of which seem to fall into the 1857 category, although there were fascinating events both before and after.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Hi, Elizabeth! I loved what you said about the word "shag". I always wonder exactly where that sense of something being historically right or wrong comes from-- and how accurate it actually is. I have caught myself, at times, reading Austen or Burney and thinking, "wait! that's too modern!" before remembering that, hang on, these are contemporary authors. They can't be accused of anachronism. They're writing of their own time in their own time. And, yet, something about the way we've processed their past, the conventions and terminology we've associated with it, can make genuine facts ring wrong.

Going back to what Evangeline said about ignoring the broader African American experience in American society, I think it's sometimes easier for us to deal with caricatures of the past, rather than the complexity of the actuality. Because of our fear of going out of bounds, we sometimes create a more narrow, constraining and confined historical image than the actual historical record.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Valerie L. said...

Historical fiction was my first reading love. Even in grade school I would gloss over Nancy Drew for more exotic lands and times. To me historical fiction has always been a springboard to reading real history. The glorious books of Mary Renault inspired me to read everything I could about ancient Greece. The Angelique series by Sergeanne Golon, while it now reads more like "Barbie Does Versailles", spurred me to read all about Louis XIV and his court. And Zoe Oldenbourg's wonderful medieval novels brought me to a lifelong fascination with the Albigensian Crusade.

Historical novels led me to a university to study medieval history, and I have never let go. Sharon Kay Penman in Sunne in Splendour showed me that my belief that Richard III was innocent of murdering his nephews is correct and opened up a whole world of Plantagenet history to me. Tudor history might sell better, but Plantagenet history is far more complex and fascinating.

Even in romance, I read only historicals because, sadly, the historical fiction has shrunk in past years. The best historical romances are those that respect the history, and I read them with admiration for the research in them and the beauty of their words.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

I'm a fan of historical fiction! It puts me into the heads of famous dead people---shed a little light on what they may have been thinking when their actions changed the world. Some much more interesting than boring dates and names and places--things I had to memorize in school.

I wish People Magazine would do an article "People-style" on say...the Queens of Tudor England, or concubines and actors in ancient China. Wouldn't that be fun???

1:39 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fabulous post, Lauren...and it's ironic that (checking in after a few days in revision hell -- and I'm still there) I just posted a reply to Pam's blog from earlier this week to the effect that while I tend to use period-era fiction to gain insights as to manners, food and fashion, lodging and transportation, etc., I wouldn't rely on our contemporaries' historical fiction (even though it's my favorite thing to read) as research material. Philippa Gregory's original slant in The Other Boleyn Girl is a case in point. There's a reason it's called "historical fiction," and her novel is heavy on the latter.

I'm under the impression that there are some contemporary Regency writers out there who relied on an invention or two of Heyer's.

But I love writing historical fiction and I would hope that my novels introduce people to historical figures, or galvanize their interest in some they'd barely heard of, in an exciting, vibrant, and accessible way.

I'd love to hear whether this is true of other authors, but when I write historical fiction I feel that I have a responsibility to the reader to retain a certain amount (which means as close to 100% as I can get it) of historical integrity and accuracy. In my view, historical fiction is about the possible. We take people who are names in a history tome and flesh them out with emotions and objectives. We take events and embroider them, filling them out until they become full scale living tableaux; for example, we know that certain people became lovers, but employ our imaginations to show the readers how they got there. But I could never violate history as we know it. I could never have Nelson survive Trafalgar, for example.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

That's why Amanda, I was so pissed off in The Devil's Whore when Edward Saxeby committed suicide instead of being tried for trying to assassinate Cromwell. If you are going to move a battle from a certain date or have Nelson survive Trafalgar you had better have a good reason or be writing something along the lines of Jasper Fforde.

What I love is when fictional characters and real characters collide. Carole Nelson Douglas is brilliant at that in her Irene Adler mysteries as is Anne Perry. As long as the authors are true to what we know of the these real life historical personages.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

(sticking my head up from my own PCA Conference paper preparation... trying to disentangle myself from the "certainties" of English rather than history departments... at least as read by a long-time theory groupie)

There are Irene Adler mysteries, Elizabeth? Cool.

And what a rich post, Lauren. Looking forward to your presentation (and meeting you in person) even as I dither about my own.

8:00 AM  
OpenID schultpe said...

I enjoyed reading this article. As a High School History teacher and an author of historical fiction, I find that so many of these comments ring true. HF can open a person's eyes to an era, event, or personality in ways that the academic approach cannot. Indeed, I recall vividly how a great book or movie I experienced as a youth would send me rushing to an encyclopedia or other source to find out more about the "real" story upon which it was based. Even if the novel or film contained some glaring anachronism(s), it still served its purpose by prompting me to learn about the history. As a teacher, I always read from All Quiet on the Western Front when the class is studying World War I. No textbook has ever been able to as thoroughly capture the dismal "flavor" of that conflict from the point of view of the ordinary men who fought it.

My novel is entitled The Fuhrer Virus. It is a fictional WWII spy/conspiracy/thriller for adolescent/adult readers and can be found at www.eloquentbooks.com/TheFuhrerVirus.html, www.amazon.com, and www.barnesandnoble.com.

Thanks!

Paul Schultz

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Tammy Moore said...

Well, as a reader (and wife to a guy that got a History MA), I have to say that I have a very specific view of history. I hate the idea of writing scholarly history "as a story". I like primary documents. "Just the facts ma'am." Everything else I consider HF.
That being said, I think that HF at its best relies heavily on fact, but does flush out the characters with imagination. I don't really see HF as a support for scholarly history, because without the primary facts OF history there wouldn't be HF - it'd just be fiction. Of course it can be a support to FEELING history (for example, "Number The Stars" was much more poingent to me as a teen than Anne Frank's diary), applying it to current life/events, etc., but I don't think it should be relied on for specific information.

The upside to that theory (for me) is that I don't mind when authors take liberties with their HF. :)

Now don't get me started on movies based on books... that's a whole different story! :)

11:41 AM  

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