Or How Accurate Can Historical Novels Be?
When I published The Golden Lynx and The Winged Horse, I told my fellow historians that these were novels accurate enough to assign to students. I don’t think I would say that today. Because my reasons get to the heart of a question that plagues many historical novelists, I’ve decided to share them here.
For sure, if you want to start a thriving discussion on GoodReads or Facebook, post a topic on the line separating fact from fiction in historical novels. A few years ago, the historian Ian Mortimer, who writes fiction under the pen name James Forrester, took issue with the prizewinning novelist Hilary Mantel over this very question—which Mortimer and I also discussed in our New Books in Historical Fiction interview. There are good arguments on both sides, but what is the essence of the debate?
In part, it’s a question of terminology. “Accurate,” to a historian, means verifiable from documentary or physical evidence. Details in a novel can often be verified, but the novel itself is an exercise of the imagination. As soon as an author creates a character and invests that character with thoughts and emotions and dialogue, the resulting product ceases to be verifiable and is therefore not accurate, in historical terms. Plausible maybe, well informed possibly, but not accurate. Moreover, historical novels, precisely because of their emotional power, can be insidious, in the sense that a reader caught up in a story—especially one that includes actual historical characters—may believe that something happened that the author has in fact made up or changed for the sake of the story. A historical note pointing out such differences helps, but memory has a way of retaining the scene and forgetting the caveat. Memory is linked to emotion, and fiction depends on feeling. Even without deliberate distortion (two characters rolled into one, for example), a novel creates images of a past that is to some extent not genuine.
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Then there is the issue of errors and lacunae, in both the novels themselves and the history that informs them. I am a professional historian specializing in the area and the period in which I set my fiction, but I make mistakes too. It’s unavoidable. Sometimes the documents have vanished or never existed; sometimes the writer doesn’t find them in time; often interpretations differ—and even when they don’t, we seldom have a complete picture of the past. Historians can say “we don’t know”; novelists don’t have that luxury. To tell a coherent story, you must fill in the gaps.
Can we aim for authenticity, then? Admittedly, all writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, are creatures of the times in which we live. We see the past through a presentist lens. Perhaps more important, so do our readers. How many people want to read about a romantic hero who acts with the brutality of a twelfth-century knight, kills anyone who crosses him, thinks women have half a brain at best, and beats his wife and children? Yet a hero who is sensitive and enlightened enough for modern tastes can reasonably be judged inauthentic.
With certain exceptions, though, I would argue that authenticity and plausibility are attainable goals. The dictionary definitions of “authentic” include “worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact” and “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.” To me, this exactly describes what good historical novelists do. A medieval knight carrying a cellphone or saying, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” (unless it is a time-travel tale) is not authentic. A sixteenth-century Russian noble girl who expects to meet her future husband at the wedding is authentic (behaving in a manner true to her time); one who runs off with a boy she has met around the house or at church in defiance of her parents’ wishes had better have a darned good explanation and anticipate a difficult life. The unattainability of accuracy does not mean that anything goes.
Now, I have never pretended that my novels are anything other than fiction. And I stick as close to the facts as I can. Even today, I would argue that my Legends of the Five Directions series describes a world closer to contemporary historians’ perceptions of how sixteenth-century Russia operated than that presented in many older academic works. But the farther I get into this saga, the more I recognize the impossibility of verifying—or even researching—every detail that goes into my stories. And that is why these days I describe them as well informed or fun to read rather than as historically accurate portrayals of the Russian past.
Image: “Askold and Dir,” Radziwill Chronicle (late 15th century), via Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain because of its age.
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