Friday, May 4, 2018

It’s All in the Timing

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been enjoying a Russian TV miniseries set in the late fifteenth century and based on the life of Grand Princess Sophia—the wife of Ivan III and niece of the last emperor of Constantinople.  As I also mentioned then, the series is historical fiction rather than history. Moreover, it becomes more fictional with each episode, until by the end it’s basically making stuff up.

Now as a person who knows a fair amount about the period and writes historical fiction myself, the failure to stick to “just the facts, Ma’am” doesn’t bother me a whole lot. I understand why the writers and directors made most of the choices they did, since those choices both clarify the action (and the characters’ emotions) and heighten the drama.

Life is messy; fiction can’t afford to be. In life we want things to go well and people to get along with one another, yet most of us have to live with the reality that we will never fully understand what motivates others and that happy endings, if we manage to achieve one, don’t last. In fiction we want to see things head south as fast as possible and characters who shove and needle one another, but we also expect a clear, consistent story line that resolves in a satisfying way—whether that turns out to leave the characters better off, worse off, or in a state of bittersweet resignation.

So for this week’s post, I thought it might be fun to look at what Sophia tells us about the difference between fiction and history. Specifically, I’m planning to focus on the question of timing: what happened when. That question is, after all, basic to the study of history, the framework on which we scholars hang our explanations and hypotheses.


Things start out in a fairly straightforward way. Ivan III was born in 1440 and married for the first time at the age of twelve to a Maria (not the one in the series, who is his mother), by whom he had one son, also named Ivan, in 1458. Maria died, and in 1472 Ivan III married Sophia. At that time, Ivan was thirty-two, and his son fourteen—which is about how old they appear to be in Episode 1, if we take into account that Ivan the Younger doesn’t really look fourteen; his father just treats him as if he is. For example, Ivan III doesn’t want his son involved in military affairs, although the son is chomping at the bit, both reactions appropriate to an age when most noblemen began state service at fifteen.

Sophia’s case, however, is more complicated. She may have been as born as early as 1440 or as late as 1455—estimates vary. What we know for sure is that she died in April 1503 and that between 1474 and 1490 she bore twelve children, which suggests she was probably closer to seventeen than to thirty-two when she married Ivan III. Perhaps not the beauty portrayed in the series, but she’s the heroine, after all. If she were my heroine, I’d make her pretty too. If she’s to attract the hero, we need to give her as many assets as possible. And the developing relationship between her and Ivan III, whether historically accurate or not, is a major appeal of the series and quite charming all on its own.

So far, so good. It’s the extended time frame of the series (1472–1490) and Sophia’s phenomenal childbearing that make things sticky. By the time Ivan III brings Novgorod to heel in 1478, Sophia has already had four daughters, at least two of whom died in infancy. By 1480, when Ahmet Khan engages in the Stand on the Ugra (a great plot point, even though historians wonder if it happened as portrayed), Sophia has a surviving daughter and two sons. By 1490, when according to Episode 8 Ivan III exiles her to the White Lake for her supposed complicity in the death of Ivan the Younger, she would have to drag along not just a cute Vasily but three, possibly five, daughters and three other sons. And Vasily, having reached the age of eleven rather than the four or five he appears to be on screen, would be hauling some of the younger ones through the fields and supporting his mother, pregnant with the future Andrei Ivanovich, rather than dashing beside her hand-in-hand before she picks him up and shields him from the bad guy.

Moreover, if Ivan IV, on the way to his coronation, really did imagine the ancestors who had come before him as indicated by the ending, it would be a much bigger crowd. And perhaps, given the fates of some of those brothers—both Vasily’s and Ivan III’s—the missing faces in the crowd would raise some important questions about loyalty, authority, and memory as well. As it stands, the carefully selected ancestors resemble one of those portraits from the Stalin era with all the “undesirables” inked out.

My point is simply this: the series works much better as it is. The overall timeline is clear enough, although it’s odd to realize that twenty years have passed but most of the characters don’t age. And as I noted before, the production values are spectacular. But it’s important, in approaching historical fiction, to realize that it’s not simply a disregard for historical fact that causes novels and TV shows and films to deviate more or less from reality. One photogenic child lost in infancy and a second endangered by malice and self-interest are simply more effective in storytelling than four of the first category and eight of the second. The dinner table is more dramatic when it includes poison, the main character more sympathetic when she’s under threat, and the court more compelling when everyone and his brother is jockeying for position and engaged in skullduggery.

Now, writers like me do strive to keep our facts straight whenever possible. I worry about months and weeks, not years or decades. I obsess over who went where when and did what. I work to structure my story around those events rather than picking and choosing based on what fits my overall character arc. I do that not only because I consider myself a historian above all, but because I believe that history as it occurred (to the extent we can determine that) has something to reveal about how people thought and acted in the past. If I can unravel the secrets contained in those sequences, I can impart greater depth and complexity to my characters.

Even so, I understand that the story comes first. And because it comes first, historical fiction must always be a genre aimed foremost at entertainment. Be gentle with its creators, who have worthy goals in mind in addition to historical accuracy. Enjoy it to the hilt, but don’t believe everything you see. And if you want to find out what really happened, well, that’s what historians do.



Images: Forensic reconstruction of Sophia Paleiologina by S. A. Nikitin; Ivan III as portrayed on a monument in Novgorod the Great; both CC SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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