Historical fiction blurs facts and entertainment

Just one month into the new year, America is already using 2013 as a springboard to honor the past.

This year marks the 50th anniversaries of the civil rights movement and the assasination of President John F. Kennedy. President Abraham Lincoln also delivered both the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address 150 years ago. On a somewhat recent note, 2013 even marks the 10th anniversary of the iTunes music store. As the United States takes time to pause and reflect on its past, it’s clear that remembering history is a cause for celebration or, at the very least, polite acknowledgment.

In literature, however, the value of paying homage to historical events is not so clearly defined. Works that use history as a setting, such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, shoot to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists, but they’re also known more for their entertainment value than for their factual evidence. And on the other end of the spectrum, Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife or Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl take popular historical characters — in this case, Ernest Hemmingway and Anne Boleyn — and bring them back to life with new dialogue and re-imagined events, a device that literally puts words in someone else’s mouth.

With these and similar problems, historical fiction faces something of a conundrum. Literature, as a medium filled with captivating narratives and relatable characters, sets out to entertain and communicate a certain value to the reader. Writers of history books, on the other hand, attempt to inform readers of past events — even if in a sometimes-biased manner. As a form that incorporates elements of both fields, good historical fiction must maintain the delicate balance of entertaining and informing, a difficult feat to accomplish.

But perhaps the genre remains so problematic because of its many approaches to re-evaluating history. Some works simply use history as a setting, a way to freshen up modern sentiments against a familiar but distant backdrop.

Some authors seem more preoccupied with giving a voice to the voiceless, supplementing knowledge of past events with characters previously left out of the historical cannon. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory writes not from the perspective of Anne Boleyn, the famed mistress and love interest of Henry VIII, but from the viewpoint of her lesser-known sister, Mary Boleyn. Through Mary’s eyes, readers get a sense of life in the court (and in the bed) of one of England’s most famous kings, while also hearing a historical narrative they might not have received otherwise.

But isn’t there something unfair about recreating the deceased, about giving them new stories, words and ways of thinking? In The Other Boleyn Girl, readers might get to meet Mary Boleyn, but they also come across a desperate Anne Boleyn and an easily manipulated Henry VIII — historical figures depicted as such through Gregory’s imagination. Similarly, The Paris Wife’s Hemmingway comes off as charismatic, yes, but also is arrogant and oblivious to the pain he causes other characters. In cases such as these, it seems fairly easy for a few stray adjectives to color a reader’s impression of history. Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl was also criticized for its historical inaccuracy, giving historical celebrities a new identity seems another prominent cause for concern.

But tainting a historical figure’s legacy is hardly the worst problem of historical fiction. Other authors look back to history as a way of praising a bygone era. In her beloved novel Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell follows the tale of Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and her determined efforts to maintain the Tara plantation and hold on to the traces of her life destroyed by the Civil War.

“I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears,” says Scarlett as she struggles to readjust to life during Reconstruction.

A “great American novel” harboring nostalgia for slavery and the antebellum South? I think I’ll have to pass.

Even with historical fiction’s flaws and challenges, readers still find themselves attracted to retellings of familiar stories. Jennifer Chiaverini’s critically acclaimed Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker hit shelves just last week, and riding in the wake of slavery-themed hits like Django Unchained, titles such as Philida and The House Girl continue to meet rave reviews.

So what, then, is behind our fascination with historical fiction?

Perhaps it’s the chance for a complete do-over of all of our past failings. American ignorance got a chance to take another look at racial discrimination in 2009’s The Help. Even Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl gives the historical figure Anne Boleyn a depth and humanity that is overshadowed by her untimely beheading.

Or, more simply, perhaps historical fiction just provides us with an opportunity to connect with characters who, despite separations of time and place, continue to remind us of humanity’s common bonds. Whether previously known or unknown, these characters hide illicit affairs from their parents, whip out killer dance moves in royal courts and weep with agonies of unexpected death and fear of the unknown. As it snatches two-dimensional figures from textbooks and catapults them into re-created worlds, historical fiction fleshes out general notions of the human experience and connects everyday citizens with previously inaccessible queens and slaves.

Maybe, then, historical fiction doesn’t exist to regurgitate information, but to show us that we haven’t changed so much after all.


Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.

1 reply
  1. sarah dunant
    sarah dunant says:

    Such a lot to be said about this interesting article. But surely the most important thing is that with the right research and the right imaginative tools the best historical fiction can both inform and entertain equally. Not sure if it tells us we are always the same – since the more research I do into history the more I realise that different religious and political systems create different ways of thinking. But maybe something about feeling is always there underneath.

    Anyway, could I suggest you look out for Blood and Beauty: the Borgias this July. A novel about one of the most infamous – and often misrepresented families . I promise you will be reading accurate history in almost every detail, down to things they actually said to one another as far as know it. AND compelling story telling. I know it is a big claim for a writer to make but I am ready to stand by it. History and fiction can work together to make us smarter about the past as well as excited by the people in it. I have dedicated the last twelve years of my life to trying to make that happen.

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