Historical fiction is perhaps one of the toughest genres to write in. The author walks a fine line on one side of which there is the need to represent the period in question as truthfully and carefully as possible, and on the other, to make the work somehow relevant and interesting to the modern reader. But, no matter what the effort, is it really possible to do both of these things at once? Even with the most impeccable research imaginable, an author writing in an historical setting is going to have to wing it more than most are ever comfortable with. Also, how in the world does an author accurately represent the mindset of people from another time, without simplifying or presenting a biased view of them in light of modern perspectives? However you look at it, historical fiction is a mine field for writers struggling for verisimilitude.
But how much does accuracy really count in historical fiction? Naturally, some inaccuracies are unforgivable even in fiction, but just because an author chooses to write about a specific period does not mean they have to write about it as an historian would. In fact, I believe that sometimes it pays for a writer to be bold and take creative license with their representation of history. Which, as you may have guessed, leads me to the subject of my latest list. For your reading pleasure, I have created a list of several works that are ostensibly historical fiction, but which take rather glaring liberties with the format. All of these works contain elements of historical fiction, but also self-consciously abandon the idea of perfect accuracy and quite simply take the story where it wants to go.
One of my favorite novels, and arguably the standard to which all historical fiction aspires. I, Claudius, nevertheless, possesses numerous inaccuracies and instances where Graves deliberately modifies events to suit the purpose of his story. The main overarching narrative of the story, which is Claudius’ transition from an idealistic believer in the Roman Republic to an apathetic monarch, seems to have been wholly an invention of Graves’. Furthermore the book features a great deal of meddling and conspiring among the women of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, which fits into Graves’ larger contention of the secret influence of women in traditionally patriarchal cultures — but it seems unlikely that anything like this ever actually took place in Rome. This would perhaps be a problem if Graves was less of a scholar and less capable of depicting these events in a believable manner, but on both counts he succeeds. And anyhow, part of the entire purpose of I, Claudius is to read it as a secret history, which refutes the accepted history and offers an equally questionable but totally different perspective on known events. It is sort of a complicated trick Graves pulls with this work; at the beginning of the books we are told we are reading a work written by the Emperor Claudius and translated by Graves, knowing full well what Graves is offering is a fictionalized account, but over the course of the book we come to question on many levels the ‘accurate’ accounts left by chroniclers of the period.
First of all, if you are going to read Lempriere’s Dictionary, which I suggest you do, you should make sure to pick up the English edition and not the significantly dumbed down American edition. Now, provided you do as I suggest, get ready for one of the strangest and most esoteric works of historical fiction ever written. Lempriere’s Dictionary follows the callow and naive John Lempriere, a real person in the 17th Century who went on to write his eponymous dictionary on the subject of mythology. Fictionally, at least, Lempriere suffers bizarre hallucinations and has a habit of witnessing violent events paralleling Greek mythology. After watching his father get ripped apart by wild hounds in a rather myth-suffused manner, the young Lempriere runs off to join the East India Company. What follows is a strange, deliberately confusing mixture of fact and fantasy involving international politics, secret conspiracies, and a large array of increasingly improbable characters. While fantastic in many places, this novel also deals truthfully with the history and impact of the East India Company, which had an important role in shaping the modern world, as one of the first international corporations.
Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell
Proof that you can have your cake and eat it too, Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell is a work of pure fantasy masquerading as a Georgian novel, written consciously in the manner of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with more than a little Tolkien rolled in and a decent showing of David Foster Wallace-style footnotes. And as unwieldy a concoction as it may be, JS&MN is a work that’s garnished both critical acclaim and popular recognition, and it’s a lot of fun to read on top of all that. Ms. Clarke’s work takes place in England at the height of the Napoleonic War, but in a Britain altered by the inclusion of magical and mythic elements. Though hardly a new conceit, her imagining of fantastical Great Britain is fascinating, detailed, and so spot-on it’s not hard to think it’s actual history. Don’t let the gargantuan size of the book fool you, this is a fast and exciting read.
In the Old West life was tough, and to make it you had to be a man’s man who didn’t cotton to fancy things like punctuation or proper grammar. Blood Meridian, widely considered Cormac McCarthy’s best novel and a quintessential ‘dad’ book, is the tale of a teenage runaway in the Western Territories who meets up with a band of outlaws and killers and engages, for most of the book, in a stomach-churning rampage of murder, bloodshed, and what-have-you. Blood Meridian explodes many of the myths of the Old West and focuses on the unbearably gristly reality of this period. But, despite the book’s naturalism the story has many disconcerting and unnatural events, most of them revolving Judge Holden, a grotesque and enigmatic figure who declares his ambition to be ‘Suzerain of the World’. Many critics have explored the significance of Judge Holden’s supernatural powers and the general agreement is that he is an Archon; essentially, a hostile and authoritarian spiritual being native to early gnostic belief (think of Zuul in ‘Ghostbusters’ and you’re not far off).
Mists of Avalon
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Mists of Avalon is probably the most popular book on this list, and responsible for inspiring its own entire subgenre of pseudo-historical mythofeminist romance novels (though Mary Renault and Jean Auel could supply protoexamples). Similar to I, Claudius in many respects, Mists of Avalon expands on the myth of King Arthur in order to explore the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England, and primarily focuses on a group of women in and around Arthur’s court trying to uphold the traditions of Paganism. Like Graves, Bradley depicts European paganism through a rather modern filter, overemphasizing the role of women in so-called ‘matrilineal’ societies, but her research is impeccable and she packages the book as nothing more than a fantasy. Mists is a landmark book in both speculative and historical fiction, and no doubt you’ve seen it lingering on a few bookshelves over the years, so get reading!
Quick question. Who’s the greatest living English prose stylist? Well, according to Jeanette Winterson, the answer is Jeanette Winterson. Big talk perhaps, but Winterson had established herself as a literary heavyweight by the tender age of 28 and has consistently dazzled critics with her excellent use of language, bold and imaginative subject matter and impressive ambition. Set in France during the Napoleonic War, The Passion concerns Henri, a young chef working for The Little Corporal himself, and the surrealistic love affair he has with a web-footed prostitute. Subjects such as love and longing, militarism, gender-identity, crime, and madness are all addressed, and the novel is filled with all sorts of acts of magic and wonder. Of all the books on this list, this is the one that falls most neatly into the camp of magical realism, but it lacks much of the poesy sometimes endemic to that style of writing. Instead, I would describe The Passion as a fairly intellectual and probing work, unsettling and hard-eyed, as well as beautiful.
TO BE CONTINUED. STAY WHERE YOU ARE.
One response to “Ahistorical Historical Fiction, Part One”
Many thanks for the brave words and braver reading. The point to note about historical fiction, I think, is that there is no such thing as non-fiction. Everyone comes from their particular angle…. Keep reading, all. The more angles the better.