The problem with historical fiction…

[This post was originally written for The History Girls blog site.]

WHAT “problem”, you might well ask…

When I first embarked on writing historical fiction several years ago, I edged my way nervously into a genre that I felt instinctively I loved but was also terrified of making a complete hash of. In 2015, a year before I published my first historical novel, I had submitted my doctoral thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction. I most certainly did then – and essentially still do – suffer from “imposter syndrome” over my attempts to become an historical novelist. And some of the research that I’d engaged in for that PhD might easily have derailed me almost before I had properly begun. For I’d read more than a few opinions of historical fiction that made me wonder if the whole enterprise was a complete waste of time and effort!

For example:

  • “Historical fiction can never be authentic”
  • “Historical fiction is a lie
  • “Historical fiction invariably fails to portray the strangeness of the past”.

But, surely, that couldn’t all be true? Otherwise no one would want to write it, let alone read it.

For those of you who haven’t come across such negative opinions before, let me explain…

“Historical fiction can never be authentic”

The nineteenth-century novelist Henry James famously disparaged historical fiction. It was not the practicalities of the past that James thought difficult to describe, but imagining with any degree of realism, or perhaps “naturalism”, the inner lives of those who lived in earlier times.

Henry James by John Singer Sargent.
National Portrait Gallery. Public domain

Yet isn’t imagining the inner lives of characters (historical or fictional) for readers to experience exactly what historical novelists attempt to do?

So, how does a writer make the characters of a novel set, for example, in the fourteenth century, seem to be of their time? I want the readers of my novels to feel they have been immersed in the mediaeval world, but without really noticing its “mediaevalness”. The latter might happen, for example, if they found themselves wondering if this or that thing or image or phrase or thought was “authentic”. To achieve an appropriate degree of authenticity, artefacts and environments must be, or at least seem to be, of their time, and noticeable anachronisms of fact or notion must be avoided, to save throwing the reader out of the illusion. Mindsets (the characters’ thought-world) must be convincing, and language, in narrative and dialogue, must reflect that thought-world, while not necessarily attempting to mimic the actual language of the period.

That all sounds fine in theory but how does it work in practice? James would presumably say it cannot ever work, that historical novelists and readers delude themselves in thinking the novels are in any way authentic. Yet writers surely do their very best to portray their characters and settings with authenticity. They undertake months or even years of research, in history books, in contemporary writings where they exist, and in art, and they use their intelligence and their imagination to transport, first, themselves, and then their readers into the inner lives of their historical characters.

Occasionally, an error of fact or understanding may slip through but, with the effort authors make, and with the eagerness of so many thousands of historical fiction devotees who happily allow themselves to suspend any disbelief in order to enjoy the story, the enterprise (of writing historical fiction) surely is not, as James implied, doomed to failure?

Though actually I think what is true of historical fiction may be true of any fiction…

Historical fiction may not be able to fully convey the experiences of the past, but it is difficult for any type of fiction to wholly convey the experience of a character’s life, especially if that character, for example, commits murder, or blasts off into space to save the planet from a rogue asteroid, or perpetrates any number of actions beyond the experience of the average reader.

Although this is, of course, exactly what all novelists, historical or otherwise, attempt to do.

“Historical fiction is a lie

In 2000, Richard Lee, the president of the Historical Novel Society, gave a talk to an audience of writers entitled ‘History is but a fable agreed upon: the problem of truth in history and fiction’.

The title alluded to a comment attributed to Napoleon, which suggested that history is a form of fiction, for its “truth” depends on who is telling the story: the written history of war differs depending on whether its author comes from the camp of the conqueror or that of the conquered.

Napoleon crosses the St. Bernard, by Jacques-Louis David, 1800. Public domain

But isn’t it also true that, to some extent, the “facts” of history are continually changing, as the latest research inevitably reveals previously unknown information or offers new interpretations of historical truths?

Richard quoted a literary critic who, in a Telegraph book review that year, had said the

historical novel has always been a literary form at war with itself. The very term, implying a fiction somehow grounded in fact – a lie with obscure obligations to the truth – is suggestive of the contradictions of the genre.

Richard considered that this critic, and others, misunderstood the nature of historical fiction, saying that, anyway, surely all fiction is a lie “somehow grounded in fact”. No one, he said, thinks that either Trainspotting or Bridget Jones’ Diary is true, but rather that “they were in some way drawn from life”. Historical fiction is no more a contradiction than any other form of art, all of which seeks “both accuracy and illusion”.

All fiction is an illusion created by the writer’s imagination. Yet historical, no less than contemporary, fiction must be sustained by a foundation of fact, creating a sense of “authenticity”, in order for readers to accept the illusion as temporary reality. Even fantasy fiction, science fiction and some forms of thriller, despite being illusion writ large, must be founded, if not on fact, at least on sufficient rationality or logic to sustain the illusion.

I found myself almost apoplectic with indignation when I read what that critic had written. He seemed to be implying that historical fiction was somehow “invalid” as a concept. Richard Lee’s comment rings true for me when he suggests that historical fiction, like all art, aims to achieve both accuracy, or perhaps authenticity, and illusion.

Illusion, not a lie.

Richard’s article is an interesting read. If you haven’t read it, it’s still available on the HNS website: 

“Historical fiction invariably fails to portray the strangeness of the past”

What is this “strangeness”? It refers to the otherness of past times, those aspects of life, in particular mindsets and behaviours, which are unfamiliar or obscure to the modern reader. It will include differences in attitudes and beliefs but also, for an historical novel set in the mediaeval period, such things as superstition, religious charms, dreams, magic and spells, monsters and mediaeval art, strange ideas and seemingly fantastical happenings that today could be readily explained or dismissed – all of which were normal to people of the time. In other periods, the list might be a bit different, but would still include those things that make that period seem “other” to our own.

Blemmye from Schedel’s World History or Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Public domain

Strangeness is important in an historical novel, but must perhaps not overwhelm. As Jerome de Groot has said in his book The Historical Novel, by exploring the differences of the past compared to the present, historical fiction can make the past “authentically unfamiliar”, and yet still recognisable to modern readers.

The people we encounter on the pages of historical novels are of course familiar to us in many ways: they are mothers and fathers, farmers and carpenters, soldiers and merchants, people with families and concerns and feelings much like our own. But their environment, their habits, their attitudes and beliefs are mostly very different, and it is this dissimilarity, as well as the familiarity, that an historical novelist seeks to portray. Sarah Johnson, in Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, described this as making “the unfamiliar seem familiar”, and the one must be as carefully managed as the other.

However, it is perhaps true that not all historical novelists are entirely successful at achieving this. I imagine we have all read novels that we thought didn’t seem quite “right” for the period, in particular where characters seemed to have far too modern a mindset – overly liberated women, unbelievably “new” men…

In Clio’s Children, a blog for historical novelists, the writer John Yeoman proposed an interesting split between types of historical fiction. One kind, he said

depicts modern people, sensibilities and conflicts but…cloaks them expediently with props from history’s wardrobe: ruffs and farthingales, gibbets and jousts; the other exposes the reader to a profound whiff of strangeness

The-Name-of-the-Rose-1986Yeoman cited a number of novels where, in his view, strangeness could be found, including Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and I would guess that most of us would agree that the world in Eco’s novel is decidedly “other”. 

On the other hand, Yeoman said

we do not find [this strangeness] in Philippa Gregory

He referred to The Other Boleyn Girl as “a sentimental blend of history and kitsch”, which does seem a bit harsh to me, but one must assume that, for him, this novel falls into the “props” category. (I should perhaps add that Yeoman insisted that he was not implying any value judgement in defining these two types of historical novel, but was rather just illustrating the differences between them.)

So, to summarise…

I have seen it written that:

  • We living in the present can never fully understand the inner lives of people living in the past and therefore may not be able to portray their thoughts and voices with any degree of authenticity;
  • Historical fiction is in itself a contradiction, lies pretending to be the truth;
  • Some historical novels fail to reflect the strangeness of the past, dressing their characters in authentic-looking clothes but giving them modern sensibilities.

In general, I don’t believe that historical fiction suffers from such “problems”. Indeed I feel that similar problems might apply equally to many types of contemporary fiction. For example, in science fiction, thrillers, murder mysteries and fantasy, novelists attempt to portray all sorts of characters’ inner lives that neither they nor the reader could actually experience. All novels of whatever genre are essentially “untrue” – they are fiction! Even the need for strangeness is not confined to historical fiction, but is required in any novel portraying a world, in time or space, that is very different from readers’ usual experience. 

Having said all that, when I started writing, I certainly did have concerns about my own ability to produce an historical novel with sufficient authenticity and strangeness. Although I was reasonably confident about describing the practicalities of the past, I remained nervous that I might fail to portray my characters’ inner lives truthfully, that they might seem to be modern rather than people of their time, and that the world I was attempting to evoke might not be sufficiently “other”.

Whether I have succeeded or failed is for others to say, but I would be interested to hear thoughts from fellow historical fiction writers about their own experiences of portraying earlier times, and also from readers about whether or not they recognise any truth behind the “problems” I have discussed…

When I posted this originally on The History Girls blog site, I received a number of very thought-provoking comments about the subject. If you find this topic of particular interest, you might like to have a look at those comments…

(Note: I discussed this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <>)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s