Historical Fiction

Someone had a comment on the last post, and I thought it better to reply in a full post here.

The Ottawa reading and interview were absolutely worth the drive up from Mtl, so thank you again. I should have asked this question that night, but couldn’t formulate it right. I have had a few days to percolate and would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you reconcile your…need (is that the right word?) for using the “quarter turn” due to your preference for not assuming you (we) know what an Emperor and his wife are discussing in their bedroom in Byzantium with your love of the Dunnett books. I don’t mean to imply that one must override the other. I’m just interested in your take on the subject.

I’ve talked and written a lot about this. A few points…

My preference as a writer is not identical to my taste as a reader. When I discuss the co-opting of real lives in fiction and my concerns with it, I always note that the books I am about to name as examples will be books I admire! (It is lame and distracting to go after weak titles and authors.)

Dunnett is not the best example, actually, because with a few exceptions over many books she tends to follow the Sir Walter Scott notion (one I agree with) that in historical fiction the real figures should serve as backdrops for the playing out of the story of the author’s invented point of view ones. In particular, that means not going ‘into their heads’ (my usual ‘favourite position in bed for Henry VIII’ comment). Dunnett does do it at times (Richard Chancellor in Ringed Castle comes to mind, and she happily makes Margaret Lennox (buried in Westminster Abbey near Elizabeth I) a supreme villain, but for the most part she’s in Scott space.

Other writers I admire greatly go much, much further in giving us invented inner lives of real people. George Garrett (Death of the Fox, about Ralegh), Hilary Mantel (obviously, today), the brilliant The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, many more.

Many other authors share my concern here. A.S. Byatt, Antony Beevor, Jonathan Dee, just for starters, have written about it. There’s a trend to note here, tangled up with a sense of entitlement culture, and it tends not to be acknowledged, or to be defended as connected with ‘total artistic freedom’.

But, to directly answer Tasha’s question, I have always argued that we can hold two propositions at once (more, if we’re good!): this is a really well-done novel, and it gives me some ethical concerns. Think about “Birth of a Nation” or “Triumph of Will” in film, to take my point here.

I gave Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies the best review I think I have ever given a book in print, and do have issues along these lines (I mentioned them).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *