What is truth? That seemingly simple yet infinitely important question Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus. Strangely enough, it was quite the topic of conversation at the Historical Novel Society conference in London.
Historical fiction as a genre tends to get a bad rap from historians. They sight the sometimes flexible standards of historical accuracy and research. And they’ve got a point.
When historical fiction is good it immerses the reader in a time and place in a way that non-fiction just cannot do. Philippa Gregory, the best-selling author of The Other Boleyn Girl, gave a stirring keynote at the conference extolling the craft of historic fiction and encouraging the writers and readers present to be proud of the genre. She pointed out that historians write a narrative based on facts that are known. But there are always the facts that cannot be known: the letter that was lost, the record that burned in a fire, etc. The historian is forced to weave a narrative out of the known facts and so there are necessarily presumptions made about unknown facts in the telling. It is not so very different with historical fiction.
As an author of historical fiction, I feel a great responsibility to be truthful. I work very hard to understand the historical record (letters, contemporary accounts, biographies) about my characters before I begin to write. Since my stories are often about real people, I feel that it is only right that I try to be true to what is known of their character. I don’t feel comfortable playing games with them; presenting the bad guy as really a misunderstood good guy or vice-versa. That, of course, is permissible in historical fiction, but I find it to be almost a kind of slander.
Recently there have been a number of books taking the many known facts of Sir Thomas More’s life and twisting them into some sort of experimental fiction. The “man for all seasons” has been portrayed as a cynical masochist intent on burning heretics and a mean-spirited religious fanatic. Most famously Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall turns everything history has recorded about Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell upside down. It is some excellent prose (she won the Man Booker Award in 2009) but it strike me as disingenuous. There is truth and the truth does indeed matter. Many people who read historical fiction believe that they are reading something based on fact and truth. We could certainly shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s their problem. It says historical FICTION.” But I think that is lazy. Our readers deserve more than that.