The Trouble with Historical Fiction

October 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Because it is approaching Halloween I felt that this would be a good time for some ghost stories, and I therefore took up ‘Ghostwalk’ by Rebecca Stott this week. I had planned to blog about ghost-fiction, but having reached the end of the book I have instead found myself musing about historical fiction, history, heritage, truth and untruth.

‘Ghostwalk’, other than being a ghost story, is also one of those novels that happens to advance a new theory about a historical event, presented as part of the tale. This book casts a once-living person as a murderer – and I’m reminded of ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ which does the same. Both are excellent narratives and enthralling reads. And both ensure the reader that, while the stories are fiction, they are of course based on meticulous historical research. The implication is that maybe they’re also essentially ‘true’. Given that we are dealing not with fictional characters but with people who once existed, is this questionable? Once told, any tale endures, and stamping a ‘fictional’ narrative with the seal of possible truth only ensures that it will do so.

I suppose there are three primary ways to write historical fiction. An author can weave a background for a story out of historical ‘fact’ – a tale set in the mid eighteenth-century is filled with detail and colour from the period and then populated with central characters who are entirely fictional. Doing this, characters can become whatever their creator wills, without encroaching upon the lives of those long dead. On the other hand, there is the route of the biographical novel: a narrative is based on researched facts about a person’s life as far as possible, embellished in some ways for the sake of character and plot, but not departing in leaps and bounds from what is known.

There also appears to be a confusing middle ground: characters are based on people who existed in some past time, and the narratives of their lives are then considerably embellished – or an academic question is placed at the centre of an imaginative novel.  Basing such tales on credible research helps, but at the same time it seems a disingenuous approach: the theory may be credible but it is labelled as fiction. It is an imaginative novel with strong hints that it is also the truth. It is presented neither as a piece of academic discovery, nor as an entirely fabricated tale, but as some hybrid between the two: why this choice?

The trouble with history is that it is relentlessly fluid. It can be argued that little in history is real ‘fact’ – nothing can be absolutely known, because accounts always vary. Humans by nature embellish, manipulate, twist the truth, forget, lie. This being so, any historical account is subject to untruth. The divide between truth and fiction in history is always hard establish; does this approach to the historical novel muddy the waters too much, or is all fair in the history game?





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