Continuing from my last post about remembering the dead of 800 years ago, I have been musing on the writing of historical fiction. It seems to me that the novelist must give both halves of that phrase equal weight. That is, get the history right then write the book you want. And if you must tweak historical facts then you are in duty bound to give a note to that effect.
This is the UK cover of my latest historical novel for teens, Troubadour, out here on 3rd August and in the US, with a different, photographic, jacket on 16h August (Bloomsbury in both cases). This time I’m not apologising for the shameless plug – just trying to show this is something I have grappled with.
People are always trying to tell me that the historical novel is dead or, as a variant, the historical YA novel in dead. To take the first, have you seen the Man Booker longlist? Thirteen titles, of which ten in some way or another deal with the past and apparently around half of the 132 books considered by the judges had historical themes. That seems pretty healthy.
In YA books on this side of the pond, the success of recent novels by Celia Rees, Sally Gardner, Julia Golding, Linda Buckley-Archer and Marie-Louise Jensen seems to point to a genre far from moribund. Oh and Adèle Geras, Katherine Roberts, Mary Hooper and Ann Turnbull. Funny thing is: they are all women. Apart from Kevin Crossley-Holland, not many men are writing in this genre now. Interesting. History is no longer about or even by chaps apparently.
Perhaps this a legacy of the Georgette Heyer and Mary Renault days? Philippa Gregory and Tracy Chevalier certainly continue this tradition for adults but there is also C.J. Sansom, and less literary figures like Bernard Cornwell. The male writers in YA seem to prefer spy stories, gritty contemporary realism or dystopian futures.
In last Saturday’s Guardian there were two pieces that struck a chord with me. One was Anthony Beevor’s article Real Concerns:
“We play with facts at our peril,” says Beevor, author of Stalingrad and such other weighty books of modern history. He also coins the hideous word “histo-tainment” which will doubtless catch on, particularly since we Brits are currently being subjected to “Desperate Romantics” a TV series showing the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a sort of boy band – “Entourage with Easels” as its own publicity says - and previously Michael Hirst’s “The Tudors.”
"Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history ... And we wanted people to watch it," is a comment attributed to Hirst in a section of the Wikipedia entry for the series headed ‘Departures from History’ (Yes, on Wikipedia!)
A recent historical novel for teens began with the death of Richard 1 (the Lionheart) in France. The name of the crossbowman who shot the fatal bolt was Pierre Basile; Richard, dying of gangrene, issued a pardon to his killer but the young man was nevertheless flayed alive and hanged after the king’s death. A gruesome tale but in this work of fiction the killer was given a new name and lived at least a further forty years to be a main player in the novel.
Fine, you might say; poetic licence. I might disagree but surely it was the author’s responsibility to add in a note at the end that she had changed history to suit her story?
The other article was a long interview with Booker prize-winning novelist Penelope Lively on Memory:
"I see myself," [Penelope Lively told Sarah Crown], "as someone manipulated by history." Presumably referring to her childhood in Egypt which she wrote about so beautifully in Oleander, Jacaranda, and the Second World War which determined where she lived and went to school. In that sense we are all manipulated by history.
But if we try to turn to the tables by manipulating history itself, we have an obligation be upfront about what we are doing. Most writers of historical fiction don’t want to produce “histo-tainment,” though we do want to entertain.