My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad

Currently reading...

Personal favorites

Search my library

Library Thing

Victorian Studies


Fine Arts

Buy Books!



« In search of lost books | Main | This Week's Acquisitions »

January 11, 2006



For what it's worth, this post recalled to me a recent conversation I had on an airport shuttle to a conference (in Western history). I ended up sitting next to a historical novelist who had just finished a series related to the Lewis and Clark expedition (that I have not read). I was fresh from my graduate seminar on history and fantasy, full of Hayden White and Freud, and have always thought about historical fiction much the way you do. However, it became clear to me that this novelist was devoted to truth both on the level of factual accuracy and the level of emotion. She thought she produced something "true" about history by placing facts into a novelistic narrative and supplying an inner life to her characters that was not explicit in the historical characters. One could argue that this is a naive understanding of historical fiction, but it was clearly also part of the generic compact for her and her readers.

Bourgeois Nerd

I have to admit to using historical fiction as a source of information, which I know is dangerous at the best of times. But I do seem to gravitate towards historical fiction authored by those that are quite diligent about telling what is historical and what is not (Steven Saylor, one of my favorite authors, does this). And I often use historical fiction as a jumping off point for more serious historical investigation. But, still, I must confess that many of my prejudices (for instance, a distate for Cicero as a self-aggrandizing opportunist, a la Saylor) remain those of the author I happen to read. I realize this - hopefully -, but I think a lot of other people don't.

Andre Mayer

Profsynecdoche's comment is very much to the point. The past being another country, history can be used, like geography, to set a story that may be timeless or presentist. But the more sophisticated historical novels do what R.G. Collingwood considered to be the essence of the historian's role: recreate the thought and state of mind of people who lived in other times. The psychological "truth" -- defined as emotional plausibility consistent with historical knowledge -- is what counts in these cases. (Films of historical events, like films of novels, must be allowed to compress and heighten events -- otherwise they'd take place in real time.)

One important distinction, it seems to me, is between historical fiction about fictional characters (often with real figures in "walk-on" parts) and fiction that attempts in-depth portrayal of real people. There's a difference between, say, "accurate" portrayals of a common soldier in Napoleon's Russian campaign, and of Napoleon.


Why are we such sticklers for historical accuracy in this day and age? Shakespeare's works are riddled with historical inaccuracies, but yet he's still considered one of the great giants of literature. I rarely hear of anyone nit-picking over his anachronisms (although someone might have--I'm no longer part of the "academy" and didn't specialize in Shakespeare then). It seems to me that the importance of a work's historical accuracy dwindles over time (eventually to nothing). At best, I think it's helpful to study the inaccuracies because they show us the particular climate, attitude, and culture in which that work was produced.

The comments to this entry are closed.