I am a nerd, deeply, unequivocally. For evidence of this, one need look no further than my closet, where my most revered piece of clothing out of my embarassingly-extensive wardrobe is a wool blazer with professor-style elbow patches. When my husband found gave this to me for my birthday, I knew he got me… and that he’d finally given up on having a cool wife.
Given this unrepentant dorkiness, it’s only natural that one of my favorite genres is historical fiction. The better researched the novel, the more fan-girly I become. Because the only thing better than enjoying a compelling story is learning something along the way.
Like I said: NERD.
But there’s a difference between A) reading historical fiction for the story, stumbling across an interesting “fact” and researching it before accepting its validity, and B) assuming that everything within the pages of a novel about 15th century Bohemia is accurate. I’m not a reader prone to rant about historical liberties. Certainly, I like tales that approach fact. But I accept that “fiction” has as much to do with this genre as “historical” does. I don’t rely on these novels the same way I do history texts and biographies. (Though these, too, should be approached with an eye to author interpretation, perspective, agenda…. But that’s another conversation.)
Writers often take artistic license with history, massaging fact to forward story. Sometimes this is a solution to an informational void. While researching my Prohibition-era novel, I hit such a roadblock as I dug for details about a secondary character (whom I’d based off a historical figure). I found the names of some of this individual’s family members. I knew what he’d done professionally and who some of his business associates had been. But that was as far as the fact trail went. So I got inventive. There was nothing to indicate that my man had been a malicious figure… and nothing to indicate he hadn’t been. And thus one of my villains was born.
Alternatively, some authorial adjustments to history are deliberate subversions of known fact. In Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory makes protagonist Mary Boleyn the younger of the two Boleyn girls when, in reality, she appears to have been Anne’s elder sister. I can only theorize as to why Gregory performed this switch–perhaps to make Mary appear more innocent, more victimized?–but certainly it was a deliberate decision, likely in service of her story
Still, there are some historical liberties at which I do purse my lips. When a story turns unbelievable because a character’s actions, attitudes, etc. don’t mesh with the historical setting framing them, that’s when I get a touch twitchy. I may pull a face something like this:
Two recent examples that inspired my Liz Lemon face (Warning! Spoiler contained in example no.1):
A Fine Imitation, Amber Brock (SPOILER ALERT):
Brock’s debut novel is a decent 1920s historical. Some things were quite well done. The story’s pacing was clean and sharp, carrying the narrative smoothly forward. Woven throughout the more expected themes of Gatsby-era fiction–speakeasies, flappers, and socialites–was an art-inspired thread that I found quite refreshing. But Brock’s treatment of one of the novel’s final twists had my nerd-senses tingling
Throughout the novel, protagonist Vera Longacre is pained by the frigidity of her marriage. She is everything a woman could hope to be–intelligent, beautiful, wealthy, prestigious–but her endless efforts to beguile her husband Arthur come to naught. Instead, he is constantly away from home on the pretense of “business,” which Vera accurately interprets as code for “off with a lover.”
It is only as the novel builds toward its denouement that Vera learns these unseen lovers are actually men… a fact she accepts far too quickly and calmly.
It’s not Brock’s twist that I take issue with, as the reversal was well-executed; I never saw it coming. I swallowed whole Vera’s assumption that these lovers were women.
What I take issue with instead is Vera’s response. Considering how contentious this issue remains even today, nearly a century later, I just don’t buy her lack of hysteria. A woman raised in early 20th century America would likely have staggered, maybe collapsed beneath the blow of such a revelation. The speed with which Vera deduces her husband’s homosexuality is also a stretch, given the paucity of clues she is handed. I just can’t believe that this would be a 1920s-woman’s first interpretation of her husband’s choosing to give a lover a pocket watch as a gift, rather than a more feminine choice of earrings or a necklace.
The result of this historical hiccup was that I was completely jolted from the novel at a critical moment in its development. In an instant where I should have felt unparalleled sympathy for Vera, I was instead shaking my head in disbelief.
Tears of Pearl, Tasha Alexander:
This novel is the fourth in Alexander’s Lady Emily Series. Since I haven’t read the preceding three books, I can’t speak to the series as a whole. But this installment left me a little unsatisfied, as the historical liberty that had me wincing ran throughout the entire novel. My issue was one Publishers Weekly articulated well in their review, so I’ll crib from them; I, too, count as an “implausibilit[y]… the ease with which a Western woman (protagonist Lady Emily) can play detective in despotic, late 19th-century Constantinople.”
Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this issue after living almost two years in southwest China as a diplomat’s wife. I understand well what it’s like living in a culture so different from my own. I know intimately the crippling effects of language barriers like those existing between English and Chinese, or English and Turkish. Such barriers severely limit one’s ability to achieve simple tasks, or travel, or function well within society. Yet based on the ease with which Lady Emily communicates and travels through Constantinople, one can only assume she is having extraordinarily good luck finding English-speakers everywhere she goes–whether markets, mosques, ferries, or harems. She also seems to have no issue moving about unescorted by a male guardian or other companions, despite the fact that native women of Turkey were never allowed to move in public spheres unaccompanied.
But of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript (much as I feel a dart of disloyalty admitting this–apologies Jane Austen! George Eliot! Dostoyevsky!). So although it’s important to keep our imaginations locked within the historical settings of our fiction as we’re writing–to try to frame our 19th century heroine’s feminist thoughts, for instance, within 19th century conceptions about feminism, not 21st century ones–there’s also a time to abandon the nerd rage and just enjoy. This is the balancing act of believability that writer and reader perform together.