My response to Ian Mortimer’s fantastic post (which you can find here), and my own musings on the subject.
Historians often look down on historical fiction. The same words, “your book reads like a novel”, is usually a compliment in the mouth of a reader and an insult in the mouth of a historian. Historians worship at the altar of facts, of truth, of evidence-based reporting. However, the more you study history the more you realise how elusive an ‘objective fact’ or truth actually becomes.
I studied history at university, and I remember becoming frustrated at the objectivity demanded of me. History is inherently exciting and passionate, full of love, battle, loss and betrayal. Why couldn’t I write ‘I’ in an essay? Why couldn’t I use adjectives? I instinctively wanted to bring my own subjectivities to the subjects- the exact opposite of what was demanded of me. Historians like to pretend that their writings are free from personal biases, but all writing is subjective. So why should historical fiction be valued any less?
When writing historical fiction, you realise there is a completely different set of questions you have to start asking, which is exactly what Mortimer highlights in his piece:
You suddenly realise the vast amount of detail required of you. Naturally, it is impossible to fill in all the gaps. Nobody could possibly know the exact thickness of rushes on the average Elizabethan London tavern floor, nor the exact names and mix of customers at any one time. Of course, novelists have to fill in the gaps with inventiveness, which is all part of making a story believable.
We cannot just look for evidence to base our narratives upon, or we would be focusing solely on the documented machinations of the upper classes, somewhere which both history and historical fiction have spent far too long dwelling. The further down on the social strata one slides, the less documentation there is. Should we therefore avoid placing ourselves in the shoes of those in a salubrious tavern on the South side of the Thames, 1587? As Mortimer states, all historical fiction is ‘unsatisfactory’, as we can ultimately never perfectly imagine the past. But it shouldn’t stop us from trying.
Historians look at the evidence of what people did and said, what they wrote and left behind. But historical novelists have to look beyond that, they have to look at why people did and said what they did, they have to build up believable motives, and they have to imagine dialogues between characters that would never have been recorded. This often brings out ‘universal’ facets of human nature. We are all paradoxical and capricious beings, capable of love and betrayal in the same breath. Why did Henry VIII discard Anne of Cleves? Was it because she was ‘ugly’, as is still oft-repeated to this day, or did she wound his pride by failing to recognise him in costume? Would that have been enough for him to reject her? Was his masculinity really so terribly fragile? Or could it have been a mutual decision, was Anne just as disgusted by him? The historian wouldn’t have to answer these questions, as we know the marriage failed quickly. But the historical novelist would have to construct a chain of motive linking these events, of the whys and wherefores.
When writing historical fiction, it’s hard not to become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task.
How would they have lit a lamp? Would they have had oil lamps, beeswax candles, tallow? What would they have smelt like? How often would they have washed their undergarments? Would they say goodnight to their children and tucked them in, or was that a job for the maid? Would they have had a maid? If so, how many? How long would it have taken to light the fire and cook the breakfast? When would they have got up in the morning? What would they have eaten, and how did that change due to religious festivals and seasons? I would need all this information and more to even begin to describe the daily routine of an upper working-class family at any point in the past. As Mortimer states, there is a different sort of truth behind all the facts and dates.