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Is Precise Historical Accuracy Desirable in Fiction? ~ Thursday, August 02, 2007



I'm not convinced of it, though I imagine it would depend on the genre.

The bigger question--can we ever *be* historically acurate?--is a related debate. After all, if two people were to write about the here and now, they'd portray it differently. Different minds pick up different things and so we might have completely different portrayals--each accurate in its own way, in the same sense that two different painters' versions of a landscape are both accurate--of the same scene.

So too with history, no? Two people read the same book, look at the same pictures, deal with the same materials--they'd still write totally different reports on the information they've taken in. So, perhaps there's no such thing as historical accuracy in that sense.

But, laying aside the question of subjectivity, is it desirable to portray historical settings and so on with as much accuracy as we can muster, based on the information available? Some might say yes--I once asked the question of a panel of historical fiction writers and they all seemed pretty admant. Which didn't necessarily stand up to the work they were writing, IMO (at least in the case of those whose work I've read).

I'm not naming names--and this may just be my own bias about the gritty reality of history versus the desirable escapism that is fiction--but it seemed to me that these writers had to bend in certain ways. For instance, the attitude towards holding slaves (which I brought up and the answer to which was "Don't go there if you can avoid it or unless the book is specifically about that"). The ugly reality is that many historical novels would take place in a period where slaveholding was commonplace and most people didn't even question it.

A few people did. But, it's remote enough a chance that one of the two protagonists would hold abolitionist views--it's even more remote a possibility that another character, met at a social gathering and ultimately meant to be the love interest (and who therefore must be sympathetic), would hold similar views (unless that social gathering were the annual abolitionist bbq ;-D). Nor would most people--especially women, given their role and status--be able to put their feet down and say "I couldn't possibly be involved with someone who is pro-slaveholding."

Women were non-persons in so many different ways at so many different times that treating them with respect was a purely discretionary thing--and respect often meant something rather different to what it means now. What I suspect would have been considered respectful at the time would now be thought of as hopelessly patronizing (even books written in the 40's and 50's--I'm thinking some murder mysteries I read a while ago--have the hero giving the heroine a great compliment by saying something like "Why you little darling. How terribly brave you must have been to have walked all the way here on your own like that" or words to that effect).

So that's how it was--with notable exceptions, of course. Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett is of course one of the prime examples. She was an exception--and considered a bit of an eccentric by those who knew her. Her various sisters were all far more typical of the feminine types--boring, pedantic and sanctimonious (Mary--the prototypical bluestocking), silly, frivolous and idiotic (Kitty and Lydia) or lovely, sweet and not particularly bright (Jane). Elizabeth was an Original even within the context of her own family.

Most other Regency-era books we read these days (and I include my own books in there too) feature heroines who are grounded and sensible in a very contemporary way--and whose immediate friends or closest siblings are the same way. We all do it to some degree (while writing a few paragraphs of background to explain why this might be and justify it for the period) because the reader has to find the heroine sympathetic and this is the easiest way to accomplish that.

And so, I get to my point--costume dramas are really what most readers are looking for, IMO. The writer's duty is to make the seams between contemporary views and historically appropriate portrayals seamless (either by creating a backstory that justifies a nonstandard view or at the least, by leaving out contemporary slang/supplanting it with a dusting of period words or syntax, and working within the prevailing conventions as much as possible, so that those who know a little bit about the time don't start groaning).

As always, it's the story that comes first, but that story should fit its context, or something's gonna give out. Either it will be the story (that must be changed to fit), the context (to be re-staged in a different period)--or the readers (when they your book down and buy a different one instead).

::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 12:57 PM::::

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Anduril Elessar
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Susan Deefholts

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