On historical fiction

Goddard,%20RobertThis year’s National Academy of Writing lecture, in conjunction with Birmingham Book Festival, was given by popular author Robert Goddard. His lecture was entitled “What History Does Not Tell Us” – an intriguing title, and one of which he made good use. He talked widely about his own writing of historical fiction, proving to be an entertaining and lively as well as an informative speaker. He pointed out that historical novels tend to overstate the influence of historical events on their characters in a way which novels written in any given period do not, taking such things as read – as he rightly says, a writer doesn’t think s/he is living in the past, at the time of writing! He is clearly well-read and enthusiastic about a wide range of literature, proving most amusing on Sherlock Holmes (for example, discussing why Holmes cannot be found in the records of Cambridge University, though the novels say he went there; of course, this is because his arch-enemy Moriarty removed his name…)

His own novels he describes as “historical thrillers”, and suggested many reasons why plots are better set in the past: the old staples of nineteenth century fiction such as entails and disinheritance, now rendered obsolete by UK law, and the existence of capital punishment, are great plot devices. Modern writers, however, have escaped the problems of serialisation which led to inconsistencies in many Victorian works. Moreover, the modern police investigation requires a great understanding of science, which can cause problems for the unscientific writer.

Plots are tricky things, he says, which have to present a kind of toned-down reality; critics are keen to complain about use of coincidence in novels, yet coincidences happen all the time in life (as he said, no one ever says, “I’m sorry, it’s a coincidence” in real life!) – but if it is  reality, there’s no point in arguing with it – perhaps as good a reason as any to draw plots from history.

naw-logoGoddard is keen to point out that he never alters established historical facts in his novels, which is perfectly possible because of what history “does not tell us” – the unknowns open up a vast array of plot possibilities. As he rightly says, historians speculate, necessarily, and this begins to blur the line between history and fiction even before a novelist gets involved. Speculation can be as valid in fiction as in the history books – and, he added, historians don’t get it right all the time anyway. The question, perhaps, is what is historical truth – a debate that could go on forever.

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2 thoughts on “On historical fiction

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I’m a big fan of Goddard’s books. They are popular fiction at its best. I’m sure he will have pointed out in his lecture that he is himself a history graduate, which no doubt helps explain why he writes historical fiction so well. One of my particular favourites is “In Pale Battalions”, set against the backdrop of World War I.

    For the most part, Goddard’s historical books feature fictional characters living in a “real” period of the past. I must admit I am much more comfortable with this kind of historical fiction, or the kind in which real people make only cameo appearances, than with the variety which uses well-known historical figures as their principal characters. I’m not completely against the latter variety, just a little wary of them. I have some concerns about real people being significantly misrepresented. I wouldn’t want incorrect things being written about me, even if I was no longer around to care about it. Yes, historians and biographers can also misrepresent what actually happened or simply get things wrong but, crucially, they do not go as far as to put words into the mouths of their subjects or to speculate what was going on in the minds, at least not without making it clear that they are speculating.

    If I think I know enough about a period or a person then I tend to be more willing to allow fiction writers to take greater liberties. At the moment, for example, I am greatly enjoying the largely fictional activities of Charles Dickens as a newspaper editor, as told in a series of Tuesday afternoon plays on Radio 4. By contrast, I feel I know too little about Thomas Cromwell to take on Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel, Wolf Hall.

    I think Goddard is spot on about how some historical novels can overstate the influence of the historical events of the time in which they are set. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone today might write a novel set in England in the first decade and a half of the nineteenth century, and not allude to the Napoleonic wars, yet at that time Jane Austen managed to write without making any direct reference to what was happening on the continent. Wickham may have been in the militia, and Captain Wentworth in the Navy, but you could be forgiven for thinking that these institutions existed primarily to provide jobs for the younger sons of the upper classes and potential husbands for gentile young women rather than because Britain was at war.

    Perhaps the important divide is not between factual and fictional depicions of the past, but between books that correctly represent the past in all it’s variety and complexity and those that the distort or over-simplify it, be they works of fiction or of history. When it comes to those books that do distort the past I will always be far more willing to forgive a novelist who does so for the sake of a good yarn, than a historian who does it simply to make a name for himself, flog more books or score more points in the Research Assessment Exercise. After all, the novelists work will bear the label “fiction”, and hence avoid any implicit guarantee of accuracy.

    The debate about what is historical truth will, as you rightly suggest, go on for ever (or for as long as the planet continues to sustain intelligent human life – which judging by Saturday night TV might not be all that long, he jests).

  2. You make some interesting points – thank you for your comments. I haven’t read “In Pale Battalions” but shall look out for a copy. I absolutely agree about a certain wariness concerning the use of real historical figures – I read an awful (and obscure) 19th century novel on Mary Queen of Scots that played fast and loose with the truth and drove me up the wall! I suppose that was my issue with the TV series “Desperate Romantics” – there was no need to embellish historical figures so much! As for Wolf Hall – I am waiting to read it until I have read a biography of Thomas Cromwell, which my husband gave me after watching The Tudors (another series that embroiders history!)
    Goddard was a really good speaker – informative and entertaining, and I think highly of him for his commitment to historical research and high-quality writing; he made some excellent points. Glad you enjoyed my post!

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