Writing the Unicorn: The Paradox of Historical Fiction

Unicorn“Luckily Nicolas didn’t have to answer, as he couldn’t have spoken. I had placed my hand on his bulge, which was as hard as a tree branch. I had never touched one before.”

It was at that precise point when reading Tracey Chevalier’s Lady and the Unicorn that I did something quite rare in my reading practice; snapped the book shut and abandoned it for another. As it was my great fortune to have marvelled at the tapestries of La Dame et la Licorne years ago at the Cluny Museum in Paris, I imagined the mediaeval back story to be exhilarating, edifying, – not this tawdry, puerile, trivial, petty and anachronistic pulp that cheaply pandered to the soap-soddened masses. Girl with the Golden Earring author be damned! The book to replace it was Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker grabbing Wolf Hall, which almost suffered the same fate, and yet I somehow endured pronoun purgatory to stagger through all 600 odd pages. Mantel’s contention was that since there was so little known about Thomas Cromwell, and the same could be said of Nicholas des Innocents, it presented her with a blank slate as an author and the opportunity to sketch in plausible historical details. But while there was enough verisimilitude to maintain a veil of authenticity in Wolf Hall the like was sorely missing in Lady and the Unicorn, a fact that has prompted me to ask myself the question – who in hell would be a historical fiction author?

And yet despite such difficulties it appears that we are currently in a historical fiction boom. Many of the greats have put their pens to it – Vidal, Woulk, Dumas, Graves, Eco, Hugo, Mann and Jakes just to name a few. On the contemporary scene there seems to be a cottage industry of sorts with Penman, Chadwick, O’Brien, Michener, McCullogh, Gabaldon, Follett and Weir all chipping in regularly.  Historical fiction pervades both literary and commercial fiction with many titles achieving populism and appeal, a fact that clearly illustrates the modern reader’s love of being transported back to former times to explore the ghosts of our common past. In Tudor history alone there is a tribe of novelists and biographers led by the likes of Phillipa Gregory that churn out vast quantities of books of varying historical accuracy that either placate hordes of willing time travellers or sends a legion of fact-checkers to their googling tribunals. Can such writers be responsible for shifting historical consensus or muddying the pool of lay history?

What of historical accuracy or veracity – or this notion that one can make a distinction between non-subjective facts and interpretation?  My annoyance with Chevalier is not new. How many times have I been irked by the latest historical film epic with its inaccurate portrayal of weapons, armour, fashion, language, settings, etc., thus poorly representing the period being depicted? Some of us feel historically violated to the point of objection while others of us forgive anachronisms in the name of story and spectacle. But the inaccuracies are so glaring and wilful one wonders if the script-writers and directors even do a modicum of research. Don’t they know that Marcus Aurelius actually died of Chicken pox –or that William Wallace was actually noble born – or that painting with wode was outdated by the Battle of Bannockburn – or that Ivan the Terrible couldn’t have been a suitor to Queen Elizabeth as he was erm…dead – or that the American patriots actually lost the Battle of Guilford Court House  – or that invading mediaeval French armies did not use WW2 style landing gear – or that Henry VIII aged horribly and looked nothing like pin-up boy, Jonathan Rhys Meyers – or that Roman or Viking Britain can’t possibly resemble a 90s Headbanger’s Ball video???

kevin-costner-robin-hood1Such righteous corrective anger feels well placed in that so many books and films manage to fall afoul of that sense of representative fairness. I remember my seething scorn for Kevin Costner’s mulleted yankee Robin Hood – but was Alan Rickman’s smooth ox-bridged Sheriff of Nottingham really any closer to historical truth? I would have to confess that it isn’t  – and that an exact rendering of the 12th Century fable in the correct vernacular would be unintelligible to us today. Mel Gibson’s use of Aramaic for The Passion doesn’t make it ring any more true does it? Do we even want complete truth? Just imagine if we fix the errors in these films – and produce an epic where Maximus takes 13 years to kill the Emperor only to be beaten to it – or where the patriots sexually assault slaves and hunt native American Indians for sport on their way to a righteous victory. Do we want the whole truth – or to simply weave a fabric of partial truths to satisfy some time-bound sense of righteous verisimilitude?

Yes, scores of books are churned out by modern authors that fail to understand the mental attitudes of previous periods – books where characters act modern in mediaeval situations or act mediaeval while harbouring very modern thoughts. Bad research or poetic license? One might forgive such an author for taking creative license with history, the import of which is never simple, clear-cut or morally unambiguous, allowing said author to boil it down into something understandable and thus purposeful. The Author, after all, is still God (sorry Roland Barthes!), still king of their domain and chronicler of their own annals. The phrase often attributed to Winston Churchill – “History is written by the victors” – comes to mind, as does Ortega Y. Gasset’s contention that humankind only finds its identity in the interpretation of its history (History as a System). Hayden White further blurs things for history by suggesting that it can’t exist outside of ‘narrativity’ – that, like the tree in the forest, it has no objective or truly scientific reality beyond the witness and summary of its writers (Metahistory). Thus, this would imply that even the most ardent of historical fictioners faces the impossible job of transporting one era to another, without appending all the social baggage of the latter.  History is personal and we can’t escape the private system by which it operates – our characters are imprisoned by anachronistic social attitudes, tastes and mannerisms, and this is why our novels are laced with pre-modern feminist heroines and ancient humanists and atheists ad nauseam.

Henry VBut hang on – let’s not let them off too lightly in this world of competing historiography and hagiography, where poor research, wilful inaccuracy and commercial pandering still often conspire to produce bad writing and sub-standard fiction. We know that historicity is a problematic entity where things are taken on faith rather than proof, where the folkloric and fanciful can rise in plausibility due to the lack of historical record. We also know that even our great annalists, like Holinshed and Gibbons, were guilty of padding history, of beautifying it or moulding it to political purpose. It is absolutely true that absolute reproduction of historical truth is impossible; history can never be recalled in its entirety – nor be endured in its cruel disregard of storytelling conventions. A historical novelist wanders into Fitch’s paradox of knowability – where the existence of an unknown truth is unknowable and thus beyond the tenets of authorial responsibility. Even if we can get at primary sources – what do they tell us? How do we come to a correct or truthful interpretation of such sources even if we have the most honest intentions?

Historical fiction is fictional history. It is history as translation  – where translating across eras and historical divides is as problematic as translating across language and narratalogical divides. As Robespierre famously contends – “History is fiction” – a guillotine sharpened sentiment elaborated on by Bill Watterson: “History is the fiction we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction.”  But a writer still has a responsibility in producing historicising fictions – to find that balance between some semblance of historical accuracy and the modern understandability necessary to activate its power in narrative form.

Who in their right mind would be an historical fiction writer?


About Daniel

Writer & Musician
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2 Responses to Writing the Unicorn: The Paradox of Historical Fiction

  1. I’m not necessarily going to contend that I’m in my right mind, but I am writing a historical novel, which will, I hope, be as accurate to the period (mostly around a hundred years ago) as I can make it. However, I am not sticking strictly to facts, I must admit. I allow myself some creative licence, particularly with the imagining of conversations, scenes in the protagonist’s private life and so on. But why write a historical novel at all? Why not simply set the book in the present day? Because the period about which I’m writing is the time when the world as we recognize it was created, and the people of that time were wrestling with many of the issues that we think of as defining our contemporary lives, like the relationship between the media and celebrities and the arts, or weapons of mass destruction and total war; also, nationalism, dictatorship and democracy, and the influence of Nietzsche’s philosophy. It’s true that I could simply write essays on these subjects, or try to write plain history, but I think I can bring the period to life by writing fiction about it, and I believe I have a character who is absolutely fascinating. Whether that character is the historical one or my own creation will be a matter of opinion, I suppose. But I have read most of the biographies, and the book won’t have the kind of anachronisms you rail against, I promise you. Lastly, I think a great deal of our best fiction is actually historical fiction. “War and Peace” is a historical novel, after all, written well over fifty years after the events it describes, which occurred before Tolstoy’s birth. And I would contend that that novel not only works as universal art but also illuminates the Napoleonic period for us better than most history books do.

    • Daniel says:

      Yes, I take your point that there are some very good examples of Historical Fiction – along with lots of poor ones. I wish you great success with your new book.

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