On Authenticity and Relatability in Historical Fiction.
Many years ago one of the most popular shows in the Rachelloon house was a comedy sketch show of my native land of Britain called Dead Ringers. And one of the sketches that has most stuck with me over the years was a scene they did ripping on the then-airing historical drama ‘Robin Hood’.
The only Dead Ringers Robin Hood sketch that I can find on YouTube now isn’t the one I remember, but I did remember the introduction that was at the beginning of that video, which runs:
“And now on BBC One we’ve a brand new series of Robin Hood, where we’ve taken a much loved classic tale, given it a typically 21st century makeover, and made it shit.”
The sketch that I do remember had the Sherriff of Nottingham planning to impose a Carbon Tax on the local peasants, only to find himself facing strong opposition when Robin of Loxley stirs up the people, insisting that the case for global warming has not been proven.
I know you all know where this particular long ramble is going…
[Disclaimer: I know nothing about anything and don’t listen to a word I say or read a word I type. Just give me mindless praise instead.]
As someone with a strong interest in history I’ve always found it very difficult to watch historical dramas or read historical fiction without sniping ‘that’s wrong!’, ‘that’s really wrong!’, and ‘okay, the writers were on crack when they came up with this’. The only exception being Da Vinci’s Demons, which not only describes itself as ‘historical fantasy’ rather than ‘historical drama’, but has the added crucial element of actually being good.
(And even that will probably be ruined by the upcoming new season, just like all my other favourite shows. /grumble).
On the other hand, ‘updating’ historical persons/characters for the 21st century is not done without reason on the part of writers, and it’s easy enough to see why.
To begin, an excerpt—taken from my new book for NaNoWriMo research, which contains a number of extremely interesting writings from that period; this particular excerpt from the pen of Paolo de Certaldo of Florence, in probably the 14th century:
“Young girls should be taught to sew, and not to read, for it is not good in a woman, knowing how to read, unless you want to make her a nun… Feed boys well, and dress them as you can, in a decent fashion, and they will be strong and vigorous… Girls should be dressed well, but it does not matter how you feed them, as long as they get enough to live: don’t let them get too fat.
… I remind you again, if you have girls or young women in the house, that you should discipline them and keep them on a tight rein. And if, as often happens, any of them is looked at by young men, don’t get angry with such youths, but punish and warn the girls…”
(‘The Towns of Italy in the Later Middle Ages’; Dean, Manchester, 2000, pp195-6)
How widespread this sentiment was is debatable, how often put into practice unknowable, but from what we can tell the advice book this extract is taken from was very popular at the time, and if you write a novel set in this period then these are undeniably some of the prevailing views of the day. How can you make a character have or tolerate the above sentiments and still be relatable? If you make your character not have this sentiment, how do you explain why they don’t?
The answer to that last question is simple enough, and yet it raises a much bigger problem. That being (and I can assure you of this), that the extract above is in no way the uniform view of the time, of the place, of the era. The problem is that there is no such thing, and no such thing for far more than simply the care of one’s daughters.
Historians can’t agree amongst themselves about the reality of life in the Middle Ages, and the perceptions of your average readers can certainly be far off from the truth, if they even know anything about it at all when it’s likely the only thing they remember from school history lessons is ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’.
(Well, if they’re British anyway).
Take the Crusades, for example. Few people now would think of them as a glorious struggle to regain stolen land from the evil Saracens anymore, and even at their height there were those in Catholic Europe who didn’t either, but what were they really in that case? Was it just wave after wave of bloodthirsty religious fanatics attacking those of another faith unprovoked? Were there far more Machiavellian motives behind the actions of the crusaders; opportunistic men of fortune seeing a chance to gain wealth and prestige without the disgrace of shedding Christian blood? Or did the whole thing start as a well-meaning attempt to come to the aid of fellow Christians in the Byzantine Empire that went very, very wrong as time went on?
All three of these things? Different things for different people in different places and at different times? None of the above?
And how much of a point in striving for ‘authenticity’ is there when those readers who do have a little knowledge of the subject will differ wildly in their perception of it?
One internet argument that comes to mind concerns a favourite of this blog; that of the treatment of women in Game of Thrones. It runs something like this…
A: “There is no excuse for the excessive brutality committed against the women in this series.”
B: “Except that that was what things were really like for women in the Middle Ages, and the author is just trying to remind people of that to contrast it with other medieval fantasy.”
A: “But fantasy is the operative word here—Westeros is not a real place. Therefore it was entirely the whim of the author that depicted such atrocious abuse of women so often.”
B: “Westeros isn’t real; but fantasy set in a medieval European pastiche is a genre in itself; and part of the point of GoT is to remind people of the realities of that era.”
A: “Especially the dragons and ice zombies, right?”
B: “But that’s also the point of fantasy and speculative fiction—realistic people in unrealistic situations.”
A: “So what reliable data do you have for the violence women faced in the real medieval era?”
B: “Well… to some point that’s going to be a matter of interpretation.”
A: “And of course, G. R. R. Martin interpreted it in a way that made him write as much rape as possible into the series.”
B: “But you can’t ascribe malicious motivations to him for doing that just because you personally didn’t like the results.”
One may take issue with the fact that I suddenly started writing about historical fantasy pastiche here when I had been talking about historical fiction, but I think the same points still stand: people, or some people at least, don’t want the realities other people have interpreted. They want their reality.
They don’t want to see a medieval town of uniformly white faces when they know there were some ethnic minorities in Europe during the Middle Ages, no matter how unlikely it was that you would have seen one in any given town—especially in the north. Or they don’t want to accept that the man widely acknowledged as the greatest painter who ever lived, a genius and an inspiration to millions, was in all likelihood a homosexual—because it’s not like there’s a da Vinci sex tape floating around the internet that would prove it, right?
(Unless it’s Da Vinci’s Demons’ da Vinci, because I wouldn’t have put it past him to casually invent the digital camcorder over a long weekend. Incidentally, the creator of that show got at least one death threat just for making the character bisexual, let alone gay).
And so we get Robin Hood the climate change denialist. And no, to my knowledge no one has ever gone that far and been serious about it, but examples that irk me nonetheless follow fast upon one another.
Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow: ‘Hi, I’ve been transported here from the eighteenth century, but conveniently I hold no views that would be unpalatable to a modern-day liberal audience!’. The female medical examiner in Murdoch Mysteries: ‘I can’t believe my nineteenth century Catholic boyfriend is homophobic! How backwards!’. Achilles in Troy: ‘Allow me to introduce you to my COUSIN Patrocles. *cough* no homo.”. Celaena in Throne of Glass:
Just… Celaena in Throne of Glass.
No doubt the list goes on, and while one can find sources enough that prove unpalatable sentiments were in no way uniform throughout any given period, it ends up that if not only your hero, but every ‘good’ character in the novel goes against the grain of the day, one has to ask why they do so; and the closer the views of the characters get to those of the modern era, the harder answering that question can get.
Ultimately, the easiest answer is that the characters believe what the writer believes because writers everywhere delight in dropping messages as anvils onto the heads of their readers/audience. But to an extent there’s only one way they can do that now that we’re already living in the age of widespread discussion or acceptance of such formerly taboo or radical ideas—by transporting us back to a time when they were still radical so those anvils can fall with impunity.
Thus everyone learns a valuable lesson about whatever. And they learn it over. And over. And over. Forever.
Why not try educating your audience about history, instead of ideas and values they already know about? You don’t have to eject ‘strong’ female or gay characters from the work—it’s not like they didn’t exist. If you want to sink your teeth into the medieval answer to feminism, for example, pick up Christine de Pizan and go from there; fighting misogyny in a way that was authentic to the period.
But if instead your heroine sounds just like a 21st century hipster except that they use the words ‘verily’ and ‘mayhap’, then they sound fake, and if they sound fake, then the possibility of the reader’s immersion ends.
Or it does for me, anyway. As I’ve said before, some people ‘just can’t even’ with characters who they deem unpalatable, and I guess you’ve also got to ask yourself why bother with historical fiction if you can’t stand historical people? So you can have your cake and eat it?
For those of us who can stand to be around characters whose views and beliefs are different—sometimes almost unfathomably so—it’s worth remembering that the people of the past were human too, capable of empathy and compassion. Even if you strive for true authenticity your own interpretation will give colour to the work that some people won’t like, but there’s nothing in true authenticity to any era of history that will make a character automatically unpalatable.
And then again, if something’s good, then it’s good. And if I say it’s good, then it’s good—and my historical novel that I’m going to start for NaNoWriMo this year will be the greatest novel that ever walked the earth!
[It’ll walk when the rats that are munching on the pages after it’s been abandoned in a basement for fifty years decide to make hats out of it, and then scurry away to give people more plague].