Authors of fiction have to look for the drama, and invariably choose to dramatize the ordinary. It’s the necessary ingredient for fiction. After all, we mustn’t bore our readers, and a dull book is unlikely to sell. Everyday life tends to be fairly flat for most of us, and we read to escape that tedium.
But authors of historical fiction have an additional problem for we are also obliged to do our historical research, and discard the overly dramatic in favour of accuracy. I adore research, and I adore accuracy, and long ago I discovered that you can accept both without your writing ever becoming dull or dreary, for history is insistently fascinating. But one thing puzzles me. Why, oh why are we so addicted to those old enduring lies of history? Even when we are told – and have it proved over and over again – that some daft tale from the past is entirely untrue, we still hang on to it. The lies stick in our memory. Drama! So much more interesting than fact.
No, there were never such things as chastity belts. Actually in the medieval western world (as opposed to some of the east and Middle East) virginity wasn’t as important as we now like to imagine. Marital faithfulness was, of course – but there never was a single chastity belt hanging around on bed nobs. Such a silly and unworkable idea anyway, and for obvious reasons.
No, there never was any Droite du Roi either. That scandalously wicked idea claiming that dirty old lords in bygone days could demand the first right sleeping with any new bride anywhere on his estates, is utter nonsense. It never happened in England, (please don’t believe those films) and almost certainly never happened in France either. It’s a salacious fable.
No, Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” and Queen Victoria never said, “We are not amused.” Actually she was quite often amused– though that didn’t stop her being a terrible tyrant to her own family.
No, Napoleon was no romantic hero – no hero at all in fact – and the Borgias never did half the things they get up to on television. And no, King Richard III never had a hunchback or a withered arm – and quite probably he never murdered his nephews either. It seems an illogical and unlikely act, but we have no evidence whatsoever, not either way. And by the way, those old bones now residing in an urn at Westminster Abbey are 90% sure to be from a far earlier age and have no connection to the princes in the Tower whatsoever. They could easily have belonged to young Roman girls.
No, the Dark Ages weren’t in the slightest dark (except at night!). In fact they were gloriously light. The retreat of the Roman civilisation from England did not leave everyone quivering back into total ignorance and brutality, and there is enormous evidence to prove that stunning creativity and civilised justice were the more general result. Indeed, the Barbarians were not anymore barbaric than anyone else around at that time, most certainly including the Romans, and the Vandals didn’t vandalise anything anymore than anyone else.
No, not one single woman (or man) in England was ever accused of witchcraft and consequently burned alive at the stake. Before the 15th century, witchcraft was actually an acceptable business of herbal medicines and foresight, sometimes prized and at the very least treated with tolerance. Nothing to do with Satan. To use astrology or any other mystical art for the sin of foretelling the king’s death or any other criminal behaviour was another matter and certainly punishable. But simple witchcraft was not. There were hideous burnings for the crime of heresy, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries (some also earlier) – but for witchcraft – NO. No Salem in Merrie Old England.
Sorry – but the Pilgrim Fathers didn’t sail off to America to escape religious persecution either. You could almost say they sailed off to America in order to instigate religious persecution. Well, perhaps that’s rather unfair, and they were exceedingly brave, zealous, and very clever sailors. But it was the religious tolerance in Britain they disapproved of and were busy escaping.
And – No – the dinosaurs were not some weird short-lived misbegotten creation – too strange to endure – which quickly went extinct. I was taught in school that the dinosaurs were a ludicrous and laughably unsuccessful deviation of nature. How silly! The dinosaurs evolved perfectly for their environment and their age – and that age lasted millions and millions of years – far, far longer than humanity has yet managed to survive. And by the way, some dinosaurs never actually went extinct. They evolved into birds. So many of us eat dinosaur for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Do you like cranberry sauce with your roast dinosaur? Some of us even keep small clucking dinosaurs in our chicken sheds, though watch out for the foxes. Those wicked mammals will kill the dinosaurs if they can.
As for the Vikings? No, they never wore horned helmets, were brilliant boat builders, sailors and explorers, did as much trading as raiding, and went some way towards inventing our system of modern government. Well, the Greeks are credited with inventing democracy of course, but they certainly never extended all that democratic tolerance to all Greek citizens. What, give the vote to women and slaves? No way!
I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. So why oh why do we prefer to believe the myths rather than the truth? Is the truth so dull? Yet history is always a stunning tapestry of tales and insights, and can tell us so much in such an exciting manner. But history isn’t history if we don’t respect the search for truth. Even the dead surely deserve their stories faithfully told without using drama to fabricate personalities they never had, or actions they would never have contemplated. Although it may be hundreds of years since someone died, I still believe it very wrong to fictionalise that person’s life and write of them raping and murdering when no such evidence exists at all.
Then there are some who start off being interested in the truth but end up being far more concerned for their own reputations. It surprises me, for instance, that whenever a new historical fact is unearthed, or a past figure becomes ‘fashionable’ the emphasis switches. Something along these lines has occurred after the discovery of Richard III’s remains and place of burial in Leicester. Even amongst authors and the general public, there has now appeared a strange egotistical bias. It seems that those (it is claimed more women than men, though I find that a patronising assumption) who are fervently in support of vindicating Richard III’s reputation are now held up as soppy romantic females in love with a dead man. That could be partially true since it happens all the time. Some people want to marry serial killers – others have idealised every historical character I can think of – even those probably horrendously unpleasant such as Henry VIII, Napoleon, William the Conqueror and so on. But why does it matter? Aren’t we all entitled to our own little passions, however different to those of others? And personally I’d sooner come across some historically inspired loving, rather than the bitter hatred we so often see instead. And it has nothing to do with history. Why should we be irritated by the emotions of our modern neighbours, if we genuinely desire to study the actual truth of the past?
Now there are those who claim an interest in history yet have quite forgotten to research the facts at all. This is becoming increasingly true regarding Richard III. Some of us are so frightened of being categorised as pathetically romantic Richard-lovers dreaming of sleeping with a skeleton, that we quickly and loudly switch the other way. Some hold up every attempt at serious research as questionable if it dares to veer towards vindicating Richard III and suggesting that he might have been an interesting and decent man who is worth the study. Desperate to show themselves as ‘sensible’, they ridicule the positive discoveries and constantly announce themselves as interested only in the ‘real man’ who was, they shout, no saint. Well, my father was no saint either – but nor did he murder his nephews. This repetitive cry of ‘he was no saint’ simply makes no sense. Simply saying a man did not slaughter or illegally connive is not the same as calling him a sainted paragon. I personally don’t believe saints exist and if they did, they’d be terribly boring. This has nothing whatsoever to do with actual history. Can we please use common sense without being accused of sanctifying the object of our interest? And can we write about the search for the truth and the original subject of our interest – and not just endlessly denigrate the so-called Richard-worshippers of today.
I am interested in Richard III amongst many other historical eras and personalities. I therefore study and research the truth concerning those times. I am interested in that – not in altering my attitude to protect myself from criticism – nor do I think my own reputation is the point. Let’s be honest researchers, not egotistical self-protectors or strident hecklers of others with a different approach.
Yes, the truth matters. But there’s another side to history as well. Myth, fable and imagination. We don’t have to lapse into inaccuracy in order to write fiction. Imagination isn’t some awful twin of the dark-side. There is a wealth of glorious possibility out there amongst the probabilities and possibilities. Exploring the possible is not the same as inventing lies. Researchers after the truth do have a hard job since past documentation is often scarce and invariably biased. That leaves us gaps which we are free to fill in ourselves, as long as we use a little skill, common-sense, and dedication.
There are some truly wonderful books out there about Robin Hood, Odysseus, Merlin, King Arthur and a host of other semi or wholly mythical characters. We can be fairly sure these great personalities never existed exactly as they have been depicted in the old stories. But there is a very good chance that some element of genuine historical basis stands at the foundation to many myths. T.H. White’s incredible “The Once and Future King” inspired my love of history just as much as the castles, contemporary records and old manuscripts. My greatest inspiration was Shakespeare – and we all know how little actually accurate history he included in his plays. He was writing drama, not documentaries. I doubt any dramatist, however brilliant, would get away with the same amount of distortion today – but Shakespeare still brought history to life.
That leaves authors of fiction free to imagine – to be inspired – to delve and create. Let’s write what really might have happened – what we wish could have happened – what we genuinely think did happen. Just don’t let’s perpetuate those silly old lies, or purposefully invent something completely unlikely and unpleasant about someone who actually existed, can no longer defend themselves, and who deserves some respect for his or her own long passed actions and motivations.
Well, honestly, the truth is much more intriguing than the lies anyway. We won’t always agree about what actually happened – we can’t always know – and that’s fair too. It’s what makes history fun.