Lies, Damn Lies, and Historical Fiction

In Great Britain, historical fiction is serious business.

Exhibit A is the Booker Prize, awarded each year for the best novel written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe. Eight of the last ten shortlists for the prize have included a novel set during the 19th century, according to The Guardian.

All the more reason to sit up and take sharp notice of James Forrester’s thought-provoking blog essay on “The Lying Art of Historical Fiction.”

Most historians to whom I’ve spoken on the subject look down their noses at the genre as a necessary evil, at its best bringing some light, however dim, on the past for the unwashed masses, while at its worst poaching the precious hidden eggs that they and their fellow scholars have been slowly and carefully incubating, sometimes for decades.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, to find that Forrester—the pen name for Dr. Ian Mortimer, acclaimed British biographer of medieval subjects and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society—has offered up a rather empathetic view of the conflicting demands placed upon the historical novelist.

I’ll leave it for the reader to enjoy the full breadth of Forrester’s measured judgment in his article, but suffice it to say that he refuses to lash the historical novelist to the mast and flog him for deviating from “the facts” when justified by the demands of the story.

A couple of appetizers to send you off to the main course:

— “The path a historical novelist has to tread is clearly beset by dangers. There is an inherent tension between trying to do something new and something old at the same time.”

— “Historical accuracy is like quicksand. Stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story.”

— “In creating good historical fiction, it is essential to tell lies.”

The readers’ comments on the essay are also entertaining. Taking issue with Forrester’s assertion that ‘[t]he historian will assure you that the facts are the story,” one protester, apparently a historian himself, replied:

“No we won’t. You really ought to get out and meet more historians who’ve learned their trade since oh, I dunno, probably about 1955.”