My Annoyance with Historical Fiction

When Keven and I went on our date Friday night, we had an hour to kill before the film started.

At Barnes & Noble, I cruised the new release and romance sections, scoping trends and friends. I learned that Susan Wiggs has released a new novel, but I haven't read the last one, and so has Tracy Chevalier. Both are favorite authors of mine. Damn by dastardly TBR pile. I also found Vanquished by Hope Tarr, meaning Medallion Press has secured distribution through Barnes & Noble. Yay!

At the new release fiction table, I chanced on Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Gray by Alison Weir. Because I am such a mushy mushy fan of the film Jane Gray, I picked this one up and flipped through to find examples of Weir's portrayal of the relationship between Jane and Guildford.

Ack! My eyes! He calls her a bitch, rapes her, revels in her pain, and generally makes a right boor of himself. Hey, hey, hey -- that's not how it happened! Gentle, sexy Guildford -- who looks a great deal like dear, sweet Westley -- confides that he, too, was a virgin. Then they hold each other make tender promises. Duh! Get it right, historian lady.

I think proper historical novelists slop around in the lice and privies and dry-thrust sex precisely because romance novels do not. One influences the other. To be historical, one cannot be romantic. To be romantic, one cannot dwell too long in the stinky-breath facts. We take to the extremes because of the nature of the genre in which we write, appeasing more cynically-minded readers with nasty details and tragic finales, and appealing to more romantically-minded readers with grand adventure, love, and happy endings.

What annoys me is when this version of history, the literary version, is put forward as having more merit because of its grim, so-called realism.

I suspect history lies somewhere between. Just like the rest of us, Jane and Guildford probably muddled through the lives they were dealt, although with worse hygiene and more elaborate clothes. That they were normal people -- neither good nor bad, neither heroic nor cowardly -- likely rests nearer to the truth of the past, but without the necessary enthrallments of proper storytelling or the conventions of any particular genre.

Oh, and because she's literary, Weir used first person progressive to tell her story. Dear, oh dear. How do you make history more immediate and powerful? Allow every character to speak for him- or herself and relate the events as they happen. Good ole' past tense apparently puts too much distance between readers and the hard, unavoidable kicks of truthful history.

I am King Henry's niece. My mother was a princess of England and Queen of France. I must face the pain of my loss as I do my labor -- with royal dignity, refusing to indulge any further in morbid fancies, which, I am assured by the midwives, could well be harmful to the child I carry. One must try to be positive, and I am nothing if not an optimist. This time, I feel it in my bones, God will give us the son and heir we so desperately desire.

Tedious. Distracting. A gimmick that wears thin after a few pages. Here is another excerpt, if you're curious.

Granted, my gripes are based on a quick flip-through. The novel could be witty, fantastic, and compelling. But I read enough to know that Weir's version of history runs to a different end of the spectrum from mine. Since neither fictional interpretation truly hits the mark, I'll take my history straight from non-fiction references and my entertainment from the novels I actually find entertaining.

It's in this moment, hold on,
When everything has come apart.
It's in this moment, right now,
When everything come together.
"Fall In the Light" by Graem Revell with Lori Carson


Anonymous said...

When did Weir switch from nonfiction to fiction? I've read a couple of her biographies, which were straight nonfiction...with a great deal of speculation, especially the biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Anonymous said...

"On must try to be positive, and I am nothing if not an optimist."

That's proper historical flavor for ya. ;) Sounds like she just got out of a good therapy session.

Carrie Lofty said...

The book blurb mentioned that Weir wrote non-fiction, and this book is her first venture into historical fiction. Maybe she just leaned a little too far toward the speculative arena. She's published another one since.

And welcome, Ms Kinsale. I assume you found me via Beth's blog. Good to have you pop round!

Sandra Schwab said...

I think proper historical novelists slop around in the lice and privies and dry-thrust sex

Not to forget sex with goats!!! (Which was the last straw for me as far as historical fiction was concerned.)

K J Gillenwater said...

As anyone on "Survivor" will tell you, after a few days of being around a group of people who can't shower regularly and don't have deodorant on hand, the human sense of smell diminishes. So, to delve into the stinky breath and fetid body odors of our ancestors wouldn't be realistic. If everyone stank, you wouldn't notice it.

Ever been assaulted by a skunk? After about 10 or 15 minutes, your nose goes on sensory overload mode, and you no longer smell it...or hardly do. I am sure the same would be true for B.O.

Anonymous said...

And it's weird because apparently the first time you have sex with a goat it's kind of weird, but after you've done it about a dozen times they begin to look quite attractive...

Tess said...

Weir is known for her less than accurate history, even in her non-fiction. Never get Ricardians (including me) started on her book The Princes in the Tower. It doesn't surprise me she decided to sensationalize the relationship between Guildford and Jane.

Though the movie (which I too just LOVE) went a little far in romanticizing their relationship I highly doubt he raped her. My guess would be he ignored her much of the time.

I do find it telling that she actually insisted on watching Guildford being led to the scaffold - that one last glimpse of him. Could they have found some measure of happiness? I hope so, considering what they were forced into by their parents.

Kim Iverson Headlee said...

Checking in late because I had a conference to prepare for, and baby goats being born on our farm, and whatnot, last week...

Regarding historical fiction, I will read anything by Parke Godwin, though he might not be producing much new work lately; I've been a bit busy to check. I loved his Arthurian works (Firelord et al), and enjoyed his take on Robin Hood (though the title escapes me). I heard a while back that he'd written about Harold Godwinsson (the loser to William the Conqueror, for those needing a memory nudge) though that purchase somehow got overcome-by-events and now I can't recall the title to that book either! Aiie.

But another "historical" Arthurian author - who shall remain nameless - lost my vote when she described a situation in which Arthur & Guinevere's retinue was ambushed, a battle of course ensued, and then afterward, amid the corpses, A & G decided to "get it on" merely because they both had survived. (Okay, they found a tent that hadn't been wrecked in the battle, or something like that, but still. Copulating near freshly dead corpses? Not on my Top Ten Thousand Things To Do list!)

Those of us who are published (or nearly-published :) novelists need to remember that we are storytellers and, as such, we need to know the needs of the audience to whom we tell our stories before we make decisions on how to tell those stories.

Being, essentially, a historical novelist who chooses to tell stories slanted by the characters' relationships (including sibling and parent-child, in addition to love interests) lands me square on the tightrope between the "straight" historical and historical-romance markets. My latest book, LIBERTY, set in ancient Rome and featuring a female gladiator, contains some brutal scenes because my heroine was forced into a brutal occupation during a particularly brutal period of history. But she finds love in spite of her dire situation. Did I lose some romance readers? You betchum. Did others hail LIBERTY as being a great book? Yep. (And thanks, "jmc" and the rest of you!) Will most readers of dry-thrust historical fiction avoid it like the proverbial plague because it was published as a romance title, by, gasp! Harlequin of all places? Oh yes indeedy.

Their choice...but potentially their loss! ;^)

If you are curious to see for yourself where LIBERTY falls in this discussion spectrum, I encourage you to buy it here -- and then let me know what you decide!