Fact and Fiction: The Trouble with Historical Novels
by Richard Blake
If you describe anything as “the worst thing that can happen,” it probably isn’t. Whatever you care to imagine, there’s usually something worse. But one of the worst things that can happen to an historical novelist is to have someone creep up to you with a smirk on his face, and tell you that some fact in your latest masterpiece is bad history. For me, it’s certainly worse than just being told the novel is useless. I’ve always been sheltered from general criticism behind an impenetrable wall of vanity. I’m a genius. Anyone who says otherwise can only be intellectually or morally defective. Tell me, though, I’ve got my facts wrong, and I may run screaming from the room.
Of course, when that happens, it’s your own fault. The rules of historical fiction are pretty clear. You can write your way into the 1st century, as secretary to the Emperor Tiberius, and explain that the Emperor always swam alone on Capri – that he was a fine man and ruler, libelled after his death for his Thatcheresque way with the taxpayers’ money. You can do that. With a few obvious exceptions, you can blacken or whiten historical characters just as takes your fancy.
What you can’t do is write a passage in which someone uncorks a bottle of wine and pours two glasses. You see, everyone who’s read Fernand Braudel knows that corked glass bottles only came into use in the 17th century, and that glass drinking vessels, though used for thousands of years, only beat metal on the tables of the rich in the same century. You can’t get away with that. You will be written off as incompetent. Well, you’ll be written off by me as incompetent. You see, I did once get a long way into Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician, which is about St Luke the Evangelist I put up with everything I didn’t like about it until someone in Antioch uncorked a bottle. I threw the book aside at once, and have never ready anything since by its author.
Come to think of it, you’ll need to work hard if you want to talk about the taxpayers’ money in 1st century Rome. The central finances drew largely on tribute payments, imposed on each province when it came into the Empire, and were supplemented by confiscation. There were reciprocal obligations between the Emperor and his various kinds of subject. But these weren’t based on the same assumptions as govern our relationship with the British State. “My taxes pay your salary” won’t get you far with most British State functionaries. The words would probably have got you a very blank look in Ancient Rome.
And so, when writing historical fiction, you need to get your facts right. And this goes beyond looking up on Wikipedia when forks or tampons or suntan cream first came into use. You must think yourself into the past age you’ve chosen, and not make it look as if your characters could have been pulled out of the Underground and sent off into something half way between historical theme park and Big Brother house. You cannot assume that the physical things and habits of thought that you take for granted were the same in the past.
Let me give an example here that only came to my attention last year. I’d been shuffling round National Trust properties since childhood, vaguely noting how short beds were in the past. If asked, I might have explained this by saying that people were shorter in the past. Then, looking through an old book of prints, I realised that persons of quality, before about the early 19th century, slept in a sitting position – they didn’t need such long beds. Now, I’d always taken my own habit of sleeping in a ball, with the blankets pulled over my head, as a slight deviation from the norm, but never thought of this norm as other than universal.
By the way, this discovery set me into a panic, as there are any number of beds in my own historical novels. Luckily for me, people in the ancient world seem to have slept lying down. But my fingers did tremble as they rattled over the keyboard to call up images of ancient beds.
It worried me for professional reasons, but shouldn’t have surprised me. The followers of Karl Marx – and I think here less of Marx himself than of his more unorthodox followers like Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley and Michel Foucault – go too far in claiming that there are no universal norms. They hated bourgeois civilisation, and spent their lives trying to prove that all its norms were part of an order of things that had come recently into existence, and could be hurried back out of existence. In fact, the essentials of human nature don’t change. But, if this includes basic motivations, it doesn’t include how these are expressed. It can be difficult to work out the difference between motivations and their particular expressions. And there’s no doubt that, by our own lights, people in other ages often behaved very oddly.
Oh, look at sex – or, rather, at opinions about sex. Because we are living through a revolution in our own opinions, we are unusually aware of how changeable these things are. I recently went on the radio, to oppose the creeping ban on smoking. One of my arguments was that, if smoking ought to be discouraged because of the burden it allegedly places on health budgets, so should sodomy. Not long ago, I’d have been screamed at for likening smokers to those disgusting homosexuals. Now, Vanessa Feltz accused me of a homophobic hate crime for likening gay people to those filthy, self-harming smokers, and switched off my microphone as soon as she’d finished hyperventilating. How times change!
But, if we are better able than our grandparents to understand how opinions about sex change from one age to another, most people still haven’t realised the almost chaotic variation of opinions. I don’t think anyone would nowadays write a novel about the ancient world in which most males were exclusively heterosexual, and the occasional homosexual, thrown in for a bit of local colour, was a shrill effeminate. I think here, by the way, of Lance Horner’s Child of the Sun, which is about the Emperor Heliogabalus and which I much enjoyed as a boy. But, in their sexual manners and laws, the ancients would still be shockingly alien to an ordinary modern audience. Generally speaking, slaves and the lower classes were fair game, regardless of age or gender. His biographer affected shock when Tiberius got semi-weaned babies to suck his penis, because there was some age limit – though this wasn’t the sort of limit our sexual purity campaigners would recognise. Equally, when he raped two boys after a sacrifice, and then had their legs broken, he was blamed because they were of good family, and the concluding assault was inhuman regardless of their status. But, whatever he might do to others, a free adult male lost at least his reputation if he was known to take the passive part in oral or anal sex. And the idea of gay marriage seems to have been unknown
If most ordinary readers don’t know much about ancient sex, any historical novelist can. There are the works of Kenneth Dover and John Boswell, to name only two of the most readable historians. The problem here is knowing how far to take the readers before they give up in horror. So let me return to the danger of anachronism. Look at language.
Here, I have an advantage over many of my colleagues in the profession. Because my historical novels are set in the 7th century, I don’t have to worry about authenticity of words of speech patterns. The convention is that the narrator is writing in a rather classicised Byzantine Greek, and has been translated into a faintly Augustan English. Ideas and words derived from the words of our technological civilisation must always be avoided. Therefore, no one should say that the temperature has fallen, or that his anger was fuelled by drink. Nor should he be too specific about times of day, or say that things happened so many seconds apart. No one before the seventeenth century could have used such language. But modern slang and obscenities are appropriate. One of my reviewers picked me up for using the word “shite”, which is a moderately recent word. He’d missed the point.
It’s the same with stories set in England before about 1500. The language of the characters would have been English – but a fairly remote English, and the pretence can be kept up of a translation. It’s harder with stories set here during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. You have to be careful here to avoid pastiche. This will fail, as copying the spoken language of an earlier age is much easier to criticise than do well. There’s also the risk of confusing readers. I’m not sure if you can say that a plot is discovered, since this word, though much used, had a slightly different meaning before the nineteenth century. And, though you will see it commonly used in The State Trials, you will only confuse if you describe someone with dark hair as a black man. Peter Greenaway breaks this rule in his film The Draughtsman’s Contract. The dialogue is often authentic. I think I even recall a reference, never clarified for the viewers, to the Darien project. But I believe that one of the purposes of this film is to show the past as remote and largely incomprehensible. Mr Greenaway breaks the rules for a specific purpose. He doesn’t change them. The rule, I think, is just to avoid using words and expressions that obviously jar as anachronistic – 18th century lights can be turned off, never switched off.
For the early 20th century, the rule is to use your common sense. References to things and persons now obscure, or disused euphemisms – earnest for homosexual, for example, or gay for a prostitute, even perhaps Unionist instead of Conservative – should be avoided. Otherwise, you are lucky that there is hardly anything in the vocabulary or speech patterns of that age that is alien to a modern audience.
I won’t boast that I’ve always got it right in my novels. David Friedman (son of Milton) once got me close to a walking out moment, when he insisted that a glass table I’d put in one of my novels couldn’t have been cast before the late middle ages. But I do my best to get things right. At the moment, I’m feeling my way into a novel that involves a plague epidemic. I’ve therefore learned a lot of new medical history in the past fortnight. Of course, I knew that the germ theory of disease only grew into its modern form after about 1850. I also knew about the late mediaeval quarantines and the biblical rules about seclusion of lepers. What I didn’t know was that, until the arrival of syphilis forced the doctors to think again, there was no regular idea of contagion. There seem to have been popular suspicions about the communicability of certain illnesses, and these sometimes forced the authorities to act against the medical advice. But the doctors were mostly committed to the miasma theory of epidemic diseases – invisible clouds of poison that might be evidenced by foul smells.
I still haven’t decided what significance plague has in my new novel. Even so, do be assured that it won’t just be the look and smell of the sores that I get right.
I could go on and on, but I think I’ve got across the idea that historical novelists need to pay attention to the historical details, and are judged on how well they do it. On the other hand, you can argue that I’m just a silly pedant, substituting historical research that anyone can do for actual inspiration. I’ve said that Taylor Caldwell didn’t know how the ancients stored and sold their wine. What I haven’t said is that her novels remain in print nearly 30 years after her death, and sell in numbers I can only envy – and that her name will probably be remembered when mine has been forgotten.
But that only goes to show how unfair the world can be. After all, haven’t I told you – I am a genius!