When I was in elementary school, I bought the first two books in The Royal Diaries series at the Scholastic Book Fair. Each book is written like the fictional diary of a real-life royal figure as a young girl. The first book was written from the perspective of a young Elizabeth I and the second from the perspective of a teenage Cleopatra. The end of each book included historical notes on the book’s subject as well as historical photographs and drawings. I devoured the books and became instantly obsessed with both the series and historical fiction.
My penchant for reading historical fiction has followed me into adulthood (I turned 26 last week so I guess I have to grudgingly admit that I’m now technically an adult). I love that the genre allows me to explore historical time periods in a way that is fun and accessible. I love learning about history this way and yet I don’t care about historical accuracy in historical fiction. Don’t get me wrong, authors who can weave the relatively un-embellished facts into a compelling narrative should be recognized for their monstrous achievement (bonus points for you, Hilary Mantel). But authors who take creative liberties, even sweeping ones, should not be condemned (I got your back, Philippa Gregory).
So why don’t I care about the historical accuracy of historical fiction?
1. Historical fiction is educational
I learn a ton from reading historical fiction. I have had a weakness for Tudor-era England ever since I read Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England, 1544, the first book in The Royal Diaries series. At age 10 I could recite the names of all the wives of Henry VIII, their children, and their fates. I knew that Catherine of Aragon’s parents were Isabel and Ferdinand and that they sent Christopher Columbus on the journey during which he discovered America and I had a decent understanding of the English Reformation for an elementary school kid. I knew all of this not because I was especially bright or because I was learning it in school. I learned it all through reading. I doubt I would have picked up any of the non-fiction books on Tudor history that I’ve read as an adult if I hadn’t been introduced to the era or its characters through fiction.
Although I’ve long outgrown The Royal Diaries series, I continue to learn history from historical fiction as I’m introduced to new places, people, and time periods and inspired to learn more about them.
2. Historical fiction rescues interesting characters from obscurity
Many historical fiction novels elevate supporting characters to starring roles. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, for instance, offers a fresh perspective on the drama of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by telling the story from her sister’s perspective. The relatively minimal historical record on such figures means that in order to develop them into well-rounded characters authors must do some inventing. Staying within the confines of established history means that these characters are either presented as shallow caricatures or ignored altogether. I doubt either of these sad alternatives appeal to readers or history buffs.
3. Fact-checking historical fiction is fun (or am I just super nerdy?)
I happen to think that historical fiction is best paired with historical non-fiction. Having an understanding of the facts, at least as historians understand them, enriches the historical fiction reading experience because it allows the reader to spot when the author is adding their own flavour to history. Historical reality in tact, a reader can then venture confidently into the gray areas of history and chew on the food for thought provided by the author. Also, there is something delightful about fact-checking what seems like an impossible detail only to discover that truth really is stranger than fiction.
If nothing else, nerds like me may enjoy the ego boost derived from the uncovering of historical anomalies in fiction.This gives us a chance to bust out our interesting trivia at appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) moments. Did you know that despite making a menstrual tent the symbolically important setting her book The Red Tent author Anita Diamant acknowledges that there is no historical evidence to suggest that they even existed in ancient Israel/Iraq?
4. Historical fiction is fiction
The purpose of imagining the motivations behind historical figures’ choices is not merely an exercise is examining or re-examining history but also an exploration of human nature. Sure, unlike other genres, historical fiction more obviously derives inspiration from real events and real people but fundamentally historical fiction has more in common with its fictional counterparts than with history books. Evaluating its quality according to its historical accuracy then, rather than its literary merit, is nonsensical and boring. If historical fiction was meant to be completely historically accurate it would be shelved in the non-fiction section.
We love books because we love great writing, interesting characters, thoughtful commentary of human nature, intriguing plots, and, perhaps above all, imagination. I read historical fiction not because of its strict adherence to historical fact, but because of its loyalty to these significantly more important criteria.