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The Elusive Fictional Past

9 January, 2013


How accurately can historical fiction writers conjure up the past?

Historical fiction works within a framework of the ‘real’—facts about events, people, social and economic conditions, and dominant views of the time. Smaller details related to the period—customs, dress, transportation, language usage—are also incorporated.

The most engaging writers take us into the past so well that we feel we are there and understand it. For example, Mary Renault’s novels about the ancient world and Hilary Mantel’s books set in the time of King Henry VIII.

But  writing about  the past presents many challenges. Although historical fiction writers amass details from the past, they are influenced by the ‘lens’ of their present culture, a lens reflecting current values, judgements and sensibilities. Presentism refers to history being  interpreted according to current values and standards.  What was acceptable back then is not so now. What was considered appropriate and inappropriate then may make little sense today.

Some writers ignore or refashion whatever no longer fits so comfortably with today’s audience. Others present a modernised past, with characters who wear period clothes but hold modern-day feelings and views.

The visual elements of a past world, fictionalised and depicted on TV, movies, and computer games, can be terribly wrong. Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, is set in 12th century England. In the TV version, some visual elements, incongruous for that time, wrench viewers out of this fictional past. I found it irritating to see  characters with’ ultra-white ‘Hollywood’ teeth, and  poor stonemasons who chipped away at their statues but never got dirty.

If we could somehow transport ourselves to a bygone era, even one not so removed from the present day, we would  find ourselves in an alien and confusing world.

Writers of historical fiction must juggle the challenge of blending fiction and history, creating verisimilitude while also attending to the requirements of characters, plot and pace. Sometimes creative licence means making changes to the history in order to strengthen these literary elements.

Kate Grenville’s historical fiction, The Secret River, set in 19th century Australia, has won literary awards and was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Grenville believes writers have more freedom than historians when dealing with the past. They can create an ‘empathising and imaginative understanding’ of events. She chose to focus on connecting with her characters and events by asking herself  what she would have done in a particular situation, and then asking, ‘What sort of person would that make me?’

I was surprised to find that one historian had criticised Grenville for changing real events and dates, presumably to better suit the story.  The historian  also questioned if historical  fiction writers can ever empathise because  people back then ‘did think differently’ from people today.

Some examples

Another perspective on the past  is available when we read old literature and find ourselves confused or amused by elements in the story. The following examples are taken  from short stories written by Willa Cather and published in the early 1900s.

What in the world are you wearing?    

Fans of historical romances tend to be up on the specifics of period dress. One fan complained about a romance book cover that depicted  a couple in a country setting, because the man, a count, was not accurately dressed for an outdoor setting!

Some historical fiction in TV series and movies are fantastic in terms of historical accuracy.  When the BBC produced Pride and Prejudice, meticulous research identified what each character should wear for every occasion,  in keeping with their social standing, age, and situation.

From our modern perspective, the two examples below, from a Cather story, are amusing and curious, in terms of views about dress and who can approve or disapprove one’s clothing choices.

  • Ardessa Devine, an older woman, functions as private secretary to the owner of a successful New York magazine and oversees the prestigious editorial section. Her subordinate, Becky, a ‘thin, tense-faced Hebrew girl of eighteen’, seeks permission to wear white shoes, like the other female employees at the magazine. Ardessa refuses, saying white shoes are fine for ‘little girls who work in factories or department stores’, but in the editorial department, only black or brown shoes will do.
  • Ardessa also admonishes Becky for wearing an ‘open-work waist’, a style more suited to ‘little chorus girls’. ‘Open-work’ refers to openings/holes in the fabric. A news item from the same period relates how Venice’s Cardinal Patriarch threatened to expel from St Mark’s Cathedral any woman wearing an ‘open-work blouse’—what he called it a ‘transparent’ blouse. When he noticed a woman wearing such a blouse at a christening cemermony, he refused to continue until she covered herself with a scarf. (She did so but protested that the figures in St Mark’s classical statues and paintings were much more scantily clad.)

Rights & wrongs of the workplace

The workplace in Cather’s stories have aspects modern readers  find strange or unfamiliar.

  • Whenever her boss is away, Ardessa arrives late (10am) and then spends the day doing the ‘ladylike tasks’—‘reading and embroidering’.
    Cather makes it clear that Ardessa’s views are outdated, contrasting her with the busy younger female employees, trained in the ‘exacting methods of modern business.’ But sewing while at work? It’s been years since I’ve seen that.
  • At her desk, Ardessa discovers ‘lumps in her paste’ and reprimands the ‘office boy’. The paste jar conjures up a long-  vanished world of journalism, when the galleys were pasted onto paper sheets.
    The publication she works for is a huge success, being not only a weekly but national,  ‘out on the news-stands the same day in New York and San Francisco.’ What a telling detail about the tyranny of distance in the past. What will be old-fashioned in the future? One example is our paper-based weeklies, which seem to be heading for oblivion, like the paste jar.
  • In another story, bookkeeper Percy embezzles $1,000 so that he can marry. He plans to replace the money but finds supporting a wife more expensive than expected. Five years later, he tells his kind-hearted employer what he has done, adding that he hasbeen able to replace only $300. His boss says,‘There’s only one way to fix this up.’ With that statement, I assumed Percy would be sacked or perhaps end up in jail. Instead, Percy’s boss, who feels sorry for him, makes Percy a personal loan of $700. The deal is that $10 will be withheld from Percy’s $35 weekly pay until the debt is paid off. Would readers in the early 1900s have found this action as unusual as I did?

You Called Him What?

Percy disparages another man as the cheapest kind of a skate. Michael Quinion, in his great language website, World Wide Words, notes that skate began to appear in print in the US at the end of the 19th century. It referred to a mean or contemptible person. The word cheap attached itself later. Today if we called someone a skate, it would mean nothing at all.


  • Andrew Taylor. Ripple Effect. Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum, 5-6 January, 2013), p. 11.
  • Brian Crozier. History, Fiction and Extended Memory: A response to Inga Clendinnen. History Australia 5 (1). 2008.
  • Willa Cather. The Troll Garden and Other Short Stories.
  • Michael Quinion. World Wide Words.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 January, 2013 7:05 pm

    I was impressed with Hilary Mantel’s disclaimer in Bring Up the Bodies:

    “In this book I try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. I am not claiming authenticity for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.”

    A full and frank disclosure about how the author is approaching “history” is helpful.


    • 10 January, 2013 2:06 pm

      What a good disclaimer. As a reader, I’m more satisfied when the author acknowledges when fiction creeps into the factual account. Readers know this when they pick up historical fiction. But when they pick up a memoir or autobiography, they tend to believe that what they read is 100% fact–unless it seems too good to be true.


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