In this lively debate, the writers were addressing that thorny question of accuracy in historical fiction. There's a sliding scale in this: we are, after all, fiction writers. We are allowed to Make Stuff Up. However, where does the making stuff up distort and devalue the history we're trying to bring to life for the reader?
Ian Mortimer said that the criticism shouldn't be based on inaccuracy as much as 'Is it any good?' Emma Darwin reinforced this by declaring 'It's a novel! Get over it!' Harry Sidebottom said he wasn't so hung up on the question of 'lying' as he explains later what it is he lied about. He also pointed out that Roman historians used to do it all the time and that modern historians like Simon Schama are using imaginative approaches.
|Emma Darwin, Harry Sidebottom, Daisy Goodwin|
The truth is, it's impossible to be true. We cannot truly enter the mindset of the people of the past: it's our duty as writers, though, to have a damn good try. Too many female characters in HF are feminists in bustles ... or wimples. I adore the novels of Ariana Franklin, for example, whose medieval heroine Adelia Aguilar is rebellious, intelligent, strong-willed, courageous - but very modern in her attitudes, speeches and practices (applying forensic techniques to murder investigation). I still love the books even when being jarred, because they're full of energy, pace and great dialogue. The research is very definitely there - but the writer is doing what she wants with it - and damn your eyes if you don't like it!
Emma Darwin reminded us that we see the past through the eyes of our own era: she said Dickens' view of the French Revolution ought to be more accurate because he was closer to it in time, but we don't see him as being as 'authentic' as Hilary Mantel is in A Place of Greater Safety. She said we need to try to get the mindset right (mentioning the notoriously anachronistic dialogue in Downton Abbey) but that when you've done your research you can end up writing badly if you have your textbook in your hand. So there's a degree of stepping away from the research: 're-imagining implies some measure of forgetting'.
Harry Sidebottom added 'I imagine the bits in between the evidence' and Elizabeth Chadwick claimed that 'as a novelist you're building a bridge between the past and the present for readers to walk over.'
|Elizabeth Chadwick, Barbara Ewing, Ian Mortimer|
The debate is bound to go on and on: all we can hope for is that balance and good sense will prevail. We're writing novels, not lectures: we hope to cast a spell where the reader is drawn so well into a past era they lose the sense of being a visitor, we try not to crush people under the weight of 'forsooths' but at the same time not jar them out of the time-period by having a character in Downton Abbey talk about having a 'time out' (!!!).
Finally on Day 1, novelist Margaret George gave the closing address. She told us she's 'Tudor'd out' and is going back to ancient history for her subjects. She told us, rather beautifully, that we're 'the time machines for other people to go back by', that 'we give a kind of immortality to the figures of history' and that we should never be ashamed of being historical novelists.
Which seems to be a pretty good note to end on!
Part 5 of my Conference report later this week!