Class Notes

Based on a True Story

How historical fiction alters our perception of the past

By Paula Marantz Cohen | February 5, 2013


Historical fiction is one of the most enduringly popular literary genres. The general assumption is that it helps history go down, bringing us the facts with a little imaginative sugar. But it seems to me that its appeal is more nuanced.

My first exposure to historical fiction came with the novels of Anya Seton, who wrote romantic stories grounded in English and American history. To me the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony will always be the control-freak portrayed in Seton’s The Winthrop Woman. Soon after, I read Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, richly textured adventure stories set against the backdrop of British and Scottish history. Later, in college, I read the greatest historical fiction of all—Shakespeare’s English history plays.

Shakespeare’s Henriad, his two tetralogies covering the historical period between 1398 and 1485, demonstrates that historical fiction is often as much about the period in which it is written as the one in which it is set. Shakespeare’s histories crackle with anxiety regarding who would succeed his own queen, Elizabeth I.

If you read Shakespeare’s histories, you will remember English history better than if you’d read an ostensibly objective account, but you’ll do so in a particular way. While Shakespeare borrowed, sometimes verbatim, from the most respected historical work of the period, Holinshed’s Chronicles, he also altered the facts to serve his dramatic needs. Thus he made Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I the same age as Harry Percy (known as Hotspur), so they could serve as foils to each other. The final battle at Shrewsbury would not play half so well if Hotspur were, as he actually was, the age of Hal’s father, Henry IV. For that matter, Richard III wouldn’t be as interesting a play if Richard were not the unmitigated villain Shakespeare made him out to be.

The enticement of historical fiction is ultimately that it smooths out the inconsistencies in the past and fills in the unknown. As readers, we know this is being done—the genre tells us so—but so powerful is the seductiveness of coherent storytelling that it makes us forget. For years I carried around an image of Sir Thomas More as an exemplary man—honorable and pious, as represented in Robert Bolt’s play (and the subsequent movie), A Man for All Seasons—only to have my notion turned on its head when I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  Mantel’s version of the character now supersedes Bolt’s in my imagination. I could go to the history books and sort things out for myself, but it is unlikely that facts would make much difference. The vivid representation holds sway.

Even more surprising is how an idea we know to be false can lodge itself in our imagination and affect our perception of reality. I experienced this recently after writing my own piece of historical fiction. I made up some of the details in my account, and yet I found myself drawn to believe my own fabrications.

My book, a thriller set in Victorian London, and centers on the Jack the Ripper case. I had hit on the conceit of putting the literary siblings Henry, William, and Alice James, on the trail of this notorious killer. As I began to devise my plot, I found myself mixing factual with fictionalized evidence to the point that I sometimes forgot which was which. In one instance, I decided to have my characters discover a shiny blot on one of the Ripper letters, leading them to deduce that it was megilp, a substance used as veneer on 19th-century paintings. The discovery was needed to move the plot forward, but it took on a life of its own in my imagination. Had there perhaps been such a blot on the letters? If I could, I would go back and examine them for megilp.

The Jack the Ripper case exerts a particular hold on the fictional imagination. Take the experience of suspense writer Patricia Cornwell. She became convinced that the artist Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. The more research she did, the more certain she became, until she finally dismantled a Sickert painting in a search for evidence. (The results were inconclusive, but the destruction of the painting elicited an outcry from the artistic community.) In her nonfiction book, Jack the Ripper: Case Closed, Cornwell tries to put her carefully gathered evidence together in a convincing way, but her argument seems strained and incomplete. Had she chosen to relay her ideas in the form of historical fiction, she might have put her evidence to more convincing use. Yes, such a work would have presented itself as fiction, but the effect on the reader could have been more dramatic and, I suspect, more imaginatively persuasive.

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