Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Fact or Fiction - does it matter?

One genre I enjoy reading is historical fiction which seems to be popular among authors. This is completely understandable as there have been countless fascinating periods in history which contain all great elements for an exciting and touching novel. Just this month alone I have been to the siege of Leningrad, a leper colony in 50s Crete, to Iran spanning generations and I am about to read a fictional account of real people in Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light.

You may have also noticed from my ‘What we have learnt from Books’ feature that sometimes I am a stickler for detail. The same goes for when I read historical fiction, I HAVE to know what’s fictional and what’s not, and it seriously bothers me if I don’t know. So quite often my reading is also accompanied by endless visits to Wikipedia and other sites as I educate myself on various subjects.

This might sound like a bore to you and I completely understand why people just want to enjoy the book but personally, I thrive on it. I’ve always had a passing interest in history and I like nothing better than browsing on Wikipedia reading about this stuff. I always find that doing this quite often enhances my reading experience.

A recent example of this would be The Siege. There is a paragraph or two in The Siege which mentions briefly a girl called Tanya Savicheva whose entire family is dead. Because I had briefly looked into the history of this siege I did end up reading about this real historical person. Tanya was an 11 year old girl living in Leningrad at the time of the siege where she worked digging trenches. In her possession was her sister's diary (her sister did not come home from work one day) even when Tanya burned her own diary for fuel she spared her sisters. Tanya added to the diary the deaths of her family members and heartbreakingly the last entry reads ‘Only Tanya is left’. Unfortunately although Tanya was rescued from Leningrad she did not survive. The diary is now on display in a museum in Russia.

I went off topic a little there but this was just to highlight how a couple of paragraphs in a book held more emotional weight with me because I was aware of the true events. This also highlights the meticulous research the author did in order to write The Siege.

What do I think of authors who ‘get it wrong’ when it comes to their research? Well, on the whole I find that 90% of the time authors have been quite meticulous and expertly insert real events alongside their fiction characters. But if they do get it wrong? Well fictional authors are not there to give a detailed history lesson, they are there to entertain and move us and if they change the order of events or speed up certain historical events in order to keep the story moving then I have no problem with it. It is after all historical FICTION.

Unfortunately I do have to confess to knowing more than a couple of people who believe that Philippa Gregory is an actual historian and here is where I guess the danger lies and why historical fiction is sometimes criticised. But I don’t believe this is the authors fault, is it Philippa Gregory’s fault if some readers believe all the events in The Other Boleyn Girl actually happened or that the characters in that book were depicted accurately? Should perhaps there always be a disclaimer in the front of books that do change actual historical events around? I noticed that there is a small note from the author of The Quickening Maze in the back of the book which states that certain historical events in the book have been compressed and that significant individuals have been ignored while other have been invented.I guess this is a topic for a whole other post.

Of course you could just turn around and say to me ‘why the heck don’t you just read non-fiction if you’re that interested in facts’? It’s a fair point but I love the page turning enjoyment you get from a fictional book and I love reading a book and caring about the characters in them. I would therefore get far more enjoyment from reading Doctor Zhivago rather than reading a non-fiction book on the Russian Revolution. Ill just brush up on my Russian history briefly before I begin reading it ;)

Posted by Jess


  1. This was a wonderful, fascinating post. I do agree with you--I want to know just how accurate historical fiction is, and I also tend to start little forays into research as I read...

  2. I agree! I like to know the difference between fact and fiction...if I hear it's based on a true story I'll almost always start googling it afterwards. After all, real life is more interesting than fiction most of the time!

  3. I think the author, especially in a book marketed as "historical fiction" totally owes it to her audience to indicate what is true and what she made up, or embellished upon.

  4. I'm very much in agreement, although I do think readers should take some responsibility for noting the difference...like your wikipedia searches.

    A couple years ago, I actually came across a book that re-wrote the history so much that I couldn't bear to finish it. It was Sophia Lee's The Recess, and in it Mary Queen of Scots had two daughters who lived hidden away from Elizabeth, and (of course) Leicester falls in love with one of them. It literally made me angry enough to throw it across the room. And I'm not a violent person :)

  5. I never cared for History in school, so with historicals I feel like I'm learning a little something in a more enjoyable way. I don't have to know all the truths, but when I find out a story based on real life ends up being too embellished, it hurts and really puts a bad taste in my mouth.

  6. Great post! I loved The Siege so it is good to know that even the little details were correct.

    I'm a big fan of historical fiction, but I do worry about learning things that aren't true. I find non-fiction too dry and rely on good characters to bring history to life for me.

  7. bibliophiliac - thankyou very much - I do enjoy the forays into research I have to say.

    booksploring - Im glad Im not the only one that has to know. But it is true that quite often the real events turn out to be far more interesting.

    rhapsodyinbooks - I wonder how it would stop though? I mean would films that take liberties with history have to do the same? On the whole I am far more forgiving when books get it wrong than I am with films.

    Birdie - One of the worst cases was the TV show The Tudors, that show made up people and gave Henry only one sister when he had two and all sorts. I still really loved it though.

    Kim - I wonder if I am more forgiving on books that I love but I cant think of any examples. The Other Boleyn girl annoyed me but I wasnt a huge fan.

    Jackie - Im exactly the same,Chris though cant read historical fiction as he much prefers the non-fiction version of events.

  8. Jessica,

    I like it also when films end with a coda telling what was real or not. I'm okay with the process "not ending"!!!

  9. What a wonderful post! I loved The Siege too, and I admit I knew next to nothing about the time and place. It's wonderful to know of the truth behind the story. I love historical fiction, and I find I learn a lot from it too. I worry more about historical accuracy with films, but I really should turn my fascination into more research. Thanks!

  10. I also love historical fiction and have to know if they are getting it right. I agree with your opinions on getting it wrong as well. I think one of the reasons that I love historical fiction so much is that it really brings life and verve into history, which I sometimes find a little dry. Very insightful post!

  11. rhapsodyinbooks - I can think of a few films that have done this when I think about it and yes your right - it is nice when they do!

    nomadreader - films are differcult, I will do my research if it interests me but as its only a 2 hour film I dont always bother.

    Zibilee - yep, were not all historians are we ;) Its good to be entertained in the way that historical fiction can