Historical Accuracy, political correctness, and authenticity…

My daughter and I recently went to the “Sherwood Forest Faire” near McDade, Texas.  It was great fun!  There were costumes, shows with everything from singing to falconry to jousting, and pineapple soft serve.  Looking around at the various types of costumes, level of historical accuracy, and the relation between this and the enjoyment of the day made me think of writing historical fiction.  Stay with me, I’ll get there.

There are two very distinct and frequently vocal sides to the “historical accuracy” argument when discussing the writing and reading of historical fiction. There is the side which proclaims that only by being PRECISELY historically accurate in EVERY detail can a writer do the historical period justice; on the opposite are those who say that NO MODERN AUDIENCE will read a truly historically accurate portrayal of times periods, which were to put it politely, racist and misogynistic in the extreme, so writers would not really try that hard, because readers don’t care.  I would argue that readers prefer writers to be as historically accurate as possible, with a few caveats…  I think it is possible to write historical fiction that is AUTHENTIC, as opposed to being pedantically accurate.  Good historical fiction lies somewhere between David Liss and Bridgerton…

Often those who most vociferously argue for strict historical accuracy are worried about presentism–and they are not wrong.  Presentism is when we try to cast modern views backward, or interpret the past through the lens of our modern sensibilities.  It is important when writing History that we do not do this–judging the past by our current values simply does not work.  If you reversed it and tried to judge the present by historical values, it would be equally impossible to do.  However, this does not mean that we sacrifice the story in a historical fiction novel to the gods of either historical accuracy (always a dicey and subjective proposition) or political correctness.  Neither of these approaches is going to work when writing historical fiction. This would be like making everyone who wants to wear a costume to Sherwood Forest Faire have to meet some historical accuracy test, or give up all the fart jokes because they are offensive. Some of the costumes were pretty accurate, some weren’t (I saw zippers), but the idea is to represent the period authentically and have fun. It’s fiction, not history. I mean I don’t REALLY want to be in the middle ages, but I want to have the experience of seeing, hearing, and feeling as if I were (sort of) there.

First, let’s look at historical accuracy.  It is true that you want to render the time and place as accurately as you can.  However, there are a few things that will probably not work for writers of historical fiction, no matter how accurate they are.:

  1. Dialogue— it is a safe bet that your dialogue is not going to be completely accurate.  If it were, depending on the time period, your book would most likely be unreadable by a modern audience, except for a few people who just happen to be even bigger history nerds than you.
  2. The sheer difficulty of everyday life in most pre-modern eras.  Lots of people died young, illness and uncleanliness were rife, and the majority of the population lived in abject poverty.  These are not the ingredients for an entertaining novel.  This is not to say that you won’t include a measure of reality, but the actual reality of the past would prove depressing for most readers.  That isn’t why they read historical fiction.  Occasionally an author will venture into this area, and many award winning books do, but it isn’t something most readers will want a steady diet of. And the stench…just imagine!

And what about political correctness? Like the reality of everyday life in historical eras, a little goes a long way.  You may have some characters in your story who are ahead of their times, but everyone can’t be.  That isn’t historical fiction, that is just wish-fulfillment. There is a balance, though, which a good writer can find.  There are  lots of unknowns in history, so there is wiggle room–we cannot always assume that everything relevant about the past has survived to the present. There is a lot of missing data. If you look hard enough, you can find the gaps and the outliers–and here is where a good story that will appeal to modern readers lives.

Next month:  Finding the Gap and Outliers!

Agent Sonya by Ben MacIntyre

Ben MacIntyre has written several books about World War II and Cold War spies.  They are all excellent and Agent Sonya does not disappoint.  MacIntyre has a talent for finding intriguing stories about real people in extraordinary situations.  Sonya, real name Ursula Kuczynski,  worked for the Soviets beginning in the 1920s in China and continuing through three pregnancies, two marriages, and several nations until she was unmasked, not coincidentally by another woman, one of the few in MI-5 at the time.  Sonya was able to convince her male interrogator that she had stopped spying when she came to England in 1940, and without evidence, he did not arrest her.  However, she knew she was on the MI-5 watchlist and it was only a matter of time.  When Klaus Fuchs was arrested, she fled to East Germany to avoid a similar fate.

During her tenure as a Communist agent, Sonya ran multiple operations successfully and obtained reams of intelligence, including cutting edge communications technology and nuclear secrets–she ran Fuchs for a time. Her story is compelling and hair-raising at the same time.  James Bond could not have maintained his cover any where near as long and Sonya had a few harrowing escapes no less fantastic than the fictional Mr. Bond. Though Agent Sonya is a narrative history, MacIntyre successfully inserts an argument about Sonya’s success being at least partly due to her gender.  Overlooked multiple times, because of the assumptions regarding what men and women did, Sonya used stereotypes to her advantage to hide in plain sight, much like Virginia Hall (A Woman of No Importance). The fact that she carried on spying while giving birth and raising children is nothing short of inspiring, regardless of which side she was on.

There is also a veiled warning here, if one is needed, regarding the Russian talent for human intelligence.  While it is true that Communism as an ideology was more widespread and international during the decades leading up to WWII, the fact that Sonya hand selected the entire contingent of agents used by the OSS, America’s WWII spy agency, for Operation Hammer, one of the last Allied insertions before the end of the war in Europe,  is stunning.  Every agent the Americans sent on that mission was in reality working for the Red Army, with instructions to report back to the Soviets what they learned about American operations. It would be naive to think that Soviet efforts at intelligence gathering have slowed, and recent computer hacks are proof that they are still able to infiltrate and have the will to do so. It would be naive to think they could not use unwitting actors as useful fools. The United States arrived late to the espionage party and has not proved particularly adept.

And what about the feisty female?  In a previous post, I discussed the idea that the feisty female is not off limits for historical fiction.  Though some writers and critics would have us believe that to be historically accurate, female characters should be shrinking violets–in tune with the expectations of their “times.” I disagree; Agent Sonya is evidence that fictional women do not have to conform any more than real women do.

Throwback Thursday: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Shortlisted for the Man Booker, this is an unusual “crime” novel.  Young Roderick Macrae is in jail for three brutal murders and has written a memoir at the behest of his attorney, who hopes to use some of the information as mitigating factors in Roderick’s trial.  Interspersed with the fictional memoir are additional statements by other characters in the story and medical and court reports.  If you are looking for a book that grapples with moral ambiguity, look no further. I do not want to ruin the book, so I am not going to reveal the ending, but here is a case that pits the little guy against the powers that be, the downtrodden against the system, and the hopeless against those who hold all the advantages. Or is it?  The reader will have to decide for himself.  This book will leave you scratching your head, so if you prefer the end tied up neatly with a bow on top, don’t start reading His Bloody Project.  This ending leaves the reader full of questions that remain unanswered within the pages of the book, but that is part of its brilliance.  

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I am afraid I will have to join the minority who did not like this one.  The Washington Post reviewer calls it “plodding” and I would have to agree.  One reviewer on Goodreads says it seems like the author read The Grapes of Wrath and decided it needed an update.  I would have to agree with that as well.  The characters are one dimensional, the prose is pedestrian, and there just isn’t enough story to maintain interest. Misery can’t be the only thing sustaining the story arc.  I understand that writing about the Great Depression was a risk, because there was a lot of misery, but a load of terrible things happening doesn’t make a story. The main character doesn’t grow, the daughter runs hot and cold, and the dialogue was particularly lackluster. I haven’t even mentioned the historical inaccuracies–if you are going to write about Texas, you should probably do some research about it. Movies from the 1930s are easy to find and watching them might have helped with some of the dialogue. This is the third book by Kristin Hannah I have read and I have come to the conclusion I am not her ideal reader.  Color me disappointed.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

There are very few books that live up to the hype and this one does.  The Thursday Murder Club delivers on so many levels–it’s a cozy, it’s an ensemble piece with multiple points of view, it’s hilarious, it’s a warning against underestimating the elderly.  It is hard to believe that this is Osman’s debut novel, because it is freakishly well-written with both laugh-out-loud and teary-eyed moments. Best of all, he manages to write a mystery that doesn’t condescend to readers–keeping you on your toes until the very end.  Even if you figure out whodunit, you will want to find out all about the loose ends.  One can only hope that Osman brings back the crew for further installments. Can’t wait!

Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Joy. Pain. Choices. Love. Family. Secrets.

In her second novel, Sweeney does it again.  She shows us a family; she shows us ourselves; she shows us an imperfect world with imperfect people who somehow manage to love each other and mean it.  When Flora finds Julian’s wedding ring in an old filing cabinet, the ring that he supposedly lost fifteen years ago, she knows he has a secret, but she isn’t sure she wants to know what it is. Flora’s world is rounded out by her daughter, Ruby, and her best friend, Margot–who has secrets of her own. Flora’s marriage to Julian and her friendship with Margot have survived good times and bad and a cross country move from New York to California, but will her love for each of them survive knowing their secrets?

In artful prose and beautifully drawn characters, Sweeney lets the reader into Flora’s world, filled with the joy and the pain of discovery.  The question for Flora and the question for us is: will we let the pain win, or will we choose the joy?  You’ll have to read it to find out, and please do read it.  You won’t regret it. Full disclosure–I received an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Discussion Questions for your book club:

  1. What do you think is Flora’s superpower?  What is Margot’s?
  2. If you were Julian and Flora, would you have moved to California?  What about if you were Margot and David? Why or why not?
  3. What do you think each of them gained by the move?
  4. What do you think about how Margot felt back in New York after working in California about the snobbishness of the actors?  How has her perspective changed since she moved?  What does she see that they don’t?
  5. Why is Julian’s scene with the tree important?  What does it mean?

The “feisty female” in historical fiction

I have been reading Susanne Alleyn’s excellent book about writing historical fiction. Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders (2015) recently; though I find it helpful, interesting, and often quite humorous, there is one idea I would like to push back on just a bit–the feisty female.  Alleyn writes that too often authors give their historical characters modern attitudes, and this is true.  She quotes Hilary Mantel’s line, “Women in former eras were downtrodden and frequently assented to it.” While there is virtually no one who would argue against the first half of that sentence, I think the idea of assent should be examined more closely. Who assents to being downtrodden?  

US Department of Defense, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Features/story/Article/1791664/rosie-the-riveter-inspired-women-to-serve-in-world-war-ii/

According to James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), part of the difficulty in dealing with the history of a subordinate group is that there is a public transcript of events and a hidden transcript, which the dominant group neither knows about nor may access.   Further, the hidden transcript is not necessarily a part of the written record, or if it is written, it may exist in sources outside the norm, such as rumors, gossip, songs, rituals, euphemisms, or jokes.  Actions may also be a part of the hidden transcript.   A quotation from page 14 bears exact reproduction:

Tactical prudence ensures that subordinate groups rarely blurt out their hidden transcripts directly.  But, taking advantage of the anonymity of a crowd or of an ambiguous accident, they manage in a thousand artful ways to imply that they are grudging conscripts to the performance.

The performance he refers to here is the dominant group’s version of reality.  Add to this the now accepted view that history is written by the victors and the astute writer of historical fiction will see room for heroines who neither assent nor conform inwardly to the dominant group’s (i.e. men’s) conception of reality. They may even occasionally find ways to express their non-assent, as many real historical women–who had the means and opportunity–did. (See Christine De Pizan, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Heloise, etc.) If you are wondering why the short and by no means exhaustive list includes only well-known women of a certain class–they are the ones who had the opportunity.  They are the ones that history records, and remember who is writing the history. 

This is not to say that your feisty female doesn’t face limitations, of course she does.  But, it would be ridiculous to assume that women were satisfied with the status quo and never sought to upend it, even if their resistance was in small acts.  In her 1989 article, “The Return of the Repressed in Women’s Narrative,” Susan Stanford Friedman argues that women’s writing may be read as a form of disguised record of the forbidden. That women’s public writing had to disguise what they wanted to say more than their private writing.  Women were protesting or “writing against the grain” from the beginning, and if they were writing against the grain, what else might they have done? In “History to the Defeated: Women Writers and the Historical Novel in the Thirties,” Diana Wallace points out that one of the many factors contributing to a boom in female authored and centered historical fiction in the 1930s was the renewed interest and demand for information about the lives of women in history.   In addition, a surfeit of women who graduated from University after studying History, but who were denied entrance to other occupations, took up writing historical fiction.   All of this brings to mind Catherine Morland, who observes somewhat dryly, 

I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey accessed via Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/121/121-h/121-h.htm chapter 14.

Indeed, if women are not part of the public transcript, with the exception of outliers, what might the hidden transcript reveal about them, if only we had it complete?  So, write your feisty female characters, keeping things as historically accurate as you can, without assenting to being downtrodden–no one assents to that. 

Throwback Thursday: The Year Before the War

Originally reviewed in 2017…

I started using NPR’s book concierge and decided to begin with this sweet, sad story of the run-up and beginning of World War I in Britain containing a cast of characters who are by turns loveable, laughable, pitiable, and enviable.  Beatrice Nash is the new school mistress in the village of Rye, championed by Agatha, member of the governing board of the school and local grand dame.  Her nephews, Hugh and Daniel, round out the main characters, with a supporting cast that includes a pompous American writer, the local gentry, the mayor and his wife, the vicar’s photographer daughter and more.  The pacing is wonderful–just slow enough that the reader can savor the sweetness, because we, unlike some of the characters, know what is coming.  Readers will want to cheer for Agatha, who is a heroine in the struggle for women’s rights, but without the rancor which so often accompanies that particular virtue. This is not a simple, beach read–it is far more than that.  There are elements of class struggle, the upheaval caused by world events at the time, and even a few hints of secrets better left alone in a small village. All of this is handled with grace and care by Ms. Simonson, who leaves the reader with equal parts pathos and hope at the end.

This would be a wonderful book club selection, but it is just a great read that will leave one thinking and feeling about the sacrifices of the generations before our own and hopefully grateful for their fortitude in the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable losses. 

A Spy Named Orphan: the Enigma of Donald MacLean by Roland Philipps

Another volume of Cold War riches from recently declassified files!  This entry follows the life of Donald McLean, one of the Cambridge Four Five.  Written by an insider, Philipps is the grandson of Roger Makins, former boss of Donald MacLean and the last person from the Foreign Office to see him before he disappeared and defected, A Spy Named Orphan is a sympathetic portrait of MacLean as a true believer whose alcoholism and personal difficulties may be traced to his split loyalties to Britain and the Soviet Union. MacLean is the star of this book, unlike others, in which he plays second fiddle to Kim Philby.  

Philipps departs from the argument made by S. J. Hamrick in Deceiving the Deceivers (2004)  that MI6 Knew about MacLean from 1949 and used him (and Philby) as a conduit of disinformation to the Soviets. Both books rely heavily on the Venona cables for evidence, but come to very different conclusions. Philipps contends that MacLean was successful in hiding his activities up until a few months before his defection, reverting to earlier arguments that the clubbiness of the British Intelligence Services blinded them to several spies right under their noses and that, combined with their unwillingness to look foolish again after Fuchs and several other debacles on both sides of the Atlantic, allowed MacLean to escape with Burgess in 1951.

Hamrick writes that we will likely never know for sure and because the principles have passed away and there are still classified documents that are unavailable, he is correct. Philipps, though, did have access to some documents declassified in 2015 as well as the personal papers of Donald MacLean’s brother Alan.  Hamrick’s argument rests largely on supposition about what is missing from the historical record and the motivation of the British Security Services for keeping mum. What Philipps gives us is a portrait of a tortured soul who spied because he couldn’t stand the rigid class society he lived in.  

Unfortunately, the sheer volume and type of secrets (atomic!) that MacLean passed during the years from 1938-1948 makes it very difficult to sympathize.  Philipps also seems to think that MacLean’s raging alcoholism did not keep him from doing both his diplomatic and espionage jobs very efficiently.  If true, the reader wonders what might have happened if MacLean had applied himself to improving Britain’s policies rather than giving its secrets to the enemy. Philipps tries to reconcile the depth of MacLean’s treachery by reminding the reader that the USSR was a wartime ally.  Sure, but Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, too. And the political purges and Lubyanka disappearances, of even his handlers, seem not to have caused Donald to question his loyalty to the Communist cause. Philipps tries to make MacLean seem ideologically pure, and it is true that  Communism as an idea had been popular all over in the 1930s, but the Soviet incarnation, especially under Stalin, cannot possibly have been what the dreamers of the Depression had in mind. Definitely not a workers’ paradise.

This reader can only see MacLean as an anti-hero.  Flawed and destructive, but not completely without redeeming qualities. It is a shame, really, that what many of his contemporaries praised as foreign policy genius was wasted in treason and awash in liquor.  Philipps claims that he was animated by a desire for world peace.  As a senior official in the Foreign Office he could have had a seat at the table to make that a reality. What might the world have become if MacLean and other powerful people had worked as hard for their countries and by extension, the world, as they did against them?

Though meandering at times, A Spy Named Orphan is a mostly readable account of Donald MacLean’s life. Perhaps a bit too admiring of him for this reader’s taste, nevertheless it is well-researched and includes personal anecdotes and details about his relationship with his American wife, Melinda, than are in other, similar sources. MacLean himself was betrayed by Melinda once the two were in Moscow–she took up for a time with Philby, a notorious womanizer. I guess sometimes what goes around actually does come around.

Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg (2007)

Isenberg is probably more famous for White Trash (2016), but this 2007 volume is a fantastic addition to the many books about the American founders.  Gordon Wood argues in Revolutionary Characters that Burr is most useful as an anomaly, because he sheds light on the “real” founders. While admitting that Burr was cast as the villain by contemporaries, Wood claims that Burr’s lack of interesting surviving letters and his eschewing of classism and non-cultivation of his legacy have made it difficult to know much.

It is true that most of Burr’s papers were destroyed or lost.  His edited papers and letters are contained in a mere two volumes where the other founders have provided posterity with much more grist for the history writing mill. Isenberg has painstakingly analyzed not only Burr’s surviving papers, but numerous letters by other contemporaries which mention Burr or are related to events in his life.  She has included sources from all over the spectrum–Burr’s friends, his enemies, his champions and detractors, in an effort to present a fuller picture of Burr than has previously imagined.

Isenberg argues successfully that Burr was a man of his time with regard to politics, even ahead of his time with regard to women’s rights–an avowed reader and respecter of Mary Wollstonecraft who educated his daughter to the same standard others of his time would have a son.  She makes clear that Burr did have a political philosophy, contrary to what some historians have written, and that though he was ambitious, his ambition was not overweening, and certainly did not override his principles, of which he had many. She successfully argues that his roles in both the 1801 election and the 1804 duel with Hamilton have largely been misconstrued both by the popular press and by the other founders, who were willing to paint Burr as a traitor in order to further their own political ambitions–Hamilton and Jefferson seem to be the most culpable, Madison less so.  It is interesting to note that Wood largely agrees with Isenberg’s assertion that Burr’s lack of care over his own legacy in contrast to the other founders’ near obsession with theirs contributed mightily to the oversimplification of Burr’s role in the early Republic. Isenberg successfully shows that Burr’s land speculation and debts, for which he was so vilified, were not altogether unusual for men of his class.  Speculation in the Western lands was a favorite pastime for those trying to make their fortunes; Burr was just not very good at it.

As James E. Lewis wrote in a review of Fallen Founder, the section on the Western Conspiracy is the weakest.  The problem is that there is almost no way to know exactly what happened. However, Isenberg does a good job presenting some evidence that would tend to exonerate Burr of the most heinous of the treason accusations.  The fact that most of the evidence against him was provided by James Wilkinson, known to have been a Spanish agent, would seem to indicate his probable innocence. Isenberg is also accurate in her recounting of the many filibustering expeditions into Texas and Louisiana during the years between 1803 and 1812.  It is possible that Burr was involved in yet another unsuccessful speculation scheme rather than an armed rebellion.  However, it was convenient for Jefferson to divert attention from his own behavior by hanging Burr out to dry (363-4). Burr’s biggest mistake seems to have been trusting Wilkinson, which is puzzling, since Wilkinson was widely regarded as possibly on the Spanish payroll as early as the 1790s (288). 

In the last section, Isenberg makes the case that Burr deserves reassessment as a founder.  He had flaws, but they all did;  he was an extraordinary man living in extraordinary times, but he was neither angel nor demon. 

I am still waiting for Burr the Musical!

Isenberg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr. Viking, 2007.

Lewis, James E. Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 28, no. 1, 2008, pp. 132–134. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30043577. Accessed 27 Dec. 2020.

Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: what made the founders different. Penguin Books, 2006.