Historical Fiction

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Georg Brandes, Denmark’s leading literary critic, had a low opinion of historical novels. To read one, he said, “was like drinking real substitute coffee.” He was referring, of course, to the standard historical romance featuring real figures of importance intermingled with heroic imaginary ones. The classic example would be Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers , an exceptionally interesting work; shoddy examples have proliferated in all times.

Many other critics have lambasted the historical epic, and with cause. It is often a mishmash of bad history filled with unjustified extrapolations and preposterous statements placed in the mouths of real-life historical protagonists. Also, the romantic interludes are apt to be ponderous and pallid when compared with the best novels emphasizing human relations.

Such criticism relates to style and may be disregarded if one’s personal taste accepts such distortions. I applaud Les Miserables and War and Peace but find Justin McCarthy’s novel about Louis XI and François Villon, If I Were King , quite unacceptable. Each reader will determine his own level of tolerance, and apparently a good many are able to accept anything, judging from some of the novels that succeed.

There is, however, a legitimate philosophical objection to even the most acceptable historical novel, one which has driven me to serious speculation. Because I am a well-known liberal, William F. Buckley’s very conservative journal, some years ago, felt called upon to dismiss all I had written as. fraudulent. The reviewer, not Buckley, called me outright “a liar” in that my bias distorted everything I wrote or said. He claimed that my basic approach to any narrative distorted it from the beginning, making it invalid.

There’s a good deal of truth in this accusation, whether the historical writer in question is Howard Fast on the left or Kenneth Roberts on the right. If the former writes a wildly exciting novel about gladiators, you do not expect him to come down on the side of the Caesars, and if the latter writes Oliver Wiswell , extolling the Loyalist version of the American Revolution, you know he is doing so to correct what he deems an imbalance in our history books.

I certainly write from a given set of preconceptions, and if I were to attempt a novel on the coal regions of my home state of Pennsylvania, I would certainly not choose as my heroes the coal-fields police in the pay of the big companies. When I did write about a handful of Jews defying the entire might of the Roman Empire in The Source , I found it easy and psychologically correct to depict them as heroic, and I doubt that I did fact any violence in doing so.

The typical historical novelist is a fairly honest researcher. He or she knows what the facts are and ignores or abuses them at his or her peril. Before the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who would win a Nobel Prize for his historical narratives covering the early days of Christianity ( Quo Vadis ) or the beginnings of Polish nationalism ( The Teutonic Knights ), started any writing project, he did so much research in historical documents that he exceeded the knowledge of the average professor in those fields.

The same applies, I believe, to the three current masters of this form. They have been incredibly learned in their radically different fields, and if they write with a high degree of selection, choosing those episodes and interpretations that best support their preconceptions, they do so from a background of fact and understanding that is Herculean. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is probably as fine a historical novel as can be written. Mary Renault’s re-creations of ancient Greece are superb, while Zoe Oldenbourg’s novels of medieval Europe are prototypes of accurate reporting.

When young would-be writers tell me they might like to work in the historical field, I direct them to the works of these three women with the warning: “If you aren’t convinced that you can do better than these three, we really don’t need you. To succeed, you must do something different and do it better.”

If a young writer can approach history with a fresh eye and a new talent, he or she can make a resounding contribution, for there is a persistent need for the writer who can elucidate the history of a land, an area, or a people. I can testify to this because for the past ten years I have received almost every week some heartfelt plea that I move to the writer’s part of the world and write about it in such a way that the rest of the world will appreciate its significance.