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How far can we trust a historical novel?

March 8, 2013

There are so many historical novels, some are complete imagination, which is great, some are partially based on history, an event or person, and some are entirely based on an event or a person, and tries to be as factual as possible. So, my question is, when reading these historical novels, how much can we take from them, what can we learn from them, and can we trust what is in them?

I will look at three authors; the first is Bernard Cornwell, who writes about events in the early medieval period, mostly, he is also the author of the very popular Sharpe series. His work generally focuses on battles and wars yet the character and his experiences tend to be fictional, yet still have a historical base to them. As we get later into the medieval period, we find books by Elizabeth Chadwick, her books tend to be focused on a historical person, and the experiences they endure throughout their lives. Her characters appear to be highly historical correct, but the feelings and personal experiences are her own interpretation. As we move slightly further on to the Tudor period, we have Philippa Gregory, the acclaimed author of The Other Boleyn Girl. She has quite a wide variety of books, most of which are, like Elizabeth Chadwick’s, are based on a character and their lives as they live them. But, she does have some books that are more fantastical, and historical with no base of character.

It is fairly obvious that the imaginative, creative, yet still fantastical novels are not the best ones to take historical facts from, so I will disregard those now. When reading a historical novel, it is fairly obvious what to accept as fact and not. The events, characters, clothes, food, weapons, can generally be accepted, but the feelings, discussions and emotions of the characters, these can be interpreted from historical evidence like letters, but tend to be the thoughts of the author.

But, not every author does as much research as another one would. I find that Elizabeth Chadwick and Philppa Gregory do an incredible amount of research. Chadwick’s books often will have a bibliography of a select number of works she used. Chadwick’s website also gives a lot of information on her research, she tries to visit the sites she writes about, and she is involved in re-enactment. Therefore, when I do read her work, I know that I am reading well-researched historical facts.

When reading a historical novel, if you want to know how much research has been done, and whether you can accept the facts as fact, then I would suggest checking out the back of the book for a bibliography or thanks to a historian. You can also have a look at the author’s website, like I said, Elizabeth Chadwick’s is great, it is also good if you want to get an idea on how to research for your own historical novel.

So, depending on the author, I would trust most of what is said in a historical novel, for example the events, names, places, people, food, weapons, battles, dates, and clothing. But not precise conversations, feelings and emotions of the characters involved.

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One Comment
  1. rautakyy permalink

    Some historical novels are great at building a general view of a nother era. However, authors of novels are rarely scholars and if they are, even the historical scholars tend to be interrested in one aspect of past era and lives of people and have the rest totally misunderstood.

    Further more, medieval times are particularly tricky, because so much myth has been added on top of actual contemporary sources. There are so many “everybody knows” stories about the medieval times even the researchers are fooled by them. I have run into quite recent scholarly works that claimed fighting with swords was just wild hacking, wich is a myth from the 19th century researchers whose understanding of fencing was so removed from the medieval weapons they jumped into silly conclusions about the matter, having never actually researched the contemporary sources aka the medieval sword fighting manuals.

    A few years ago they made a movie version of the historical novel by Swedish writer Jan Guillou, wich told the story of a Swedish knight Arn joining the crusades in Palestine. I have seen the film and read the books. On this one occasion the film was actually better than the book, simply because the film did not incorporate the “all-knowing” story teller who got so many historical points completely wrong in the books.

    For a layman reader the style of storytelling may be revealing wether or not the writer is actually on the map. The Arn novels presented the same silly phenomenon as the Untinen-Auel stone age stories, that the main characters seem to come up with all the major innovations of the era. In the Untinen-Auel books the main characters invent everything from horse rearing to pottery and from at-latl spears to taming wolves. In the Arn books the main heroes of the story invent a lot of stuff that really did not exist in the medieval times like water drains inside houses and riding pants for women. They also give a very sad idea of cultural development as they claim that the french monks would explain to the Swedes how to make warm houses. The French can hardly make warm houses today, in comparrison to medieval and pre-medieval buildings in Sweden.

    A writer may be very well informed about a lot of aspects of the historical era, like the Finnish popular writer Kaari Utrio (I do not know if they have translated her books in English), who has written few books set in medieval Finland. She is an accomplished researcher of feminist issues in history, but when she writes about medieval military, she is totally lost. For example she tells of men wearing leather armour, wich would be nice in a fantasy book, but no leather armour was ever used in medieval times according to any sources (unless you count the tournament sports armour or the protective gear of Mongols).

    The trouble about novels set in medieval times, that I have run into, is that often the medieval times are chosen by the author in order to utilize a cultural setting alien to the readers and to take liberties with the described culture. But they do mould the imaginations and views of the general public. If they spread false knowledge, it may be harmfull to the way people percieve history and other cultures in general.

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