Inaccuracies in historical fiction – how much does it matter?

Posted: September 6, 2010 in Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

This is a question that’s currently being discussed by members of a Facebook group – the History Police. We’re not aiming to come up with any kind of manifesto – the views and tolerance levels of the members being quite healthily varied – but for me it’s boiling down to one essential point: the gap in any given work between claims of accuracy and actual accuracy.

I decided to explore this issue using Sandra Worth’s Lady of the Roses. “Painstaking historical research,” the cover says.  “… dedication to authenticity” and “for readers who like the history in historical fiction to be accurate.” And, from the author herself: “I strive for as much accuracy as I can”(via facebook).

So far, in 152 pages of a nearly 400 page work, I’ve found 50 glaring inaccuracies. From not getting a character’s title right to shifting entire events in time to cliched, one-dimensional characters and beyond – and it’s not going to get any better once I turn over to p153. The Author’s Note covers only one of these, and the explanation for it doesn’t satisfy me at all. The other time-shifted events go unremarked.

If it hadn’t been for the cover quotes, and the author’s own assertion, I’m not sure the errors and (frankly) made up stuff would bother me quite so much. Many writers play with history, meshing it into fantasy stories, with vampires and goodness knows what else wandering through their pages; modern characters travelling through time and various other things. It’s fairly clear, in those instances, that ‘accuracy’ isn’t a goal.

There are broadly two types of inaccuracy that I’ve found so far in Lady of the Roses: simple mistakes (that could have been avoided with more careful research) and deliberate distortions. An example of the first, in the first few pages, is lord Ralph Cromwell being described as having once been “chancellor” of England. He never was, he had been Chamberlain of the Household, but never chancellor.  An example of the second is the shifting in time (and incorrect placing in geographical terms) of the ‘battle’ of Stamford Bridge. This happened in November 1454, Worth shifts it to July 1457. Quite apart from messing with chronology, this shift ignores the close association between this event and others – York’s first protectorate and Exeter’s rebellion, in particular. She also has people involved (eg the earl of Salisbury) who weren’t even in the vicinity at the time. For the life of me, I can’t work out why.

A lot of people believe what they read in historical novels (and what they see on tv and in films). A lot of writers claim legitimacy as either historians (which the vast majority aren’t) or at the very least, sound researchers. This bestows on them a sometimes false legitimacy. I could stand up in front of a hundred of Worth’s devoted fans, go through the book page by page and line by line, but I doubt if I’d get very far in shifting their opinions. (I’m not commenting on her writing style. It’s not to my taste, but that’s a very personal matter and I know of many people who think her writing is wonderful.) But my thirty odd years of reading and researching wouldn’t give me any legitimacy – I’m not a published author (or an historian). And that, plus the cover claims, seems to be the key.

“The Midwest Book Review says it’s accurate!” they’d say. “And they don’t say that about you!”

“It’s fiction!” others would say.

And from a review of Philippa Gregory’s The Red Queen: “There are those who turn up their noses at Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction, deeming it historical-lite but perhaps they should stick to non-fiction…”

That last quote just made me cross!

According to the cover, Lady of the Roses is both ‘accurate’ and ‘painstakingly researched’ – according to my reading of it, there’s no evidence that it’s either. And this brings me back to my first point – it’s not inaccuracy per se that bothers me the most (though it does bother me), it’s the gap between the claim and the reality.

For a page-at-a-time look at this book in more detail, see here. (It’s not quite halfway through yet.) Would I care as much if it wasn’t a book about the Nevills? Probably not. But then, on other areas and periods of history, I don’t have my own knowledge and research (obsession, undying devotion…) to compare.

  1. Good points! I agree, I wouldn’t mind the inaccuracies in this book and the others nearly so much if the author didn’t present herself as being a stickler for historical accuracy.

  2. anevillfeast says:

    Thanks, Susan. One of the worrying things for me is that, had it been another time and another family, I wouldn’t have picked up on any of it.

    • trish wilson says:

      As they say Karen people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones.

      What I haven’t revealed so far is the fact that not only do I speak Geman but I did a two-year work stint in Hansestadt Hamburg. Hanseatic League ring any bells with you?

      For the record I also speak Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish and in the matter of the ancient Latin and Greek. In the matter of linguistics the Ricardian whinge about Dominic Mancini, the name of whose boss was actually Angelo Cato de Supino – picked it up from the French heraldic almanac – has already been kicked into touch.

      So who and what is next?

  3. Dave McGowan says:

    Yes! Don’t make accuracy claims if you can’t live up to them.
    Along with not making unfounded claims, if you are going to twist the facts for some reason, make sure you inform the reader that you have done so.
    If for some reason it’s important for your story to have a Knight or Baron don’t make one out of a historically important figure. You can, however include a note that one of your fictional characters is an “amalgamation of” several historical figures, if that helps.
    In additon, if you need to change the timing (or location) of an important event, be sure that your reasons are sound and you inform the reader.

  4. anevillfeast says:

    Trish, I’m not sure you (or anyone) can judge the historical accuracy of my writing, as I haven’t launched any of it onto the world – not the serious stuff, anyway. However, I can assure you that I’m planning on it being exponentially more accurate than the book I’m referring to in this post!

    We Ricardian linguists are fairly thin on the ground, I would have thought. I’ve certainly not come across any! I’d be delighted to find there were some others out there, whatever their views on Mancini (who I don’t recall having much to say about linguistics, but then I may have missed something.)

    Thanks for your comments and I hope you’re enjoying the blog.

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