Over the past couple of days, a few posts have popped up dealing with the subject of historical accuracy in historical fiction, specifically with the question of how one should depict historical figures. Here, for instance, are posts by Nan Hawthorne and Literate Housewife.
It's true, as Literate Housewife points out, that fiction is just that--fiction--and that readers should never take a novel as the last word on any subject. (For that matter, the same holds true with nonfiction; mistakes aren't confined to novels.) But it's also true that for many readers, fiction is where their reading stops, which means that a fictional portrayal of a historical figure is what sticks in a reader's mind. Thus, I believe that at the very least, an author has the responsibility to treat historical figures with respect: that is, not to distort known facts or to invent episodes that paint the person in a grossly negative light.
Of course, there is the problem that with many historical figures, not that much is known about them, and even less about their motives. Writers therefore have to fill in the gaps; I've had to do so in both of my published novels and in the novel I'm writing now. But even then, there's responsible gap-filling and irresponsible gap-filling. My work in progress involves many historical figures, including Richard III and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The two men are known to have encountered each other before 1483, but we don't know how they felt about each other during those years. Were they friends? Were they indifferent to each other? Hostile toward each other? I chose in my novel to make them friends, which I think is reasonable given the alliance they formed in 1483.
But say I went further than that. Say I depicted Richard and Henry not only as friends, but as young men carousing about London, engaging in group sex and raping women and boys alike. After all, I might argue (if I had a chance to argue before my lynching at the hands of furious Ricardians), there's no evidence that the two men didn't do these things, and it makes for a good story. (I'm assuming, in all of this, that I haven't added an author's note fessing up to my invention.)
Now let's go even further and say that instead of a relatively unknown writer like myself inventing a kinky Richard and Harry, someone like ______ (insert the name of the best-selling author of your choice) depicts the hapless pair in this manner. Suddenly, that portrayal has acquired a whole new credibility, hasn't it? After all, ________ sells millions of books. Surely he or she must have some basis for what he's writing. And if ________ adds a bibliography to her novel, lending it even more respectability, poor Harry and Richard don't stand a chance.
Now, there's one major flaw in my example above: Richard III is a well-known figure, who has been the subject not only of Shakespeare's famous play but the hero of many historical novels. You can go to a bookstore and find an infinite variety of Richards: the romantic Richard, the scheming Richard, the naive Richard, the studly Richard, the murderous Richard, the unmurderous Richard. Even if you don't read a single word of nonfiction about Richard III, you'll--hopefully--realize that all of these contradictory accounts can't possibly be accurate. For figures like Richard III and Anne Boleyn, then, their popularity with novelists and readers is their best protection, because no single account of them is likely to hold permanent sway over the public's imagination. Thus, though a best-selling author who depicts Richard III or Anne Boleyn in an unflattering light might have an advantage in terms of credibility over lesser-known authors, her portrayal is still going to be weighed against those of others.
But what of more obscure folk? A while back, I read a historical novel that depicted a twenty-something Katherine Woodville, with the help of her sister the queen, forcing her twelve-year-old husband (the Duke of Buckingham mentioned above) into her bed to be used as a sex toy, thereby scarring the poor boy for life. Several other novels depict Katherine in a similar vein. Now, as primary sources reveal, the historical Katherine Woodville was younger than her husband at the time of their marriage: she was around seven and he was nine. Therefore, while it's open to debate whether the couple's marriage was a happy one, there's simply no validity to the notion that Katherine was a grown woman who sexually abused her minor husband. But the average reader may not realize that, because unlike the case of Anne Boleyn, there are few competing fictional portrayals of Katherine Woodville. Worse yet, most readers can't run out and pick up a nonfiction book on Katherine Woodville to learn the truth: there aren't any, only the occasional paragraph in academic tomes that aren't readily available outside of university libraries. So Katherine, poor lady, has no one but the occasional pedantic blogger to yell in her corner when her reputation is smeared.
So yes, it's fiction, and yes, in most historical fiction, the historical figures in question are dead. But let me leave you with this thought: how would you feel if you read a grossly distorted fictional portrayal of a historical figure, knowing that he or she had living grandchildren or great-grandchildren? How would you feel if it was your own grandfather or great-grandfather who was treated in this matter?
And if slandering the recently dead is unacceptable to you, should it be any different simply because a historical figure died centuries ago?