In the eye of the Beholder

I went to a stimulating lecture at the London School of Economics last night that was entitled ‘Ancient Adversaries, Modern friends.’ It was a generalised (and very genteel) analysis of the relationship between the Ancient Greeks and the Persians; a relationship which covered a number of wars, invasions and massacres including the subject of the film 300.

The moral responsibility of historical accuracy (apparently 300 was a gross misrepresentation of history as was Braveheart, another example of historical misrepresentation brought up by a Scottish academic on the same panel) from storytellers was brought up by one of the speakers – a rather monosyllabic delivery from Dr Nigel Spivey. His argument was that there is a moral responsibility for the fiction maker to be as accurate as possible. As an intellectual and humanist I completely agree, however as a storyteller and practitioner this is far harder than one imagines.

I dedicate months to my historical research, visit the location, interview historians, glean as much as I can through diaries of the era (for example I access the diary of Glukel of Hameln – a 17th German Jewish woman about two years younger than my protagonist Ruth bat Saul – for tone and systems of belief) as well as  books of the era even some of the birthing ointments etcs come from a 17th century actual book on midwifery.

But as I write fiction and not autobiography there is the tightrope of dramatic license. Life as we know, is invariably stranger and non-linear in plot (thank Christ) and to make a really exciting, gripping and epic narrative one has to invent some events. The way I get around this is to place fictional characters against actual events and beside real living characters (the Archbishop in the book existed, his brother did not) and sometimes fictional events that have their basis in actual events of those years, i.e. the pogrom in Deutz. There was a student riot in Cologne that crossed the river in a wave of anti-Semitism in those years. Jews were blamed for the plague and there was a pogrom in another German town in which the Jews were locked in their houses, later burnt to the ground . To place these facts together in a fictional event at least gives the event both an authenticity  and plausibility. It’s a long way from 300 (which, by the way, my step-son who is doing classics at Oxford – loved). I also enjoyed Brave Heart, not because it was historically accurate or inaccurate but because as an English woman I knew something of Scottish nationalism but not much. And frankly what I did know was tainted through an English lens; in other words the notion that all men north of the border were great brutish uneducated heathens, tribal and perhaps not capable of rational governance. Braveheart, although unabashedly sensationalist and full of powerful emblems (boy, does Mr. Gibson make great cinematic emblems – he’s kind of like the U2 of the movie world), did depict some of the Scottish P.O.V, which, I suspect, for the broader audience, made it an illuminating experience.

This leads into another aspect of history telling. All of it is partisan, all of it. Obviously some telling more than others. Another of the speakers in this debate reminded me of this when describing her French primary education then an English secondary education in which she learnt of two very different accounts of Napoleon. I too had this experience after hanging out with a Dutchman. What I’d been taught was that Napoleon was an egoist tyrant who invaded most of Europe, almost conquered Britain, and was uncouth, aspiring, short and he loved the way his lover smelt. What I learnt from my Dutchman was that Napoleon liberated a number of countries from antiquated legal and educational systems, and that his brother was very loved in Holland. Later I also learnt that Napoleon had also liberated a number of the ghettos.

I had a similar experience in South Ireland upon viewing an exhibition about the tyrant Oliver Cromwell – a man I’d grown up believing to be the leader of the only English revolution and whom campaigned for the equality of all men. Thereby lies the rub.

There is also the more prosaic issue for the professional story teller which is the rocky navigation one embarks on when sailing between publisher, editor and the final draft –likewise in film – the producer, director and final draft. The road to hell is paved with well-meaning edits, and many an editing suite has ended up with historical nuances, important exposition and factual material.

As a historical fiction writer there are a number of moral challenges; one to be as accurate as possible given the limitations of fact, two; to try and be as even handed as possible and constantly review oneself for any inherent historical bias (learnt or otherwise) and finally to create a story that is both entertaining and educational and keeps the reader turning the page.