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Historical fiction discussion: Response to The Tea Lords readalong on Iris on Books

June 17, 2012

This post started out as a comment but grew into something longer and relevant for those who have read my reviews of other books. Anyone interested in it should also see the excellent discussions on Iris on reading and litlov

I am sorry I have not been able to get The Tea Lords and be a real part of this, but the big questions Iris has raised are vitally important to me. So I am entering the discussion anyway.

Balancing facts and fiction will always be the big challenge for writers of historical fiction, made worse by the fact that many of us read it for comfort rather than heavy reading. Achieving the right balance is not easy either in writing or reviewing. I think I have failed to be clear on such matters in recent comments, and I apologize.

Iris and Litlov are both on target, especially about issues where we define right and wrong differently than the characters in books set in a different time and place. Given my interests, I am particularly fed up with independent, assertive women, successful at tasks they never would have been allowed to undertake. On the other hand, there were ways in which some women in the past and in other cultures were allowed to act with authority that the twentieth century would have looked down on as unladylike.

Both authors and reviewers need to proceed with caution in historical fiction and write with nuance. However an author chooses, he or she is walking through a field of land mines. I think reviewers need to identify missteps, but do so charitably. Factual accuracy is important even if readers want to see only the bright side of history. We all need to accept and deal with the darker aspects of our cultural pasts if we are to act wisely in the present.

Even within an historical context, actions like massacring your neighbors because you want their land are wrong. Just because the settlers of the American west believed it was their God-given destiny to conquer its inhabitants doesn’t mean that an author has to simplistically support their actions or condemn them without bothering to understand them. An author can indicate distance from the mainstream views of a period through techniques like voice, point-of view or language without putting anachronistic words in characters’ mouths. As suggested, having a character marginal to the dominant culture is often an excellent device in historical fiction, one which more and more writers are trying. For example, women may not be able to be feminists, but they would be able to observe and be critical of the mainstream perspectives if only silently.

Perhaps our confusion in dealing with historical fiction is an assumption shared by authors and readers. We all want to see everything in absolute terms; black and white, wrong and right. We can’t deal with history that acknowledges people and societies past and present are curious blends of beliefs and actions. Maybe historical fiction, well conceived and written with a reasonable degree of complexity, can help us admit and cope with the mistakes those like us have made in the past.

I have recently reviewed a couple of books that try to resolve the fact/fiction tension in innovative ways by alternating voices of the historian and the storyteller; The Talented Women of the Zhang Family and Bite Your TongueAbina and the Important Men is a graphic history which addresses similar problems of judgment and perspective.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 3:05 am

    I wonder, have you read Kate Grenville”s new novel, ‘Sarah Thornhill’? One of the things that I so admire about that is the way in which it concludes (trying not to give anything away here) because she refuses to suggest that there could ever be real reparation for the damage done by one people to another. She doesn’t take the easy way out and offer a smoothed over version of history to placate her reader.

    • June 18, 2012 4:21 pm

      No, I have not read her latest but I intend to. I did read and review Secret River on my blog. I love her descriptions of landscapes and of the way Thornhill feels about the land. It’s such a contrast to settlers on the American Great Plains who were the children and grandchildren of farmers. I, too, respect authors who resist resolving unresolvable conflicts. I am troubled, however, that an Australian reviewer I respect criticized Grenville for inaccuracies in her depictions of Aborigines.

  2. June 18, 2012 9:27 am

    Yes, I very much agree with what you are saying here. I have this strong belief that the real is always satisfying at some level, more satisfying in any case than fantasies of easy solutions and uncomplicated choices which can only be put in place by means of big distortions of reality. To understand the difficulties our ancestors faced, to get new perspectives on old questions, yes, these are the nuggets of value that historical novels can give us, I think.

    • June 20, 2012 10:10 am

      Thanks. I value your opinion. I’d also add that fiction can help heal some of the wounds we have inherited from our pasts. And because the past IS a different country, it can be such fun to explore with our imaginations, held in check by what we can know of what it was actually like.

  3. June 18, 2012 11:14 am

    I’d love to be able to follow your blog via RSS.

    • June 18, 2012 12:08 pm

      I’d love to have you. I’m rather new to blogging and I will have to figure out how to make that possible. I’ll get back to you.

    • June 18, 2012 3:31 pm

      I just added RSS to my homepage. After going to your page and exploring, I signed up for your blog. I think we have interests in common. I am interested in how women tell their own stories in various forms. You might check out what I have reviewed. My PhD was in history and my dissertation used autobiographies. Since I retired I have been reading more global fiction.


  1. The Tea Lords, by Hella S. Haasse « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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