The Worst Thing About Historical Fiction...

Don't get me wrong, I love a good story - and if it involves a little escapism involving the past then all the better - but as a historian I do find myself feeling let down by the majority of mainstream historical novels/dramatization. Obviously the task of accurately recreating the past while simultaneously making it accessible to a modern audience AND generating an engaging story-line at the same time is no mean feat, but there's nothing worse than experiencing a poorly put together story that's just a rerun of accepted cliches involving modern ideas - all dressed up in historical costumes. The past is so much more thought-provokingly interesting than that!

Don't worry, I wont name and shame anyone - after all, appreciation of fiction is in the eye of the beholder - but I thought I'd provide a brief list of my top four Historical Fiction bete noire areas:

1/ The total lack of privacy.

By-and-large there were few truly private spaces in the past until the mid Victorian period and life was communal and often lived outdoors. In the Middle Ages the only person who got a private room to himself (along with his wife, children and servants) was a nobleman or king and any private business would involve a privileged trip up into the bedroom; everyone else slept communally in the great hall. Seperate rooms simply did not exist outside a monastery. In Tudor times most wealthy people had their servants sleeping next to them on a pull-out truckle bed and until the invention of bells in great houses, servants would have to be on hand outside rooms to take messages and such like. Corridors separating rooms are also a relatively recent phenomena and in the past people would have had to progress through one bedroom after another to get from place to place. The majority of historical fiction seems to ignore this fact, with endless candid private scenes, particularly in the 'bedroom.' The TV series 'Rome' must be highlighted as a notable example, with lots of slaves standing around in the background - even at the most intimate of moments.

2/ The role of women.

This is a tricky one - and doubtless behind the scenes of public life women have always had far more autonomy and control than official historical record would give them credit for - yet most historical fiction gives women a greater degree of freedom than perhaps they had, most notably in scenes where rich female characters get lots of opportunity to wander privately without a maid, chaperone or male minder present. In reality most privileged women would have had a ground-crew of various attendants on standby and I often feel that period dramas miss this sense of having attendants, servants and minders surrounding them. Like it or not, females were the legal possession of their father/husband/next available male relative and only gained real independence as widows in later life. Historical fiction seems to leap around between extremes, either painting women as feisty autonomous warrioresses or overly majoring on their servitude and low status compared to men...and as I say, where are all the attendants?

3/ Poor Handling of Language.

This is admittedly a tough one to deal with when creating a popular piece of historical fiction, yet things seem to go horribly wrong whenever script writers slip beyond the Nineteenth Century. Nothing can be grimmer than faux ye olde worlde dialogue! Just think about all the slang that's used today and the colloquialisms. Then think about the common phrases and cultural references your parents/grandparents used. Language changes so quickly and indeed as we pass back to the Middle Ages, the common language (Middle English) was barely even recognizable as English in its spoken form with an entirely different pronunciation and grammar. Moreover, there were not one but many languages spoken in Medieval Britain, the most notable being Middle English, Norman French for the wealthy and Latin the language of administration and religion. Seldom have I seen this interesting interplay of multiple languages used cleverly in their correct context within historical fiction of this period. Ancient Rome provides another similar example. I don't think I've ever spotted a writer noting the difference between everyday Latin vulgate and the antique Classical Latin which the elite used; which if I were to create an analogy would see the man-on-the-street speaking in gangland slang and the educated classes speaking Shakespearean English, as all influential men aspired to the etiquette of precise antique rhetoric.

4/ Too much Julius Caesar!

And talking of the Romans...there are far too many historical novels/dramas set in too narrow a corridor of time! Did the only things worth dramatizing happen during the reign of Julius Caesar, Victorian times and the the Second World War? World history is much vaster, varied and more interesting than that - so why does popular historical fiction cling to such a narrow niche? Let's be brave and brake the mold! The majority of 'Roman' novels, for example, are set during the late Republic and early Principate with red clad soldiers in familiar armour and political intrigues in the senate: Rome had a good 500 years of mind-bendingly interesting history taking place either side of this narrow period which is relatively unexplored. What of Scipio Africanus, the Nika Rebellion, Constantine the first Christian Emperor, Julian the Apostate, Stilicho the Visigothic commander in chief? Why don't we see drab tuniced mail wearing Fourth Century soldiers with their conical helmets and long swords; huge federate Germanic armies, Greek speaking officials as the center of power shifted from Rome to Constantinople. On this point, I would firmly recommend Wallace Breem's 'Eagle in the Snow,' one of Ridley Scott's inspirations for Gladiator. I have heard this book described as "the best historical novel ever written" and if you can see your way past the technical language and difficult names it really is crackingly atmospheric of the later Empire - though I do wonder that Breem's picture of panicked officers burning official documents as the defenses of Trier crumbled is based more on his experiences in Burma than the realities of the clash between Rome and its illiterate Germanic neighbours...


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