As a writer of historical fiction, I am disturbed by Andrew Delbanco’s claim that a novelist using historical characters and settings has no obligation to factual reconstructions. Delbanco, in a review of a novel on Abraham Lincoln, says:
The novelist … can take liberties—suppressing this, embellishing that, even inventing situations, characters, and words that were never actually spoken … A novel is beholden to no external measure of truth; it must only be true to itself.*
Only true to itself! Why write historical fiction if you’re only going to be true to your imagination? When I place my characters in history, I have freedom in defining their thoughts and motives. Their acts and the events surrounding them are restrained by historical fact. The defense that some writers pose of “capturing the spirit” of the truth doesn’t give them the freedom to alter facts.
Think of it this way, should we create distortions that may change our readers’ perceptions of historical people or events? What would you think of novels in which:
John Brown’s army wins a victory at Harpers Ferry
Hitler has a love-child with a Jewish mistress
Alexander G. Bell beats his wife
Al Capone is elected mayor
Henry Ford murders his brother
The Wright Brothers bash a gay bar
In the same vein, I would assert that movies have a similar responsibility to history. When script writers create events contrary to proven (as opposed to speculative) history, they break faith with their audience. For example, in The Patriot is a scene in which British soldiers burn down a church filled with families, an event with no supporting historical evidence. In cases such as this, the fabricated excitement arouses misguided feelings of insult or mistreatment.
I can’t agree more with Edward Rutherford, author of Sarum and other historical novels, who said in an interview :
My fictional characters are free to follow their personal destinies; but I never alter the historical record just to suit my convenience, or my prejudices. Novelists and movie-makers are sometimes tempted to do that and maybe they believe it doesn't matter. I think it does matter.
… so much political propaganda is based upon the falsification of history. An extreme example would be the medieval blood myth told against the Jews, that they kidnapped and sacrificed Christian children … It seems to me that those of us in the business of storytelling, in books, plays or movies, have an ethical obligation not to mislead our audiences over the historical record, especially when subjects may be emotive and affect our attitudes to others. The bigger the audience, the greater our responsibility; and I don't think we can evade that responsibility, whether we like it or not.**
Because our stories have the power to create myths, we writers of historical fiction have a responsibility to the record. We can distance ourselves from propaganda by sticking to a framework of facts. If that’s too much of a burden, other genres are less demanding, such as scifi or fantasy.
*The NY Review of Books on Gerome Charyn’s novel I am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War.