“There are more valid facts and details in works of art than there are in history books,” Charlie Chaplin is reputed to have said. I believe it. His films certainly preserve the flair and fashion of the 1920s just as surely as Renoir’s paintings reflect Parisian life in the late 19th century.
Believing in Chaplin’s insight before I had ever seen it, I have always used historical fiction as a touchstone to understand a person, event or ethos of a time in history. As a child, I devoured historical novels about the U.S presidents. They may have leaned heavily on myth, for example, Abraham Lincoln was portrayed as reading by firelight in his Springfield, Illinois log cabin. Or they may have omitted the most damaging aspects of a president’s behavior. For example, Andrew Jackson’s story didn’t mention the great tragedy he brought about, The Trail of Tears, when his executive order forced thousands of Cherokee Indians to walk from Florida to Oklahoma.
But these novels and others apparently whetted my interest in history, because I had no trouble choosing a major when I went to college. History, of course, with a minor in English.
Over the years, I’ve read historical fiction or simply fiction written at a particular point in time or in a setting that showed me how life was lived at that time. These books have often made excellent companions on my travels. The novels of Gabriel García Marquez helped me to understand the magical mysteries of South America during my travels there in the 1980s. Naomi by the Nobel nominee Junichiro Tanizaki was my entry to early 20th century Japan when I traveled there in the last years of the 20th. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan transported me to 17th century Mughal India—what a joy ride that was and how much I learned about the early days of the Rajasthan region of India I visited in 2011!
So, can you understand why nearly every piece of fiction I’ve written has required days, months or years of research to “get the history” right, even as I concentrated on a novelist’s tasks of character, plot and setting?
Share your favorite historical novels and tell us what they’ve meant to you by leaving a comment. More about History as Fiction in later blogs.