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Critique of Young Adult Historical Fiction

By Shel Sweeney

Absolute truth, a ‘one true account’ of any event, of history, does not exist. The process of recording history is that of representation, and the act of such is never objective, rather it is a product of the context within which it is written. While historical fiction may be underpinned by historical fact, it is nonetheless a re-versioning of an already subjective representation. While historical fictions can be chronologically distanced from the history they convey, it is through subjectivity, through the evocative and imaginative rendering of history, that historical facts are rebirthed into the present. The re-creations constructed in historical fictions (as long as they are based on accurate evidence) can shed light on history in such a way that the facts themselves never could. Historical fiction can give adolescent readers safe access into conflicts and ways of being that can prove more than merely escapism but can shed light on their own pathway to adulthood.

There is no such thing as a universal truth untainted by opinion and societal codes of thoughts and behavior; so too any history, rather than being a neutral presentation of the facts, is but a ‘representation’, another version of the truth. Both historical text and historical fiction are tools, not just of recording information and stories, but of providing lessons in cause and effect, and of what any given society views as normal conduct and ideology within that society. What once may have been portrayed as patriotism and idealism can be in later times seen as “…coercion, hypocrisy, cruelty, and betrayal…” (MacLeod, 1988, p. 27). What constitutes a ‘correct’ set of ideologies changes throughout time, and with it, history is rewritten according to current tastes. Where once it was heroes and battles, now it is in flavor to write domestic histories. Histories, like art, politics, music and stories, are not recorded in isolation, rather in context to the time and place in which they are constructed and are therefore subject to the ideologies of such. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the concern was of a “…belief in nationalism…” (Phillpott, 2011). Deeds of heroism were espoused as writers made choices about what to write and what to omit. MacLeod (1988) takes this a step further stating, “Not only will the loser’s version of the war never match the winner’s, but historical interpretations of what happened, and why, are subject to endless revision over time.” The carefully selected and subjective original account, therefore, becomes more corrupt in the process of fictionalisation. History is a version of the truth created from a collection of selected and omitted past facts, to create a particular meaning presented through a researcher/writer’s own point of view carefully masked in objective language. The language used in historical texts, usually makes clear where one thing is known fact and another inference, and so the reader easily assumes that universal truth exists. The language of historical fiction is more assertive, stating how things are or were, making illusions to truth. In Mary Hoffman’s David, the protagonist, David (the boy who modeled for Michelangelo’s statue of the same name) speaks with the same certainty and clarity about Fra Paolo (an invented character) as he does Fra Girolamo Savonarola (the historical ruler of Florence from 1494-1498). “Fra Paolo was the only one there who has known Savonarola personally…” (2011, Chapter 4, sect. 2, para. 3). In historical fictions, a bridge between fact and fiction is often built through the use of a prologue or appendix. Along with a list of historical and fictional characters and a glossary of Italian terms, Hoffman incudes a section entitled ‘Historical Note’ at the end of her book, in which she states what is history and what is invention or alteration. “The historical leader of the compagnacci was the bulgingly named Doffo Spini, but I have made it Antonello de’ Altobiondi because of the storyline I wanted to create for him.” (2011, Historical Note, para. 3). Marie-Louise Jensen also includes a brief ‘Historical Note’ in The Lady in the Tower in which she states, “Where research failed to provide information, I improvised freely.” (2009, Historical Note, para. 1). This “…habit of authorial paratextual commentary upon the process and development of work [that] has continued to the present day, and most historical fiction will have introductions and disavowals…” (de Groot, 2012, Introduction, para. 14). Whereas in Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve (2007) calls his final section ‘Author’s Note’, he includes historical notes as well as a thank you paragraph offering insight into his interest in the subject matter, perhaps this is due to a lack of ‘fact’ surrounding King Arthur and a reliance therefore on myth and legend for source material. While history leaves many unknowns, in historical fiction there is freedom to re-create the missing pieces.

Historical fiction stands on the foundation of sound historical research to bring the past to life in ways that academic histories cannot. “…from the beginning of the twentieth century the historical novel began to be theorised as something educational…and as a form which in some ways was in dialogue with history…” (de Groot, 2012, Chapter 2, sect. 8 para. 7). Historical fiction, therefore, can be seen as a version of history – if it stands on known facts, on the foundation of historical research. Hoffman’s David, is based on a wealth of historical evidence that forms the structure in which the story takes place, and in her ‘Acknowledgments’ Hoffman lists a number of books and articles that formed part of her research. However, the language within the novel doesn’t make it clear where fact ends and fiction begins. This is one of the tools that novelists use to bring life to the past, to pull the past into the present. Even in Here Lies Arthur, based on a little fact and much myth, Reeve is able to bring new life to this well-known story in such a way that the reader believes this version could have been a possibility. When explaining why stories were told to make Arthur look nobler than his actions belied, the novel’s character Myrddin (a version of Merlin) tells protagonist, Gwyna, “It had to be done…Arthur’s our hope, Gwyna. He’s the hope of Britain.” (2007, Chapter XLV, sect. 4, para. 6). Reeve mixes myth and legend with factual knowledge of the era and a modern understanding of how the media and branding work.  It is amongst and between what is known that all possibilities live, but invention alone does not make historical fiction. Author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir (2007, p. 2) talks of the difficulty of navigating between the fact and fiction, “Because of the nature of the source material for the reign, nearly all of which has a political or religious bias, a writer could come up with very different assessments of each of them, all of which might be equally valid. But this would be abdicating some of the responsibilities of an historian, whose function is to piece together the surviving evidence and arrive at a workable conclusion.” It is clearly important to adhere to known facts and rely on historians as experts. While histories are versions of the truth presented from the context in which they were created and subject to the ideologies and perspective of their creator, historical fictions are recreations of the past based on historical research and evidence. Where both require a deep historical knowledge and an ability to see connections and infer meaning, historical fiction also requires the application of fiction writing strategies to breathe life into the dead.

What distinguishes successful historical fiction? Is it historical accuracy, a well-crafted story, poetic writing, engaging characters; is it the ability to capture a certain period in time, the uncovering of little known facts, or a different perspective on a well-known event? Does ‘good’ historical fiction do nothing more than borrow from history to create an engaging tale? Phillpott (2011) says, “The complications of postmodernism and structuralism have blurred somewhat the distinction between academic and fictional histories and have posed the question (explored in both forms of writing) of whether one is very different from the other…”  We know that both academic histories and historical fictions are representation and interpretations as historians and novelists alike select and omit certain things, and present their story, their findings in a particular perspective. So what does make an historical fiction ‘good’, successful? Does historical fiction simply imitate reality or does it invent elements in the name of interest, and if so, is there a line where this invention becomes no longer successful? James Forrester (2010) indicates that the historical novelist walks a fine line between fact (that can get in the way of the story) and fiction (which he states are ‘lies’). Clarifying what he believes those ‘lies’ to be, he says, “A clear distinction needs to be made here between telling lies and making mistakes. A lie is intentional and purposeful; a mistake is accidental and sometimes unforgivable.” An elaboration of facts in historical fiction therefore, is not problematic if there is a level of accuracy. Brown and St. Clair (2006) point to this challenge faced by writers as, “Their desire to create an emotionally engaging and credible fictional work may come at the expense of historical accuracy.” Going the other way then, at what point is factual evidence in a historical fiction, too much? Hoffman’s David (2011), is lavishly sprinkled with facts about the political history of Florence and as a result, it is can be easy for readers to lose interest in the story in the effort to keep track of the various political factions and names of key figures. In the first few pages of chapter eight, Hoffman discusses the de’ Medici, Fra Savonarola, Cesare Borgia, Pope Alexander, the French king, and Vitellozzo Vitelli, along with their allegiances to each other and the various political factions of the day; and this is just a taste of the detail that is throughout the whole book. While the story of the ‘real life’ albeit fictional sculpture’s model is a fascinating one, the reader can struggle to remain engaged at times under the weight of factual detail. Writers of historical fiction do not merely fill gaps, but re-create those spaces that have been lost to history. “Historical novelists take the bare ones of ‘history’, some facts, some atmosphere, some vocabulary, some evidence and weave a story within the gaps.” (de Groot, 2012, Introduction, para. 16). Historical fiction goes one step further than history, it is makes use not only of research, facts and inference but also, as Champ indicates, of imagination “…convincingly recreating an entire world that you have not lived in is as much a feat of imagination as of research…” Champ goes on to say, “…even for the most confident writer, the craft of the historical novelist consists of delicately juggling the uncertainties of the past. The first uncertainty: the physical past. The second: the psychological past. And the third uncertainty? Working out how much of them the reader actually wants to know.” (Champ, 2010).

Historical fiction for young adults holds an attraction for juvenile readers because it presents rites of passage as undertaken throughout history; it introduces external conflict and internal upheaval with the safe distance of time separating reader from events; and it can present extremes of thought and behaviour, prevalent in past eras, that can resonate with the chaos and dis-ease of adolescence. “…the formula of YA realism… The basic pattern…is the rite of passage from childhood to maturity.” (Ross, 1985, p. 177). As a result, historical fiction can be therapeutic, educative and entertaining. In Jensen’s The Lady in the Tower, it is only through a journey of facing danger, surviving her treasonous father and saving her mother that protagonist, Eleanor, matures and discovers her love for the man she was promised to. “…when you came to Farleigh, I disliked you very much…I was angry and desperate. I had been ordered to marry you against my will. I was surrounded by spies…I thought you were one.” (2009, Chapter 31, sect. 4, para. 105). Eleanor shows that maturity springs from overcoming and reflecting upon experience. Within historical fiction, adolescents can discover life’s extremes, their cause and effect, their outcomes as experienced by others. Eleanor’s journey is one of such extremes: her once loving father becomes a person she fears, she finds spies in those she thought were friends, and love in those she thought enemies. “This juxtaposition of comfort and anxiety recapitulates the ‘antithetical impulses’ of adolescence…” (Sturm and Michel, 2009, p. 43). Eleanor expresses the rawness of her confusion and fear in encountering her father, “I realized my hands were shaking.” She goes on to reveal, “My father locked the door behind him…The father I had once loved was long gone. In his place stood a wild animal.” Though he had once been a source of comfort for her, her father, “…took hold of a handful of my hair and twisted it so that I cried out and was forced to my knees.” (2009, Chapter 5). Readers can experience the emotions and fears from the safety of the modern day, and can apply their own knowledge and logic to books they read. “There is certainly a titillation in this that gives adolescents a voyeuristic pleasure, and they are safely distanced from it by the pages…” (Sturm and Michel, 2009, p. 43). The protagonist in Here Lies Arthur, Gwyna, is a listener of stories without the safety of distance, “That’s the trouble with a story-spinner. You never know what’s real and what’s made up. Even when they’re telling the truth, they can’t stop themselves from spinning it into something better; something prettier, with more pattern to it.” (2007, Chapter XLVII, para. 2). In the character of Gwyna, the reader experiences confusion as she struggles with the concept of truth amid rumour, story and myth. Gwyna requires the kind of critical thinking skills also needed by teens in today’s media rich world. By learning about the lives of others, the reader learns about themselves; they try out different ways of thinking and seeing and this gives the reader a greater sense of perspective in their own lives. De Groot asserts that historical fiction “…demands an unusual response from its audience: an active response…and a sense of otherness and difference when writing.” Going on to say, “…the virtue of historical fiction as something which enforces on the reader a sense of historicised ‘difference’…and as a mode which has an effect on the normative experience of the everyday and the contemporary world.” (de Groot, 2012, Introduction, para. 5). By voyeuristically taking a rite of passage along with the main characters, the reader is better equipped to deal with the present. “Author Thomas Mallon…[describes] the past as ‘more familiar, cherishable than the future,’ Mallon maintains that the known past provides a comfort not available from the unknown future.” (Brown and St. Clair, 2006, p. 19).

In the absence of absolute historical truth, readers can immerse themselves in others’ versions of history through factual evidence and historical fictions. In this way, the past becomes relevant to the present as writers of historical fiction bundle partial histories into story form. The past lives, it tells the reader of what has been, of where they have come from, and out of this confusion of facts, in the finding of threads of story, the reader navigates pathways through their own often fragmented and confusing lives. “The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours. There is no sense in forgetting and every sense in dreaming. Thus the present is made rich. Thus the present is made whole.” (Winterson, 1987, pp. 62).

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Shel Sweeney was born in England but raised in Australia. She has worked in cafes, publishing houses, schools and, most recently, for the London Olympics. Shel writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her work has been published in Southerly: The Journal of the English Association and Vintage Script, with upcoming works in Splinterswerve and Perceptions: Magazine of the Arts. She is currently working as a freelance writer and proofreader, and occasionally runs writing workshops. Shel can be found at shelsweeney.com.

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