Monday, February 4, 2013

Minding the Gap in Historical Fiction

As I've been reading Ivanhoe, I've had a different kind of perspective on historical novels. Ivanhoe is an historical novel first published in 1819 about the days of yeomen and knights and tournaments and chivalry and damsels in distress and all that sort of thing. It's understandable that the Romantics would be interested in that, and the book itself is very romantic. And since it's an historical novel that was written nearly 200 years ago, I can more clearly see some of the characteristics of the genre.

Photo by limaoscarjuliet on Flickr
One thing that I believe very firmly about history is that differences deserve to be recognized and respected. We need to be aware that we can never completely understand the world that our historical figures lived in, so we can never totally condemn them for their mistakes, nor can we always completely exalt them for their good deeds. While we may not condone their actions, it's important to understand that there were influences working on them that we can't ever personally relate to. So, in my opinion, whenever we judge people in history, we have to allow for a gap--some wiggle room, you could say--between our understanding and reality. Maybe the gap is only a few inches, or maybe it's several miles. We just have to be aware that it's there.

I've been noticing more than ever with Ivanhoe that all too often, we superimpose current values on history. We like to have characters that promote the values of our society, sometimes forsaking the realities of the time period. I'm definitely seeing this in the first part of Ivanhoe.

Nearly every character in the book is an embodiment of some kind of stereotype. Our brave knight is perfectly selfless, chivalrous, and strong. Our lovely damsel is beautiful, modest, and loving. Our villain (so far, it seems to be Prince John) is idolatrous, self-serving, and demanding. And so on, and so forth. The book really isn't about a time period; it takes place in a kind of whimsical neverland that Romantics loved.

So, where am I going with this? Am I trying to say the book is worthless because it doesn't accurately portray the time period it's set in?

No! Far from it. What I'm realizing is that the primary value of historical fiction may not, in fact, be to learn about the time period in question. Maybe historical fiction says a lot more about the time period in which it was written than it ever could about the time period the author is writing about.

This might be obvious when we're talking about something like Ivanhoe, but maybe we need to apply it to contemporary historical fiction, which is quite popular nowadays. I like historical fiction a lot, and I don't know about you, but I often read it with the expectation that I'll be learning about history in a fun way. But all too often, I put all my faith and trust in the author to portray the time and the people in just exactly the way it really was. But maybe I'm not "minding the gap," so to speak, between the time period and the author's understanding. Maybe I'm saying to myself, "Oh, so that's what Thomas Jefferson/William Wallace/Joan of Arc/whoever was like," without taking the time to actually find out the facts and get my own impression.

Now, I would probably have told you something similar before I started reading Ivanhoe, but I guess what I'm truly realizing is the true extent to which this goes. Now, yes, I think contemporary historical fiction authors have done more research than Walter Scott and are probably more interested in giving an accurate portrayal, but we have to recognize that the authors may just be taking a creative leap and using an historical time period as their own whimsical neverland that they can play around in. The gap may be bigger than I ever thought.

Well, the lesson I take from this is that there's only one thing to do--mind the gap, and enjoy the ride.


  1. You make some great points! I have often gotten pretty annoyed at some historical fiction books because they were so blatant about this. Plopping a 21st-century woman into a historical setting, and then having her set everyone straight with her enlightened thinking, does not count as good historical fiction IMO.

    I know we can never really understand how people thought in the past. Heck, we can't even truly understand people in other countries, other states, or even our own family members...but I appreciate an honest attempt at it. Women* in the past had their own strengths and ways of dealing with life, and I'm not sure they needed us to tell them how to act.

    *and men too, but it always seems to be women in the books I read...

    1. Yes, I agree--I think authors do injustice to history when they shove a 21st-century feminist in there. Because all those ignorant 19th-century folks need to be taught a lesson, by golly! (It doesn't have to be a feminist, but like you said, it always seems to be the women.) Quite annoying. I agree that an honest attempt is much better.