The first blog on this topic explored the general question and, as I suspected, uncovered new aspects and brought old aspects under surveillance. In this segment I’d like to get more specific.
What if the history surrounding the episode is nebulous, inadequate, or even purposely altered by the historian(s)? What if the history is so old that records are poor or have been damaged or destroyed? Two novels come to mind as possible examples: Pope Joan, by Donna Wolfolk Cross, and Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracey Chevalier.
Most historians, including those in the Catholic Church, deny that there was ever a female Pope. The most prevalent theory is that enemies of the early church and the Papacy started the rumor to mock the institution. It is legitimate for historians to ask which of the groups who recorded history would have gained from debunking the story and which from supporting it. So, immediately, there exists the possibility that biased reporters twisted historical accuracy at its inception for their own purposes. Consider that there was no printing press. Most often a single individual or group of individuals recorded stories of the times, and there was little public discussion of what the story tellers were saying. Nebulous history, at best, but fodder for the writer of historical fiction. For instance, I don’t think Donna Cross had any obligation to make additional effort to sort fact from contrivance. Her obligation was to choose a point of view, build believable characters to support that point of view and use authentic setting and custom descriptions as underpinning. What do you think?
Likewise, there is no evidence that Vermeer had a relationship with one of his subjects, the girl in his portrait, Girl With A Pearl Earring. There is no evidence that anyone had commissioned the painting. Tracey Chevalier did an excellent job of using facts in evidence: Vermeer was married and had a mother –in- law who had a strong personality. The girl’s name, her thoughts and demeanor, and the conflict she creates with her affair with Vermeer are all open to speculation. Chevalier did a wonderful job of generating an interesting story with an authentic flavor. Was she obligated to do more? Is any author? What’s your opinion?
Let me add one more layer here and I’ll use a general category of Greek history. Are the novels set in ancient Greece historical fiction? Most of the historians had a bias, a hero building point of view. Because the history may be myth to start with, does that disqualify it as historical fiction? If so, what genre is it? If not, is the writer unbound or does he/she still have obligations? If so, what are they?
I’m anxious to hear your responses to these questions. Feel free to propose your own, but for this segment let’s focus on the quality of the recorded history as our variable.