Our resident agony aunt, Dr Darwin, answers a common question: how can we make sure our historical details are accurate – and believable?
Dear Dr Darwin,
Someone in my writers’ circle keeps getting facts wrong: things like calling a 17th-century character Tiffany, and giving her mother a vote in elections. He makes both of them keen on sex, too, without either of them being ashamed of it; it just feels too modern. I’ve tried to explain that these things matter but he just laughs and says it’s a novel, not a history book, and readers who fuss must get over themselves. How can I get him to see that it matters?
Vicky of Vauxhall
You’re absolutely right that part of persuading readers to buy into your story – to suspend their knowledge that this is fiction, and read it ‘as if’ it really happened – is about not tripping them up with things which they know are mistaken, or feel anachronistic. Even if you’re doing a John Fowles, and inviting the reader to play along with your overt creation of this as a novel, that game still depends on the reader reading it for a while as if it really happened, if the reminder that it is a construct is going to have any value and interest.
But the past is a foreign country. Just like the American thriller writer whose London geography was spotlessly accurate but whose car-chase scene was hopelessly unconvincing because everyone was driving on the right, as writers we, too, need to beware of our defaults: the things it doesn’t occur to us to check with research.
You obviously take these things seriously, so forgive me if I say that your writer friend is isn’t wrong in any of your examples. Tiffany is the normal English form for the Greek name Theophania and is common from the medieval period.
And whether you got a vote in local elections, and even Parliamentary ones, depended on how the county or borough charters set up the franchise, which was often based on who owned property or how much a household contributed to the local Poor Law – and that household might be headed by a woman. Women were only explicitly, universally disenfranchised in the Reform Act of 1832.
And until around that time women were often considered the more naturally licentious and sexually uncontrolled sex: it was only the Victorians who decided that women in general, and middle-aged and married women, in particular, were by definition past being sexually interesting and interested – as Ella Sbaraini, winner of the History Today–Royal Historical Society Undergraduate Dissertation Prize 2019, explains in her article, In Praise of Older Women.
Indeed, the Victorians have a lot to answer for: the popular imagination still sees so much history through their lens, but of course that lens has its own distortions, stereotypes and simplifications, and where those have been replaced, in non-specialist readers it’s probably with more modern assumptions, not the original facts.
Surprising historical truths
I asked around my hist-ficker friends for examples of things that are, surprisingly, historically accurate but many readers would think ‘wrong’, and I’ll just drop a few in as examples of what we’re up against:
Elizabeth Chadwick: People drank water in the Middle Ages and most of the time it didn’t kill them.
Rowan Coleman: The Reverend Patrick Brontë wrote in 1855 to an unmarried pregnant girl that as “the times are hard” she shouldn’t rush into marriage.
Adèle Ward: In Anne Lister’s diaries she describes having to exchange currency between English towns when she goes on a trip; different towns had different money. [I think this would be banknotes of different local banks, which were more like traveller’s cheques, not coins, which are the universal legal tender of the realm.]
Charles Hall: Nightwalking and eavesdropping were, technically, still crimes in the 1960s, and the illicit and daring nature of walking at night is important in life and literature until well into the 19th century.
Elizabeth Ashworth: Poor people in Victorian England did not eat [wheat] bread. It was far too expensive because of the Corn Laws. In Lancashire at least, the main staple was oats, but it was baked into oatcakes not bread.
Of course, a list like this could go on forever – though Susanne Alleyn’s Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: a Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide covers a good deal and is great fun.
I do find, though, that even writers who meticulously research clothes, food, transport and the like often go astray or default to modern or post-Victorian mindsets when it comes to historical characters’, world-views, manners and mores.
It is harder to research what people actually felt intuitively, and believed rationally, in all its wild variability as well as its strangeness to us, than it is to find out what they wore, or what the books and authorities told them they ought to be believing and doing. But, I’d suggest, since fiction is made of character-in-action, behaviour is much more fundamental to your storytelling than frocks – except, of course, when the frocks affect the behaviour.
Two challenges for the writer
So the real point is that there are two challenges here for the writer. First, to be aware of your own defaults. I can’t remember when, in writing A Secret Alchemy, I remembered my mother quoting Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who says, “Of husbands at church door have I had five”, and went digging for the actuality of medieval marriage; but, yes, it was essentially a civil contract made at the central, public meeting place of the parish – which usually happened to be the church.
But what is it that sets an alarm bell off in one’s head in the first place, saying, “It might not be the way I first thought – I’d better go and find out”? Wide reading of proper, modern, scholarly history, and the writing from your period that historians draw on, is important. And with luck, having some of your own defaults challenged should sensitise you to where else they are most likely to be wrong or inadequate.
Beta-readers and editors should at least raise questions – though of course they may be mistaken themselves. But even if they are you can’t ignore them, because the second challenge is to get the reader to believe in what your characters do. You need them to buy into the scene and its scene-dressing, without lumpy explaining between characters who would all already know this stuff, and there are some suggestions in an earlier Dr Darwin answer of how to do that.
It’s not always about smuggling stuff in, sometimes it’s about being bolder: for example, in A Secret Alchemy, another character, trying to cheer Elysabeth up about the marriage that’s been arranged, says encouragingly that, Elysabeth’s father being rich, they won’t stop in the porch after the vows, but go on into church afterwards for their very own Mass.
So your point, Vicky, is still an important one, because clearly your writers’ circle colleague was right in his historical facts but didn’t write them in ways which kept you ‘in the frame’. And in the end, how the reader experiences your story is what matters.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin, was published in February 2019, and is an account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family.
Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a Doctor) and was for several years an associate lecturer with the Open University; her how-to book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, was published in 2016, and she shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.
Laura Pisani attrib Circle of Dosso Dossi or Gabriele Cappellini alias Calzolaretto (c1525): via Wikimedia