Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Monday, January 31, 2011

Just one more bad history movie...

...and I promise to get back to novels. Haven't seen it yet, but here's what Christopher Hitchens says about The King's Speech

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bad history in 'Robin Hood'

A recent review of a new historical novel asserted that "you can't enjoy a historical novel if the history's wrong". How true. The same is true for "historical" movies. The 2010 version of 'Robin Hood' can be forgiven for inventing the earlier life of the legendary bandit. But this Ridley Scott production also rides roughshod over the documented history of the period. Many of the historical figures and events are there: King Richard, his younger brother John, King Philip of France, William Marshall, the barons' rebellion. The facts, however, are so thoroughly turned on their heads that it's hardly worthwhile to list all the falsehoods. One will suffice: early in the movie, King Richard (Lionheart) is returning to England from the Third Crusade but dies during a battle in France. Actually, even that one sentence contains several untruths. You can read about the real story here. I have no respect for "historical" fiction that messes with the history.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Inspector Troy series

I'm currently working my way through the historical/crime/espionage novels by John Lawton, featuring Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard. Very entertaining, fairly well-written, and full of well-researched historical bits large and small. The time period ranges from 1934 to the early 60s. Primary location is London, of course, but there are interesting sidetrips to other parts of Britain, Vienna, Berlin and other places I haven't read about yet. Have so far finished Blackout, Old Flames, Bluffing Mr. Churchill (Riptide in the UK), and Second Violin. A Little White Death, Flesh Wounds (Blue Rondo in the UK), and A Lily of the Field remain to be read. I'm also working on expanding Mr. Lawton's Wikipedia article - adding links to historical topics, of course.

The WWII era has been extensively mined for novel settings, but Lawton introduced some historical topics I'd never heard of. In Second Violin, which I just finished, the reader learns that Britain had internment camps before and during the war. Being from California, I'm aware of the wartime internment by the U.S. of Japanese-American residents living near the Pacific coast, but I never knew Britain did something similar to Germans, Austrians and Italians. The disturbing difference between the two counties' programs is that two-thirds of the 120,000 interned Japanese-Americans were native-born American citizens (including many children). Thus, in Second Violin, Rod Troy (Freddie's older brother) is interned, but only because he failed to become naturalized when he had the chance.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New year - new blog

To fulfill one of my New Year's blogging resolutions, I'm starting this one as a place to share my interest in history, as approached through historical novels. When I mention a specific novel, I'll include a link to its Wikipedia article, if available. WP article quality is uneven (except, of course, for Stone's Fall, which I wrote) but the best ones (to my mind) provide lots of links to related historical subjects. There are sites that keep lists (and sometimes reviews) of historical novels, subdivided by period, or location (at some point, I'll add a link list to this site, but the first is Historical, edited by Margaret Donsbach). Such sites are good starting points to find an interesting time and place, although the sheer volume of titles makes it hard to find a novel with all the qualities I look for. A new novel by an author I like is usually a good bet, so maybe I'll add a list of favorite authors somewhere in here). Following are some of my criteria for a superior historical novel:
  • The ability to inspire me to further research an historical topic. My first love is history, but I'm lazy. Novels are an easy way into a subject. If it grabs me, I move to non-fiction. This is also a fun way to fact-check the novelist. Especially fun is a novel that creates a fictional plot line running parallel to (and offering a plausible alternative explanation for) the historical record. Stone's Fall, by David Liss, is a good recent example. The plausibility breaking point, for me, lies somewhere between Stone's Fall and The da Vinci Code (although I enjoyed that one for the descriptions of historical places, and as a pure thriller). A corollary to this first point is:
  • Inclusion of enough history to make the novel an interesting historical story. I stay away from novels that are set in some vaguely historical (but often very romantic) place, with a story mostly disconnected from recorded events.
  • Accurate depiction of historical events. This may seem obvious, but it excludes many of the novels I look at. Also, the farther back in time, the less historical accuracy is possible. That's why, for example, I enjoy many novels set in ancient Rome (about which a lot of historical material exists), but would tend to avoid a story set in North America during the same time period. Nothing entirely prehistoric will be high on my reading list; by definition, it can't be historical (sorry, Jean Auel fans). I can, however, suspend my disbelief through the opening chapters of the occasional sweeping epic saga that begins in prehistory, e.g. some of the novels of Michener or Rutherfurd.
  • Accurate depiction of historical characters. This is even more problematic than events, for the same reasons - and one more. Novelists, more than historians, have to imbue characters with at least a bit of personality. This includes the perilous task of inventing dialog. However, unless the time period is extremely recent, those characters emerge as impossibly contemporary. World Without End is a novel I thoroughly enjoyed, but which was marred somewhat by the obvious modernity of the characters. Wolf Hall was better, but I'm still skeptical. Did the novel capture any of the real Thomas Cromwell, or is it just that the writing is good enough to make it seem authentic. We'll never know.
That's enough bullets to get us started, I think. From here on, my plan is to blog about what I'm currently reading, and perhaps backtrack occasionally to fill in more reading history. There won't be many current best sellers - sorry, my book-buying budget is very limited. Next up will be the Inspector Troy series, by John Lawton.