Sunday, 24 February 2013
Authenticity is a slippery eel....
What I've been pondering though is that parallax error between historical fact and historical fiction - or rather, how the collective subconscious perceives an historical period, compared to how the historical researchers and academics see a time, and which makes for the better read?
To give a couple of examples, I'm not writing a bodice ripper as such, but it's a popular genre - and often features a beautiful heroine in roughly the 18th century - shall we say around 1780 - and you probably get a handsome highway man who's really the son of a Duke, or a scandalous countess with gambling debts and so forth - and a jolly good romp would be had by all.
But, if one reads into social history and consults documents of the time, would the characters concerned be as attractive if they were shown using the beauty preparations of the day, such as eyebrows made from mouse skin (grey was a popular colour for ladies hair), not to mention face cream made of puppy fat and large cut outs of galleons made of leather and stuck to the face. In those days, one or two teeth at adulthood still together in working order was considered a pretty good show, but it's not the impression we have from countless TV dramas where contemporary actors all have a fine set of gnashers, unless they are playing characters roles when snaggle tooth smiles are acceptable.
Think Vikings - never wore horned helmets until Hollywood said they should, indeed, a huge amount of Norse culture as been swept aside to present them as pillaging villains from 'The Vikings' to Mike the Knight - but would people buy an altogether more touchy feeling Viking story?
In the end, I suspect it's mostly a case of the quality of writing, that a good author will create a good and believable world, and unless one is taking huge liberties with real events ( while pretending otherwise) then a little historical license is probably allowed - never letting the truth get in the way of a good story and all. It's interesting to ponder if the books we like to read are the ones which give us the image of the past we are familiar with, and because it's one we are familiar with, we deem them authentic - where as book that are researched up to the eyeballs can, on occasions, feel less authentic not because they are, but because they go against the grain of public perception, however wrong that perception is.
Of course, that is the ultimate attraction of historical novels that once one slips beyond living memory, then lots of things are up for grabs, it is always a best guess scenario - and even within living memory perception of events is a slippery eel indeed. The past is another country, and the best novels are like the best travel guides, they should make you feel you've been there and, when you turn the last page, wish you will be allowed to return some day.
In case you're wondering, the photograph was taken in 1944 at the liberation of Paris. Or it's supposed to be - there is some argument as to whether it was taken at the time, or staged a little while afterwards before the barbed wire was removed - or even staged in the 1950's as war nostalgia began to set in and memory softened. So, it's either two lovers sitting watch together and making a stand against fascism, or two actors paying tribute to and idea of themselves the French would rather acknowledge, then images like this - but both could be the seed for a hundred different stories.