Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Historical (In)Accuracy

I recently read two historical novels, one brilliantly researched and wonderfully historically accurate, the other…not. Because the novels were set about 50 years apart, and because I read them back-to-back when I was sick, the experience left me thinking about historical accuracy, historical inaccuracy, and reviewers and readers’ ability to recognize the difference.

The first book, HONORABLE COMPANY by Allan Mallinson, is set in India before the Raj and forms part of a fascinating series detailing the varied adventures of British Dragoons officer Matthew Hervey through the years following the Battle of Waterloo. A serving cavalry officer in the British Army, Mallinson is also the author of LIGHT DRAGOONS, a history of the British cavalry. This guy knows his stuff, and what he didn’t know has been painstakingly researched.

The second book, from a historical mystery series set in the 18th century, is by a NYT bestselling American author who has branched out into the mystery field after penning a wildly popular romance series set in the same period. Her hero is the younger son of an earl and also an Army officer. Although the author—whom I’ll call “D”—has no professional training or experience, she prides herself on her “thorough” knowledge of the 18th century and frequently brags that she does all her own research. Reviewers and readers consistently sing her praises for her historical accuracy. So it was something of a shock when I began reading her book and found myself tripping over one anachronism after another.

I’m not talking about tangential, nitpicky little things only a specialist would detect, but the kind of information many absorb simply by reading—or by being born English. For instance, most readers of Dorothy L Sayers (and Georgette Heyer) know that Lord Peter Wimsey is called “Lord Peter” because he’s the younger son of a DUKE; if he were the younger son of an earl (like “D”’s hero), he’d be just plain Mr. Wimsey. Likewise, if “D” had ever read Allan Mallinson’s Matthew Hervey series, she’d know that officers of the lowest rank in the British Army in the 18th century (until 1871, actually) weren’t called second lieutenants; they were cornets. And if someone is writing a book set in mid-eighteenth century London, why are they using (as “D” proudly announces in her author’s note) Greenwood’s 1837 map of London? London changed dramatically in those eighty years, and earlier maps are readily available. I could go on and on, but I’ll restrain myself. The point is, why is this author praised for her historical accuracy when her stories are so painfully INaccurate?

I’m beginning to realize that all a writer needs to do to gain a reputation for “thorough research” and “knowledge of the period” is to look at a couple of history books on their subject, salt their writing with strategically lifted tidbits and details, and then tack on an Author’s Note listing a few resources. We saw the same thing happen with Dan Brown, who made hilarious mistakes in both Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, but because he included long passages of info dumps lifted (sometimes verbatim) from nonfiction sources, still managed to fool legions of reviewers into calling his books “exhaustively researched” and “intelligent.”

Ironically, many readers also think they “know” things about a period that they don’t, and will therefore criticize a writer for making mistakes that aren’t mistakes at all. I’ve seen it happen to other writers, and it happens to me. Don’t get me wrong; I make mistakes, too (such as, ahem, mentioning a certain dog breed in Why Mermaids Sing that wouldn’t come into being for another twenty years). But a more in-depth knowledge of a period can, ironically, work against an author, if their knowledge of everything from the state of the Thames in 1812 to early nineteenth century social and intellectual history runs counter to common perceptions.

If I’m sounding a bit disgruntled, it’s because I am. A writer without any real knowledge or understanding of a period can write fun "historicals" that satisfy many readers. That’s fine. But why proclaim an authenticity and expertise that doesn’t exist? True knowledge of a historical period or subject requires more than a few lurid details culled from a couple of reference books. There is also a difference between knowledge of period details and the kind of true UNDERSTANDING of a period and culture that can only come from a more in depth study. A writer doesn’t need to be an historian to achieve this; Allan Mallinson is an Army officer, not an historian. But he knows what he’s writing about, he doesn’t take shortcuts in his research, and it shows.


Steve Malley said...

I especially liked the point about when accuracy is contrary to popular opinion.

Seems to me one of the biggest challenges is when historical fact runs counter to modern thoughts on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc...

Charles Gramlich said...

I deal a lot with this in science and psychology as well. People think that they are experts and know things they don't, and get very upset at times when it's pointed out that they don't know. It's very frustrating.

Shauna Roberts said...

This is why I write fantasy instead of historical fiction.

Anonymous said...

If your blind item refers to Lord John and the Hand of Devils, you should know that Lord John's father is the Duke of Pardloe. This is an important plot point in the previous book, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade, where it is explained why Lord John refers to himself as such, especially given the titles that the rest of his family (his mother and his brother) use.

cs harris said...

ge169Well, I guess that's one way to go back and fix an earlier error in a series!