Sunday, 19 August 2007

Historical Fiction and Real Life

For some, 'historical fiction' is that set upto the 19th century but actually anything set over a hundred years ago - or now pre-1945 – comes within the genre. But whichever period a story is set in, one of the facets that a writer of historical fiction is concerned with is historical accuracy.

When a novel has a glowing write-up (like an excellent reviewer from Historical Novels Review gave A Little Blue Jacket this month!) the author is likely to be on cloud nine: but clouds are insubstantial things. It can be down to earth with a bump if a reviewer criticizes areas of the work that the writer thinks unfair.

Once an author has published a novel it's out there to have its bones picked over by anyone. Criticism of style or structure is a very subjective thing – one man's meat is another man's poison – but historical accuracy can be checked.

Most authors of historical fiction go to great lengths to ensure historical, geographical and social facts are researched but it is amazing how often the reader is surprised by either lifestyles or words currently in use at the time, altered locations or historical views.

Given the chance, most authors are able to explain the historical context and back up their facts (certainly in the large format of my novel A Little Blue Jacket I included extensive historical notes as even local South Africans told me they knew little of SA history after 1900 and before 1950) and so give the reader a chance to follow up research for themselves.

Many historical facts had to be cross-referenced for my novel as what appears obvious is not always the case. For example - the original Malay houses around Bo Kaap have not, contrary to popular belief, been repainted in their original pastel colours: they were originally white. After frenzied building a hundred years ago Victorian buildings in Cape Town outnumbered Cape Dutch ones and the architect 'darling' of the time, who was building in the vernacular style there, was in fact British: Herbert Baker, partner of Edwin Lutyens.

Fish Hoek is now a thriving small town but a hundred years ago was little more than a few fishing cottages: the Martello tower of Simon's Town is now little more than a ruin. On Muizenberg sands the tin hut of 1905 is long gone, replaced as it was by a grand pavilion in 1913, along with the charming stilted beach huts that are so well known today.

Similarly, the writer of historical fiction has to make sure of geographical facts that may send readers reaching for their street map or atlas. To demonstrate: in Cape Town, Roggebaai (present spelling) with its jetty is now reclaimed land – old street names bear testimony to its previous bounds - and many names of streets and squares have since been changed in tune with society.

Political and social facts too can be authenticated. Those living in Johannesburg today may find it difficult to believe that a hundred years ago Indians and Malays were allowed to buy properties in new residential districts of Cape Town: apartheid has so dominated South Africa in the recent past that many cannot believe that in the Western Cape a hundred years ago there was no apartheid and were no pass laws.

This is what was meant when those in the Western Cape were described as 'colour blind': today reference to this might be interpreted as a politically correct view but it is, indeed, a fact. Certainly among the British in the Western Cape, Malays were sought out as house servants and treated, on the whole, well: indeed many of the female servants became close confidantes of the mistress of the house.

History is written by people and of course can be re-written to suit, but there is much that cannot be disagreed with. A writer can point out historical facts to dissenters, and back up social facts with contemporaneous sources used, but little can be done to countermand ingrained prejudice or ignorance on the behalf of a reader or critic.

But, when all's said and done, most authors of historical fiction are not historians: they are writers of fiction. And, like all fiction writers, they can invent characters and places. They can also manipulate actual events and dates to serve fictional purposes: they can choose to write their story in the spirit of the time or be exact in every detail.

Or writers can marry the two: for example, I made a choice when writing my novel not to make the speech as stilted as it may have been but to observe speech patterns and the odd words of regional dialect used at the time instead. This involved considerable research as words used today – or understood today – are not necessarily those of the period in which the book was set: it's a device that can give the book a sense of period as well as place.

And, for myself, some of the personal facts on which I based the story of A Little Blue Jacket no-one can dispute: my grandmother was born in the Cape and, orphaned, was brought up by her sister and her Malay nurse of whom she was very fond. Without 'giving away' the story (and it is fiction), the least likely and most dramatic events that happen in it are actually true: that old adage that real life is often more surprising than fiction.


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