KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

On Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction

In his Postscript to The Name of the Rose, when he describes how he came to determine the specific setting for his novel—the particular time period (the fourteenth century), the time of year (November), and the geography of the monastery (in the mountains)—Umberto Eco reveals a fundamental truth about the process of writing historical fiction: meticulous historical accuracy is a necessary limit for good historical fiction.

First, Eco writes that he knew he wanted to tell a murder mystery set at a medieval monastery but that his initial instinct was to choose the twelfth or thirteenth century, since those were his specialties. However, because he wanted an English investigator with a knowledge of empiricism, he had to set his work after Roger Bacon’s lifetime, which meant it had to take place in the fourteenth century. Second, because he knew he wanted a scene in which a corpse was thrust head-first into a jar of pig’s blood as a reference to the second trumpet of the Apocalypse, he needed to set the story in winter, since pigs are slaughtered in cold weather—but because one of the historical characters he wanted to include, Michael of Cesena, was already in Avignon by December of 1327, the month had to be November. But then, Italy doesn’t get cold enough in November for pigs to be slaughtered, except in the mountains, which meant the fictional monastery had to be located in the mountains.

This all seems a strange, roundabout way to choose what appear to be essential aspects of the novel. The mountain setting is such an integral part of the novel’s visual imagery—the octagonal Aedificium rising up to the heavens from the edge of the plateau—and the cold, winter setting gives the grim events of the narrative the necessary bleak backdrop. The fourteenth century, meanwhile, provides all the thematically significant historical elements—the debates over poverty, the Fraticelli, the Avignon papacy, and the larger idea of the ending of the Middle Ages. How could it have been set anytime else? And how could all these not have been deliberate choices by Eco?

This seeming perfection, though, proves the genius in Eco’s rigorous historical accuracy: by remaining so faithful to the details of actual history, the world he creates for us feels so completely real and the time period and the setting thus feel like perfect choices, when in fact they were simply the only options given the constraints of the historical period. A less obsessive author (or perhaps one who doesn’t have a doctorate in medieval literature) might simply have changed a historical fact to suit his narrative goals—set it in December anyway despite the actual movements of Michael of Cesena or set it in the thirteenth century despite the anachronism of the empirical method—but then that would be one more element that might test the narrative’s believability and prevent the reader’s complete immersion into the novel’s constructed world. After all, any historical narrative is already asking us for a tremendous suspension of disbelief on the sheer level of language—we’re reading a narrative written in English (or Italian, in Eco’s original) but we’re asked to believe that it’s written in Latin (at one point, in one of Eco’s clever meta-jokes, the narrator Adso even refers condescendingly to the “vulgar Tuscan” in which the poet Dante wrote). And of course, the novel form itself requires a second level of suspension of disbelief, since though it’s meant to be a diary written by Adso many years after the events at the monastery, it is nevertheless still written with the rich level of detail and in-scene dialogue characteristic of a contemporary novel. And so, because the very idea of a historical novel already requires its readers to overcome tremendous levels of skepticism, it’s the job of the writer to make the rest of the reading experience as fully immersive as possible—otherwise the illusion of the created world falls apart.

Hilary Mantel applies a similar philosophy to Wolf Hall, and says in her Paris Review interview that she would never change a fact to heighten the drama. After all, just like Eco, she’s already taken major historical liberties with the language itself—her characters don’t speak in sixteenth-century English. But her Thomas Cromwell, despite being a fictional creation, feels to us completely real, a complex human full of nuance and contradiction, because she’s made sure to construct him with fidelity to his historical counterpart and the same kind of rigorous detail that Eco applies to his medieval setting—thus, for readers, his apparent realism helps immerse us into Mantel’s sixteenth-century Tudor world.

It’s only in the gaps between historical sources where writers of historical fiction have the freedom to experiment with historical truth. Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account tells the story of a real Spanish expedition in the New World from the perspective of one of its survivors, a Moroccan slave named Estevanico—but because we have no actual record written by Estevanico, Lalami imagines a fictionalized account and thus has the freedom to go beyond historical fact. Yet even she still uses whatever historical facts she has available—about Spanish exploration and Moroccan history and sixteenth-century travelogues—to create for us a fully immersive and realistic world.

Ultimately, because historical fiction is not the same as speculative fiction, writers have a duty to the reality of history. The world of the novel is, of course, ultimately entirely a construction of its writer, but that construction is based on existing rules and premises. Just as gravity is a law that characters in a realist novel must obey, the movements of Michael of Cesena is a fact that a writer of an historical work must also obey. As Eco says, “The constructed world will then tell us how the story must proceed.”