As a fan and writer of Regency fiction, I’m interested in the way historical events are portrayed in works of fiction and how perceptions can be changed and/or influenced, even when they are not the main focus of the story. I’ve unintentionally learned a lot of random bits of history – especially British history – through romance novels. Not a complete education by any means, though I did recently ace the Napoleon category on Jeopardy.
I’ve been thinking about the combination of history and the arts since weekend when I came across a documentary on the musical Hamilton during a bout of random channel-surfing (after I’d met my NaNo word targets, of course).
Though I certainly learned (something) about Alexander Hamilton sometime in my school days, the only thing I really remember about him was that he was on the losing end of a duel with Aaron Burr, a storyline that Lisa Kleypas incorporated in her novel When Strangers Mary. Kleypas’ book was presented against a historically accurate back drop, which provided an interesting perspective on the time period; a perspective quite different from a dry textbook description.
Jo Beverley’s Lord of My Heart provided similar insights into the William the Conqueror’s time in Britain, and Madeline Hunter’s books like By Arrangement, By Possession, and By Design brought the medieval period vividly (and sometimes harshly) to life.
Those who have been fortunate enough to see Hamilton in person (I’m still on a waiting list just to buy tickets for next year when it comes to my area of the country) have undoubtedly also walked away with a different perspective on the events portrayed in the show, not to mention with a score of entertaining songs to make it all memorable.
All of this naturally has me thinking about how to incorporate the reality of history in to my works of fiction. That can be especially challenging with Regency fiction, since many who read it are very well-versed on the period and have definite ideas about it. Right now I’m wrestling with finding the line between “too little” and “too much” – enough to add interest to a story, but not enough to overpower it. I’m also on the lookout for interesting bits of history that would make good stories. Fortunately, I have a whole shelf if historical reference books to help me with that.
So, are you a fan of historical fiction? Any favorites you’d like to share that did a memorable job of incorporating facts along with fiction?
I am so fond of Hamilton, the Musical. I keep listening to it, and singing it when I’m away from a player. Miranda has fudged some facts to make things more interesting. For example, the Schuyler Sisters in the play make a great trio, and the dynamic between Eliza and Angelica is so cool . . . but in the play Angelica seems to marry after Eliza and Alexander. In real life, Angelica was already a married woman when they met.
Keeping her a married woman would have muddied the morality, I think. We already have one fallen woman. By Angelica being tempted as a single (?) woman, Alexander takes an “old flame” status, the one she never caught. But if she’d been tempted as a married woman, it would have brought a whole new messy dimension to the play. I think Miranda made the right decision.
We live in interesting times, but our ancestors lived in even more interesting times — Hamilton, the Musical, has war and duels to help spice up the timeless scandals of having a mistress, or getting in a fight with a co-worker. I mean, for us, the dramatic ending is often huffiness. For them, Alexander and Aaron shoot at each other with pistols, and resolve the problem of the plot that way. Tragic.
I think we can learn from these things, though. Remember when Michille brought Antigone into the 21st century? I thought that was very powerful — especially the father themes.
You’re right about us living in interesting times and our ancestors living in even more interesting times. The ending of Hamilton and Burr was certainly tragic and looks to be really well portrayed in the musical.
As for changing some of the details of the past in order to fit the needs of a story – I’ve certainly seen a fair amount of that. Not usually major details, but often little bits here and there. Battle sites moved, weather conditions changed, random family members added or removed. One of the many benefits of writing fiction instead of textbooks is the artistic freedom to make the details suit the story.
I loved The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye when I read it many years ago, and I believe it’s fairly historically accurate. It’s a romantic saga set in India and Afghanistan during the British Raj. I still remember the thrilling race against time. 🙂
Oh yes; I’d forgotten all about The Far Pavilions I loved her series of mysteries too (Death in Kashmir, Death in Zanzibar, etc.). They provided an intriguing glimpse into a time and places that ceased to exist before my time.
I love the ending of Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, where fortunes are made and lost betting on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo by buying Consols (British Government loan notes). The hero’s father-in-law, a wealthy and savvy Cit, has made sure he’s first with the information. The question is how best to interpret and take advantage of the eyewitness reports, and that’s where the hero’s expertise as a retired soldier comes in very handy indeed.
As an aside, I always loved the fact that it was still possible to buy Consols, even if they weren’t a great deal financially, until the Government, in a sadly unromantic gesture, redeemed the last ones in July 2015.