Historical fiction – more than pure entertainment

We all appreciate the solving of a mystery and this week’s historical and pagent-like reinterment of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral finally puts to rest all the legends and stories regarding his death and the disposal of his remains. However, his association with ‘The Princes in the Tower’, their disappearance and possible murder is still an ongoing affair. Most famously William Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard the Third’ presents the Plantagenet king as a deformed, treacherous, manipulative monarch who has the princes murdered.

“Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead.” Richard III, act 4 scene 2

Of course, the play, a history play even at the time of writing, is a work of fiction with a good helping of Tudor propaganda added to no doubt entertain and flatter Shakespeare’s patron, Elizabeth I. But there are other stories and versions of Richard III that attempt to redress the balance. And, it is interesting that it is in historical fiction we find a different complex, but less villainous account of Richard. As with Hilary Mantel’s recent rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’, so the 1951 book ‘The Daughter of Time’, by Josephine Tey attempts to give us a more favourable view of Richard III.

richard III reconstructed
Face of a King.
Facial depiction of King Richard III, created by Professor Caroline Wilkinson and the forensic art team of the University of Dundee, Scotland.
Exhibited at the British Museum by kind permission of the Richard III Society as part of a national tour organised by Leicester Arts and Museum Services.

I have read virulent criticism of both Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell and Tey’s version of Richard III, but historians and other interested parties seem to forget that history if often a blanket of conjecture enveloping a grain of fact. If the writers of historical fiction work their magic on the surviving meagre facts to entertain us hopefully it encourages us to investigate history further. And, at the very least, well-researched historical fiction should prompt us to consider the extent of historical ‘imagination’ that has been applied to the forging of our received, textbook histories.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

6 thoughts on “Historical fiction – more than pure entertainment”

  1. Well, thanks for that. She’s my generation of author, certainly, but I’ve never read any Josephine Tey. I’ll look out for her. Sadly, we’re going to miss That Funeral: we shan’t be in the country. Although a ceremony for a centuries-dead king could well make it into the French news, I think.

  2. The funeral of a long dead king made the Canadian news for sure. I agree with you that history itself is much conjecture and occasional fact…and of course written by the victors! Interesting post.

    1. Thanks – I have to admit that as an art historian I’m often dismayed out how the document based historians tend to ignore the contribution of material culture. Surely it should be a complementary affair – even for the victors.

  3. Hi Agnes, I went to a writers’ festival last weekend. Two of the speakers had written historical fiction set in medieval times. Blanche d’Alpuget (famous in Australia for something else entirely) is on a quartet on the Plantagenets, starting with Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine: The Young Lion is book one, followed by The Lion Rampant. The other speaker was a debut novelist, Robyn Cadwallader, who had started with a master’s thesis, and ended up with The Anchoress, about a woman who locks herself in a cell for life. I haven’t read either, but It would be interesting to see if in a hundred years such endeavours would be used as source material for those studying history.
    And therein lies our basic problem, as you refer to. What we use in research today and take as gospel, could be just as easily the historical “faction” of its era.

    1. What an interesting sounding festival. I guess following on from Mantel’s double Booker prizes publishers were quick to see historical fiction gaining a surge in popularity. I may be presuming too much, but I think that nowadays we are so self aware that not only fiction, but non-fiction is read with a knowing eye that all content is mediated. In the past, particularly as far back as the medieval period, I think the wealthy and educated were conscious of their image/reputation amongst their contemporaries and their descendants, but I think for the ordinary Christian villager life was all too immediate. Social historians have endeavoured to bring these lives to our attention, but it is often conjecture based on working with the surviving material culture. Even where written works by named authors, Margery Kempe for example, survive we have to remember that all may not be precisely as written. As a writer yourself I’m sure you recognise the treacherous nature of autobiography. Isn’t history fun!!

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