Writing about Historical Icons: Who Owns the Past? By Mary Sharratt
Author Mary Sharratt on the challenges involved in writing about real people (everyone has an opinion!).
Readers and writers of historical fiction are absolutely passionate about the past. Were it not so, the genre would not exist.
Good historical fiction makes history come alive, transforming stuffy historical personages in dusty textbooks into vibrant, nuanced men and women who leap straight off the page and into the reader’s heart.
Novels drawing on the lives of key historical figures have topped the bestseller list for decades. Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl has become enshrined as a classic of the genre. More recently, Priya Parmar’s dazzling and very literary debut, Vanessa and Her Sister, drew a huge audience with its enthralling exploration of the complicated relationship between Virginia Woolf and her overshadowed sister, Vanessa Bell.
Some agents and industry experts believe that choosing “marquee name” characters is imperative, especially for new writers hoping to break into the genre. Novels about historical celebrities certainly seem to be an easier sell than historical novels involving characters that are wholly invented.
But writing about historical icons can be a dangerous game—Anne Boleyn and Virginia Woolf aren’t called icons for nothing. When readers disagree with your interpretation of a beloved historical figure, you risk facing a serious backlash.
A risk some authors gladly take.
Hilary Mantel took readers by storm with her unexpectedly sympathetic portrait of the notorious Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies. Many readers were absolutely furious about her perceived whitewashing of Cromwell and for her scathing portrayal of Thomas More. (For the record, my personal sympathies remain with More, but that doesn’t stop me from adoring—and devouring—Mantel’s fiction.)
Readers’ reactions can be especially polarized when you write about religious figures. Sherry Jones’s debut novel, The Jewel of Medina, inspired by the life of A’isha, child bride of the Prophet Muhammed, was so controversial that it made world news before it was even released. Fearing violent reprisals from Muslim extremists, Random House dropped the book from its list, forcing Jones and her agent to find another publisher.
On a slightly less headline-grabbing note, my own book, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, based on the life of the 12th century visionary abbess, composer, and powerfrau garnered both heartfelt fan mail and hate mail—with added threats of hellfire! Some readers found my reading of Hildegard’s life to be too uncomfortably feminist.
A vocal minority of readers are so passionately attached to their own interpretation of historical icons that they make no allowance for any other viewpoint, even in books that are clearly labeled as fiction.
So what are prospective authors to do? Shy away from controversy? Bend over backward to keep our readers in their comfort zone?
In my mind the bigger question is this: Who owns the past?
Take, for example, William Shakespeare, who features in my upcoming novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask. Though Shakespeare left behind the greatest corpus of literature in the English language, the documented facts about him as a man are sparse. We don’t even have a record that he attended grammar school. Yet this dearth of evidence hasn’t stopped academic historians from weighing in on Shakespeare’s marriage, his religion, and even his sexuality. It’s as though Shakespeare has become a blank screen on which we can project any number of different images, according to our own biases. Was he a callous husband, a loving father, a closet Catholic, a conflicted gay man? Will we ever know the “truth?”
Historians have long argued that history itself is in a constant state of revision and re-interpretation. If academic scholars lay claim to wildly divergent views of someone as iconic as William Shakespeare, might fiction authors—and their readers—also allow for a less rigid and monolithic understanding of famous historical figures?
Maybe it’s our vocation as historical novelists to be part of this wider discussion about what we can really claim to know about the past and its movers and shakers. The furore surrounding Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies certainly opened up a lively public debate about what really happened during the English Reformation.
Instead of shying away from controversy we might follow the sage advice of my friend Catherine McKenzie and write what makes us frightened, what sets us on fire.
Make history come alive in a way that’s scary, raw, and real.
Mary Sharratt’s new novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 19. Visit her blog: www.marysharratt.com
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