Historical accuracy: therein lies the conundrum

Having written ten historical biographical novels, I’m no stranger to the demands, constraints, and pitfalls of historical accuracy.

Because my protagonists once actually lived, it’s essential to me as a writer to do them justice and portray them as they were in life, including their strengths, flaws, and mistakes. Since I write in first person and we’re often the least likely to see or even recognize our own weaknesses, depending on what I discover about my character, I must decide whether she knows herself as well as she should or thinks she does.

My research is always extensive, the result of hundreds of books, contemporary documents, including letters and/or diaries when available, trips abroad, as well as the accompanying deluge of research into the historical setting and events. My first duty, as I see it, is to always be accurate, both to my character and her circumstances.

Yet accuracy in an historical novel, as in people in real life, isn’t always the same in the eye of the beholder. Accuracy spans a gamut: there are the details of the world, the language and objects of the time, the fashion and social mores. These are usually unquestionable; it’s been well established when telephones were first invented, so having an 19th century woman ring up her friends for tea before phones were widely available is not historically accurate. Most authors, including myself, will spend inordinate amounts of time researching minutia that readers may never notice, such as the type of crystal for a specific chandelier or trim on an evening gown. In my case, I don’t mind if readers don’t notice; I must know these details to fully immerse myself in my character’s world and provide authority as the tour guide, regardless of whether my reader pays attention.

Where things can get tricky is when I’m interpreting events through my character’s eyes, relying on her particular personality and emotional makeup. Readers of historical novels often know a lot about the characters I write about, if not everything. Impressions are made very early on by us as readers when we first encounter a historical personage; we bring these impressions to whatever we later read about them, perhaps unwittingly, but we do. If we adore a certain historical person, we may object to reading that she could be vindictive, even if the historical record indicates she was. We don’t want to discover our idols were less than ideal or not quite as lovable as we suppose. These are not inaccuracies, however; as readers, we may dislike the portrayal, but we must be careful to not label the depiction as inaccurate simply because we viscerally disagree with it. Part of the joy of historical fiction is discovering how each author handles a particular subject. One author’s Elizabeth I will not necessarily be another’s.

That said, actual mistakes made by authors are almost always inadvertent. The majority of us cannot afford full-time research assistants, so we do it all ourselves. We are human and therefore fallible, so things can and will slip through the cracks. Mistakes are often the result of oversight, editorial gaffes, or just plain we-messed-up.

For example, I know Martha Gellhorn was Hemingway’s third wife, but while writing MARLENE, I have Dietrich mention that she’s his second wife. It’s one line and completely inadvertent on my part, yet despite three publisher edits plus a professional copy edit, no one caught it. Readers did, however. I accept full responsibility for my mistake and am appalled, but it happened. I screwed up.

In an opposing example, some readers declared my depiction of Tsarina Alexandra in THE ROMANOV EMPRESS as inaccurate. My research for this novel was intense, with everything I portrayed backed by verifiable fact; I was very careful in this regard, as I know the Romanov family has a treasured place in readers’ imaginations. Yet I also had to depict Alexandra as my lead character, the Dowager Empress Marie, experienced her, and they did not get along; they were antithetical in their personalities and outlooks. To see Alexandra portrayed as unpleasant and unreasonable roused accusations of inaccuracy, when, in reality, it was merely the perception of a mistake that isn’t a mistake at all. Alexandra was indeed a difficult woman in real life.

Then there’s a third, more complex example. In MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, some readers objected to my portrayal of her WWII activities, citing a white-washing of her antisemitism and support of the Nazis. In this instance, my meticulous research turned up, as is often the case with historical characters but even more so with Chanel, opposing sides. On one side, she made business and social decisions that indicate she disliked Jews. On the other, she entrusted her fashion empire in her later years to the very Jewish businessmen she once tried to sue by taking advantage of anti-Jewish regulations (a case she initially lost but years later, won) and she did in fact allow her south of France vacation home to be used by the resistance as a staging area to assist refugees, including several notable Jews, escape persecution from occupied Vichy. With Chanel, my ultimate decision was to let her relate her version of these events as she saw them. I didn’t try to soften the fact that she was always rapacious when it came to her business and her profits, and very arrogant and blind when it came to her WWII ventures. I blended her opposing sides to present a portrayal that neither exalts nor condemns her; you could say, I gave her the benefit of the doubt because her actions, both bad and good, indicate she warranted it. In this instance, it’s a matter of subjective interpretation. The historical record is clear that while she was summoned twice to answer charges of collaboration during the war, she was acquitted both times. Yet the record is also clear that she had an affair with a Nazi intelligence officer and she undertook covert missions for him. In this case, I wanted the reader to judge her for themselves.

Historical accuracy is a difficult endeavor. While factual details are easy to establish, emotional reasons are not. In the end, history is often a collection of united impressions after a fact. It’s never kind to the defeated or misunderstood — nor is it kind to those who seek unassailable truth.

C.W. Gortner is an internationally bestselling author of historical fiction. His novels are available in 28 languages. Visit him at: www.cwgortner.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store