Recently, I’ve taken a dive into historical fiction, and I’m loving it.
Tell me what flowers those creepy plague doctors stuffed into their bird masks. Tell me the ingredients used to make the pigments that painted a geisha’s skin. Tell me how cinchona seedlings were smuggled out of Peru to produce quinine in India. I’m all ears.
But, in my romps through historical fiction, I’ve come up against a string of plot twists that left me unsettled.
In Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus, a main character takes some grizzly, cadaver-based art lessons from Michaelangelo. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, a heroine summons Alfred Russel Wallace to her house after Charles Darwin beats them both to publishing the theory of evolution.
These run-ins between fictional characters and famous historical figures didn’t work for me. They broke that most sacred covenant between writer and reader–the suspension of disbelief–and left me feeling displaced and huffy.
Michaelangelo had dozens of students and apprentices whose names have been lost to history. It’s conceivable that Dunant’s character was one of them. And Alfred Russel Wallace lived to the ripe old age of 90. Not all his 32,850 days have been recorded in the history books. It’s conceivable that 3 of them were spent with Gilbert’s heroine.
Below, I’ve tried to come up with a few explanations for my gut reaction:
1) We regard history as a narrative set-in-stone.
Thanks to the political rhetoric of the last few decades, revisionist history has gotten a bad wrap. We have become deeply suspicious of anyone trying to rewrite our textbooks. That’s how Hitler created the Nazi Youth, right?
Actually, professional historians acknowledge that our history can and should be subject to revision. As new information comes to light and old biases fade away, we can present a more accurate and encompassing view of history.
So maybe I should relax when authors choose to tack a footnote onto the pages of a historical figure’s biography. History is not set-in-stone, and historical revision is not evil. I don’t need to jump into “I don’t believe this!” mode just because I’m seeing history from a new angle.
2) We tend to hero-worship our favorite historical figures.
And when we hero-worship people, we also tend to A) oversimplify them and B) feel protective of them.
We assume that we know our heroes backwards and forwards, inside and out. Haven’t we studied them like good devotees? Don’t we trust them to come through for us and to do no wrong? And if anyone dares to say otherwise, won’t we jump on them?
And if you subscribe to “the great man” theory of history, then an assault to one key historical figure is an assault to the fabric of history itself.
I experienced all of these feelings when I was confronted with Gilbert’s version of Charles Darwin. I couldn’t accept that her heroine had matched Darwin’s greatest feat: coming up with the theory of evolution. Rather than accepting this small assertion, my brain rejected the entire 500-page story that led up to it. That’s some powerful hero-allegiance!
3) It feels a bit like name-dropping?
Nobody likes the guy who goes on and on about how he golfs with Warren Buffet’s nephew and once dated a girl who went on to date Bruno Mars’ drummer.
Fabricating a connection with a famous person can come off as an odd combination of arrogant and desperate. Worst of all, these connections often seem unbelievable, which is the opposite of the desired effect in fiction!
Has your favorite historical figure ever made a cameo appearance while you were reading a historical novel? How did you react?
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