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Off the Shelves: How much real history is vital to historical fiction?
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I received a rather interesting message in response to my last book review for “The Painted Girls” by Cathy Marie Buchanan. The sender sent me a blog post about forgeries of famous artworks at various art institutes. This particular post was about how Edgar Degas may not have been the true artist behind “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” the statue that was modeled after the main heroine in “The Painted Girls.”

The sender said the author should do more thorough research before writing about a historical figure’s artwork he may or may not have created.

While I understand, it struck me as a little funny because “The Painted Girls” doesn’t boast to be a biography about Degas, or even a creative nonfiction piece. Nowhere does it claim a real 14-year-old girl named Marie Van Goethem existed, or had two sisters who also danced at the Paris Opera. Nor could I find information about a man named Emile Abadie who was part of a shocking murder trial in 1870s France.

This book is historical fiction, a genre in which liberties are commonly taken with the past, and fabricated persons interact with true-life past figures in order to tell an entertaining story.

This poses an interesting question: What is the appropriate balance between history and fiction in historical fiction?

Let’s be logical; if a writer is going to set his or her story in a certain era, he or she should at least understand the time period well enough to stay true to it. If a novel takes place during the American Revolutionary War, the protagonist shouldn’t be driving a sports car or playing video games.

However, it is common, sometimes necessary, for an author to make a few modern alterations to tell an effective story to present-day readers. I dislike thinking some stories need to be “dumbed down” to reach a wider audience, but if all novels had their characters speak in the time’s period dialect, such as everyone talking in Shakespearean language in the 1600s, most readers would give up after a few pages. (May I also note that Shakespeare himself often took liberties when characterizing historical figures for his plays).

An article from The Guardian’s Book Blog (www.guardian.co.uk) in 2010 discussed the “lying art of historical fiction,” stating: “The spectrum of historical fiction is ... not as simple as ‘accurate = good’ and ‘inaccurate = bad.’ It depends on whether the inaccuracies are constructive lies or accidental mistakes.”

Sometimes there is not enough documented material for authors to pull from, so they may do the best they can to fill in the blanks with educated “guesswork.” There is a difference between fabricating a few minor details for the sake of story, and outright lying without even attempting to remain true to history. Usually the latter is very easy to identify.

I believe the danger lies in the main intention for the novel. If an author intends to educate readers about a specific historical event or time without doing any solid research, or wants to “redesign” history to match one’s personal agenda or bias, then this is purposefully misleading readers who may truly desire to understand that aspect of history.

If, on the other hand, the authors want to tell a story more about the relationship between characters, show a reflection of humanity or connect with readers on an emotional level, the “fiction” aspect may be more what they are leaning toward with the “history” merely being the backdrop of the scene.

In the case of “The Painted Girls,” I got the sense that Buchanan just wanted to tell us an engaging story about the bond between sisters and the corruption that society can thrust upon us. She wasn’t trying to convince anyone that Degas was or wasn’t the artist behind that certain piece of art.

As another example, in Melanie Benjamin’s “Alice I Have Been,” I don’t know if Charles Dodson, more famously known as Lewis Carroll, had a romantic relationship with the young Alice Liddell who inspired his “Alice in Wonderland” stories. Yet this didn’t detract from the story, which was still powerful, beautiful and thoughtfully written.

While it is important that historical fiction has enough grounding in its time period to make the story and characters convincing, it may not be necessary for every detail to be 100 percent accurate.

Sometimes it is not about what can be proven, but what can be believed and appreciated, that matters more.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

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