True Story? Natasha Pulley On the Fantasy of Historical Fiction
When it comes to historical fiction, where is the line between fact and fantasy? Natasha Pulley turned heads with her first novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a surprising blend of Victorian mystery and magical invention. As her latest novel, The Bedlam Stacks, takes her readers from Cornwall to the enchanted, uncharted forests of South America, she makes the case for taking your history with a healthy dose of make-believe.
Getting history right is a sacred duty in historical fiction. Henry VIII definitely did not marry Anne of Cleves first and Gutenberg did not beat China to the invention of moveable type. Mistakes are unprofessional at best, and at worst, culturally damaging.
It can be tricky, because it’s impossible to recover all the facts. What Anne of Cleves said on one particular Tuesday afternoon in May is lost; nobody noted it down and nobody remembers, so historical fiction writers have to Polyfilla that gap. Generally they Polyfilla it with what seems likely. Hilary Mantel is brilliant at it. The places that have been filled in and imagined in Wolf Hall are indistinguishable, to me at least, from the facts and the quotes.
But sometimes, what’s logically and actually likely doesn’t conjure a very good idea of how people at the time understood events. Filling the gaps with what we know today to be the most likely thing can take away something vital: the sense that people of other times and places thought differently about the world.
In Peru, around the time of the Inca, it was quite a widespread belief that stone was alive. There are still outcrops of stone dotted all over the landscape which, in older stories, are supposed to be people who petrified in order to watch over the village. Today it is common practice in fiction to put a big ironic gap between historical and modern knowledge and say, “well, yes, they thought it was a stone person but of course it was a scam or a suggestively shaped rock”. But that’s a distancing method, and it runs the risk of implying that everybody in the story is ignorant or delusional. If the point is just to get as close to a character from that time and place as possible, there’s no reason for an ironic gap. For those people, the suggestive rock was a real stone man, and in the world as they knew it, it was possible for a mountain to have opinions.
Likewise, there must have been Anglo Saxons who would swear they had seen dragons, or evidence of giants. They weren’t all liars; some people must really have thought they had.
So in a story about Anglo Saxons, written today, it would be an awfully modern proviso to suggest that dragons are definitely imaginary. It would be wrong, likewise, to talk about France from the perspective of a Roman soldier. It was Gaul, and it was a different shape, a much bigger one, including Belgium and bits of Germany. What’s understood to be real is another territory now too, and the borders between fact and fantasy are set differently depending on when and where they were laid down.
That’s the historical side of things for me, and why history might sometimes be fantastical. I think it also goes the other way, and that fantasy is richer for some history. Even high fantasy, in the most intricately imagined stories, can be a little historical. Game of Thrones is set in what really does resemble England during the Wars of the Roses; Rohan’s culture in The Lord of the Rings feels Old English, even down to their poetry and that lovely version of The Wanderer that King Theoden recites before the battle; Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy has the ring of American history gone fantastical. I think that foundation of something real is important; if the magic is set around something familiar, it’s much easier to see where the magic is.
There are also lots of brilliant historical fiction books with a fantastical twist. Lian Hearn writes about Edo period Japan as if magic were real in Across the Nightingale Floor, and of course Susanna Clarke takes the early nineteenth century interest in clairvoyance and magic and spins it into a huge alternative history in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest, is about Anglo Saxons and a dragon.
I love magic, but I don’t have a good enough imagination to build a whole new world for it. But you can visit Peru, and the magic is already there in local history. That’s true of the entire world and all history. Whether it is Peruvian stone, or Victorian clairvoyants, or Tesla’s ideas about electricity, there are places among ordinary things where something extraordinary sits. Rather than going through the alchemical high fantasy process of pouring the world through a creative limbic and making something brand new, historical fantasy is more like mining for what’s already there. I’m not sure anyone sets out to write one or the other, and I’m not sure it would be a good idea to. It has to come down to what you’re good at, and in my case, it’s trawling through old newspapers.