With over 5 million viewers in the UK tuning in for the first episode of The White Queen last Sunday, fresh debates have been sparked over the nature of historical fiction. While some viewers have been happy to accept the medieval simulacra that the Sunday night Downton slot represents, others have been gleefully vocal in dismembering the series for its anachronistic armour or the wrong shaped pennants. Now there’s nothing wrong with that. The novels and the BBC adaptation can be enjoyed on a number of levels; there’s room for the swooning romantics and the pennant pedants but more worrying, is the suggestion I have seen voiced this week, that novelists have some sort of moral responsibility.
Here's my review of the first episode: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/06/white-queen-romance-sex-magic-scowling-social-snobbery-and-battles
So what does the "novelist" part of the historical novelist do? Well, they do not simply tell stories. Nor do they narrate historical events with a few descriptive bits or imagined dialogue. They are jugglers of pitch and tone, balancers of opposing moods and sculptors of satisfying, complimentary narrative threads. They match protagonist against antagonist, lull us into a false sense of security before a sudden moment of fortune reversal (peripeteia in literary parlance) plunges us into pathos or catharsis. They exploit a character’s hubris, or hamartia (error of judgement), for dramatic effect. Factual concessions do sometimes need to be made in order to satisfy dramatic outcomes, so they cut and paste what is included and what left out. Novelists are subject to the same freedoms as artists rather than being bound to the accuracy of historical study. They use mimesis to imitate and perfect life, rather than depict it in a state of realism.