Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Playing Fast and Loose With History: the Mysterious Case of Richard III

Good King Richard?
For anyone who, like me, has a lifelong interest in history, there’s only one place to start this week’s blog – with the monarch of the moment, Good King Richard III.

Did I say Good King Richard? Sorry, I meant Richard Crookback. Or did I? Actually I don’t know. The announcement this week that the bones uncovered in a Leicester car park are, beyond reasonable doubt, those of the last Plantagenet king of England, did more than provide an elegant ending worthy of a novel to Richard’s tragic tale. It also got me thinking.

Fiction, by definition, is Not True. It might include elements of truth and it might (if we get it right) ring true. But does that give the novelist a licence to play fast and loose with facts? You surely wouldn’t introduce a tank crashing across Bosworth battlefield to rescue the king even if you might just get away with a kitchen maid peeling a potato a couple of years before Walter Raleigh produced one for Elizabeth I.

Character is different, in my book at least. The beauty of historical figures is that they tend to be portrayed, whether as heroes or villains, by contemporaries who had a vested interest. Political spin is an ancient art – contemporary pictures of Richard were altered under Henry VII to portray him with that famous hunched back – but who knows whether the original portrait was itself a propaganda piece to show him as the flower of manhood?

Hero or villain - it's up to you
More than any other king, Richard has inspired a sense of injustice which continues to this day. By losing at Bosworth to a man whose claim to the throne was dubious at best (though perhaps Richard’s own might bear a little closer examination) and by being charged by Shakespeare with a catalogue of villainies which include the murder of his two young nephews (both of whom, incidentally, stood between him and the throne) he unwittingly began a campaign for the rehabilitation of his reputation.

Shakespeare gets a lot of the blame for this but to me his position is defensible. Richard III is a damn good play and I’d argue that it wouldn’t be quite as fine if he’d portrayed Richard as virtuous. Another example: in her Cousins’ War series Philippa Gregory depicts him both through the eyes of his wife as chivalrous, loving and under an obligation of crushing duty; and through the eyes of his sister-in-law (mother to the Princes in the Tower) as an obsessive, ambitious mass-murderer. For me, it’s the second of these scenarios in which he’s the more compelling character.

Novelists are perfectly entitled to do what they like with a character as long as there’s no-one they can libel by so doing. Richard may well have been wronged but the man’s been dead since 1485 and we’ll never know for certain what he was really like. In my book, writers can play with his character, for better or for worse, to their hearts’ content, though I’d prefer it if they kept to the hard facts as they’re known and undisputed. So do what you like with Richard - but please, no tanks on Bosworth Field….


  1. Great post. I write mainly Regency, and I have to get my facts correct—as best I can—but... there's a lot we just don't know, and this to me is where my writers imagination come into play.
    Oh AndI reckon I parked over those bones many a time in years gone by. Who'd've thunk it?

  2. Thanks, Raven

    Facts are important but I don't know how picky I'd be if historical accuracy ever stood between me and a crucial piece of plotting. Maybe that's why I don't write historicals - perhaps I'm just that bit too lazy to track down every alst detail

  3. Ah, facts... I set my first novel in India, in 1944. One character gets pregnant (she's not sure which of two men is the father) and becomes very lazy. A brisk friend arrives, tut-tuts over the dust and the fact that the servants are idly chatting rather than getting on with the work (because she isn't supervising them). The friend then sets about ordering them back to work. I had the book critiqued by an editor - who told me that 'a lot of people were very uncomfortable about how we treated Indians in the Raj'.

    Now, my research was good and I know I had my facts right. What do you think I should have done?

    The same editor told me of an American writer who, when she was told Elizabethan women bathed about once a year, said that her readers wouldn't stand for that, and had her heroine bathing every day.

    Was she right or wrong to do so?

  4. Um...I think you can be reasonably flexible, but I think - I THINK - I'd maybe have tried to find a compromise. Perhaps tone it down a bit, or even editorialise a little? I'd be more inclined to stick to my guns if the working of the plot was at stake, perhaps.

    It's difficult, isn't it, because even period pieces (I'm thinking Agatha Christie, say) which accurately represent contemporary language and behaviour, are being changed because modern day readers are uncomfortable with them.

  5. Interesting post, Jennifer. Richard has always been a character who divides opinions. I suppose where there seems to be no definitive facts about a historical character or event writers can let their imagination run free. Look how many books there are speculating, in both fiction and non-fiction about the fate of the Princes in the Tower.
    I thought Jenny's questions were interesting ones. I'd be tempted to avoid mention of baths and bathing in the one case. I would find it a bit dull to be told how often someone takes a bath - unless it were only once a year! Think on the India question, I'd have stuck to my guns. People should be uncomfortable about some behaviours during the Raj but that's no reason to pretend they didn't happen. I guess there is no clear cut answer, though.
    John Knox has been under a car park for years but I don't think there are any plans to dig him up; I suppose because we've always known he was down there.

  6. Ooh, I didn't know that...which car park?

    1. Behind St Giles. He was buried in St Giles churchyard which has subsequently had a car park built on top of it. I think he's in bay 23.

    2. I shall go and pay my respects....

  7. I have just read this and realised it relates to my recent emails on research Jennifer. I think some facts are indisputable but after that much depends on the person writing and the embellishments, even when they are supposedly factual books. Jenny's problem is not easy as you need to please the editor if you want the book published, but not if that goes against what you are sure is right. If in doubt leave it out but that is not always possible. I often wonder how journalists THINK they know what our present royal family are feeling, thinking, planning yet they write with conviction and how much of this will appear in history as facts.

  8. Goodness but this post is bringing out some interesting comments. I had an editor query whether chocolate was available in south west England in 1909.....she wanted evidence that it was! Ho hum....:)
    Re Richard111 ....a friend quipped when the debate was on about where he should be reburied...suggested York, Westminster Abbey and some other place I now forget - a third of Richard here, a third there, and a third elsewhere...:)

  9. Fascinating subject, Jennifer! I always try for historical accuracy where needed in fiction but we can't ever know exactly what it was like in another period. Some differences between what UK and US editors will allow or accept.

    1. Is it a US/UK thing, do you think? I admit to knowng nothing about the American market.

  10. Goodness, Richard's discovery has stirred up so much more than his bones. Sara Sheridan spoke at Edinburgh Writers' about historical research and she raised some issues. Vocabulary for example. One man's freedom fighter is another one's terrorist. That apart, I'm struggling with a date issue. I can't resolve it, but I bet if I go with a wrong assumption there will be a hundred folk who immediately say, "But...". So, I'm thinking up the dread compromises. The bottom line for this writer is that I won't be able to let the ms go until that date issue no longer niggles.
    Good post Jennifer. Thank you. Anne Stenhouse

  11. I've also been following the news reports about Richard with interest - but hadn't really followed thru my thoughts as to how easy it is to portray people as good or bad depending on how you stand in relation to them. You're right, it's a useful skill for novelists as well as spin-doctors!

    And Jenny - With your editor who wanted to change the character's attitude to servants in the Raj, I would be tempted to leave it as it is but add a bit of the character's thoughts 'is it fair that they do all the work?' if the character as sympathetic. This might not be truly realistic but it will make the character more likeable for the reader (imo)

  12. Ah Gill, it's years since I wrote that. The character was not sympathetic, but I'm not sure how I would treat it now if I went back. Generally, I'm not in favour of retrospectively rewriting attitudes of the past. There was quite a stir about recent rewrites of Monty Python (or was it Fawlty Towers? I forget), which edited out some non PC references. Most objectors argued that the attitude portrayed was already laughable at the time and is now seen as deeply ironic.

    We had servants in India (my family had 12, and we weren't even well off!). How you treated them was more a reflection of your character than anything, surely? And of theirs? My ayah was wonderful and I'm sure my mother relied heavily on her - she entrusted her with my care. If you had a lazy/dirty/thieving servant, surely you dealt with that appropriately, as you would with any employee these days. British women did not do housework. Or washing. Or ironing. Or gardening. Or even thought that they should. They ran the household.