What the Dickens! Poetic License in Historical Fiction

How accurate does an author need to be when writing historical fiction? This is a question I have wrestled with for quite sometime, on Twitter and here on The Boomerang. This third installation in my ongoing discussion on history and historical fiction came about after reading Peter Damien’s book review of Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe on Book Riot.

VirginiaPoe
Water color painting of Virginia Poe (1822–1847)
Source: Midnightdreary, Wikimedia Commons

The novel Mrs. Poe is a story about Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virginia, and the relationship between her husband and one of his admirers, a poet named Frances Osgood. Damien’s review of the book is a positive one. However, he does a double-take when Cullen lets Poe discuss Charles Dickens.

According to Cullen’s portrayal of Poe, he is not impressed by the writings of Dickens, even sneering at his portrayal of England’s less fortunate classes. Damien, who is obsessed by Dickens, notes here that Poe, too, was obsessed by this author. In other words, Cullen has given Poe opinions that contradict Edgar Allan Poe. As a consequence of this, Damien understandably begins to question the accuracy of the entire novel.

3a52078r  Charles_Dickens_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13103
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)                  Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Source: Library of Congress                    Source: Tagishsimon, Wikimedia Commons

Here lies the crux of historical fiction. The genre is called historical fiction. In other words, what you read is made up. However, the genre is called historical fiction. This means that what you read also has a basis in events that once took place.

As I stated in the blog post Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane, historical fiction is necessary to make historical research accessible to the general public. Historical research needs to be made sexy and historical fiction is a nifty way to do it. To make the story work some poetic license is needed or there would be little difference between fiction and research and the value of entertainment would be accordingly.

The problem with historical fiction is how an author can use poetic license and still call it historical fiction?

My answer to this question is that as long as the author does not change important facts or the essence of a character, poetic license can be applied quite freely.

The problem with Cullen giving Poe a negative view of Dickens is that in so doing she makes the fictional character of Edgar Allan Poe contradict the essence of the historical character of Edgar Allan Poe. This is where historical fiction leaves history behind and just becomes fiction.

According to Damien, the scene where Poe discusses Dickens is a minor one. But, as the saying goes, The Devil is in the details.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Previous posts on the topic of the relationship between history and historical fiction are
Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane
Five Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and not an MFA

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