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.

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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.

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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

5 Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and Not an MFA

When querying an agent, what should you include in your letter? The answers to that question are as many as there are literary agents. But one thing that most responses have in common is, If you have an MFA (in creative writing), mention that. At first I was intimidated by this. I don’t have an MFA. But then I realized that I have something better.

I have a PhD.

If you want to become a writer, especially a writer of historical fiction, in my opinion a PhD is a wiser way of spending your money.

Here are five reasons why.

1) Language and style.
In historical science a writer’s language and style are of utmost importance. Historical science is dedicated to the study of human activities through the written word. These studies are conveyed to the rest of the human population through the writings of the historian. Language and style are important in historical science because if an historian abuses his/her privilege as a scholar, historical facts can be distorted, as in the case of Holocaust deniers and believers in exogenesis. Therefore, when writing historical research, the scholar needs to choose his/her words very carefully, consequently developing a close relationship to the written language.

2) Editing.
When writing a research article or a dissertation, the scholar needs to be able to determine what pieces of information are important to the argument and what pieces are not. Moreover, all academic publications, except perhaps the dissertation, are limited to the amount of words allowed. Whenever submitting an article or a chapter, you need to follow the guidelines of the editor or the publisher. If an article cannot exceed a certain amount of words, that rule becomes your law. Moreover, that limit often includes the footnotes and references, as well as the actual text.

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Daguerrotype of unidentified woman, possibly Mrs. Knox Walker, c. 1844
Photographer: Mathew B. Brady (c. 1823–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Daguerrotypes

3) Thick skin.
Just like the publishing business, the world of academia can be both tough and rewarding. While writing your dissertation, your results will be heavily criticized by people who care about you and by people who don’t give a damn about you. Your research results will be scrutinized in minutest detail, questioned and picked apart. These reactions can have just as much to do with the quality of your work as they can be completely unrelated to anything you have written. As a graduate student you will learn how to discern the honest critics from those who play at politics. And you will learn how to incorporate the criticism in your work and improve it.

4) You will be published.
The question of graduate students publishing research while still working on their dissertation differs from university to university and from country to country. During my years as a graduate student I published several articles while I was working on my dissertation. By doing that I learned how to submit manuscripts, deal with editors, and, most importantly, wait for editors. When I graduated, the dissertation became my first book.

5) You have proven yourself.
When you graduate and receive your doctorate, it is the same as if you would become a master craftsman. You have created something and been rewarded. You have been allowed entrance to a community of peers. If you have a PhD in history with the ambition of writing historical fiction, the PhD is your ticket to archives, libraries, universities and university faculty expertise. You do not need to convince them of your skills. Your PhD will take you wherever you want to go. And once you get to the archive or library where your source material is located, you know how to find your way among the shelves and the documents. You know how to conduct sustainable research.

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Crimean War cavalry camp, 1855
Photographer: Roger Fenton (1819–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Fenton Crimean War Photographs

Graduate studies are tough. There is a reason why I say that my dissertation was written in blood, sweat and tears. At the same time, writing my dissertation and receiving my doctorate was the best thing I have ever done. Graduate school may be hard and demanding, but it is a safe haven where you are allowed to fail and pick yourself up again. You are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, it is expected of you. When you graduate you have already gone through many of the emotional ups and downs of writing and publishing. When the agent doesn’t respond to your query or when a book critic tears your work to pieces, you will doubt yourself, your heart will be broken, but you know that you have the strength to continue. Because you have been there before.

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