Friday 15 October 2021

Indie Spotlight: Historical Fiction - When you say ‘authentic’ . . .

Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing. 

As a historical fiction author, I know that readers has a high expectation of historical accuracy in our books. When we write our characters, we strive to make them as authentic as possible to the era when our stories take place. But the more I read and research history, the more I find that people in the past often behave quite differently from what we expect based on our understanding of social norms and customs of their time. Today, I invited author Melissa Addey to join us and discuss what authenticity means when we talk about historical fiction. Melissa is the author of Forbidden City, a Chinese historical fiction series about the experiences of four girls who were drafted to become concubines of the Emperor in 18th century China. 

Now, over to Melissa . . .  

Authenticity is a word that gets used a lot within historical fiction circles. Readers rigorously insist on it or kindly allow for some fictional wiggle room, depending on their preferences. Authors write long, sometimes rather defensive ‘historical notes’ sections to clarify where they personally chose to place the balancing point between fact and fiction. Book reviews of this genre always mention it, along with a judgement on how well the author provided this crucial quality. But authenticity is a slippery beast, because it falls somewhere between ‘accuracy’ and ‘expectations’. Academic author Diana Wallace[1] suggests that historical fiction achieves authenticity by staying true to the reader’s expectations of an era. But I find this desire to fulfill a reader’s expectations a little worrying. Professor Anthony Jackson of Manchester University says that ‘you should not just give the audience what they think they want, you should startle them,’[2] which holds true for many aspects of history and in particular those authors who may be trying to write in the gaps (deliberate or otherwise) left in the official historical record. Sarah Waters, who ‘startles’ us with lesbian romantic stories set in (our perceived) sexually repressed Victorian era, said that ‘part of the project of that book (Tipping the Velvet) was not to be authentic’[3] (my emphasis). 

Our expectations of an era can be biased because of the official or popular histories we have been exposed to or simply erroneous, as well as culturally-bound. In my own Forbidden City series set in the Chinese court of the 1700s, I have always been obliged to somehow insert the fact that none of my women have bound feet. The ruling members of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty era in which my novels are set were Manchu, an ethnically different group from the Han Chinese people over whom they ruled. The Manchus forbade foot binding. No Manchu women had bound feet and there were repeated attempts to stop the Han Chinese population from continuing the practice. Therefore, within my world of imperial concubines, no woman has bound feet: any woman arriving for the Imperial Daughters’ Draft (when Manchu women from across the empire were selected for marriage to the imperial family) with bound feet would have been sent home in disgrace and her family would have been fined. Given that very, very few readers of my novels would know this, should I meet their expectations and present foot-bound concubines to achieve ‘authenticity’ and in doing so completely sacrifice historical accuracy? Such a choice would be absurd.
In this particular series of books, I also wanted to challenge the very popular fictional trope that all the concubines within the Forbidden City were at each other’s throats in jealous rages, preferring to occasionally show characters choosing different paths within the narrow confines of their imperial lives. This, in part, is because China was a polygamous culture and I found it unlikely that women who fully expected to be co-wives would be quite so distressed when this came to pass. One line I used in marketing my books was, “Not every concubine falls in love with the Emperor,” because in the series, only one concubine has a romantic relationship with the Emperor. There are also relationships with and between eunuchs (and a marriage between a eunuch and a maid, with an adopted child), as well as between concubines. All of these have been documented in historical sources. I also have a concubine who stays well out of any rivalries, preferring a happily forgotten quiet life, and a concubine who takes the prosaic view that the best role to aim for is to be the mother of a future emperor, and so goes about becoming a favourite so that she can produce plenty of heirs, with no romantic aspirations at all. Finally, there is a concubine who was already in love and betrothed before she was chosen for imperial service, and never really gets over her lost love. These other options are not officially documented, but out of dozens and dozens of concubines for just one emperor, it makes sense that they, too, would have existed. Popular tropes are not always based on a historically accurate premise.

Sometimes, our expectations are so certain of how things ‘usually are’ that it becomes almost impossible to challenge them through fiction without some very clunky exposition. In my Morrocan Empire series, set in 11th century Morocco, I had to contend with the fact that amongst the local Berbers of the time (preferred contemporary name, Amazigh), it was the men who fully veiled their faces, not women. I struggled for a long time to find a way to gracefully mention that my heroine was dressing as a man by veiling her face, and in the end gave up and put a historical note right at the start of the novel to explain this ‘startling’ fact. 


And added to these difficulties for the poor novelist trying to achieve that all-important authenticity, historical records just keep on changing. It is only in the past few years that the date of the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupting and wiping out Pompeii has been changed from August to October 79AD because of new archeological evidence, including autumn fruits and braziers for heating, as well as an inscription. So, in my latest series, set in 1st century Rome, following the backstage team of the Colosseum, I felt I had to explain my choice in my historical notes, lest I be pounced on by readers accustomed to the date being in August. 


So authenticity, to me, is a word to be a little wary of. Perhaps it is better to ask whether what we are reading is ‘accurate’ (for the time being at least, until we find other evidence) since it’s a clearer term. And also, more importantly, for we readers of historical fiction to remain open to being startled, in the best possible way. 


(Part of this text comes from Melissa's Creative Writing PhD thesis, kindly funded by the University of Surrey.)

Melissa Addey is an author of historical fiction, set in China, Morocco and Rome. Her books have won the Novel London award and been made Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novels Society. She has a PhD in Creative Writing, has been the Writer in Residence for the British Library and teaches creative writing. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in London, UK. 


You can find out more about Melissa or follow her at:

Her novella, The Consorts, set in 18th century China, is available for free download on Amazon.
Her novella, The Cup, set in 11th century Morocco, is available for free download on her website.

[1] Diana Wallace, The Women’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000 (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

[2] Professor Anthony Jackson, in personal conversation. (2017)

[3] Harris, Katharine, ‘“Part of the Project of that Book was Not to be Authentic”: Neo-Historical Authenticity and its Anachronisms in Contemporary Historical Fiction', Rethinking History, vol. 21 (2017), pp. 193-212