Part of the reason that people enjoy historical fiction is that it can give really interesting information about a particular time and place. That’s part of why, for many readers, it’s important that their historical fiction be accurate. They want to learn from it, which is hard to do if it’s not realistic.
But that presents a challenge. Even if you don’t read much historical fiction, you probably know that many periods of history haven’t been exactly pleasant. Wars, disease, high infant mortality, lack of hygiene, and plenty of other factors could make life miserable. That’s especially true for those who were poor or otherwise disenfranchised. At the same time as readers of historical fiction want realistic depictions, they may very well not want unrelenting misery. So, what’s the balance? How can an author depict a particular historical period honestly, yet in an engaging way? Everyone has a different idea of what ‘counts’ as the right amount of realism. But here are a few examples of books and series that strike that balance.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The novel takes place beginning in 1828, when two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. The three suspects are found guilty, and are sentenced to death. It’s decided that, rather than spend the money to keep Agnes housed in a prison, she will be sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. There, so it’s believed, she will benefit from living with a ‘good Christian family’ for her last months. And the government won’t be responsible for feeding and housing her. The family will benefit, too, from her work. As the story goes on, we slowly get to know Agnes, and we learn about her past, her relationship with the other two convicted of the crime, and their reasons. Throughout the novel, Kent is clear about what life was like at that time, and in that place, especially if you were a woman and a convict. There’s no glossing over. At the same time, the attention is on the story, rather than on every gritty detail.
One could say much the same thing about C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake is a lawyer who lives and works in London during the reign of King Henry VIII. It’s a very uncertain time, with religious upheaval, political intrigue, and strained international relations. Life’s not easy for the average person; in fact, it can be quite bleak. And even those with means are not immune from disease, persecution, and more. Against this backdrop, Shardlake has to move very carefully. He knows he works at the pleasure of the king and his advisors. If he does anything to displease them, he risks everything. Sansom doesn’t make light of the grim realities of life at that time. That said, though, the focus is on the mysteries and the plot threads relating to them.
It is in Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman’s Adelia Aguilar series, too. These novels take place in the 12h Century, during the rule of King Henry II. Aguilar is a doctor, originally from the University at Salerno, who is summoned by the king to investigate a murder. Life at this time is grueling, especially for women and other disenfranchised people. In fact, for her own safety, Aguilar has to work ‘behind the scenes’ and pretend that the medical work is done by Simon Menahm – Simon of Naples – who came with her to England. It’s too dangerous for a woman to be involved in medical science. Superstition plays a major role in people’s lives, and that, too, makes life difficult. That’s not to mention the other hardships that people faced at the time. But the focus of these novels is on the cases at hand. It’s not that Franklin/Norman plays down the realities of the times. Rather, the emphasis is on the stories, instead of on the ‘gory details.’
Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill and his family, who move from London to Sydney 1806, when Thornill is sentenced to transportation for stealing a load of wood. The family makes a new start, with Thornhill earning a living by making deliveries up and down the local river. His wife, Sal, sets up a makeshift pub. Little by little, they settle in. But as they do, they come into increasing conflict with the people who were always there. That conflict ends in some brutal atrocities. Although Thornhill wants no part of this sort of bloodshed, he soon sees that he’ll have to get his hands dirty if he’s to build a life on the piece of land he dreams of owning. Grenville is realistic about what it was like to be poor in London at that time, and later, what it was like to live in a penal colony. It’s dirty, exhausting, and sometimes very ugly. Lifespans are not long, and disease kills very quickly. That said, though, there isn’t exhaustive detail about the grimness of live. Rather, Grenville’s focus is on the story of how the Thornhill family makes a new life in Australia.
Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu novels are set in 1920’s India, mostly in Madras (today’s Chennai). Life’s not really easy, even for the British, who are firmly in charge. It’s much more difficult for anyone else, especially the poor who happen to be Indian. Although there have been some medical advances, there’s still a high mortality rate. As is mentioned in The Pallampur Predicament,
‘If there was a scourge left for the British in India, it was illness in many forms.’
That said, though, Stoddart’s focus is the mystery at hand in each novel. There’s no glossing over some of the difficulties of life; at the same time, the novels don’t dwell on them.
That’s also arguably true of the work of other authors, such as Sulari Gentill, Gordon Ferris, and Felicity Young. It’s not an easy balance to strike. On the one hand, readers want realistic portrayals. On the other, most readers don’t want unrelenting bleakness. What’s your personal balance? If you’re a writer of historical crime fiction, how do you acknowledge the difficulties of life in other times without letting them overpower your plots?
ps. The ‘photo is from Abba Eban’s Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, and was reprinted there from the Bettmann Archives. It shows a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side not long after the turn of the 20th Century.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Police’s Too Much Information.