What’s wrong with historical fiction?

During the pandemic lockdown, I was finally convinced to watch Outlander. When the show first aired, it gained immediate notoriety for being a steamy romance. What I found was a shockingly boring military historical drama about the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 that, yes, was interspersed with a significant amount of explicit sex, but seemingly half of that was assault. Later seasons change the setting to drop the characters into the highlights of 18th-century Atlantic history – pre-Revolution France, Caribbean piracy, pre-Revolutionary America (with a brief jaunt back into the 1960s with glasses on to show time has passed) – but the formula remains the same. Each season has a military/political focus with some good costumes and cultural fact sheet for color, punctuated by equal amounts of consensual sex and extremely disturbing sexual violence. I made it much farther than I really meant to given how much I disliked this setup, but when literally every main character had been assaulted I decided I was done.

Outlander may be pulpy fantasy (after all, the motivating plot device is time travel), but it encapsulates the issue with most historical fiction. It’s a three-part cocktail of conceits: 1) the main appeal is the fantasy of entering an “exciting time” in history, defined by major military or political change; 2) costuming and set are themselves central features of the storytelling because they are essential to setting the scene; and, most importantly, 3) despite the focus on this period, we must remember that it is better to be alive in the present than in the past. So, what seems to many people to be a fun glimpse into the past in order to “learn history”, like broccoli cheddar soup you’re not so much eating your vegetables as throwing a few nuggets of nutrition into otherwise empty calories. This approach is, to me, the greatest disservice to the telling of history, because for all of the effort to bring history to life, it creates more distance between the story and the audience. From my perspective, history is made real through compassion for the complexity of life in the past. But we can’t have compassion if we enter into these stories clinging to the notion that life must be better in the present, that the redeeming features of these stories are the lasting impact of the events and the escapism of their settings. Devices like sexual assault in stories such as this serve to prop up these expectations: the second Outlander’s Claire enters the 18th century, she is subjected to a constant barrage of threats of sexual violence, underlined by her crusade to bring “modern medicine” to a time literally plagued by smallpox.

Historical fiction is a genre that I keep returning to in the hopes that I will like it more this time, although I rarely have. More so now in movies and tv than books, I find myself struck again and again by how much this genre depends on suffering porn and I remind myself to avoid it. This, of course, is the basis for the “gritty realism” of Game of Thrones and its claims to historical accuracy to the Middle Ages. But this basic disrespect for the past, this inability to tell historical stories without focusing, to some extent, on suffering, runs through even relatively benign or seemingly joyful properties. I had this thought initially when I watched the remake of A League of Their Own, which reorients the story of the women’s All American Baseball League around the queer women who could have found refuge in it and the Black women who were excluded from it. Abbi Jacobson, who starred in and wrote the show, said that one of her goals was to show gay joy, to avoid the “bury your gaystrap. And yet the show itself has nary a moment of queer women living as themselves without the plot punishing them for it, through the consequences of being found out, through police raids, through the social complications of marriage. That plot progression of showing gay joy and following it immediately with severe consequences would have been right at home under the Hays Code, the repressive standards that censored movies and tv between 1936 and 1968, which allowed the representation of things considered “socially undesirable” so long as they were punished. It’s not ignoring the historical reality to show people existing as themselves in the societies they made without constantly following it up with violence, retribution, or tragedy.

In contrast, HBO’s The Gilded Age takes almost the opposite approach, with no violence, no sex, no suffering for the lower class, and little more but the slightest racially-motivated social snubs during the 1880s. For a time period defined by extreme class inequality, all the show depicts is the lives of New York aristocracy, with occasional glimpses into the seemingly stable and normal lives of their servants, and infrequent jaunts into the rosy utopia of segregated Black society. The most ill will the show has depicted is tied between a nice gay man who plots to marry a naïve young woman for her money and a racist lady’s maid who tries to discredit the show’s only major Black character, perhaps because she is personally frustrated with caring for her elderly and belligerent mother. Neither plot has yet proved successful. Presumably, part of the justification for making this show was the recent public debate about whether we are in a new Gilded Age ourselves, and yet this show does nothing to depict why that might be a bad thing. It almost seems to apologize for a a more civilized age of class disparity when millionaires were guided by morality and the poor all had jobs.

Horns of our dilemma, 1890

Another recent somewhat fanciful historical fiction that gets a bit closer to good history is Amazon Prime’s The English. The English goes in guns blazing with social agenda, taking the Western genre and turning it on its head to focus on women and indigenous stories. It doesn’t shy away from violence, but it doesn’t glory in it either – sexual assault is seen in the aftermath or off screen, as is violence both individual and en masse toward Native Americans. The violence on screen is white men shooting each other, which is in an ironic way very true to the genre. This is a true centering of typically peripheral stories, allowing the characters to both show and tell the difficulties of their lives in this patriarchal settler-colonialist society. If anything, what is unsuccessful in this telling is how the plot falls back into the tropes of historical fiction by making these elements gain their power over the story through reveals, rather than using them to drive the narrative from the start. Rape is once again a plot device, rather than the inciting incident for the protagonist, which makes it seem more like a feature of the world in which she lives than the atrocity it was. Moreover, the grit of this show gives it that air of “at least things are better in our time”, when we know full-well that circumstances have largely not improved for indigenous people and that women are often subjected to the same treatment as in the show. If anything, the punch of the show could have hit harder if it looked a little more modern.

So have I ever been happy with historical fiction? Yes. I would say the best historical movie/tv show I’ve seen was HBO’s Rome, which is absolutely full of sex and violence (though surprisingly more restrained in sexualized violence than its spiritual successor Game of Thrones) but brings ancient Rome to life in a complex and current-feeling way. The first season of Rome is driven by soldiers trying to find their places in life after war, an ambitious mother trying to push her children into places of political prominence, a politician trying to hide a disability, and a family trying to hide the true parentage of an infant. At the same time, there is a woman kneeling naked under a slaughtered bull. It’s not perfect – there are inaccuracies, it’s still a very military/political narrative, and it absolutely does not pass the Bechdel test. But it makes the distant past feel relatable in a compelling way and it manages to find a new narrative in a story that Shakespeare already made famous. One of the things that I think is most successful about this is that as much as the fictional characters are wrapped up in the real events leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar, the story isn’t trying to explain why that happened. In fact, that event is itself used more as a plot device that helps to establish the emotional weight of all the other things that come to a head at the same time.

For a completely different approach, the best historical novel I’ve read was Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus, which is a personal narrative driven by social relationships and art set in 15th-century Florence (although I don’t read a lot of novels anymore so this book is already 20 years old). This is a story that could have fallen victim to a lot of overdone tropes of historical suffering, especially the Plague, which frankly would have been stupid (and I’ve read a book like that, Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, it was terrible). Instead, it deals with a young woman’s maturation into adulthood and she could have navigated it within that society. What made this such a beautiful book is that, unlike most historical fiction, it isn’t trying to tell the story of a pivotal event, but instead using a historical setting to get at a human experience. As an art-loving teenager, I found this book incredibly true to life, putting equal emphasis on the struggle to paint beautifully and anxieties about finding love. It doesn’t have to be set in Florence, it could have been 1910s Paris or Egypt in 2000BC. That’s the point. The difference in setting helps reveal something essentially human. That’s why I was drawn to fantasy literature as a teenager as well. Some settings make it easier – there were, after all, a lot of opportunities to meet painters as a wealthy teenager in 15th-century Florence. If we focus in on historical settings that help us reflect on the present, we are also learning and appreciating more about the past. But if we are only using historical settings as window dressing, as superficial routes into the past, we aren’t really learning about either, because we can’t see past our expectations to get to any kind of meaningful depth. If one of the marks of good storytelling is that the characters grow or change, then in historical fiction the audience must be a character, we must experience growth as the story unfolds, because our time period is always implicitly invoked by the historicity of the story’s setting.

If you’re not convinced, I have a final thought. If we return to Shakespeare, there’s something about his plays that we don’t often put in perspective. Those stories were not set with a sense for “historical accuracy”. As Shakespeare scholars have pointed out, Caesar and other ancient characters in these plays were mostly dressed as Elizabethans. This is probably not for a lack of knowledge – after all, medieval and Renaissance peoples were surrounded by depictions of ancient Romans, from the art on the walls of Catholic churches (though in England much less so after the Protestant Reformation) to extant statues and mosaics. Instead, it has to do with relatability. Shakespeare’s plays always had elements in the writing that were meant to draw in audiences from different backgrounds, such as the wisecracking peasants who are often prominent secondary characters. By costuming the performances in Shakespeare’s present, these productions removed the historical obstacle of the setting so that the audience could focus on the emotional thrust of the play. In our media, we are obsessed with historical accuracy, even for relatively recent settings. We are laboring under the tyranny of trying to get in the mindset of a different time, when it is impossible to escape the present. Slavish adherence to setting is often a distraction, both to the production team and the audience, from what the story is about and how it can spark meaning.

History of the World, Part 1 (1981), dir. Mel Brooks

At the start, I offered a set of guidelines that describe how historical fiction is often written. Here’s an alternative: treat historical fiction as fiction first and history second. Serve the characters and the plot before the setting. Allow the story to be driven by narrative beats rather than pivotal real events. And, perhaps most importantly to me as a historian, acknowledge that we as the producers of this art and its audience exist in the present and do not have a full appreciation of the past; we cannot fully remove ourselves from the telling of this story and we can appreciate it better when we acknowledge our relevance to it.