Sunday, March 9, 2008

Historical fiction

Recently I went with a friend to see the Other Boleyn Girl with the all-star cast of Scarlett Johannsen, Natalie Portman, and Eric Bana. I was tired after a long week of too much work and wanted something relaxing and trivial. Well, the Other Boleyn Girl can be said to be trivial but it certainly was not relaxing.

After the movie, which portrays the Boleyn family as one driven by court ambitions and little else with Mary Boleyn being a saint while Ann is a scheming wench who betrays her sister for to become the queen, my friend and I discussed whether the movie bore any resemblance to history. After coming back home, I looked up Ann Boleyn on wikipedia and the wikipedia entry certainly makes the movie seem quite false. According to the wiki entry, the Boleyn family was a distinguished family with both Mary and Ann being quite sophisticated ladies of the court. Mary was known for having several distinguished lovers in her lifetime but finally opposed her family by marrying a commoner (it is generally accepted that she married for love as there was no financial or power gain for her in the marriage). And while the movie portrays the father of the Boleyn family as being weak and unable to provide for his family, the wiki entry says that he was a distinguished diplomat who sent his children abroad for the most sophisticated education available.

I looked up Phillipa Gregory's book on Amazon to see if the movie bore any resemblance to the book, and it seems that the book bears slightly more resemblance to the truth even though it emphasizes the rivalry between the sisters and also posits Ann as an ambitious wench.

Books and movies that distort historical figures have long troubled me. There are well written books that stick to the truth of a historical figure even while examining the life of that figure and giving their interpretation of that life. One such notable instance is Colm Toibin's The Master, a novel about Henry James life. The tremendous time-period novels by writers such as Peter Carey or Kazuo Ishiguro are also feats in creating realistic characters within certain time periods. Another way to use a historical basis for one's own writing is to display one's hand continually as to the literary endeavor, that it isn't history itself. This is what Anne Carson and Roberto Bolano do.

However, to write a book that is patently not true and to not acknowledge the many liberalties taken is to deceive the reader. Moreover, often it is to offer scandal in lieu of a more nuanced truth. I was horrified when I read about Geraldine Brook's March based on Bronson Alcott's life.

Let me disclose fully, at this point, that I haven't read Phillipa Gregory's Other Boleyn Girl nor Gerladine Brook's March. I've thought about doing so in order that I could think more coherently about this, but whenever I read the pages available in Amazon, I feel as though I don't need to waste time reading such books when there are so many books that are very brilliant and which I still haven't read.

I suppose I am writing about the plots as disclosed in reviews and other summaries provided by the publisher. At one point, I had to sell some historical fiction as part of my job. And mostly I found them somewhat embarrassing. It's as though these writers do not trust the readers with the more complicated truths, or that they themselves are incapable of dealing with the variables of truths and writing about it in an interesting way. Instead, the truth is distorted for the sake of a quick read, a good sell. In the end, such books will be relegated to the dustbins except for being a footnote or two in literary history.

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