Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

The struggle between historical accuracy and perpetuating false information in historical fiction

Something many historical writers may not have considered is the sensitive balance between being historically accurate and avoiding the perpetuation of false information which was widely believed at that time. Should you address this in a note in the front or back matter, include a dissenting voice among your characters, or just present the view as-is?

Take the corset, a supportive undergarment which was an important, matter-of-fact part of every woman’s wardrobe for centuries in various forms, but which is now widely seen as a deforming torture device. That definitely wasn’t the view of most women who actually wore corsets!

Believe it or not, only a small minority of women tight-laced, slept in their corsets, or began wearing corsets as small children, and the women who did do that were looked upon as foolish, ridiculous, and odd. These were also wealthy and upper-middle-class women. Working-class and poor women didn’t have time for that nonsense.

It’s also medically impossible for internal organs to be displaced by the wearing of a corset.

However, women who came of age in the twilight of corset history were genuinely glad to be free of them. Late Edwardian corsets were extremely uncomfortable, since they covered the thighs, changed the position of the hips, and made it very difficult to walk. Corset production halted during WWI because the steel was needed more for the war effort, and bras and girdles replaced the corset.

Then the misinformation mill took over, and before long, popular culture had convinced everyone corsets were akin to foot-binding and that almost every single woman had a freakishly tiny waist, crushed ribs and organs, and constant fainting from tight-lacing. They were well within living memory, but corsets were seen as an embarrassing relic of a dinosaur age. In every generation, people love laughing at their “unenlightened, inferior” elders and ancestors

I’m planning a whole series on writing about corsets in historical fiction and debunking persistent myths about them.

Another myth that refuses to die is that our Neanderthal cousins were knuckle-dragging, unintelligent, grunting brutes. Until the last decade or so, this was widely believed on account of misinformation dating all the way back to the discovery of our extinct cousins. In the 19th century, scientists couldn’t conceive of the notion of our species having different branches, and so assumed Neanderthals had to be a cruder, earlier race completely unrelated to us. There were also some individual skeletons which appeared to be deformed, which was taken to mean all Neanderthals looked like that.

Now we know Neanderthals buried their dead, had an early form of religion, cared for sick and injured members of their tribe instead of leaving them to die, understood medicinal herbs, were egalitarian (women participated in face-to-face hunting of dangerous animals just like men), produced artwork on cave walls, cooked their food, made and wore jewelry, played music, wore clothes, made stone tools, used language, and even made boats and sailed to other lands.

We also know now that Neanderthals and early modern humans interbred, and that everyone in our species has a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA.

Memorial to 200 Hungarian victims of a death march, Copyright Haeferl

Then we have the Mengele trope, which very likely arose because Shoah survivors wanted to put a name and face to such evil, and Mengele was one of the few names they knew. Everyone was selected by Mengele, despite multiple other “doctors” working the ramp; he was seen at Auschwitz even before he came there; he was doing 5-6 different things in different places at the same time. This POS was repugnant enough without assigning him supernatural powers!

There are also other Shoah urban legends which even survivors themselves believed, like the claims about lampshades and soap made from people. Scientific investigation has shown 99.999999% of Nazi lampshades were made of leather. There was also never any soap made from humans.

Because of Shoah denial and the horrific rise in antisemitism, it’s extremely important to always be one million percent accurate when writing about the Shoah.

There are so many other examples of historical urban myths and misinformation, like how it was widely believed Titanic sank in one piece instead of splitting into two; Julius Caesar was born by C-section (his mother was still alive when he was an adult, and C-sections were 100% fatal in that era); people in the Middle Ages never bathed; everyone stank before deodorant was invented; people dropped dead at 35 and most girls married at all of 13 until the modern era; millions of people were burnt at the stake as witches; there was a mass panic over The War of the Worlds radio broadcast; surnames were routinely changed by incompetent clerks at Ellis Island (immigrants did that themselves, and the vast majority were Jews who wanted to escape systemic, institutionalized antisemitism); the entire film industry switched to talkies overnight after The Jazz Singer, and no silent actors survived the transition; Vietnam vets were routinely spat on and beaten up after returning home.

Ask yourself why you want to include this myth. Is it important to the storyline or character development? Does a character really need to make a sniping comment about corsets, Neanderthals, or Medieval people? Is that relevant to a scene? Could s/he be corrected by, e.g., a tour guide at a historical museum? And if it truly fits into your story, how can you make it clear this is misinformation?

Author:

Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

4 thoughts on “The struggle between historical accuracy and perpetuating false information in historical fiction

  1. Tour guides are way under-rated.

    They do a lot of great research which goes beyond their immediate tours and money-making requirements.

    And museum docents as well.

    One can believe that people in the Middle Ages never bathed while not believing that “everyone” stank before deodorant was invented.

    The factor, I suppose, is closeness or distance to one’s own lived experience.

    And it does take time and space to develop a historically informed perspective.

    Fiction can really help with this process – or it can hinder it.

    And in reality it has many complex effects.

    Agree about being one million percent accurate about the Shoah.

    [my younger self had been caught out when it came to the popular use of the word “holocaust” or an overly-literal one].

    One example of the “names were changed at Ellis Island” – and my own first exposure to that myth or misconception – was HERE’S TO YOU RACHEL ROBINSON.

    Robinson was first Rzybinski or else Rzybincki [both those are fairly Informed Guesses – which I did not necessarily have conscious access to in mid-January 1995 when first I read this book – and, yes, this was two weeks – or even just one – BEFORE Holocaust Remembrance Day or Auschwitz liberation]

    And the Ellis Island story was explored by the elder brother of Rachel the protagonist – Charles was trying to explore his identity at this point in the narrative.

    I am glad that your Ellis Island narratives are so much truer and at the very least least misleading of the ways that they could be done.

    A point for novelists; poets; essayists; short story authors and multimedia content creators:

    Someday your contemporary will be someone’s valued historical – if it is not forgotten and remaindered.

    So it pays to be careful and accurate.

    Share and show what you know and how you came to know it and why it is important for others to know it.

    These traces and slips of information – and authorial and editorial interpretation.

    If it were a more serious historical I would appreciate “going to the source” – like when James Michener would talk about his research – or Phillippa Gregory or Antonia Fraser.

    The tiny waist thing I most immediately associated with Scarlett O’Hara – [which was 80 years in distance between the time portrayed and the writing – and remember Margaret Mitchell took TEN YEARS between the writing and the publication] and with the supermodels of the 1980s and the 1990s.

    The Holocaust soap and lampshades came in very slowly into my awareness. I had recognised them more or less as motifs of Holocaust revision and denial – especially the soap.

    This past August I read Simon Wiesenthal’s JUSTICE NOT VENGEANCE.

    The lampshades I began to question later because I had heard read of Simon Baron-Cohen’s ZERO DEGREES OF EMPATHY with various hands being “sewn on” outside of standard medical practice.

    Again – the block with human flesh and anything which had been once associated with human or animal flesh.

    [there is probably a cognitive fallacy connected to that – and an emotional aversion too or social disgust].

    Putting a name and a face to evil is so important. Having said – Hannah Arendt reminds us so much of THE BANALITY OF EVIL.

    Regarding Vietnam veterans – Australia was in the Vietnam War too. Especially in the last 6 or 7 years before the fall of Saigon – and the years afterwards when there was a very conservative patrician government and in the early days of the more socialist government – this was too widely believed.

    I was able to read THE HONEST HISTORY BOOK from New South Press in early and mid-September 2017 – this book is especially good on “Anzackery” [myths about the impact of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the First World War] – and someone asked those very questions.

    Then I was able to supplement with at least one visit to the Australian War Memorial to visit with veterans and descendants and peacekeepers [for example: Somalia and Timor-Leste and some of the more “humanitarian” interventions].

    [I have visited the AWM twice – 2012 and 2018].

    There are still myths about Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom which remained in my impressionable mind and its keeping.

    ***

    I will go back again to 1995 – as this is when we were actively taught about the Titanic through fiction and non-fiction.

    Also we were asked in February 1995 to design our “own” Titanic.

    Mine was a tugboat or more like a submarine.

    [and any resemblance to the current and future construction of potential Australian defence force collaborations was utterly coincidential – though there were international models considered and encouraged].

    And the force of the iceberg and the speed of the Titanic showed me that, no, it could not have fallen in one piece.

    A good friend in a performing arts workshop seven years later [we are in August 2002 now] had a passion for the Titanic and another, more enduring one for the Dreadnought.

    [those very fine English ships: and not only the tall ones!]

    There is a good Titanic historical fiction which I bought in 2015 [along with 2 non-fiction books – I by Anne Manne – about narcissism – and a biography of Australian music journalist Ian “Molly” Meldrum – that book is called IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, and, yes, Mr Meldrum really does speak like that! He is also a passionate Egyptologist and if he came to write a book or make a documentary about that passion].

    ***

    Regarding corsets:

    “In every generation, people love laughing at their “unenlightened, inferior” elders and ancestors

    I’m planning a whole series on writing about corsets in historical fiction and debunking persistent myths about them.”

    I am looking forward to that series.

    The steel and the war effort I had not really connected. I knew that other less necessary uses had been subsumed.

    Laughter and ridicule does have the power of distance, doesn’t it?

    It also has the power to connect and bond WITHIN the generation and even across humans – like the people who originated in the Neander Valleys and Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

    Also you may not feel particularly safe laughing at your elders – but you might at your [long gone] ancestors.

    ***

    Girls marrying in the earlier years…

    Maybe people were getting confused when it came to First Communion and Confirmation [if Catholics were in the minority and persecuted] and thought the dresses were wedding dresses or more fancy than what would have been seen every day or even Sunday.

    Or there were handfasting and roofraising [barnraising] ceremonies that were embedded.

    We did not know a whole lot about bone age [and then I remember a historical exploration and explanation exercise about the Tollund Man].

    With refugees and asylum seekers [and here I get into a very dark spot of recent and living history] it is much harder to tell their bone age – a few years’ younger or older depending on how you measure accurately. Compared to reference or index.

    [Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels will *probably* tell you what you might like/need to know].

    ***

    Now I realise the emphasis was on AVOIDING PERPETRATING [and the other perpetuating word] FALSE INFORMATION WHICH WAS *WIDELY BELIEVED* *AT THE TIME*.

    Also I am thinking of Flores Man who was discovered on an Indonesian island.

    Another strategy I like to use when trying to be more historically accurate is: “Wait; watch; wonder”.

    As well as cutting across the weeds of the garden/potting mix and soil.

    It was Victorian MEN who taught people to hate corsets – not only women passing this among each other and to their younger contemporaries?

    [behind every hate or peeve it seems you will find a powerful man or one who wants to be powerful. Will peruse this video].

    About the deformed skeletons – hard cases make bad law – especially when it comes to historical and paleontological law.

    [and the high preponderance WOULD have shown that Neander Valley peoples DID care for their sick and their injured and their elderly].

    ***

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Try suggesting that by ‘ nasty, brutish and short’, Hobbes meant life life during a period of War, not life in general. Even Oxbridge academics perpetuate this. ( Not Oxbridge, our teachers suggested we read Leviathan)
    Long ago, on TV, Python and historian Terry Jones tried to explain that mediaeval peasants had a pretty good diet – practically vegan, bacon if they got lucky, and worked rather less for the lord of the manor than we do for the government.
    Dreadnoughts ? One imperialist nation definitely had more of those, and it wasn’t called Germany, or even Prussia.
    Anti-semistism ? Maybe you’ve read some of the Measuring Worth post war UK diaries ?

    Like

    1. So Hobbes had been on a war footing when he was writing LEVTHIATHIAN?

      Dreadnoughts and imperalist nations

      That nation was England, yes?

      [and Wales and Northern Ireland – and not excluding Scotland – though the *weight*].

      I do read this type of diary, Esther. Probably not *Measuring Worth*.

      The situation in Australia in the early 2000s was based on mandatory detention [imposed by Prime Minister Keating in 1993 – initially with Cambodians in mind or at least most affected] and very much on Islamophobia/Islamomisia.

      There was a rise in the outer suburban electorates.

      There is a wonderful philosophical book at the moment called NASTY, BRUTISH AND SHORT where a philosopher wrote about his two sons and all the great philosophical engagement they go through.

      It is true about the peasants and their work for the Lord of the Manor – relatively non-onerous in both terms of labour and conditions and hours.

      [and that Pythonites passed it on makes it even better].

      Then we get into Vichy France and Free France. I begin only now to sort it out and weigh it in decent historical terms.

      Like

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