Different terms of reference

At the Chalke Valley History Festival today, an extremely thoughtful question was asked by a member of the audience at the end of the talk on historical fact and fiction.

The question was, in essence, how the historical novelist copes with the fact that their characters had different terms of reference, different mores, from their modern-day readers.

It’s a tough question, and whilst the authors on stage answered it up to a point, it deserves fuller consideration.

Here’s a recent post from our own M.M. Bennetts, paying tribute to the late, great Dorothy Dunnett.

“She faced up to the horrors of life in the Renaissance [says Bennetts] and whilst I would never say she wallowed in it, she never made excuses nor did she pass judgment, because their ways of doing things, their sense of right and wrong or justice, were very different from ours.  And that takes a great degree of courage.”

This clear-sighted honesty about the past is yet another thing that good historical fiction can convey perhaps more effectively than any other medium.  Certainly better than film, since one has the whole of a book to explore these things, rather than 90 minutes of action.  Better even, perhaps, than historical textbooks, since the novelist can explore cause and consequence, and can allow his or her contextual understanding to explore the gaps between the recorded facts.

OK, time to shut up and let you read Bennetts’s post now.  Here it is.  Dazzled by Dunnett.  And here’s today’s post, extrapolating the same theme still further:  Getting it right.

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