Do You Need To Know The History Before You Can Enjoy Historical Fiction?

When you’re reading historical fiction, how much of the historical context do you need to know before you can enjoy the story. Or does it not matter to you at all?

The story doesn’t necessarily have to be set in a different time period. It just has to incorporate significant aspects of that time period, preferably using a key historical figure or event in the plot.

I have always enjoyed history so I like to think I have a good general knowledge on history. But everytime I read another historical fiction, it just highlights to me all the things I don’t know.

And I find that my knowledge of a historical context vastly improves my enjoyment of the story because I get all the little in-store characterizations and references. And I find that authors really rely on that point when writing their story. It means that don’t have to spend as much time world-building or developing characters. There’s no need to describe an evil dictator when you can just refer to Hitler.

Part of the charm of ‘The Boy in Striped Pyjamas’, is that the sense of foreboding is amplified because we know who The Fury is and we know exactly who the boy in striped pyjamas is. ‘The Boys From Brazil’ was also an suspenseful read because I knew damn well what Josef Mengele was capable of. And knowing that Churchill suffered from depression made Mr Chartwell more believable.

Conversely if I don’t have as much knowledge of that time period, then it becomes difficult for me to follow along.

For example, if you read ‘The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared’, you almost need a crash course on modern international history of every key event. You needed to know Soong Mei-Ling to Harry Truman before you can smirk along to the in-jokes peppered along the plot. So as much as I appreciated the ingenuity that went behind the novel, I ended up skimming certain bits because they didn’t really resonate with me.

I’m trying to rack my brains to see if I’ve read any novel where the context was a historical period I knew absolutely nothing about. But I guess if I had minimal interest learning about that time frame, I’m not as motivated to pick up a book about that period.

The only one that’s really standing out is ‘Gone with the Wind’. The only thing I knew about the American Civil War was that it was about the abolishment of slavery (excuse my ignorance, but I am Australian) but I loved that story for the portrayal of Scarlett and Rhett’s doomed relationship. I wasn’t very interested about the actual war itself, even though many critics pointed out the inaccurate time frame of the plot.

I guess I could count ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. Based off a real oil painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, Chevalier chose to come up with a whole backstory for the titular girl with a pearl earring. No one knows who the girl is but Chevalier used all the information she had on Vermeer to use in her novel.

And the problem with history itself is that it’s all about interpretation. They say winners write the history books so everyone will have a different viewpoint of the same event. And the author may be including their own biases into the story.

I have ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ on my reading list as I am a big fan of Tudor history and Anne Boleyn was my favourite of all of Henry’s wives. So I’m hoping that it’s accurate as it can be, or at least the essence of Anne Boleyn is captured in the story, her sexual nature, sheer ambition to be Queen, and her indomitable will. So often, Anne Boleyn gets written off as this reckless man-eater.

But one of my greatest pet peeves about historical fiction is the offensive inaccuracies. Where entire parts of history are glossed over or misinterpreted to make the story flow better. Or to rewrite the victor in a more favourable light, for example if in the act of achieving something amazing, they had to commit a couple of inconvenient acts of genocide.

I haven’t had this problem with books yet since I haven’t read a lot of historical fictions so I’m extrapolating my experiences from movies. For example, I had no idea a war was going on during ‘Pearl Harbour’, I just thought it was a love story.

And Dan Brown’s attempt at interpreting religious history in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ didn’t just result in criticism from the Catholic Church. It also led to multiple historians swearing up and down that the whole thing was a ridiculous joke.

For all you readers out there, do you need to know the historical context of the story before you can appreciate the historical fiction? Does it have any bearing on whether you enjoy the story or not? Or does it ruin it for you because it’s not historically accurate enough for you?


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