I’ve been working on a historical novel set in WWII, most intensively in the last two years. Why another WWII story? Because I see parallels to our own time, I grew up in Britain in the aftermath of that war, and my premise is based on a “true” story from WWII that was told to me by my mother.
The key is my first reason: parallels to our own time. George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The challenge, however, is not remembering the past, but figuring it out at all. As we approach a time when those who lived through WWII are slipping away, and those of us who were brought up immediately after that war and were affected by it, I wanted to explore the war from the intimate perspective of family.
A historical novel is undoubtedly biased and wouldn’t claim to be “true” in a factual sense, although authors of historical novels strive to set their work within an accurate context. A historical novel presents a view of events that attempts to bring the reader closer to the emotional “truth” of those who experienced that period in history. Before I address the idea of “emotional truth” in a blog post in a couple of weeks, it’s important, first, to address the nature of history itself.
History is a slippery slope. Records are lost, suppressed, formally locked up for a certain number of years, interpreted. Where does that take us? To bias. Even primary documents can be biased. Diaries, obviously, but even a simple factual form. Someone chooses to check the wrong box for his/her/eir age. Why? Vanity? Fear? Some practical reason? Someone falsifies a document in order to survive; another person is forced to write what a person in power wants to hear. Who can blame them? You survive in the moment. That’s why I often put the word “true” in quotes.
Our biased behaviors probably go back to the beginning of the human race. A classic example is Galileo. He believed the sun was the center of our universe and that got him into trouble.
Enter the Roman Inquisition. In 1615, they decided his belief was heretical because it contradicted the sense of Holy Scripture. When Galileo defended that belief in print, this was interpreted as an attack on Pope Urban VIII. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found heretical, and forced to recant.
Why was Galileo was put on trial? Politics (court intrigue, problems of state) and emotions (anger, fear on the part of the Pope). The nemeses of historical truth.
As an addendum, Galileo didn’t originate his belief. He learned it from the work of Copernicus (b. 1473). It is believed that Copernicus came to his conclusion independently of Aristarchus of Samos (born around 310 BCE), who probably originated the idea. So someone knew how the universe was structured centuries before the majority of people accepted it as truth.
In one way, this pressures a historical novel writer to be as accurate as possible as regards facts. In another way, the very instability of history gives the historical novel writer permission because “truth” is far from absolute.
Written: November 17, 2020. Pt. 2 coming Dec. 1.