Altering History : is it OK in Historical Fiction?

cranium silhouetted against question markAltering History. In other words, changing what actually happened into something that didn’t happen; or didn’t happen in quite that way; or happened at a different time…
Is it OK for an author of historical fiction to do that?

Always? Sometimes? Never?

Does it depend on what the alteration is? Some think it’s OK to alter small things, relating to minor characters, but not decisive things relating to really important characters.

Some might say an author can do whatever he or she likes, provided the reader knows what the author has done. In other words, the author has to come clean.
Others don’t care, as long as the end result is a good read.

Altering History : a Big Deal for Queens

Altering History as Schiller did in his Maria Stuart: print of Mary in 1859 production of Schiller's Maria Stuart

Mary, in Schiller’s Maria Stuart

One classic example of altering history for the sake of a satisfying plot is Schiller’s play Maria Stuart (used by Donizetti as the basis for his opera Maria Stuarda). The play is still powerful in the twenty-first century. It had sell-out English-language runs in London (2005), Broadway (2009), and Stratford (2013).

Altering History as Schiller did in his play Maria Stuart: Queen Elizabeth in 1859 production of Schiller's Maria Stuart

Elizabeth I, in Maria Stuart

The crucial section of the play features a confrontation between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. That confrontation did not happen in real life. The two women never met. But, of course, the audience knows the confrontation never happened; they know that it is a playwright’s device to heighten the drama. So, although Schiller was altering history, the audience generally goes along with it. It’s drama, and tragedy, not history.

Still, altering history by putting Mary and Elizabeth together in the same room is most definitely A Big Deal.

Altering History : a Big Deal for Generals

Putting Napoleon and Wellington together in the same room is A Big Deal, too.

Napoleon on campaign in 1806

Napoleon (1806)

portrait of Duke of Wellington by Goya, 1812-14

Wellington (Goya, 1812-14)

As far as I’m aware — and readers will correct me, I hope, if I am wrong here — Napoleon and Wellington never met face to face. The two may have glimpsed one another from a distance on the field at Waterloo, but that was it. They didn’t meet; they didn’t speak.

This blog was prompted by my reading of the final volume of Simon Scarrow’s Wellington and Napoleon Quartet, where Wellington and Napoleon have a clandestine meeting at 4 am, the morning after Waterloo, on the road to Charleroi. To be fair, the history books do say that Napoleon was around there at the time. But Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great has Napoleon arriving south of Charleroi after five in the morning, taking a quick bite and galloping on towards Paris. So where was the time for a meeting with Wellington? In any case, Elizabeth Longford’s authoritative Wellington—the Years of the Sword is clear that Wellington was back at his Waterloo HQ, writing his despatch in the early hours, and then leaving for Brussels.

 Cover Simon Scarrow Wellington & Napoleon Quartet ICover Simon Scarrow Wellington & Napoleon Quartet II Cover Simon Scarrow Wellington & Napoleon Quartet III Cover Simon Scarrow Wellington & Napoleon Quartet IV

Altering History : OK if the author comes clean?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this series, right up to (almost) the end of the last book.
Scarrow has obviously done masses of research into his two protagonists.

Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) in India 1804

Maj-Gen Wellesley in India, 1804

I found the first two books particularly illuminating. They covered the early years of Napoleon and Wellington. They showed how each learned his skills as a commander and how different they were, in personality and in approach to battle command.

The sections about Wellington in India were especially revealing, I thought. (He started as a mere Colonel Wesley and finished as Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley.)

Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, as Lieut-Col of battalion of Corsican volunteers

Bonaparte, aged 23

In the first book of the quartet, Scarrow says quite openly that he’s been altering history by showing the reader an imagined meeting between the two young men at the School of Equitation in Angers, twenty-nine years before Waterloo. And he makes a pretty good case for his imaginary encounter, which most readers will accept, I imagine. After all, the author has been upfront about his desire to make his fictitious story more appealing to readers.

Scarrow tells readers where he has been altering history and mentions examples in books 1-3. He includes explanations in his Author’s Notes, typified by this from Book 3:

As in Young Bloods and The Generals, I hope that I have presented this epic period of history as accurately as possible. In order to make the story flow freely I have been obliged to change some details, for which I apologise to those who are well read in this period.

Altering History : still OK if the author does not come clean?

Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo by Hillingford

Wellington at Waterloo (Hillingford)

But in the last book? Sadly, there’s nothing like that.

The final Author’s Note is about the lives of his protagonists after Waterloo. It says nothing about presenting history as accurately as possible. Nor does it give any background about the chapter where Wellington and Napoleon are shown together after the battle.

I’ve read quite a lot of the online reviews of Book 4 and I can’t find a single murmur against that post-Waterloo “encounter”. word cloud of book reviewsThe vast majority of reviews are 5-star; a few (less glowing) ones complain about having to skip over the many intricate battle scenes or about one-dimensional characters in the book.

Most authors will understand Scarrow’s motives. Having written the (non-historical) early meeting between Wellington and Napoleon, Scarrow then writes a second meeting which gives a pleasing symmetry to his series. And he even has Wellington say, at the outset, “If this meeting serves no purpose I have no intention of ever admitting to it.”
Clever. It makes Scarrow’s second meeting more plausible.

Not for me, I’m afraid. Though maybe I’m the lone worrier about this? Right or wrong, I would have been happier, as a reader, if Scarrow had explained why he wrote his ending this way.
Still, I am only one reader. What do you think?

Joanna Maitland, author


11 thoughts on “Altering History : is it OK in Historical Fiction?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome to Libertà and thanks for commenting. Obviously I agree with you 😉 but, in his defence, maybe he thought he didn’t have to because he’d made his case when he imagined their first meeting?

  1. Louise Allen

    Absolutely with you – fine to do ‘alternative’ history but you tell the reader where you’ve made the changes.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Now that’s really interesting, Liz. I wonder how many other readers harumphed, like your dh, but didn’t write a review? I certainly couldn’t find any mention in the reviews I read though I didn’t read them all since there are hundreds.

  2. janegordoncumming

    I’m with you, Joanna. Historical fiction is an excellent way of bringing history to life, but you must stick to the facts or it loses all value. If that doesn’t suit you dramatically, devise some characters of your own and give them the plot you want.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Simon Scarrow certainly brings Wellington and Napoleon to life, especially in the early books. Personally, I don’t mind some diversion from the facts — I’ve done it myself on occasion 😉 — but I do think authors have to tell the reader what they’ve changed and why.

      I suppose my overwhelming feeling was disappointment when I read that scene. I thought: “If the author has changed this without telling me, what else has he changed without telling me? How much of this book is actually based on fact?” So I began to view the whole quartet with a much more sceptical eye. Sad.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    It’s a fine line. As historical novelists we alter history all the time. Consider the plethora of non-existent dukes! But here you are talking about huge figures of history and it makes sense to inform readers where you depart from the facts.

    Though with re-imaginings of history, alternative history, it’s pretty much a given that facts are skewed to suit the purpose.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree about alternative history, Elizabeth, but this book wasn’t billed as that. Of course, it’s fiction, but I expected the fiction to be clearly based on historical fact, especially after the Author’s Notes in the first 3 books about trying to be accurate. That’s why I found it disconcerting; and disappointing, as I said in my reply to Jane.

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