Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Historical Fiction: Spoiler Alert

Earlier this week, I finished reading Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome, which is a fiction novel about the Roman Republic. If you’re into Ancient Rome at all, I definitely recommend reading it. But sadly, telling you how awesome it is is not the purpose of this post, so onward.

The book covers the political and military careers of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, two of my favourite Ancient Romans. So I was reading along, and these two main characters were besties, and things were going along swimmingly. But there was a problem (and yes, spoilers lie ahead) – having studied the history of the Roman Republic, I knew that eventually they fall out and end up at the heads of opposing sides of a civil war. And that Sulla goes really evil and massacres thousands of people. And the closer I got to the end of the book, the less I enjoyed it, because I knew what was coming, and I didn’t want it to happen. And even when I got to the final pages, and discovered that it doesn’t actually happen (presumably until the next book in the series) I still felt discontented, because although McCullough had written what seems like a happy ending, I knew that really it wasn’t. And that after the two main characters walk off arm-in-arm into the sunset (and yes, this is genuinely what happens in the closing scene) one of them turns around a backstabs the other, and it all goes downhill from there.

So essentially, my spoiler alert, which lies several lines up, is not a spoiler for the book at all, but a spoiler for history. And herein lies the problem. Is this just an inevitable thing you have to face, if you want to write historical fiction – that people can be spoiled for your book without having even heard of it? This seems like a very sad state of affairs, but if you’re writing historically about real people, it’s an inescapable fact. And sure, you can do it incredibly well – as McCullough does – but it still niggles at the back of the reader’s mind that they know what’s coming.

Of course, this is a greater problem in some historical stories than others. Marius and Sulla don’t have a nice story: they start out as friends, and then they destabilise the Roman Republic through civil war, and then Marius dies and Sulla becomes dictator and kills everyone (or something to that effect, but far less horribly simplified). And it makes for a terrible story, if you're after anything remotely resembling a happy ending. So perhaps McCullough just chose poorly (or I shouldn’t have chosen to read about those characters, if I wanted things to end well). But I feel like it probably goes the other way, too – if you know that life turns out well for your historical figure of choice, doesn’t it detract something from the tension of the novel? It’s like you’ve already flipped to the last page before you even start.

Every single time.
I’m not sure exactly where these thoughts are going, because I enjoy reading historical fiction, and it has never stuck me as a huge problem before, even when reading novels about, say, Marie-Antoinette, who always gets guillotined at the end. But as it is, I’m apprehensive about reading the sequel to The First Man in Rome, because McCullough created her characters too well, and so the last thing I want to see is their inevitable downfall. So maybe the problem iinherent in historical fiction, but only really well-written historical fiction. But if well-written is the problem, then I don’t know what we do. How do you pull off a good novel, when everyone knows the ending? Have you read any historical novels where you think it’s been done well? Or done really badly? I've now made myself rather confused about the whole historical fiction lark, so thoughts are appreciated.


  1. What strikes me as more important in historical fiction is not the ending. If we wanted to know the ending we'd look it up in history textbooks and be done with it. The importance for me in historical fiction is the way towards the ending, the build-up of atmosphere and the way the characters develop. Historical facts are just a frame on which the story is hung and help the reader get into and place the story being narrated.

    1. I guess you're right. But it still makes me so sad when I know what's coming that I don't want to read it! It is about character development, but when the development is heading in a direction you don't want it to... It is interesting, though, to see how the story gets to that point, which I suppose is what keeps people reading historical fiction, even when we know what happens. =)

  2. That is a dilemma. Can't say I've read much historical fiction so I don't have an answer, but I did find that when reading A Tale Of Two Cities I was so much more emotionally rocked knowing that the Revolution really happened and thousands of people did die the way it describes. That made a great ending for me because I bawled my eyes out!

    P.S. Love your pic and caption. lol

    1. I guess I don't often think about the fact that what I'm reading in historical fiction actually happened. I study history so I think you become a little desensitised to hearing about all these terrible things that have happened.
      P.S. I definitely have to get around to reading Tale of Two Cities. =) Thank you for the rec on your blog.