Defining Historical Fiction: Fictional Biographies

Fictional biographies can also be epic in scope, of course, but they’re notable for their accuracy in depicting historical figures. Sometimes, of course, they can be twisted in time period or in sequence of events, for a better literary effect. Some can tell the entire story of a person’s life, while some focus on a segment of it. Events may sometimes be made up, if there is nothing there in the historical record. Motivations must be decided on by the author, if there are no surviving letters, for example. Sometimes they can cross into speculative fiction–I’ll cover that on the next post.

I have a trove of fictional biographies. They combine action, romance, drama and the supernatural, but with the advantage that the bulk of the plot actually happened to someone. So you’re guaranteed a degree of psychological closeness to the main subject and authenticity.

Lady Macbeth, for instance, is a fictional biography of Macbeth’s queen. Instead of writing about the Lady Macbeth that Shakespeare created, the author wrote about the real Lady Macbeth–Gruoch ingean Bodhe mac Cinneadh, who lived and died in the eleventh century in Scotland, when it was still ruled under the Celtic system. She was the daughter of a minor prince, married the King of Moray, and became pregnant. Her husband was killed and she was forced to marry Macbeth, who claimed the kingship of Moray. Together, of course, they became the King and Queen of Scots.

Naturally, though, there are few records from that time. It’s not like Lady Macbeth kept a diary. The author had to piece together the major events in Scottish history, research from Macbeth’s reign, and the events of Lady Macbeth’s life itself, along with research into Celtic culture and then piece them together.

A prime example of fictional biography is The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick. I only learned about this book because Chadwick was interviewed on a blog that I follow. It’s about William Marshal, covering his life from his teens to his forties, roughly, and his incredible journey from minor house knight of a French lord to being the Earl of Pembroke and marrying the richest heiress in the kingdom of England at the time. Chadwick followed this book with a sequel, which covers the second half of William Marshal’s life. I felt that I got to know William, his struggles, his faith, and the medieval times he lived in, though it’s not really a time period I know a heck of a lot about. What I loved in particular was that the characters felt so real and that they were truly people of their times.

In this case, after William’s death in 1219, his sons commissioned a poem of his life, which runs from his birth, being a hostage during the Anarchy, his years as a knight, his marriage, earldom, and eventually, the Regency of England after King John’s death.

Grania by Morgan Llewellyn is about the Irish pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, who famously ruled a fleet of ships from her island home on the west coast of Ireland, pissing off the Tudor English lords who were trying to bring Ireland further under Elizabeth I’s control. There aren’t that many written records of Grania, beyond the basics, but when she was older, she traveled to London to meet with Elizabeth I, to request that Richard Bingham be removed from Ireland and that her sons were released from captivity. I love this book, but there are invented characters and motivations and certain scenes are certainly made up. But still, all of it adds some spice. After all, it’s fiction, not non-fiction.

I suppose I’d put Philippa Gregory’s books in this category as well, at least The Other Boleyn Girl. Her Tudor books are about the women in the Tudor court and this and Boleyn Inheritance, at least, both tell us the stories of several women whose stories had never really been written down before. In the first, it’s Mary Boleyn. In the latter, it’s Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Jane Parker Boleyn. Of course, there’s a heavy dose of speculation in these books and while I think the smooth path toward the characters’ inevitable fates were well-done, the last time I re-read these, the dialogue irritated the crap out of me. And I’m not sure that I felt all that well-connected to the subjects and what they were going through.

Next up, speculative historical fiction.

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