WHO TELLS YOUR STORY?

(MIS)REPRESENTING THE PAST IN WORKS OF HISTORICAL FICTION

Unlike most traditional forms of history writing, historical fiction offers immersion into the lived experience of what the past was ‘like’. Through a blend of imagination and historical knowledge, it’s possible to bring the past alive on the page or screen and offer a way for wider audiences to engage with historical settings and characters. This panel reflects on the complexities involved in analysing and discussing these works with a particular focus on what it means to be realistic, how historical fiction shapes our understanding of historical figures and events, and both the joy and pitfalls involved when fans use historical fiction as a launchpad for their own research.

MODERATOR

STUART ELLIS-GORMAN (/u/Valkine)

PANEL MODERATOR

STUART ELLIS-GORMAN (HE/HIM) specializes in the study of bows, crossbows, and other odds and ends of medieval warfare. He has been an active contributor to AskHistorians since 2014 and received his PhD on late medieval bows and crossbows from Trinity College Dublin in 2016. He is also the author of a forthcoming book on the history of the crossbow to be published with Pen and Sword Books.

SPEAKERS AND PAPERS

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HILARY JANE LOCKE (/u/HistoryHilaryPhD)

“I CAN BE PUT OFF INSTANTLY IF SOMETHING IS NOT ACCURATE”: EXAMINATIONS OF HISTORICAL FICTION AUDIENCES AND HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE

It is often discussed by historians and in opinion pieces alike that audiences use historical fiction texts – novels, films, and television – to generate knowledge of history, regardless of how accurate these texts are or not. Television shows like The Crown (Netflix 2016-) and Game of Thrones (2013-2018), for example, generate a plethora of opinion pieces about how audiences react and absorb information about historical settings and accuracy in these texts. Historical novels are also a popular form for accessing historical knowledge; the ‘History’ category on Good Reads is usually intermingled with historical fiction titles. It is therefore important to consider the power that historical fictions have in representing a sense of history to audiences. As Megan O’Grady wrote for the New York Times Style Magazine in 2019: ‘it’s generally fallen to [...] the women, the colonized or enslaved [...] to subvert conventional understandings of [history], to make up for the burned or redacted documents, the missing transcripts and the experiences that were never recorded in the first place’. In doing so, historical fictions also provide history in an accessible format for audiences who may be unlikely to choose a dense non- fiction text.

 

But how do audiences respond to these texts? Are they inclined to take them at face value, or is there more complexity in how the relationship between historical fiction and historical knowledge is formed? By utilizing preliminary results from surveys and interviews conducted with audiences for my PhD research, this paper will discuss how audiences use historical fictions to form their perceptions of history, as well as how historical fiction shapes the way notions of accuracy and authenticity are understood.

HILARY JANE LOCKE (SHE/HER) is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia). Her thesis examines historical fictions and how they inform public perceptions of history. Her Master of Philosophy, completed in 2018, examined courtly love and chivalry in the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Her research interest includes reception, historical fictions, adaptation, and public history. She has published on the reception of historical fiction authors and texts, including novelists Alison Weir, Game of Thrones, Red Dead Redemption 2, covering the representations and adaptation of history.

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KATHRYN STUTZ (/u/kathrynstutz)

LADY FRANKLIN’S LEGACY, OR, THE FICTIONAL AFTERLIVES OF A POLAR EXPLORER’S WIDOW

n 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin sailed from England into the Canadian Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage through to the Pacific Ocean; neither Franklin nor any of his 128 crewmen returned home alive. Although Franklin’s vanished expedition has been the subject of extensive historical scholarship over the last hundred and seventy years, the bereaved families impacted by the disaster have remained mostly relegated to the margins of history. The main exception is Lady Jane Franklin—the captain’s wife, the Penelope of England—who left behind a detailed legacy partly consisting of numerous letters persuading others to search for her absent husband (Elce 2009).

Despite her mythologized depiction as an indomitable and indefatigable wife, Lady Franklin’s life without her husband was initially a difficult affair, plagued by issues both personal and financial that often threatened to shatter her ideal self-representation as a proper and demure Englishwoman (Price 2018). Several biographies and articles have examined this period following the disappearance of Sir John, but discrepancies between Lady Franklin’s public and private faces have continued to puzzle modern readers of the historical record (Alexander 2013, Brazzelli 2020, Elce 2019, McGoogan 2006).

To reconstruct the experiences of Lady Franklin, many have turned to fiction. Scholars have mapped out Lady Franklin’s fictional afterlives for the years leading up to 1845 (Johnson 2015, Kohlke 2013, Lai-Ming 2012), but depictions in modern media concerning her life as a widow have not yet been considered. This paper bridges this gap by examining (1) novels (Elce 2018, Simmons 2007), (2) poetry (Schroeder 2020, Solway 2003), and (3) television (Kajganich and Hugh 2018) in order to show how viewing the full array of recent representations of Lady Franklin’s later years can illuminate the tensions that held together this Victorian woman’s carefully woven self-image.

KATHRYN H. STUTZ (SHE/THEY) is a PhD student of Classics at Johns Hopkins University. In addition to researching representations of the Roman republic, Kathryn studies the history of Victorian polar expeditions, examining the influence of the ancient past upon depictions of Arctic and Antarctic voyages from the nineteenth century to the modern day. Kathryn has recently presented these findings in several digital venues, including the video essay “Saints Who Never Existed,” shown at the Indiana University interdisciplinary conference “How to Do Things with Worlds,” and a polar adaptation of Sappho’s “Brothers Poem” published in the journal Ancient Exchanges.

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EDMUND WUTYS (/u/EdmundYsbrandt)

SEXUAL SKYLARKING: FROM SPECULATION TO HISTORICAL TRUTH IN FRANKLIN EXPEDITION SCHOLARSHIP

In 1845, Sir John Franklin set sail with two ships in an attempt to find the illustrious Northwest Passage to the Pacific, only to never emerge from the Arctic. When explorer Leopold McClintock returned to England in 1859, ending a decade-long search for the missing expedition, he carried with him the Victory Point Record, one of the few surviving expedition documents, which sealed the fate of Sir John and his companions. Whilst he may have solved an important part of the mystery, McClintock found few answers concerning why and how the disaster happened. Those questions would inspire academic scholarship, amateur research, and fictional works up to the present day.

 

Most influential among these fictional works is AMC’s The Terror, based on the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons. Released in 2018, the show has since amassed a steadily growing following of fans who have been inspired to do their own research into the historical context of the show.

 

This paper examines the circular exchange of information that happens between published historical research and fandom spaces, which have fewer rules constricting truth compared to traditional research methods. New insights into the historical events influence how the show’s characters and events are perceived, whilst the show allows researchers to look at the historical figures in ways that break away from how they are usually seen, and creates interest in lesser known people, like the lower class members of the crew. However, because the show made use of many well-known sources and literature at the time, this has created a vicious circle where speculation from the show comes to be considered as historical truth, as people rely on said sources and literature to do their own research, thereby missing corrections and new discoveries.

EDMUND WUYTS (HE/HIM) is a Masters student of History at Ghent University. Through
examination of unpublished letters, his research has explored the questions of family life, marriage and the status of women married to sailors in 18th century port towns. Currently, Edmund’s interest has evolved towards social dynamics in polar exploration and the interaction of entertainment media and history. He also runs a research website, Arctonauts, collecting primary sources about 19th-century polar expeditions and providing contextual information about them.