How important are facts in historical fiction?

This is a common question and much discussed on FaceBook and Twitter. It is very relevant to me because there has just been a review published in “The Woman Writer” (published by the “Society of Women Writers & Journalists” – SWWJ) in which the reviewer says:

“The Jewel Garden is a work of fiction, based on the life of the Victorian fairytale writer Mary De Morgan (sister of the famous tile-maker William De Morgan).

It is a fascinating story, set first in England, then in Egypt, where Mary taught in a children’s reformatory and died of tuberculosis in 1907 …. and this is where, as a reader who loves historical fiction, I have a problem: why does the author, who published a non-fiction book Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan in 2012, write in her novel, and very poignantly too, about Mary’s death in 1895?”

The reviewer then goes on to say very nice things about the book and the characters.

So, why did I change the year of Mary’s death? I obviously knew it, as I have indeed written her biography and in the Postscript of The Jewel Garden I start by saying “I came across Mary De Morgan (1850 – 1907) ….”.

I thought long and hard about:

  • The age difference between Hannah (a purely fictional character) and Mary. I decided on a ten year gap, Hannah being the younger, so she has to be born in 1860. If the age difference was more I was concerned that Hannah would more likely to look to Mary as a mother, rather than a lover.
  • At what age Hannah would first meet Mary. I wanted Hannah to be old enough to be able to live independently so I have her first meeting Mary when she is twenty and therefore Mary is thirty.

Obviously Mary is a key character in the novel and I use her fairy tales to introduce each chapter; I have Hannah accompanying her on many of the visits that actually took place; I have Hannah meeting some of the people Mary actually knew; I have events occurring that actually happened. But the story is Hannah’s and I wanted to tell of one woman’s love for another, how she coped with the loss of her lover and her feelings when she discovered she had been deceived.

Hannah had to be born in 1860 and the events I tell of cover thirty five years until Mary’s death (1895) reasonably well. In all honesty I just could not make their relationship last another twelve years without it changing, which I didn’t want it to do.

I did struggle with making Mary die earlier than she did in reality, but I convinced myself that this piece of “poetic licence” would not even be noticed by most readers who would most likely never have heard of Mary De Morgan and wouldn’t know when she had really died. If I had kept Mary’s date of death as being 1907 then the book would not be the same and, I believe, not as good.

So far, this reviewer, whose opinion I totally respect, is the only one who has either noticed or cared that I have chosen to change the date of death of a little known person.

So, have I made a complete and unforgivable faux pas? Or am I excused?

Only the readers can say.



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