Saturday 23 May 2020

Fictionalised Biography or Biographical Fiction?

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

As most of you know by now, I love and adore historical fiction. It's my preferred genre, although I will have a go at most things if it's well-written, has an interesting premise or I'm in the mood. However my go-to, when I need a guaranteed read, a read I can simply fall into with comfort and ease, it will always be historical fiction.

In and around this are books that might be classified as alternate histories (think 1984 or Stephen King's 11/22/63) where the author plays with what might have happened if just one event changed. We can also have books that are historical now by default. I guess you might call them period piece fiction as they are now historical to us, but they were once contemporary (think Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott). The historical time and setting of these novels now plays an important part in understanding what's happening to our beloved characters.

Historical fiction, for me then, pretty much covers everything else. That is, an author sets their book in a period of time before their own and populates it with fictional characters (think Thomas Keneally, Geraldine Brooks, James A. Michener). To refine this even further, you could include authors who write about the immediate past. A time they may have lived through themselves or perhaps their grandparents lived through, providing a personal perspective to the historical context (think Tolstoy, Zola, Harper Lee).

Included within this group, is the fictionalised biography.

Or is that, biographical fiction?

Whichever way you look it, it's where an author takes real events and real people and makes up stuff about what they said and did to make a story. I love this sub-genre. When done well, it can provide insights into a time and place or a much-loved person that would be impossible to know otherwise, due to the sparsity of primary sources (think Hilary Mantel, Robert Graves, Philippa Gregory).

One of the things I love about this particular genre is it's ability to view history through a different lens. A lot of authors are exploring history through a feminist lens or an Indigenous lens (think The Secret River or Alias Grace). Given that the historical record favours the winners who also usually happen to be men, being reminded that other people were involved and impacted is a good thing.

Historical facts are not static; they have always been open to manipulation. Revisionism and re-interpretation is a natural human process. We all adjust our personal stories as new evidence comes to light and as experience and maturity enhance our ability to see beyond our own biases and prejudices.

The history of the world is no different. The stories around the facts, change with time. New information, fresh perspectives and the advantage of hindsight can all have an impact. It opens the doors to exciting possibilities and original ideas.

Which brings me to the massive disappointment I feel, when this story telling process fails to work it's magic over me.

It may be that the weird times under which we now live, are adversely affecting my reading habits. I do seem to be leaning more towards narrative non-fiction lately. But let me tell you about two of the disappointments.

Firstly, Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell.

Shortlisted for this years Women's Prize and claiming to tell the story of Shakespeare young son who died at age 11 in 1596, this is a lifelong fascination for O'Farrell come to fruition. It sounded so promising.

I loved the first chapter that shows us a young Hamnet playing with his twin sister Judith who suddenly falls ill. She puts herself to bed and Hamnet goes searching for a family member to help, but everyone is out. This is unusual. Hamnet's search becomes more desperate and tense when he suspects that Judith may have caught the Plague.

But then we switch to back story. The wild, untamed daughter attracts the attention of the dissatisfied tutor to her brothers. Yuck! Her witchy habits means she is an outsider and considered dangerous to know. He knows he shouldn't, but he does, anyway. Blah, blah, blah.

I picked it up and put it down three times, hoping it was just my bad mood or tiredness. But no. This is just trite and awful. Not even the stuff about the Plague was enough to keep me interested (if only a few more world leaders had been like Queen Elizabeth I though "The playhouses are all shut, by order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public.")

My next fictionalised biography disappointment was a bit closer to home.

I've been looking forward to the new Kate Grenville for some time now. It's an embargoed title until the 2nd July, but some pre-publicity stuff tells me that the premise of this story about Elizabeth Macarthur hinges on the sudden discovery of some "shockingly frank secret memoirs." 


I many give A Room made of Leaves closer attention in July, just to make sure, but the blurbs unnecessary use of the words 'notorious', 'miraculously' and 'playful' have turned me off, as has this particular paragraph.
Marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her heart, the search for power in a society that gave women none- this Elizabeth Macarthur manages her complicated life with spirit and passion, cunning and sly wit. Her memoir lets us hear-at last!-what one of those seemingly demure women from history might really have thought.

That has to be one of the worst written blurbs ever. It's made the story sound like some kind of bodice-ripping, pot-boiler.

I am now feeling rather nervous about starting the final book in Hilary Mantel's (so far) magnificent trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light. The reports coming in from customers and other bloggers are encouraging, so all I have to do I is make the time to reread the first two!

A copy of Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is also lurking on my TBR pile. I love the idea of an alternate history story line with a feminist lens, but what if the writing is dull and awful? I've never read any Sittenfeld before, so I don't know what to expect.

Despite the above, I do in fact, love this genre. Remember how much I enjoyed In Love With George Eliot by Kathy O'Shaughnessy earlier this year. And my most recent Zola (surely the master of fictionalised history), and my current chapter-a-day read of War and Peace plus a whole stack of other classic and period piece books devoured this year alone (ranging from Katherine Mansfield to Angela Thirkell to Mena Calthorpe and just this week Martin Boyd).

I'm certainly not done with fictionalised biographies, but I am a little more wary of late. As always, I'm happy to consider your favourites, in this genre, for future reference.


  1. Where do you find the energy to rant?
    I can hardly muster up some motivation to read!
    All kidding aside...appreciate your thoughts on this subject
    ...while I sip my coffee and a slice of homemade Lemon Glaze Cake!
    Have a good weekend!

    1. I've been very low on energy lately Nancy, but woke up this weekend full of vim, if not quite vigour. With it came a desire to write, something I haven't felt much of lately either.

  2. Sorry about the disappointments. I like how you wrote about the diversity of the possible combinations between fiction, biography, and history.

    1. Historical fiction is may favourite book topic. This post has been brewing for a while :-)

  3. A new Kate Grenville coming? Wow good to know, I'll be curious to know how it is. Biographical fiction -- or whatever you want to call it -- can be tricky! Messing with real people's lives. Paula McLain's novel about Beryl Markham "Circling the Sun" was pretty good but I was nervous beforehand whether it would be. I have heard good things about Rodham ... so I hope to get to it soon. Cheers.

    1. Paula McLain is another good example of someone who makes fictionalised biography look easy. I certainly enjoyed her one on Hemingway's first wife (name escapes me right now).

  4. Really enjoyed your post and love this genre too. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading about the re-imagined lives of women in series by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir to mention just a few. I can't wait to read Hamnet, and hope I get on with it a little better than you did.

    1. Somehow I've managed to never read a Gregory or a Weir and I have no idea why. They sound just like something I would/should love. Maybe it was my binge reading so many of Jean Plaidy's kings and queens stories in my teens and twenties - I'm all kinged and queened out!

  5. Oh no, now you've made me very wary about the Grenville which I was so looking forward to. But that blurb is dire.......

    Interesting to see your thoughts on what constitutes historical fiction. I did a MOOC course on this some years ago and it was thought that the time period had to predate the generation of the author - so they cannot write it from their own perspective.

    1. I’ve dipped into the Grenville now & still feel the same away about as I did back in May, sadly. Both others have said they enjoyed it, so please don’t be put off by my take on it!


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.