Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore

By Emma Southon

A biography of the most extraordinary woman in the Roman world

Friday, 10 February 2017

Fictional History and Historical Fiction

I’m going to start with two quotes that have been bothering me lately. Because I have the kind of extremely verbal brain that only gets text-based earworms. The first comes from Stefan Zweig writing in 1931 about the poetry of History (capitalisation there is his, though he was writing in German so I guess the capitalisation is the translator’s):


“Happily this respect for the facts, for the original historical material, is reborn and the era of the “historical novel”, the blatant falsification of our ancestors; lives, is now over…”

Zweig, a brilliant man whom I adore, goes on to call historical novels “a caricature, a valueless hybrid form, and in the end a literary failure” because no-body can be right about everything.


The second comes from Laurent Binet’s brilliant historical novel HHhH. Binet is an avid fan of Barthes (which I empathise with), an academic and charmingly French and about a third of his novel is interpolations like this:

 “Look, I’m doing the best I can to get at the historical truth, but I can’t keep these little rodents of novelistic artifice out of the structure: they are endemic to narrative.”


Lines like this nibble at me because I technically disagree with them I have argued vocally and in public (most recently on a panel at Nine Worlds Sci-Fi convention) that the job of the novelist is not to be accurate or to worry about facts. The job of a novelist is to tell good stories. Make characters up. Blend 8 people into one. Do what you like. Change the facts if you want. Fiction is fundamentally a made up thing, knock yourself out.


And I truly believe that. Historians can worry about evidence and truth. Except I am a historian and I keep reading histories that read like fiction. And I am the kind of girl who gets giddy reading Derrida and don’t really believe in the concept of an objective historical Truth (capitals mine) but in fluid truths based on beliefs and perceptions and available evidence. And I am writing a history book.


Writing a history book is hard. It makes writing an academic monograph look reasonably easy, and that was really bloody hard (out April this year). When you write a history thesis or article or monograph, you read a load of sources, read a load of interpretation, make up your own mind and then stake out your argument and provide your evidence.

That takes years and you cry a lot, obviously, but that’s basically it. And the only concession you have to make to your reader - of which there will be approximately ten - is to pop in the occasional transition phrase so they know broadly what’s going on from paragraph to paragraph. If you’re a real dick (and plenty of academics are) you don’t even have to bother translating any of your evidence, leading to books that contain giant chunks in 2-5 languages.

If you’re nice you translate your evidence and try to put in some signalling but I can tell you from experience that supervisors and editors will remove all adjectives, adverbs, puns, jokes, colourful sentences, rhetoric and anything that amuses you while writing until you are conditioned to recoil from them.

And then you try and write something that is not an academic book. Which is trying to contain a whole historical person in a way that is entertaining and captures my idea of her as much as possible and brings her alive to the reader. To you. And I get to keep all of my bad jokes and puns that make limited sense and it’s great but also I am massively overthinking this.



I just read Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, which is his first novel if you live in the US and his fourth nonfiction book if you live in the UK (when checking that I discovered that there’s an Orwell Prize, for which Red Plenty was nominated, and an Orwell award for “distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language” which The Onion won in 2014. Isn’t that delightful).

Red Plenty is about the Soviet Union in the 1960s and Spufford wrote it knowing no Russian and about 50% of the people in it are completely made up. And for those that aren’t made up, Spufford invents words, thoughts, feelings. It’s structured and steals tropes from 50s scifi novels.

It’s wonderful. Gripping and charming and unique and I love it like I love Golden Hill, an actual historical novel. It confuses the hell out of reviewers and goodreads users and booksellers. It’s intimidatingly good really. Damn him. But it’s not history is it?

Maybe a better question would be, why is Red Plenty history, with its internal monologues and graphic first person description of a fictional woman in labour, but HHhH, with its agonised reflections on what colour car Heydrich drove and over whether it’s ok to invent dialogue, is fiction? Because apparently, evidence and facts and references and “truth” aren’t the difference and actual fictional characters aren't the deciding factor?




I have, usually close to hand and covered in annotations, a copy of the only other non-fiction book about Agrippina the Younger. It’s by an academic called Anthony Barrett who is both very smart and comparatively very readable. Here’s a quote, the first sentence from a page I opened at random:


“Drusilla had been married in 33 to the nonentity Lucius Cassius Longinus. The marriage did not last. They were divorced and she next married Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (Stemma 3). This man was to play an important role in the story of Agrippina and precise information on him would be most welcome.”


No-one would call this bad writing but also it’s never going to make anyone drop and beg for more. And honestly, Agrippina deserves better than this bone dry prose that passed for readable and thrilling in my old life (and god I cannot tell you how delighted I was by Barrett as an undergraduate).


On that same page, Barrett describes a lovely moment. Lollia Paulina, a woman whose beauty was considered to be so spectacular that she married Caligula and almost married Claudius, arrived at a dinner party dripping in gold and emeralds and pearls. 40 million sesterces worth of jewels, in a world where bread cost half a sesterce, decorating a single gorgeous woman. And we know how much those jewels cost her because she carried the receipts and would show them to anyone who talked to her for long enough. Isn’t that marvellous. Such beauty and such enormous wealth and her pockets are full of receipts.

Barrett describes it like this:

“The elder Pliny reports seeing her at a dinner party bedecked with emeralds and pearls, some 40 million HS worth. In case anyone had the poor taste to be unconvinced of their value, she carried the bills of sale on her person and readily produced them.”


Is what I’m doing in my version “novelistic artifice” as Binet fears or is it imaginative history in the vein of Spufford? Does an adverb make me less of a historian and biographer? I am coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t. That this is what I love about history - the little moments and silly anecdotes and dirty jokes and knobs on everything (the Romans put dicks on everything) that cast a little light on the culture as it was lived in, experienced and created. That’s the fun and the thrill of studying and writing about these long dead people who are so very different to me.


So these are the rules I’ve set myself for this. I won’t do dialogue unless it’s in a source. I won’t make people up. I won’t give you a first person account of the birth of Nero or tell you how she felt because Agrippina would rise from her unmarked grave and haunt me forever if I dared. But I might tell you how I think she might have felt, in context, and what people thought she thought and felt and said and was. I will do my best to give you real people, in a real world, experiencing real things and it will be history, not fiction.

Back to project page
Share on social


Kieron Gillen
 Kieron Gillen says:

Great stuff.

I haven't read Zweig, but my immediate naive response is to think that when the canon-accepted greatest writer in English did getting on half of his work as Historical Fiction, the "Historical Fiction is a literary failure" position is a tricky corner to fight. Plays, of course, rather than novels, but still.

posted 10th February 2017

Top rewards

124 pledges


A copy of the ebook edition
Buy now
£15  + shipping
174 pledges


A first edition of the paperback plus the ebook