What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
I came across this woman in a car park, crying because she’d just lost £2,000 of savings that she was going to use for a family holiday. I tried to console her, and by way of comfort, I gave her £100. I don’t normally do that kind of thing but I’d just found a purse full of money so I could easily afford it.
I reiterate this joke as a forerunner to saying I don’t consider myself to be an ethical person.
Admittedly, if I found money, I’d like to hope I would turn it over to the appropriate authorities and make sure it was returned to its rightful owner. But the truth is I’m a writer, and we don’t come across money very often, so it’s not a certainty that I’d do the right thing.
However, this lack of personal ethics only stretches as far as financial windfalls. In
every most other areas of life, I try to uphold high standards of ethics. Which is why, when I came across the above question, I thought I would share my thoughts on my ethical approach to writing about historical figures.
A long time ago, way back in the early noughties, Mitzi Szereto put out a CFS (call for submissions) for short stories that eventually became the book Wicked: Erotic Tales of Legendary Lovers. The idea was to produce erotic fantasies featuring real life figures from history. I read the requirements for the anthology and, whilst a great part of me wanted to contribute, I had some ethical reservations.
Is it acceptable to create an erotic fantasy story based on a real-life person? Well, since Mitzi was asking for such stories, and I know she’s a decent person, I didn’t doubt it was acceptable. But I felt a personal twinge of unease at the thought of writing about the intimate life of a famous figure.
It’s always been a personal mantra to never write erotic content that goes outside my comfort zone. I know this is not something that troubles many other writers. Chuck Tingle’s most recent release, My Macaroni And Cheese Is A Lesbian Also She Is My Lawyer, is undoubtedly as well written and entertaining as the rest of his opus. But Tingle is clearly comfortable writing about the intimate sex life of lesbian macaroni-and-cheese lawyers, whilst it’s something I don’t write because I fear, if I try, I’ll likely get it wrong.
I’m aware that, as writers, we should push boundaries and experiment in lots of different ways. But I was (and still am) reluctant to write about aspects of sex and sexuality about which I’m personally ignorant. And when it comes to the sex life of most celebrities and historical figures, my ignorance is legendary.
Ordinarily I would have thought it best to not submit to Mitzi’s anthology but I wanted to contribute because the idea was genuinely intriguing. And it was whilst I was discounting likely subjects for my story (Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, Archduke Ferdinand) that I realised I would be better placed writing about a celebrity who had already published intimate details of his or her love life.
Which is why I wrote about the Marquis de Sade. I had fun with the idea and made the Marquis a political writer who is urged to spice up the content of his pamphlets with racy scenes. The person doing the urging, an anachronistic editor with a focus on the market, takes the lead in the story and, I was delighted when the story was accepted under my pseudonym Lisette Ashton.
All of which is my way of saying, in response to the question, ‘What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?’
- Don’t break the law.
- Don’t write outside your personal comfort zone.
- Have fun with what you create.