I have never really read much historical fiction. Then recently I have stumbled on what seems to be a small but thriving subsection: which you could call “Victorian were a bit rubbish really but had grebt sea adventures” genre. This usualy mixes up historical figures with a bit of Hornblowing sea action, plus long digressions on what was considered the in sciences of the day (geology, craniology, racism). Plus long passages where people declare that they believe in God because he is a Englishman. This genre includes Matthew Kneale’s “English Passengers” and Harry Thompson’s “This Thing Of Darkness” and as a genre seems to require the following:
A)      The battle between science and religion
B)       In particular the these days laughable stabs at using science to prove bits of the Bible, (ie the whereabouts of the Garden Of Eden, the Flood)
C)       Appalling treatment of foreigners, in particular indigenous people and tribes being killed for sport
D)      The education and downfall of a noble savage
E)       The slightly smug sensation that this presentation is rewriting history and displaying it as a rightly barbarous and stupid time where the belief of English racial superiority echoed the worse excesses of the Nazi regime
F)       Rollicking sea adventures to distract you from A – E.

It is a readable genre, though often more due to F than A-E, but in the novels stab for authenticity I have qualms. In presenting the rationale for their real characters actions, there is plenty of after-the-fact theorising. I wonder what the ethics of writing fiction about real people are, and much as in the case of bio-pics, are factual alterations acceptable to get the feel of a life. Perhaps, but it is the bystanding characters who get the raw end of this deal. I do feel sorry for the crewmembers of the Beagle who get amalgamated, and the Tasmanian aborigines who are sidelined in favour of a more plot driving fictional counterpart.
And is doing loads of research, and writing about a real character just an excuse not to make up a character from scratch?