Since I'm not currently working on a historical manuscript, most of my 'historical musings' these days stem from real life--and a big part of 'real life' for me right now involves taking my youngest daughter down to Lincoln Center, to the School of American Ballet (SAB) for ballet class twice a week. Even though the current facilities are fairly new, the place is simply steeped in history. Upon stepping off the elevator, visitors are greeted by bronze busts of George Balanchine (a Russian emigre who would go on to become America's greatest choreographer) and Lincoln Kirstein, SAB's founders (also the founders of New York City Ballet--SAB is the company's 'training school'). Walking down the halls between the studios, there are huge photographs of Balanchine teaching class, working with children who might have grown up to be Suzanne Farrell or Gelsey Kirkland or Darci Kistler (who, amazingly enough, is my daughter's teacher! I'm simply in awe!). Honestly, I get chill bumps walking those halls.
Lincoln Center itself is such a integral part of New York City's cultural landscape that it's hard to imagine that it didn't used to exist--but it didn't, until 1964. At that time, it was built as part of the World's Fair exhibition space, but the New York State Theater was entirely designed to George Balachine's specifications, as the future home performing space of the New York City Ballet. For that reason, it's perfectly suited for viewing ballet.
But the New York City Ballet (and SAB) had been around long prior to the opening of the New York State Theater. Actually, the school came first. Upon arriving in the United States, Balanchine insisted that his first project would be to establish a ballet school, and with the support of Lincoln Kirstein and Edward M.M. Warburg, the School of American Ballet opened its doors to students on January 2, 1934, less than 3 months after Balanchine arrived in the U.S. The students premiered Serenade at the Warburg's summer estate later that year. Although Balanchine had started several previous companies, what we now know as New York City Ballet didn't come into being until 1948. Balanchine's 1954 staging of The Nutcracker, performed every year in New York City during the Christmas season, is largely responsible for making the ballet a Christmas tradition in the United States.
Anyway...in a roundabout way, I'm coming to a question! Recently I read a book called The Sleeping Beauty, by Adrienne Sharp. It's one of those 'fictional' history books where real, historical people and events are put into a fictional plot along with fictional characters. The story took place near the end of Balanchine's life (he died of the rare Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in 1983) and centered around him staging the full-length ballet Sleeping Beauty (something he never actually did). Other famous New York City Ballet icons made cameo appearances--Suzanne Farrell, Peter Martins (he succeeded Balanchine as Artistic Director of City Ballet and head of SAB), among others.
I've read and enjoyed many books where true historic figures' lives were fictionalized--Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring, for one. I haven't yet seen the movie Becoming Jane, but I'm certain I would enjoy it. There are scores of very successful, very popular examples, many of which I enjoyed. Yet somehow I was vastly bothered by Sleeping Beauty. Somehow it didn't seem right that the author was putting words in Balanchine's mouth, motivations into his mind (the book used his POV). I didn't like seeing Suzanne Farrell--my all-time favorite ballerina and still living today!--as a throwaway character.
Is it because ballet is something that is so close to my heart? Because I remember the day Balachine died--I was at a regional ballet festival, of all places, and just before the curtain went up on a performance, an announcement was made, stunning the audience to tears? Or is it because it's recent history, with some of the 'players' still alive?
My question to you is this: how do you feel about books fictionalizing the lives of true, historic characters? Does it bother you, or do you enjoy it? Do you think it matters if the historic characters lived hundreds of years ago, or if the history is more recent?