How much of historical fiction and classical literature is really fiction?

photo by Flickr user, Auntie P
             When learning about American folk heroes such as Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, and John Henry we are told that while these legends are mostly fiction, they contain small kernels of truth. The same can be said for historical and classical novels. Sometimes even complete fiction can give you insight into the past or what inspired that particular author. 
              In Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo is the tragic disfigured hero who falls in love with a beautiful gypsy. Recently it has been discovered that there was in fact a hunchbacked man working at Notre Dame at the time when Hugo was writing the novel. Hugo was well known to spend time in the cathedral and even lived in the same neighborhood as the hunchbacked worker. Even when away from Paris they managed to be in the same place. Researchers are still trying to determine the name of the disfigured worker, but it does pose an interesting question… Was there really a hunchback of Notre Dame?
                Another, similar mystery revolves around one of Alexander Dumas’ most famous stories, The Man in the Iron Mask. Dumas often used factual events around which he would center his tales. For example, The Count of Monte Cristo centered on the rise, fall, rise, and fall of Napoleon. In The Man in the Iron Mask, Dumas spun his last tale of the Musketeers around the legend of a prisoner whose identity was kept a secret by an iron mask covering his head. Historians have failed to prove or disprove the existence of such a man, but the legend continues to live on regardless.
                Charles Dickens was also inspired by real life, but his inspiration relied on social occurrences rather than political. His tales of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit mirrored events that occurred in Dickens’ own life. Dickens grew up relatively happily until his entire family was thrown in Debtor’s Prison. He then had to work to help support his family. There truly was a man named Bob Fagin in Charles Dickens’ life, just as there was in Oliver’s. 
                 So while you’re toiling away reading historical fiction or classical books on your summer reading, take a moment and think how much of this is fiction, and how much of this is true?