Friday 22 February 2019

How Fictional is your History? by Catherine Hokin

We're having something of a surge in historical fiction films at the moment. You can lose yourself in the politics of medieval or Tudor Scotland with Outlaw King and Mary Queen of Scots, or the excesses of the eighteenth court with The Favourite. If the racial-tensions of 1960s America are more your thing, there's Green Book or you can loop back round to politics with Vice - which I'm including here as it covers Dick Cheney's early life and therefore slips in past the 30 year HNS rule for classifying a work as historical fiction. A little tenuous perhaps but that is rather my point...

 Robert the Bruce - Chris Pine would be preferable but
not Netflix's wrath
What the above films share is the accusation that they all play fast and loose with the facts, and are guilty of providing what Simon Jenkins in the Guardian called “fake instant history.” Screen outings that, in other words, become received wisdom - what I am re-christening Braveheart moments in honour of  the film dubbed the most historically inaccurate movie ever made. I'm not going to list all its errors here - there is a whole industry devoted to logging them - start with the small point that William Wallace was never called Braveheart (that was Bruce, and not in his lifetime) and the whole timeline is about 20 years out which really messes up a lot of marriages and deaths and you'll get the idea. Does it matter? Well yes - the last time I was at the Wallace memorial there was a full-size (thankfully cardboard) Mel Gibson waiting to greet the hoardes of visitors. To my mind this not only gives the film a legitimacy it doesn't deserve, it also necessitates a whole lot of de-bunking I'm not sure was widely available.

As I said in my review of Outlaw King (Historia Magazine, it's a bit ranty) I don’t mind a bit of cinematic embellishment if it enriches the story. Queen Anne didn't keep 17 bunnies in her bedroom to replace her lost children (rabbits being eaten not petted at the time) but that worked for me in The Favourite as a good visual shorthand for the depths of her loss. And no major historical events were harmed by their use. The Favourite does what many historical writers do - it found a story lurking round the facts (the competition between the two female favourites, the allegations around Anne of 'unnatural' preferences) and it wove something bigger. As Lucy Worsley said in the Guardian: "people at the time thought that Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough were [lovers] and this was a line of attack that was used by their political enemies, so that’s one thing...Another thing is that people were very much sharing beds the whole time; that was a standard way of sleeping. So who knows when they were and when they weren’t having sex? It’s all very difficult to define, isn’t it?” So difficult to define but plausible, not jaw-dropping in the way of Outlaw King (read the review) and not down-right dishonest as in the case of Mary Queen of Scots. 

Personally I don't mind about the accents in this film or others set in periods where dialect and accent are hard to be purist about. Whether it was French or Scottish or some hybrid, we don't really know which one Mary had and we don't know what either of those accents actually sounded like at the time. But I'm with Simon Schama regarding the two women meeting - “the whole drama of Elizabeth and Mary lay in the fact they never did meet”. Like Outlaw King, one of the key words you hit when you google this film is true. It's not: the two women meeting is a major distortion I've already had to explain to more people than I wanted to (or who wanted to hear it). To coin an overused and too-needed phrase: it's fake news. 

The criticisms over the other films mentioned above are different - perhaps because those portrayed in them or their families are still alive. Green Book has been condemned by the family of African American pianist Donald Shirley for what they see as a completely false portrayal ("a symphony of lies") and for them not being consulted, precisely for that reason. Vice has been accused of being misleading, of fabricating events, of being shallow and being evasive with the truth over Cheney's portrayal - including by a large number of people with no reason to defend him at all.

 Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette
Things that were never historically done/said becoming not only popular belief but often the main thing we 'know' about a time/character is nothing new. The phrase let them eat cake was attached to a number of insensitive royals before it stuck to Marie-Antoinette and there's no contemporary account proving the accuracy/existence of Elizabeth I's famous Tilbury speech, although we're pretty sure Mary wasn't there. It is, however, a truism, if an annoying one that many people get their understanding of history from television and films, and likely also from novels. So where does a creative's responsibility lie?

Clearly no one wants to impose some kind of Stalinist censorship on film-makers or writers, who are also not exempt from these charges of being elastic with the truth. The recent condemnation of Heather Morris's best-seller The Tattooist of Auschwitz by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre as being a book which "contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements” has not made comfortable reading. Or stopped it getting a sequel. Film-makers insist they are not reporting history but a version of it. As writers we are all looking for the story in the gap, and we are also not historians: we are writing fiction. We do, however, live in a time when real and fake news seem to blend seamlessly together and there are concerns about the level of critical thinking many people are exposed to. What then, if any, is our responsibility when we take readers into the past? Is it to make it clear (through notes or end-pieces) how much of a novel has been invented as Kate Atkinson does in Transcriptioncommenting that she has made one thing up for everything true? She then does then go on to prove how rooted in fact all the made-up stuff is and how it never distorts the truth it's based in. Or perhaps it's Stephanie Merritt's (who writes as SJ Parris) advice that holds true: "if you are going to play fast and loose with historical fact for the sake of a good story, you'd better have done your research thoroughly if you want readers to take you seriously; only then will you have the authority to depart from those facts."

For me, I like things simple and to do as I would be done by. Let writers and film-makers turn Jane Austen into a zombie slayer if they want, as long as they call it fantasy. Let them bring bunnies or tigers or whatever they like into the nursery, as long as its clearly a metaphor. But please don't mess with timelines or bring in ridiculously anachronistic behaviour or change the nature of history. That's a different kind of fiction entirely.


Susan Price said...

Great blog -- and I agree. But just a passing thought... People did share beds all the time but I think the courtiers' suspicions of a love affair would have been based on something more than that. There's a rather elderly and sweet love affair going on in my own circle at the moment and if the people involved think they're keeping it secret from anyone at all, they're deluded. As the old song says, 'You laugh at my jokes too much' -- and they spring to each others' defence too readily without any real provocation, stand too close together, look eagerly for each other on entering a room, gaze at each other, shoehorn mentions of each other into any conversation... Meanwhile their friends look at each other sideways. The couple might as well tell Reuters.

I daresay courtiers in the past had all the same signs to signal when people lovers rather than just sharing a bed for convenience. I tend to believe the people who were there and using their eyes and ears.

M Skea said...

Great post, Catherine, I'm with you all the way!

And re Susan's comment on the sharing beds issue - we also have to remember that gossip and innuendo aren't new phenomena - it would be hard to place definite credence on the gossip of courtiers.

A similar issue arises when James VI ordered rivals among the nobles to pair up and parade up the High Street (Royal Mile to us) hand-in-hand to indicate an end to their enmity. Our perception of men (or women) walking hand-in-hand is rather different - but we shouldn't superimpose our perceptions on history.

michelle lovric said...

Really interesting post - thank you. 'Fake news' is being deployed these days as kind of double bluff, with anything that doesn't suit being attacked as untruth. That's not a nuanced weapon. (Well, what would you expect?) I like your careful separation of the metaphorical baby-bunnies from the Elizabeth-Mary-meeting way of deliberate messing with the crucial facts.

Penny Dolan said...

Agree, Catherine, but I also fear that the vivid visual impact of these false historical meetings & relationships,as experienced on the big screen can be stronger in the cultural mind, (eg the Braveheart cut-out) than the true facts. The screen explains with emotion not fact.

abigail brieson said...

When most any aspect of popular media is more readily accepted than established fact I believe it is our responsibility not only to our readers and ourselves to relate the most accurate narratives within our ability, but also our respect to the historical figures of which we write.

Is there evidence of Queen Anne enjoying the company of small cuddly animals, rabbits or no? If so perhaps it helps to define the character by the inclusion or dismissal of said animals. Does history show a person at a specific place at a specific time performing a specific function or exclude this person from those events? Then if accurate it is our responsibility to place or displace that person, or any character meant to represent that person, accordingly.

It is my view that when our stories need to be advanced through actions or attitude that cannot be substantiated through historical record or by our best attempt at interpreting the past, then as writers we must introduce such a character to perform such actions - but always position that character within the world as it existed. She is only a visitor into these times and must conduct herself appropriately.

Gale said...

Great article. Yeah, like you I don't mind when people "play in between the lines," or when they do something so clearly fictional that no one would suspect it was real.

I realize a certain amount of simplification may be necessary in some cases...but I wish writers would realize the difference between a trivial and substantive change, and avoid the latter.

Julia Ergane said...

The fallacious scene between Elizabeth and Mary was totally unnecessary for the drama. There was enough evidence in Mary's other scenes to point out her utter hubris, which is what made her a failure. She could never see her own faults and she never would have been capable of ruling England, never mind Scotland. She listened to her hormones too closely. She continuously plotted against Elizabeth so it was no real surprise that it would finally catch up with her. That she could not accept personal responsibility of guilt is associated with her hubris. You cannot feel sorry for a person like her because she has never grown in understanding. // I was an Undergraduate History major in college 50 years ago, so I do have some feelings about accuracy in historical fiction. I do believe that when major events/personages are mentioned this should be done with all accuracy. The writer should also know the mores &c of the society with which they are dealing. This requires research. (For example, only heterae (mistresses) attended Athenian dinner parties. Men's wive's did not. There was nude entertainment. If the writer is uncomfortable with this they should probably choose another genre.) I do not like it when people change history to their own liking. I also want to be warned if the regular "religiosity" of the society has been skewed by a modern fundie. Yes, I do think that good, entertaining novels can be written without using modern idioms and other anachronisms.

Antoine Vanner said...

Splendid post - should be taken to heart by all writers of historical fiction.

And as regards "The Outlaw King" I gave up after the first eight minutes!