I've recently been thinking a lot about the question of historical accuracy in fiction again. As an historian, it's unsurprising that this question frequently pops into my mind. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that I have no especially strong opinions on it. This blog post, from the historian Catherine Fletcher, who was an historical adviser on the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, is a thought-provoking read, and I agree with almost all of it. Precisely because I'm an historian, I'm unsure about the value of 'historical accuracy' in TV, film or novels. Firstly, I think one has to guard against seeing things from an 'expert' point of view - which is why I rarely criticise historical novels for making factual mistakes. Basic details that I know are wrong are unlikely to be noticed by the general public, and when it comes down to it, historical novels are not written primarily for an audience of historians. Secondly, and ironically, though, because I am an historian I often feel very uncertain whether the 'factual mistake' I have discovered is indeed an error or not, because - as Fletcher points out - evidence from the past is so individual, scattered and difficult to set in stone. Viewers of Downton Abbey, for example, love to criticise the show for various historical howlers, and there have been some pretty egregious examples. But it's very easy to say "Nobody in 1920 would ever say..." and very difficult to prove it. Absolutely nobody? Are you sure?
Thirdly, although obvious errors can jolt the reader out of a story, perfect historical accuracy can do the same thing. I remember hearing Susanna Clarke talk about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which opens with a scene set in York Cathedral. She'd received lots of annoyed letters from readers pointing out that York Cathedral is always known as York Minster. And so it is - except for the precise period in the eighteenth century when her book is set. She was really caught between a rock and a hard place. Fletcher points out a similar example in her post - Tudor tapestries are portrayed as faded in Wolf Hall, even though they would have been bright and newly-made, because seeing them in gaudy colours might have confused the audience.
|"This kitchen is like a kindergarten!"|
Mrs Patmore brushes up on her
*thanks to Downton Abbey for these examples. It's important to point out that these terms were both current in the 1920s, but it does stretch credibility to believe that Tom the ex-chauffeur would have a close working knowledge of cutting-edge educational psychology, or Mrs Patmore the cook of modern child-centred educational experiments. However, these characters may have secret lives that have not yet been revealed to us...