Monday, 9 February 2015

Monday Musings: Is historical accuracy important in fiction?

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
 Montessori method.
Of course, I'm not arguing that writers of historical novels (or producers of film and TV) should simply throw caution to the winds and write exactly what they want to, unless it is made clear that is explicitly what they are doing (A Knight's Tale!). But my main gripe with historical fiction is when it fails to capture the spirit and thought of the time in which it is set, rather than getting small details like words and tapestries wrong, although of course a multiplicity of such errors does add up to affect the atmosphere of the film or text. When historical fiction changes the details of what has happened in the past, or inserts heroes or heroines with obviously modern views into the narrative to be appalled at how backward their contemporaries are, it becomes clear that the writer or director is only interested in using historical settings as colourful backdrops. Not only does it violate the reality of the past, but it raises the question: why write an historical novel at all? If you are not going to challenge readers' pre-conceptions by immersing them in a different mindset, and making it clear that everyone's views are conditioned by the context of their times, why write in the first place? I become very impatient with films like Made In Dagenham and 12 Years A Slave (although the latter had some thought-provoking moments) that allow the modern audience to sit back and relax, comfortable in the knowledge of their moral superiority. I don't mind if the curtains or the soap are wrong, or if you've used the idea of a 'learning curve' or a 'kindergarten' long before these terms would have come into common usage*; but please justify why you even wanted to set your story in the past.

*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...

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