Novels, TV shows, films. They are a form of art. And in art there is no wrong answer. Yet this becomes more complex for historical fiction. When historical events are brought to life on the page or screen, no longer does the writer have complete freedom of imagination, as the book or film must have some level of truth to it. But how strictly should historical accuracy be maintained to?
In our age of the internet, with news incoming and travelling in the blink of an eye, we are faced with a constant tidal wave of information. This, of course, has its benefits, but it also allows an epidemic-style spread of ‘fake news’. In our world today, fact and fiction become increasingly confused. Even governments buy into the view that facts are for interpretation. In 2017, shortly after Donald Trump became President of the United States, the new administration showed its blasé attitude towards the truth. His press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, cited figures that were widely denounced as falsehoods. A White House colleague, Kellyanne Conway, defended him by claiming he was merely presenting “alternative facts”. So if there is a hazy line between fact and fiction in our present lives, how are we supposed to approach the past?
Hilary Mantel, acclaimed author of Wolf Hall, has considered this when discussing the life of Thomas Cromwell during his service to Henry VIII, and she questions “facts and alternative facts, truth and verisimilitude, knowledge and information, art and lies: what could be more timely or topical than to discuss where the boundaries lie?”
In the face of such confusion with an abundance of false information, do writers have a duty to ensure the validity of the history they present in their books and films?
Duty is the wrong word here. Good research is essential for a historical novel or production to write a believable piece, not because it is a duty to the readers and audiences. Fact and fiction are not mutually exclusive, but inform one another.
A certain amount of artistic licence will always be needed in writing a story set in the past. History as a discipline is about interpretation. Historians use sources are to build a picture of the past: mirroring what the novelist is also doing. But as Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” And here it is clear there is never an answer. Historical sources themselves can be wildly inaccurate and historians constantly reinterpret history, reaching a huge variety of conclusions about the truth of the past. It is not possible for us to know the one true past.
Historical fiction can fill these gaps in history with imagination. Whilst the writing must be informed by the historical sources to create an authentic narrative, more leeway is needed to create a compelling, character-driven story. Novels, TV shows and films are not history books. If you want pure facts, then historical fiction is not the genre for you. It is first and foremost about entertainment, not instruction. The emphasis should be on bringing characters to life rather than precise facts and figures.
Tudor historian John Guy argues that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall depicts Anne Boleyn almost as an antagonistic figure, an idea which which “historically is completely untrue” he says, and he argues “this blur between fact and fiction is troubling” for readers often take works of historical fiction at face value and assume their accuracy.
Whilst there may have been some clear historical accuracies, Mantel’s work brought to life long-dead characters and encouraged a popular interest in this period of history. Often history books seem inaccessible, and fiction allows a livelier and more vivid retelling of the past, capturing the attention of audiences who may not otherwise read history at all. Historical fiction provides a greater opening for generating interest.
Stephanie Merritt in the Guardian states that even though she may not have “learned ‘accurate’ history”, she has “acquired a love for the atmosphere of the past through the imagination of a great storyteller.” A love for history can be created by these works of fiction. I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, set during the Nigerian civil war between 1967-70. I was shocked to have never heard about this conflict before and made me question the Eurocentric focus we have in our school studies. I wanted to learn more, so went on to do a project about the Nigerian civil war, researching its history through sources. My interest in world history started with a novel.
The historical accuracy of Half of a Yellow Sun can be questioned, for it is told from the perspectives of those supporting the creation of a new nation, Biafra, that would secede from Nigeria. But it is impossible to write anything, even history books, without being influenced by personal bias. Personal bias is part of human nature. To take this away would cut out the heart of the narrative.
“Individual stories take root from the greater story of past events, and are constantly fed by it” argues novelist and online critic Ian Ross. This strikes at the core of the question of historical fiction: accuracy is certainly needed to create an authentic background for the narrative, but the writers have the ability to shape their characters and story around these facts, without being tied to them.
One of the most controversial historical decisions in a film recently was in Mary Queen of Scots, starring Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan. There was criticism levelled at the film for having Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, meet when there is no evidence to suggest they did. However, the film presents their meeting as a secret. No one knew and there were no records of it, which meant there was a possibility it could have taken place. Historical sources do not tell us everything about history so there cannot be a rigidity to approaching it. The scene itself was presented with a dreamlike atmosphere, as if recognising the ambiguity of the facts. Historical accuracies aside, what is clear is that it has created a far-reaching discussion about the history behind the film.
Undeniably, a certain level of accuracy is important. Good research is essential in capturing the authenticity of a period. But historical fiction is more than this: it is a way for people to immerse themselves in the past through the accessible mediums of books, TV and film.
Ultimately, it must be remembered that historical fiction is and always will be what it declares: fiction.