I loved the first couple of series of The Crown – all those stories which formed the backdrop to my youth brought to dramatic life. I only fell out of love when Olivia Colman (much though I admire her) took over as the Queen. However this hasn’t stopped me from following the furore raging around the current series. ‘This is outrageous/inaccurate,’ cry one side. ‘Don’t worry, this is fiction,’ cry the others.
I’m pretty neutral on the subject of royalty but I do have some sympathy here with the Windsors. It’s one thing to be the subject of endless documentaries (or even hilarious spoofs) but quite another to be cast in a drama that takes your life story and tweaks it to make better viewing. And you can’t complain, apparently, because that makes you a spoil sport. It’s fiction after all. No, not even drama-documentary (really?) just plain fiction.
Writers of historical fiction are always walking that truth/accuracy line (and don’t let me start on authenticity!) while trying to present the reader with a satisfying drama. However it gets harder still when the subjects are alive, kicking and in the public eye. I spotted a quote from a Crown review this week which said that something didn’t need to be accurate to be true. I do know what they mean, but only if you accept the premise that there are different kinds of truth. I can’t help feeling one or two of their royal highnesses might disagree!
I love fiction of all eras, possibly most of all when it writes the life story of someone I don’t know much about and would like to know better. I take it on trust that the author has put in the groundwork and I always read the historical notes (sometimes my favourite part!) which I hope will reveal how much is ‘accurate’ (or should we say ‘documented’?) and where invention has taken over. But something tells me The Crown does not come with a screen-full of text at the end telling us what really happened.
When I wrote In the Blink of an Eye it was a matter of relief that none of the major characters was either living or had direct descendants that I knew of*. But even without that worry I did feel a responsibility not to knowingly misrepresent anyone and not to get something wrong out of ignorance rather than deliberate reworking (of the kind that can go in the notes!)
My current project is more complicated: several characters come with all of the baggage afforded by celebrity; there is a much bigger mountain of material (primary and secondary) to research. I feel a need not to get so hung up on ‘facts’ (however we define them) that I lose sight of the story I want to tell even if it’s often the factual detail (that intriguing footnote or the biographer’s aside) that provides inspiration. But neither do I want to go wildly off piste in terms of the accepted version.
All of which begs the question, whose story is it anyway? Every new era will put a different gloss on the ones that went before. This is particularly clear when I read biographies of the same figure written almost a hundred years apart. Every new writer feels a need to ‘correct’ his or her predecessor when each of us is simply a child of our time and, pace the odd newly discovered document, will look at similar material and reach different conclusions.
While I was pondering The Crown I stumbled on a Guardian review by Cressida Connolly of Blond, Joyce Carol Oates novel about Marilyn Monroe, whose life is apparently very well documented. I haven’t read the novel but Connolly is not enamoured. She says:
Fictionalising a life is a dodgy business, because the only thing which separates it from biography is conjecture,and, by extension, untruth.
Conjecture of course is what historical/biographical fiction is all about. We make the conjectures that we think fits with the history and form a story that sits with our world view. If others believe it, that’s a win. If they don’t, I guess we have in their eyes told an untruth. If we’re unnerved by that idea there is another path; to take the story and strip out the names, to write a complete fiction ‘inspired by’ so-and-so and his/her predicament. But there is a desire to bring that real person’s story to the world. To call it otherwise feels like selling our subjects short.
Truth can be many things; emotional, dramatic, historical or psychological. Whatever the whole truth might be, it’s hard to find it in an illustration of near-contemporary events without offending someone. I’m assuming none of this worries Netflix too much. They’re just rubbing their hands at the viewing figures.
* At a book-signing in Scotland I met a member of the Paton family, an indirect descendant of Amelia Paton-Hill who plays a major part in Blink. He went off happily with two copies and I’ve had no angry letter or email – yet!