In a recent blog post I looked at how cinema’s love for the bio-pic allows for a certain massaging of history. This month I’m thinking of the dangers of dabbling at all in the borders of fact and fiction. First of all, there’s the fracas over Netflix’s next series of The Crown, slated for depicting all manner of conversations amongst the royal family which apparently never took place. But this is fiction, you say! Yes, but is it historical fiction when so many of the players are alive and kicking and available to give, should they deign to do so, a more accurate version?
This particular rumpus is heightened by the level of emotion engendered by the recent death of the Queen and the degree to which individuals think deference should or shouldn’t be due to the monarchy and so I’m going to choose a less feverish example, that of Steve Coogan’s The Lost King, which tells the story of Philippa Langley who pushed for the discovery of the body of Richard III, entombed beneath a city centre carpark.
As far as I can see, in crafting a decent story about an enthusiastic amateur who pitted herself against the weight of academia (great premise – a story needs conflict, right?) Coogan has more than ruffled the feathers of the academics involved. In this case and without knowing many details, my sympathies are with the university crew, because to sustain the drama, their side of things has quite probably been overlooked or distorted, and it appears no consultation took place. They were just doing their jobs, they might well say, completely unaware they were to be depicted as ‘stodgy academic’ villains in a documentary, oops, dramatic account of events. You can see how easily the lines are blurred.
I suspect some of the people represented in The Dig, the gorgeous film about Sutton Hoo which I’ve only just discovered was based on a novel (actual events recorded here) would feel equally put out by their representation, but of course all that occurred in the 1930s. With the passage of time are we less likely to mistake drama for documentary, or care how closely the action accords with the facts? Crucially of course, there are simply fewer people to bear witness to what actually happened.
A historical novelist (or screen-writer IMO) must always pay heed to known historical facts, whether in terms of broad social history or specific recorded events. Even when historical fiction seeks to overturn the received wisdom (like Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell, or that Elvis film) the writer wants to respect both the subject and the period. In those cases where the major character is a historical figure, I think the feeling of respect is even stronger – do we dare put those words into his/her mouth, those feelings into their heart? We do the best we can to be true to our subject based on the research we’ve done and the story we’ve pulled from it.
In my current novel, I have tried very hard not to write anything which could be disproved, although there is always recourse to historical notes to highlight areas of doubt, or where I am aware of having taken some (to me!) small liberty. In fact a little-known but crucial historical fact was brought to my attention after publication of In the Blink of an Eye which might have altered the narrative. Don’t let’s forget that history can sometimes change!
It’s about interpretation, isn’t it? We take what we know, and add a strong dose of imagination to fill in the blanks. The problem is that with recent history there are no absolute blanks: there will always be someone (or someone’s relative) who can tell you that did not happen, or not in that way. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two series of The Crown, a period on the margins of my memory, and it was a lovely way to bulk out my recollections. But as the action creeps towards the present day, everything becomes more controversial, and what strikes me is that a treatment with a wide audience could easily become, in the way of Chinese whispers, a popular and eventually prevalent interpretation. For instance, although the original point was made in the service of drama rather than history, a hundred years from now, will our new king be known as someone who wanted to oust his mothe?
So, before we create any new narrative of recent or not so recent events, let’s remember how long it took for Thomas Cromwell to be reinstated as one of the good guys.
One thought on “The Crown and The Lost King: the cost of playing fast and loose with ‘history’”
Love it: many fair points here. I am unsure Thomas Cromwell was a ‘good guy’ or even if Elizabeth 1st was – on that second point, the Great Elizabethan Age, could be seen as a construct to back up the Greatness of Britain in days of the Empire?? It was certainly talked up in school history lessons.
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