The Historical Minefield that is Hist-Fict

31st October 2011

The word history in itself lends itself to the fact that there is a story to be told because it is called His Story. Every story has a more than one side and biases, and the best history takes into account all sides feelings and reasons.

David Starkey claimed that female historians have turned Tudor history into a ‘bizarre soap opera’ by focusing on Henry VIII’s personal life an odd comment to come from a man who made his TV debut about the wives of Henry VIII how much more personal can you get Dr Starkey? 

So here come the crux of this blog, is historical fiction a good thing or a bad thing? Firstly but fiction I will add that for the sake of this argument I will be using both written fiction as well as visual fiction, both Film and TV in my argument.

There are 2 types of Hist Fict, the type that writes a story around real events but with factious characters and then the fiction that uses real events and people in there story. Both have there advantages and disadvantages and both require a high level of research in order to create first class Hist Fict. 

Lets start by looking at historical periods with fictional characters which have historical events interwoven into there plots and stories. Both on screen and in in written form I find these forms of Hist Fict the best. If done to the high standard then they will be able to transport you back to a time bring the past alive and although they may mention an event or historic person they are not trying to reinvent it or live it. 

For me dramas such as Cadfael both the books and the TV adaptations are an excellent example of how this can be done. Set against the back drop of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda in the 12th century you feel that you are transported back to the hard short and nasty life of post Norman invasion England. 

Other authors such as Ken Follett and Sarah Dunant can bring to life times and places with such colour and detail that you can feel your on the building site of a medieval cathedral or watching the courtesans of Venice from the Rialto Bridge. There are 2 secrets to this success 1 being very good writing 2) the dept of detail that comes from hour and hours of research of knowing the architecture or the city in which your are writing so that it is recognizable to a knowledgeable reader and can bring to live places to someone who has never been to Venice. Often these authors are just written of as novelists but to me they are a cut above the other authors for their dept of research.     

For me I also enjoy TV dramas that are set in a time and transport you to a point in time. This can vary from The Walton’s toRometo the original Upstairs Downstairs and Downtown Abbey. This of course is as much to do with the acting and scripts as well as the historical research undertaken and the costumes worn. Again it is the visual stimulation that these programmes give that makes me feel transported away from my life for an hour or so. It is also fair to say at this point that these are periods of history that I have basic knowledge of so I enjoy the ride and don’t get distressed at any historical inaccuracies or poetic license used to make the programme. 

The second type of historical fiction the hardest to perfect; it is the fact made fiction using real historical people and events and taking them from the side lines being used as historical anchors  and making them the main attraction the story itself. At this point I want to make it very clear that not all of these historical novels based around kings queens and events are bad in fact some of them are fantastic they bring long dead people to life the create a picture and transport you back to a Tudor court or the great fire of London. The key to the success of these fictions is simple its research. 

The one of the best is Philippa Gregory, although she is writing a novel the characters the events the places and the period have been so well researched she is able to weave a picture that creates the illusion that you know these former monarchs and their couriers. Although she indulges in some of the more far fetched possible conspiracy theories of events in history the quality of research is there and the indulgences of her story telling are always stated. 

Another fantastic written well researched hist-fict author is Hilary Mantel. Her man booker prize winning book wolf hall is testament to the hours of meticulous research in to all aspects of her work. Historian turned novelist Alison Weir also turns her knowledge and historical knowledge in to waving actuate but entertaining novel using history written accurately. 

The visual media however woefully let the side down when it comes to historical accuracies when dramatising our history on screen. But this poetic licence muddies the truth. We are lucky enough to have one of the richest histories in the word so why “sex it up” alter it or just make things up?   

Take the Tudors for example, for any historian worth their salt would know that Cardinal Wolsey did not commit suicide but en route to his treason trial and that it was probably stress or fear fuelled natural causes such as stroke or heart attack that killed him aged 60 at Leicestercathedral. Then there is the more “sexed up” complex fiction that makes the series look like art film porn for example the Henry having a fling with Princess Marguerite of Navarre for which there is no evidence to the very strange and name change and made up affair of Anna Buckingham who if you believe the series was the daughter of Edward Stafford the 3rd duke of Buckingham with Charles Brandon 1st Duke of Suffolk. The historical accuracy is that this woman was actually known as Lady Anne Stafford wife of Earl of Huntington and she was the sister of the duke of Buckingham not daughter. Surely getting family relationships correct wont effect poetic licence that’s just poor research. The actual affair was supposed to have been with King Henry himself; surely a better storyline than the one portrayed.  A friend working at the BBC found an email that was from the American backers from the series that had the lines “did this stuff really happen? This is better than Hollywood” if that was the case why the hell did you mess with the facts? 

The Tudors seem to suffer this in most of their TV adaptations from Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I meeting Mary Queen of Scots, the two never meet, Mary Queen of Scots in the Virgin Queen having a Scottish accent, she had a very heavy French accent as she grew up there from a very young age, to Henry VIII played by Ray Winston with an accent more akin to an extra in Eastenders than Tudor courtier. 

Why does this matter? It matters as its dealing with fact with events that actually happened. For many this is the only history they have access to after school, why change it when its so rich and doesn’t add to drama? Why put the wrong facts out there? For when they do it well TV does it very well take Charles II the Power and the Passion they even round it off by telling the audience what happened to the characters after Charles’ death. 

Historical Film  doesn’t escape this historical messing, Gladiator, Braveheart, The Patriot, Marie Antoinette, Amadeus, Apocalypto, 300 and Shakespeare in Love also given the Hollywood sexy make over of history to make it more commercially sellable to a mass market.   

It could be argued that anything that gets people interested in history is a good thing but the way I see it why not make it accurate for history is sexy, it can rival the storylines of any of the soap opera with scandal and well as human behaviour, British history especially is rich so please keep the history accurate well researched and stop raising the blood pressure of historians who know the fact from the Hist-fict.

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