Historical Fiction: Can it make sense?

On the surface ‘historical fiction’ appears to be a contradictory term. ‘Historical’ clearly refers to events within the past, ‘fiction’ refers to ideas that are based upon the imagination. In theory these two ideas should not go together… so how do they? And what are the consequences?

Hilary Mantel, author of ‘Wolf Hall,’ notes that ‘when we die we enter into fiction.’[1] This explains her motivation to write her novels, and also suggests that she believes that the work of the author is to fill in the gaps between historical events. This allows the idea of history and fiction to co-exist, as one does not contradict the other, merely tries to understand and complement it. We do not know what Anne Boleyn said to her ladies the night before her execution – but we know they were all in the same room. Mantel is saying that her role as author, propels her to ask what might have been said, and why.

But, does this make works such as Mantel’s historically inaccurate? The conversations that she creates may not have happened. I suppose this does not make the novel accurate, or inaccurate, as we have no historical documentation to compare it too. If there is no documentation should these conversations be included? I suppose so, as this genre is not non-fiction, it is historical fiction. So, if this is the case, why was ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ criticised for its lack of historical accuracy? Perhaps it is to do with what is considered to be high and low brow literature. Critics noted that in Philippa Gregory’s novel, historical facts were blatantly distorted. However, on closer inspection, some ideas that Gregory posits are merely things that historians cannot agree on, that she chooses to interpret and use for dramatic effect. Historians cannot agree whether Henry VIII fathered one of Mary Boleyn’s children, and we will not be getting answers any time soon. Gregory just makes a choice, and uses it… is it wrong purely because nobody can prove the answer? Is it right? Perhaps it is because Gregory argued her point so forcefully that there was such a reaction? The novel is certainly more dramatic, and therefore entertaining, due to its inclusion of this plot point… so what’s the harm? It is fiction after all. Anne’s character also came under fire – she is depicted as vindictive and scheming. ‘Wolf Hall’ depicts her in the same way, albeit for different purposes. This is how Gregory and Mantel interpret Anne, and although we cannot know her now, we do know that perhaps she did possess these traits – but maybe not as explicitly. Natalie Dormer’s performance in ‘The Tudors’ seemed to cover all basis, her spitefulness and her vulnerability.

Anne’s incest with her brother was a large plot point in the novel, and amongst historians. Most agree, bar G.W Bernard, that Anne was innocent of all charges, but if we just base our assertions on the historical fact, the indictment and execution, one could say that as she was executed for these crimes, she was guilty. I personally do not believe this, but imagine if all those historians are barking up the wrong tree? We cannot possibly know – what if Gregory’s interpretation is correct? This may well be the point of historical fiction, to flesh out the nuances and different aspects of the historical material. Does this make works of historical fiction inaccurate? Because they explore ideas that are not widely accepted? Well, is Anne Boleyn’s conversation with x at x time about x in ‘Wolf Hall’ widely accepted by historians? If it is not, is it inaccurate, like TOBG? It is quite complicated.

While ‘The Crown’ was lauded by critics, many cited that that it had taken its artistic license a tad too far… even though that probably was the point. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden called for the show to have a ‘fiction’ warning, as the programme was seen to be damaging to the monarchy. This mainly revolved around the royal family’s treatment of Princess Diana. In contrast, Prince Harry praised the program’s ability to capture the constraints and stresses of being a royal. There was a concern that people would take the show as fact, and that, if they were to do so, their respect for the royal family would rapidly diminish. Personally, I do not believe that this is an issue to do with the show itself, but more an issue with the audience. The audience should know that what they are watching is a work of fiction… but is ‘The Crown’ a work of fiction? Perhaps not when drilling into the specific details, especially of Season Four, but the overall themes and dynamics appear to be relevant – especially the marriage of Charles and Diana. Why then were the first few seasons not called out for these so-called distortions? Perhaps it has more to do with the characters, namely Charles and Diana. Their tumultuous marriage, as portrayed in the fourth season, arguably had the ability to do more damage to the image of the monarchy than Philip’s suggested infidelity or Margaret’s alcoholism, due to peoples undying love for Diana. The debate about the ‘fictional’ element of ‘The Crown’ has never ramped up so much than it did last year. The point does still remain though that, whichever way you look at it, Diana had a terrible time, and a large part of this was due to the actions of her in-laws… in this respect, ‘The Crown’ does appear accurate. Perhaps it is not accurate in the right way for some people, perhaps the focus was too much on the family, and not on the nature of the suffocating lifestyle… even though I have just posited this idea, I do find it hard to uphold, as it is the family that uphold the lifestyle, and impart it to Diana. What is true, and does remain, is the fact that the show does draw inspiration from history… so there must be some element of truth.

Controversial casting has also been an issue, which has manifested in the form of colour-blind casting, as seen in ‘Bridgerton.’ Can casting ever truly be colour-blind? Can we believe people when they say it is? Should it matter? The issue is a complex one, and it is obvious that, although the word ‘diverse’ did not exist in the Regency era as it does now, it would be a generalisation to note that it was white-centric. However, Lady Danbury’s note that society has dramatically changed since George III married a black woman, Queen Charlotte, is a tad ridiculous and makes racial equality seem all too easy… especially because it has no historical basis. A huge event, that seemingly solves all racial inequality, is mentioned in one throwaway line. It does a disservice to the issue, and appears inconsiderate especially considering the Black Lives Matter Movement. What ‘Bridgerton’ does allow is for people of all colours to see themselves in all positions on screen. It tackles typecasting. So, should casting be colour-blind? I really doubt that it is, and it seems unsettling that, in casting, peoples skin colour is ignored – as that appears to be ignoring part of their identity. Perhaps ‘colour-bind’ is the wrong term… but then perhaps it is the right one, as the person who can best portray the character should be chosen for the job – no matter what their skin colour. Maybe it is not the job of ‘Bridgerton’ to be diverse, perhaps we must find stories that centre around ethnic minorities to encourage diversity.

Channel 5’s ‘Anne Boleyn’ aired yesterday, starring black actress Jodie Turner-Smith. This caused quite a large reaction, especially from Anne Boleyn fans. It depends how people read Anne’s story, if it is a story about her struggle within a patriarchal world, then surely the colour of the actress does not matter. If she were being portrayed by a black woman in a documentary, I would probably feel more strongly about it, as a documentary is supposed to be historically accurate. I am not saying that Turner-Smith’s casting is not inaccurate, it is inaccurate, as Anne Boleyn was white, but just that perhaps this should not be the focus for a work of historical fiction, as it is, in part, fiction. Perhaps the casting of a black actress is being used to show the difference, and distance, between the royal family and Anne herself, like a physical signifier. I am unsure that I like this theory, as Anne herself was not chastised for her colour, that seems like somebody else’s story. Anne was chastised for her resilience, and in part, her religious views. This should be focused on. Anne Boleyn’s story is not about the struggle of a black woman in a male dominated world, so perhaps it should not be made to be… but is it being made to be, purely by her presence? Turner-Smith’s skin colour cannot be ignored. If the drama focuses fully on Anne’s character, and does it well, then fair do’s. That being said, if a black woman was cast as Diana in ‘The Crown,’ there would have been greater outrage than the casting of Turner-Smith. Perhaps the former would have caused greater outrage as Diana is a more recent public figure… but should that matter? Should some parts of history remain untouched? Laurence Fox has recently criticised the ‘diversity agenda’ behind Turner-Smith’s casting, arguing that it is unfair that a black actress can portray a white woman, and not the other way around. Turner-Smith has said that she wants to tell a ‘human’ story. I doubt these two mindsets will meet and come to some form of agreement. Anne Boleyn’s kiss with Jane Seymour has also drawn particular attention, and it is this that stands out to me as particularly strange… I just cannot see it happening, I imagine that Anne hated Jane! I shall have to withhold comment until after I have watched it.

I am unsure whether this post has achieved anything, but hopefully it has provided some food for thought.

Thanks for reading!


[1] Reith Lectures, 2017.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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