Should Historical Fiction Have a Warning Label?

Posted By on March 11, 2011

As many of you know, I love historical fiction, there’s no better way to spend a cold winter’s night, in my eyes, than cuddled up on the sofa with a glass of red wine in one hand and an historical novel in the other.

A work of historical fiction combines my two great loves – history and literature – but I also have a problem with it, I find myself wondering if an historical novelist needs to take responsibility for what they have written and for how a potential reader will use it. For example, I have heard of people taking shortcuts with projects on Anne Boleyn by reading “The Other Boleyn Girl” and that is rather worrying when you consider that, at the end of the day, it is a work of historical FICTION and contains many, many inaccuracies and goes against the grain of what many historians today believe about Anne Boleyn.

The world of historical fiction is a quagmire. On the one hand, why shouldn’t historical fiction authors be allowed to write whatever they want? It is fiction afterall and why shouldn’t they be free to be inspired? But, on the other hand, they are also writing about real people and real events, so don’t they have some responsibility to stick to the facts, rather than muddy the waters? Hmmm…, it’s a tricky one and I’ve handled the question before in my article on “The Other Boleyn Girl”. It makes you wonder if historical fiction authors should always include a section where they explain what is fact and what is fiction or at least a warning or disclaimer that explains that the book is inspired by history but is a work of fiction.

Anyway, here are some thoughts from one Anne Boleyn Files visitor, Clare:-

The Trouble with Historical Fiction

by Clare

I am not a great fan of historical fiction, and this is coming from someone who has tried to write it herself. I couldn’t do so, mainly because I’m not a particularly good writer. Having said that, I did try to stay true to characterisation as much as possible. Admittedly I portrayed Catherine Howard as being a bit thick, which may be fair comment bearing in mind the mess she got herself into. I also portrayed Thomas Boleyn as being a hard disciplinarian, which I really don’t know was the case, and which I regret doing. The problem with historical fiction is there there is obviously an element of truth to it because it’s about the lives of real people, but what’s fact and what’s fiction? That’s the difficulty for the lay person.

All this brings me to what I actually dislike about historical fiction. It’s not so much the inaccuracies or the difficulty in differentiating fact from fiction. It is more about how the characters are portrayed.

Claire has already written in detail about ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ and the inaccuracies contained in it. I disliked the book intensely, but I could just about stomach the inaccuracies, because irrespective of Gregory’s insistence that she’s a historian, I could accept it as what it said on the cover, i.e. ‘fiction’, and because I at least knew something about the era I realised early in the book that it was complete and utter rubbish. It was the portrayal of Anne which I couldn’t stomach. Anne was a deeply religious woman, and to depict her as unremittingly unpleasant, and as a woman capable of murder and incest, seemed to me a monstrous betrayal of the woman Anne really was. Anne is also depicted as stealing Mary’s son. Although that is obviously incorrect, it wasn’t the inaccuracy which annoyed me as much as the depiction of Anne as someone who would do such a thing.

Likewise, the film version portrayed George Boleyn as a weakling who died on the scaffold as a coward. Again, it’s not so much that this is untrue as the fact that George’s incredible bravery was reduced to him screaming and having to be physically held down on the scaffold. It’s the insult to the man which I find so distasteful.

That brings me on to The Tudors. Most people enjoy the programme for the entertainment value despite the inaccuracies, which is fine, but it isn’t the inaccuracies which make my blood boil. I can put up with Princess Margaret marrying the King of Portugal. I can even handle Henry Fitzroy dying at the age of four, despite the fact he was actually at Anne Boleyn’s execution. OK, I have to grit my teeth a bit, but so what? But then there is the depiction of Wolsey committing suicide. Again, it’s not the fact that he didn’t actually do so which I find disturbing, it’s the fact that such a religious man was portrayed as someone who would even contemplate suicide.

As for the depiction of Catherine Howard urinating in terror on the scaffold, that has to be an all time low. By the eye-witness accounts she was indeed terrified, but she died with real dignity as befitted someone of her status. It was a matter of honour for people facing execution to die with dignity, and she would, and should, have been proud of her last moments. To reduce that bravery and dignity, as The Tudors did, seems to me to be the ultimate betrayal of the poor girl who had already been betrayed in life by almost everyone she knew.

Then there is my personal horror at the way ‘The Tudors chose to portray George Boleyn. I think it is probably the worse portrayal of a human being in historical fiction. The inaccuracy of portraying him as bi-sexual I can forgive, but again it’s the depiction of a man, whose religious views meant he saw buggery as an offence against God, as being a man who would even consider it – that I object to. Even if he had been so inclined, and there is no evidence to suggest he was, there is very little chance he would risk his immortal soul by indulging in a same sex relationship. But bi-sexuality is nothing compared to being portrayed as a rapist and wife abuser. It’s fine to say it’s not accurate, but it’s not fine to portray a real human being, who died tragically, in that light. And if we say it is acceptable then what does that say about our morality?

We live in a century where our sense of right and wrong and our attitudes towards sex are completely different to sixteenth century personalities. Yet by projecting our moral viewpoint on to them are we actually doing them a great disservice? For example, homosexuality is now perfectly acceptable, and I’m in no way suggesting it isn’t, but to George Boleyn it was not only unacceptable, it was also an affront to God. George would be spinning in his grave at the various depictions of him in recent works of fiction, and are we honestly saying that’s OK?

If Anne had been portrayed as guilty of the crimes levelled against her, or if she had been portrayed as a lesbian having an affair with one of her ladies-in-waiting, would The Tudors have been as popular? Probably not, certainly with Anne fans. It’s a matter of subjectivity rather than objectivity.

And for those who cry out, ‘yes, but it’s only fiction’, remember that to the majority of people who read or watch it, they will never look inside a history book. To them, their knowledge of this incredible era will always be tainted by fiction. I think the ‘it’s only fiction’ argument may hold weight regarding historical inaccuracies, but can any of us, hand on heart, say it’s right to allow real people from history to be morally destroyed for the sake of entertainment.

Conclusion

Thanks, Clare, for writing that piece, it really did make me stop and think. As someone who gets a few emails every week from people who have been ‘led astray’ by taking historical fiction as fact, I can see that there is a problem, what’s really difficult is knowing where the responsibility lies – with the reader or with the author/director? Why should an author stifle their creativity simply because a reader might inadvertently believe what they write? It really is a difficult subject but I believe it could be solved by an author taking the time to explain their story a bit more.

What do you think?

Also see “Anne Boleyn and The Other Boleyn Girl” and What Are the Responsibilities–and Rights–of the Historical Novelist? over on The History Police Facebook page.

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