When is it acceptable to change historical facts to suit a story?
Anachronism, anathema, and historical fiction
In case you missed it—
Historical inaccuracies in Napoleon and The Crown are exciting those people who enjoy keeping score of mistakes. The popular critical canon for this is “anachronism bad, fidelity good.” But fidelity can never be enough. All adaptation, all historical fiction, is an affront. Arguing that we must draw the line somewhere and preserve as much accuracy as possible begs the question—why draw the line at all, why fictionalise the past? Even in the most admired novels (Wolf Hall) or adaptations (BBC Pride and Prejudice) much is invented. These inventions are anachronistic, but more acceptable than the inventions of Napoleon.
The reason is plausibility. It is not, strictly, anachronism we object to, but anathema—all historical fiction must compensate for the inadequacies of history, which is to impose on the past something of ourselves. Some anachronism is inevitable. The line has to be drawn at anathema, the imposing of things on the past that they would have found repellent, incomprehensible, or unacceptable—things they would have rejected as implausible or impossible. The anachronisms that really are unacceptable are the ones beyond plausible speculation.
There are two methods of historical fiction. Either to fill the gaps of history without changing the facts, or to interfere with the facts, to change the record to suit the story. The first mode is uncontroversial, and gives us a most of the modern historical fiction that has been so well regarded: Hamnet, Golden Hill, Pachinko, The Blue Flower, Beloved. These books present the past as it plausibly might have been. Anachronistic, because of modern dialogue and gap-filling, but hardly anathema: recognisable, though fictional, to the archival record. It fills the gaps with something plausible. As Hilary Mantel said, historical novelists must “stretch our technique to offer the truth, in its multiple and layered forms.” Mantel described a relationship between the reader and writer.
To the historian, the reader says, ‘Take this document, object, person - tell me what it means. ’ To the novelist he says, ‘Now tell me what else it means.’
That is the first mode: not to change history, but to tell us what else it means. As Aristotle said, history tells us what did happen, drama tells us the sort of thing that would have happened.
The second mode—where the facts are not supplemented or interpreted, but changed—has two sub-divisions: those that attempt to portray their distortions as plausible, and those that are openly speculative. In the film The Favourite, many liberties were taken with the life of Queen Anne: the rabbits in her bedroom, the witchery, the political satire, the dancing. All anachronistic, all anathema—all of it openly and obviously so. Some took offence because it wasn’t a cosy period drama; but it didn’t pretend to be. It was, on its face, a cousin of fantasy. No-one would mistakenly think that was what really happened. And it speculated on important and significant questions about Anne’s reign. This is how Shakespeare worked—his plays are not meant to be accurate chronicles. They are explicit about their fancy and compromise. “Thus far with rough and all-unable pen/ Our bending author hath pursued the story.” This is a high and interesting form of art.
What causes true controversy are programmes like The Crown, where timelines are altered, facts changed, fictional behaviours inserted, and all presented as if that was the truth. This is anathema disguised as history. The Crown’s indifference to quality has long been obvious. In the first season, there was an episode about the smog of 1952, in which Churchill was presented as bellicose and indifferent to the suffering the smog would cause. But when his secretary was knocked down by a bus, a repentant Winston called a press conference at the hospital, announced emergency funding for the NHS, and recovered his political position. However, the secretary was invented, transport was largely closed during the smog, it wasn’t a big political event, and Churchill not only didn’t call such a press conference, the very idea would have been so anathema to him, it’s hard to explain just how out of place it was.
This is an example of anathema presented as reality. By imposing the politics of today—outrage in the country, briefings to the leader of the opposition, victim stories swaying the polls, everyone shouting about funding for the NHS—The Crown neither filled the gaps of history nor speculated on them. Instead, it changed the record to something the historical figures couldn’t have accepted, something implausible. But everything about this programme suggests fidelity. It is a carefully detailed period drama, pretending to be filling the gaps of history.
The defence that this is creative and improves the story is lazy and uninformed. No it is not what Shakespeare did. No it is not essential to good drama. No lying and pretending you are not lying isn’t a canon of historical fiction. It’s an inadequacy. If they had put MRI scanners in the hospital, their dramatic incompetence would have been obvious. By doing the equivalent with the political narrative, their exploited the audience’s ignorance. This is a low and useless form of art and should be denounced wherever we find it.