Georgia Beith discusses whether historical fiction should be more accurate.
A piece of historical fiction, whether that be in the form of a book or a period drama, is one of life’s ultimate guilty pleasures. And as a student, especially a history student like myself, it’s not the most respectable thing in the world to admit that you like them. They’re riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies that make a lot of people look down on them but that doesn’t diminish their entertainment factor. Perhaps as someone who studies the past it should bother me that Anne Boleyn probably didn’t consider sleeping with her brother in order to produce a child, or that Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ wasn’t likely to be heard at medieval jousting tournaments. But it doesn’t, though there are a number of people who seem to be in utter despair at the quality of history being presented in the media today. Is it the case that the fact gets lost in the fiction? And does it really matter if it does?
When making any form of historical fiction and choosing to base it on real events and people, there comes with it a certain expectation that the past will be honoured truthfully. That’s why production companies and publishers will often hire historical consultants and fact checkers, to keep whatever is being made firmly rooted in historical fact. But often these good intentions fall to the wayside in favour of creating a compelling story and focusing on attracting an audience, much to the annoyance of academics and pedants alike. Notable historian of the Tudor period, David Starkey, once described the hugely popular TV show ‘The Tudors’ as “gratuitously awful” in reference to its errors and inaccuracies. And often when reading a review for a historical fiction novel, the term “historically inaccurate” will be thrown in as though that constitutes a criticism of the quality of the book itself. But do these things actually make them poor TV shows and books?
Not necessarily. Of course, if a soldier from World War I was to start referencing events from World War II, or if a Roman gladiator was to start using his iPhone, then that would be rather distracting. But the crimes committed are rarely ever so obvious. In fact, to most who are engrossed in the film they are watching, or the book they are reading, it’s easy to miss these supposedly obvious mistakes. All creators have the right to an artistic license, even those dealing with the past. And as creators, their first intention is to create, not to deliver historical truths. Although there have to be some limits, art should be judged on its artistic merits, not its factual ones.
Accuracy in fiction is vastly overrated, because it’s just that: fiction.