Mummy, is it true?

There is so much to discuss on the topic of truth and accuracy in historical fiction that I hardly know where to begin. Let’s start with this article in The Australian: Passion for the past leaves little for nitpickers. It’s about the film, The King’s Speech, and how the director is so obsessive about detail that those who like to find fault are being quite exercised to find any. Interestingly, the film is on track to pick up lots of major awards without resorting to special effects, a sensational plot, hot sex scenes or a shark. It’s just the plain old fashioned recipe of a great script and terrific acting. But how important is it to get the details right?

I live in Oxford. Naturally I’m fond of Inspector Morse and, now, Lewis. But I’ve had to get used to the film makers playing God with the scenery. The police inspector comes out of the gate of a major college but not on to  the street that runs past it. He chases a villain towards the north of the city and, quick as a flash, they are in open countryside. Or, even worse, he’s now chasing him in a southerly direction. The director will probably argue that it cost less to film in open countryside than an arterial Oxford road, or that it looked better, or that it set off Morse’s pale complexion rather nicely. But each time someone plays merry with the facts, someone else is upset and, in the case of Morse, it’s everyone who lives in Oxford. Strange, to wantonly annoy your key audience.

So how lovely to hear of a film maker who is ‘obsessive’ about accurate detail. Let’s applaud him with as many Oscars as are appropriate.

Meanwhile, we have only just begun on this topic. I’ll continue with it over the next couple of posts. I’ll just leave you with this. My friend’s 7 year old son asked his mother to ask me if my book about King Arthur is true? I was disconcerted to say the least. It’s not my place to tell any child there’s no Santa Claus. I spoke to him about it and found myself describing the different levels of truth, how things may not be literally true (no, Sir Bedevere did not arrive on Port Meadow one day and have to tell twenty-one stories in order to get back to the Otherworld); but somewhere deep inside us there is a just king who is sleeping right now and needs to wake up. He accepted that (bright kid).

Yesterday I found him reading a book, author and title forgotten, but obviously it was an adventure story which, in my day, would have been ‘Biggles Flies Again’ by Capt. Johns. And so I asked him, ‘Is the story true?’ ‘No,’ he said at once, ‘of course it isn’t!’

Which raises the question, how does he know that? I discussed it with his mother, and we think that some stories have markers in them which alert you to the need to suspend all credibility; and others don’t. It’s the second kind which can be dangerous fiction. And the Da Vinci code is a prime example.

The question is, really, does it matter if gullible people get to believe things that writers make up? And what if the writer doesn’t think he/she is making it up, but is receiving it through the channel of divine inspiration? I’m not being facile here – all authors hope for that.

I suppose I’m a bit miffed that someone who believes Lorenzo de’ Medici was of the bloodline of Jesus is making a fortune. I’m not bothered about the fortune: I grieve for the truth. Because what is really important about Lorenzo will be lost in the glamour and glitz and sheer vivacity of conspiracy theories.

What does anyone else think about these matters? How far can we, should we play merry with the facts to ‘let the story have its head’. And what are facts, when it comes down to it?

PS. Dorcas Lane in ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ has pierced ears I noticed last night. True to period, I wonder?


5 thoughts on “Mummy, is it true?

  1. There’s a difference, yes, in belief and believability. Morse/Lewis…. It isn’t real. If it was, b*gger living in Oxford (or anywhere near Midsommer (Midsommer Murders) or Hastings (Foyle) or Cornwall (Wexford) etc. Residents have too short a life span!

    Being annoyed that the street outside a college isn’t right (forgive me) is silly. Very probably it was totally impracticle to film there (maybe even illegal for various reasons)

    Some detail (like that) can go too far. However, had Morse come out of an obvious Oxford College straight onto , say, Parliament Square (with its obvious landmark) well that would be pushing it a bit!

    An author said she was now looking up the moon phases for her books to get them right – in her case for some scenes it was essential as it was the start of Ramadan and she writes good historical fiction – but would it be taking it too far to always make sure the moon phase was right in every HF novel? It’s a NOVEL for goodness sake.

    Having said that, I checked the moon phases for Bring It Close, the third of my Sea Witch Voyages. Why? Because the story was set over a period of about 8 weeks & I suddenly realised I had two full moons in two weeks – so it was essential to do my research and get the phases right.

    That sort of detail brings believability to a story (be it TV, Novel or a play)

    Or – I loved the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie primarily because of Jack Sparrow – Johnny Depp *grin – heart thiump* but it was also enjoyable because it was made to _feel_ real (despite several poor continuity errors) – even the fantasy bits. P.O.C. movie two was only OK but movie three, I hated – it was so unreal I couldn’t believe any of it. Sparrow had supposedly been roaming the seas for 10 years looking for the Black Pearl. In movie 1 he appeared to be a drunken buffoon – but you soon realised it was all a play-act, he knew exactly what he was doing. by #3? He was a drunken buffoon who didn’t even know how to navigate… aw c’mon guys!

    As another example, I am a keen Radio 4 Archers fan. I am still in tears at the death of Nigel on 2nd January. He didn’t really fall off the roof at Lower Loxley, but the script is good enough to bring a lump to the throat.

    What I detest is fiction portrayed as fact. A book (a movie a TV programme) is either a story or a documentary. A novel can be written to feel real – but it isn’t real. Sadly there are too many people who don’t know the difference

  2. Linda,

    Thanks for raising this issue. As a reader of historical fiction, I do pay attention to period detail. When I spot an anachronism (e.g., cherubs portrayed as cute and infantile in second-century Rome), it communicates carelessness — or worse, an assumption that the reader is too ignorant to notice — and makes me wonder if I can trust the rest of the book. Am I in good hands even as far as the fictional storyline?

    I’m intrigued by your reference to the “markers” that let us know we must suspend disbelief. Will you be writing more about those?

    • I think you have every right to be cautious when you spot howlers like the one you mention. It speaks of sloppiness. Authors used to be a wee bit lazy because there was always the thought of the editor acting like a fine muslin sieve. She would catch all your errors and check your continuities. But we can no longer rely on there being an editor and have to work doubly hard to get it right ourselves. With the amazing tool of the internet at our disposal, however, there’s no real excuse any more not to do the research. It’s utterly amazing what you can find out in a matter of minutes now.

      As to the ‘markers’, I’ve tried to say more in the next post, but I’ve only scratched the surface. I suppose a famous or infamous case of absent markers was the Orson Welles broadcast telling America that Martians had landed. The “marker” was there in that it was broadcast as an episode of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. The word ‘theatre’ was the clue, but presumably it caused panic amongst those turning on late. But I suspect it was missing other more subtle signs that tell us we are in the world of fiction. What they are, I can’t think off hand. I reckon there’s a thesis in this somewhere, and I’m not the one to do it! But you do wonder if when ancient bards strummed their harps and called upon the Muse, it wasn’t a signal to the audience that what was to follow, although set in Troy, was largely a work of fiction.

  3. Regarding pierced ears in late 19th century? I think it would have been period – an older friend of my grandmothers (who would have been a young woman in 1890) had pierced ears, which rather scandalized my own mother in the 1940s – because only rather trashy girls had pierced ears at that time. Also, a chapter of Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Eight Cousins” has the heroine, Rose, getting her ears pierced by another more sophisticated friend, so that she can wear fashionable earrings.

    • Oh, thanks for that, Celia – that’s very informative. I noticed last night that the Pratt sisters in Larkrise also have pierced ears, but I’m just being pernickety now. I think the idea that only trashy girls had pierced ears lasted well into the twentieth century. Very few of my friends in their 70s have them.

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