Modern Historical Fiction… 21st Century Eyes, 16th Century Smile

Modern Historical Fiction... 21st Century Eyes, 16th Century Smile

You can tell the age of a period film by its hairstyles. Do we actually even need accuracy in modern historical fiction?

Historical fiction is a lovely little thing, isn’t it? A hint at the glamour of yesteryear, a few hundred pages of a fantasy life that isn’t hard to immerse yourself in if you’re not a fan of dragons and witches. Not to mention that historical fiction is brimming with steamy scenes, bodices torn at the seams and lots of amusing euphemisms for visiting Cock Lane. Well, they had to do something to pass the time while waiting for someone to invent the internet.

But historical accuracy… there’s a tricky little devil. On one hand, it’s fiction. It doesn’t matter if Anne Boleyn didn’t flit about in a gown with no chemise underneath, or if an author makes wild guesses and assumptions about the identities of historical murder mysteries. And people are reading these stories as a form of escapism, do they want to escape into a world as grim as their own: with plagues and poxes, unwashed bodies and chamber pots chucked into the streets?

History. It was so like this, okay? It was totally like this.

Historical Accuracy

Chances are, the fans of historical fiction fall into two camps. They’re rabid history lovers or they don’t care what happened last week, they just want a good story. Both groups will note the benefits of accuracy in the tales. You might actually learn something, for a start. And an artist’s impression of something is often easier to understand than a flavourless timeline of factual events. Even if only the bare bones of the story are right, under lashings of affairs and glittering jewels, reading an actual history once you’ve got an idea of a person’s thoughts on it makes it all make sense. Historical fiction brings it all to life.

Historical Inaccuracy

But the past is not a life we understand. A world of wet-nurses, where children were seen and not heard and were marriageable pawns. Writers, actors and audience don’t come from a time when this is all normal. We’re looking at actual events with 21st Century eyes filled with disbelief and horror. Should we be altering the stories, giving women who probably didn’t fight the patriarchy and see their children as often as they could those passions? Or, to another extreme, should we be demonising women who were just acting the way they thought was best for their families?

History. It was so like this, okay? It was totally like this.

21st Century Eyes

We have some pretty weird ideas about what is conventionally attractive. Humanity through the ages always has. But those weird ideas have changed a lot over the centuries. Depictions of female characters as fastidiously bathing in tubs with soap look fine to modern people who shower most days, but chances are that the dashing hero would probably have thought she was mad to risk her life in such an unhealthy fashion! Hairless, plump-breasted, tanned goddesses adorn our screens draped in rich jewel tones and look damn fine to our modern tastes… but look nothing like the characters they’re supposed to depict.

16th Century Smiles

Period dramas might seem like they’re unchanging, relevant throughout the ages as they depict a fixed point in time… but have you sat down and watched two different versions of the same events? You can date the decade a film was produced in as easily as the period it’s set in. Take a look at the beautiful Anne of a Thousand Days and compare its modest splendour with HBO’s The Tudors. Ignoring the fact that Genevieve Bujold and Natalie Dormer both portray strikingly different Anne’s, look at the hairstyles. Ah, hairstyles. No matter how we dress, you always give us away…

History. It was…

Which century’s heroine?

I’ll confess, historical fiction is my biggest indulgence. Forget boots or perfume, fancy knickers or sunglasses (though all these things tickle the same spots), give me a few hundred pages of old-fashioned romance and adventure and I’m one happy girl. I flicked greedily through my collection, filling my head with the thoughts of women in vastly different times and yet always having some connection to them. But why? I should have nothing in common with these women who come from a time when women are lesser than men, barely have rights and will probably only dream of love.

The heroines of historical fiction are, invariably, strong women. They want what they want, seek their true loves, fight authority, wear men’s clothes, carry a weapon… do all the things that women wouldn’t have done in those days. We’d have noticed if an armed revolution of women in doublet and hose marched out of London and into their lover’s arms. The real women the stories are based on, either historical personalities like Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey or servants in positions close to them, were interesting enough to have been remembered at all. Why must we give them the power that they wouldn’t have had, when it’s only a story?

The wrong genre?

Fiction is a brilliant thing. Anything can happen. And it’s so liberating to know that, whatever you want, you can probably find it. Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter? Yeah, he’s there. Not your thing? How about Elizabeth I as a vampire hunter? Better? Pride and Prejudice not quite your cup of tea? Add zombies, and enjoy. Heck, grab your Jane Austen and add steamy restriction culture scenes, if you really must. It’s all out there.

However, when it comes to history and fiction, I swing both ways. I want to read about the mad passions… but don’t you dare ruin my Queen Jane Dudley. If you’re going to ignore history, then why make modern fiction ‘historical’ at all?

History. It was so like this, okay? It was totally like this.