Historical fiction – where to draw the line

The issue of factual inaccuracy in historical fiction is a perpetual source of debate, and occasional outbreaks of controversy. Reports in the media today pick up on this issue with aspects of the new film Mary Queen of Scots labelled ‘problematic’ by a historian in a BBC report with the Telegraph going as far as to call the response a ‘backlash’ against the film. As the film will not be released until later this year I’m not sure there has been a ‘frontlash’ yet, but that’s the media for you…

This led to a fascinating and nuanced debate on Twitter yesterday involving numerous historians, including Dr Estelle Paranque, whose comments led to the media reports, Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian and screenwriter of historical drama, and Greg Jenner, a historian and consultant to TV and film. Other historians involved in the debate included Rebecca Rideal, author of a superb book on 1666, Professor David Andress, a specialist in the history of revolution, and Dr Sean Lang, historian of the British Empire.

So where should historical fiction draw the line between historical accuracy and drama? Is it ever justified for historical fiction to depart from the facts, as well as they are known?

(First of all, to define ‘accuracy’ for the sake of this blogpost – I mean broad adherence to the currently accepted facts of events and the lives of historical figures etc. Obviously interpretations change, new evidence can and does come to light, and there will be more debate about some people and events than others, but generally speaking it should be possible to establish what is generally thought to have been taken place).

I should have several dogs in this fight. Or I would, if it was a fight, and didn’t love dogs. I write historical fiction and non-fiction, and frankly I’d love to be involved in a broadcast or screen historical drama. I’ve also worked in the media, so have an idea of why this has been portrayed as a spat when it really isn’t. This is not to say that there aren’t some very passionate views and a lot of disagreement. But there seems to me to be nothing ill-tempered about the way historians and writers/directors/consultants engage in this debate – indeed, often the same people are on both ‘sides’ of that equation, and there isn’t a divide between them along professional lines. This is what makes it so interesting.

Nor is the issue of historical accuracy an academic one – since I started writing historical fiction in earnest seven or eight years ago, I’ve been surprised by the attitude of many enthusiasts of history (particularly military history) who refuse to touch historical fiction, even in the areas that most interest them. They tend to see historical fiction as at best pointless, when there are ‘true stories’ to read about, and at worst invidious and misleading, even deliberately so. Any departure from the known facts is tantamount to treason. Others are bewildered by the issue. ‘It’s a film… not a documentary’ shrugged one tweeter.

The crux of the Mary Queen of Scots question is that the film portrays a meeting between the two monarchs which never happened. Not only did it not happen, but it is widely and well known not to have happened (I recall learning this particular snippet at primary school).

Although the film is named for Mary, the trailer and pre-release publicity pitches this as a head-to-head between the two queens, sometimes setting themselves against each other and sometimes against the assembled men who think they know best. They are portrayed as initially friendly, before becoming bitter rivals and enemies.

The Twitter debate was kicked off, appropriately enough, by historian and histfic writer Kate Williams who asked other historians what they thought of the issue in the light of the media reports around it.

Here’s the tweet that started it all – you can read the thread/s from here

Do have a look at it and the various branches, it is fascinating, and the kind of multi-limbed discussion that represents the best side of  Twitter but be warned, it could swallow half your day. In fact, it was all a bit too detailed and multifacted to reflect in a simple blogpost, but I’ll do my best to tackle the elements that interested me most. To take the basic question of where the line should be drawn:


Dr Estelle Paranque @DrEstellePrnq

You have good points Alex and I think we really should debate this further (on a platform where we can say more than 200 words or so here ha). My problem is where do we draw a line when film makers producers decide to rewrite the past? What is acceptable for drama and what is not


Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann

After a lot of thinking about this I don’t think there is a line. Filmmakers/novelists should work in an environment of artistic freedom. But I do agree with Greg [Jenner] that it’s productive for historians to have a space to comment – both he & I have done so extensively in the past :)


Rebecca Rideal ‏@RebeccaRideal

I’ve enjoyed following this conversation. In my view, historical fiction is always fiction and should be judged as that. The same way we might judge a crime drama, for e.g…. BBC’s Sherlock Holmes is nonsensical in terms of policing accuracy, but it is still good drama.


Numerous points raised just in these three tweets, covering artistic freedom vs faithfulness to the source, audience reaction based on knowledge and expectations, and space for experts to comment after the fact. And as for that ‘line’ of accuracy vs artistic freedom? Professor David Andress, a historian of modern history, offered some examples of the most common fictional elements in historical fiction:


David Andress @ProfDaveAndress

Parameters, parameters:

Fictional characters in general historical setting;

Ditto interacting with historical characters in real events;

Historical characters imagined to fill gaps in record;

Historical characters doing things we know they never did…

Pick a ditch to die in…


David Andress @ProfDaveAndress

I mean anyone can decide that any one of those four things, or anything else, is as far as they’re willing to go in considering something “historical fiction” vs something else that might be “alternate history”, or “historical fantasy”, for example….


Matthew Willis‏ @NavalAirHistory

I challenge anyone to write historical fiction with no fictional characters whatsoever.


Dr Estelle Paranque‏ @DrEstellePrnq

And historical fiction should have fictional characters in order to create imagination and develop representations of the past.

I agree. I’m writing a novel and my fictional characters will help me have this artistic freedom without compromising historical events..


This is an interesting point for me, but again, it’s not as straightforward an issue as it might seem. All characters in fiction are fictional. Even if they are based on a historical figure, and only do and say what the historical figure is reported to have did and said, there will be elements of that character come from the author’s imagination. An example that came to mind was the character of Ælfgifa in the Oath and Crown novels J.A. Ironside and I wrote – second book A Black Matter for the King now available for pre-order ;-)

Ælfgifa almost certainly existed. She was probably the youngest sister of Harold Godwinson. And that’s almost all that we know about her. References in the historical record (including an appearance on the Bayeux Tapestry) might be about her, or they might be about someone else with a similar name. That’s not to say we couldn’t draw inferences from the historical record, and use it to imagine how she might have been – as a historian writing about her might, and Jules undertook some wonderful detective work and interpretation of Ælfgifa’s life and character – but it’s ultimately guesswork. The Ælfgifa of Oath and Crown is in most respects a fictional character. A more extreme example still is that of Gallet, who I decided to include as a major character on the basis of one tiny reference about a person of that name in an early episode of William the Conqueror’s life. Even in the case of William himself, we know a fair bit about what he did, but can only guess at the motivations that lay behind the actions. This is partly an artefact of writing about the 11th century – there’s a lot less material available than there is for events two or three centuries later, and huge gaps that have to be filled by any author. The record for the 16th century is very much beefier. Including that pesky meeting between two queens. So what to do about it?:


Matthew Willis @NavalAirHistory

I tend to find inspiration in the historical events anyway, so more often than not I see no reason to diverge. My 2p on Elizabeth and Mary is that it’s so well known that they never met that you risk breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief by including a meeting…


Matthew Willis ‏ @NavalAirHistory

…so isn’t it more creative to try to find the drama in the fact that they never met yet had such great importance to each other? I can completely see why the drive to include a meeting is so hard to resist though


Alex von Tunzelmann ‏@alexvtunzelmann

Btw I think you could totally do this in a novel: it’s just extremely hard to achieve, & probably impossible, onscreen. Which is why I think (if I remember correctly from those I’ve seen) pretty much all Mary & Elizabeth films put in a meeting. They dramatise the letters.


Dr Estelle Paranque @DrEstellePrnq

But the letters said: “why aren’t you seeing me? Why are you refusing an audience? If you don’t see me this will lead to my downfall” more or less… so they rewrite history…. they just do… sorry I can’t let go of that. I don’t mean to be a pain!


…I can entirely see why this one issue divides opinion. Mary and Elizabeth had an extensive correspondence. They had a fair amount in common, both in terms of being women who were monarchs in their own right at a time when this was highly unusual, and in terms of their family – Mary’s grandmother was Elizabeth’s aunt. Both their relative closeness and the fact of their never meeting in person was important and shaped the history. Yet to deal with a relationship on screen (or indeed, stage) in which the parties to it do not meet is an extremely difficult barrier to get over. As a writer, you would be robbing yourselves of a huge amount of dramatic tension. Is there not a truth in the relationship that might be better served by a meeting? Or would it be better served by sticking to the facts? I don’t have a clear opinion on this; although I am erring towards the latter, I can entirely understand that many would opt for the former. Then there’s the question of audience expectation to consider. There is a huge wake created by all the previous dramatisations of the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary, and many of them show a meeting between the two. The 1936 Katherine Hepburn film Mary of Scotland, the 1971 Vanessa Redgrave/Glenda Jackson picture Mary, Queen of Scots, and the 2007 Cate Blanchett film Elizabeth: The Golden Age, are just three mainstream versions that put the two queens face to face. Interestingly, while researching this blogpost I came across an assessment of the latter film’s historical accuracy by Alex von Tunzelmann:

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age takes the same wild liberties with the facts as its prequel, Elizabeth. While the first Elizabeth elegantly fictionalised history into a compelling narrative, The Golden Age feels forced and occasionally downright silly – making its historical flaws harder to ignore.”

The Twitter discussion moved on to the contextualisation of the historical accuracy outside the fictional representation. This perhaps takes some of the weight off the fiction itself but helps provide a space to hold the discussion about accuracy:


Dr Estelle Paranque‏ @DrEstellePrnq

What about at the end of the movie having an interview of the film maker and his reasons behind his choices and of historians which explain the history behind the fiction?


Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann

I am hugely in favour of that – also of commentaries you can play over the film etc. Unfortunately, as @greg_jenner & I have often bemoaned, it’s hard to get anyone to fund or screen such documentaries. His & @KateWilliamsme’s Versailles shows are a great example.


Dr Estelle Paranque‏ @DrEstellePrnq

So then it is problematic to only fund fiction and not history… I only have major issues with that…


Matthew Willis @NavalAirHistory

And a huge shame, as well. I’m sure many historical dramas lead to a big audience that wants to know more about the (‘real’) history.


Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann

Definitely. A lot of historians moaned about The Tudors when it was on TV (often unfairly, I think, but that’s another conversation!). Yet sales of history books on the Tudors boomed. Hist fic/film/TV often sparks people’s interest & inspires them to seek out the real story.


This raised an interesting point for me. Might there almost be a benefit in inaccurate depictions in that they generate controversy and therefore a space for the ‘real’ history to be publicly discussed and become better known? I would hesitate to advocate this approach – I still believe that accuracy where possible is desirable (and that audiences will accept far greater accuracy than they are often given credit for). As an aside, one of the more extreme examples of The Tudors stretching historical fact was in the character of Margaret Tudor – the series created an amalgam of Henry VIII’s older sister Margaret, and his younger sister Mary. The show had the fictional Margaret marry the King of Portugal (which neither the real Mary nor the real Margaret did) who dies shortly afterwards, whereupon she marries Charles Brandon (as the real Mary did, after the death of her husband, the King of France). This version completely excises the marriage of a sister of Henry to the King of Scotland (as the real life Margaret did), meaning that in The Tudors universe, Mary, Queen of Scots would never have existed!

But is the effect of generating greater interest (and thereby, knowledge) in the fiction’s audience related to its inaccuracy? Greg Jenner expressed strong views on this:


Dr Estelle Paranque‏ @DrEstellePrnq

I moaned about that show and co-wrote with Carole Levin a chapter on this. Don’t you think it would have sparked the same interest if it had been more accurate?


Greg Jenner @greg_jenner

Nope, more accurate = lower ratings. Every time.


Dr Estelle Paranque‏ @DrEstellePrnq

Whyyyyy 😥😥😥 let’s make it different this time? :)


The suggestion of accuracy being addressed outside the fictional representation itself (perhaps to give greater freedom to those creating it) was raised by social historian, Emma Muscat. Emma was acquainted with the director of Mary Queen of Scots, Josie Rourke, as she had been an Archivist at The Bush Theatre during Josie’s Artistic Directorship. This branch of the discussion also highlighted the additional pressures that creators may be under – unlike most novels, films and TV dramas are created by numerous people who will have competing interests. Allowing each a space to set out why they made the decisions they did with regard to accuracy.

Apart from a few die-hards, I suspect most people would accept that adherence to the facts has to be relaxed on occasion, not just to enable the story to be better told, but to make it accessible to, and enjoyable by, a wider audience. If changing a few details is the difference between getting well-made historical film and TV, then I think most enthusiasts and historians would regard that as a price well worth paying.

There followed some fascinating insight into the various factors that have to be balanced to create historical film and TV, and the various roles that can influence the final outcome:


Historian Emma @20thCentCrush

giving the director, herself, a chance to explain the reasoning behind the choices made on this production. I think you might find her reasons, as for many film/tv directors, go way, way beyond just the historical facts. That is my two penny’s worth of comment.


Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann

Absolutely agree. I think we are arguing only on general principles: as far as I know, none of us has yet seen her film. She is an incredibly talented director & I’m hugely looking forward to it.


Historian Emma @20thCentCrush

Josie is and I can vouch for her personally having spent two years at The Bush Theatre as Archivist under the ADShip. Josie is not some who takes creative decisions lightly. Let’s wait for the film and then open the discussion up then, with room for the Director to contribute.


Dr Estelle Paranque @DrEstellePrnq

I have a question for your Emma, Alex and @greg_jenner (can’t remember if you’re in this convo or not) Josie is the director right but she’s not the script writer as it is the American Beau Willimon so how much it is her ideas and not his? I’m getting confused between the 2 roles


Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann

Impossible to say without inside knowledge of the production. Generally, in film, the director is seen as dominant, but Beau Willimon is a very famous writer so he may have had more sway than is usual. Some decisions may be driven by producers, financers & editors, among others.


Dr Estelle Paranque @DrEstellePrnq

Thank you! I find this fascinating! Because it could potentially mean that she disagreed on some decisions? I’m just saying potentially here. With so many people involved with different perceptions etc.


Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann

Like I say, impossible to know. Film is a collaborative medium &, because it demands high levels of financial investment, usually has to please a lot of producers/executives too. It’s common to have 10-20 different people who can give notes on a script, & it can be 50!


Greg Jenner @greg_jenner

Yup. I’m currently on a low budget film project where I am the only historian – my suggestions have to convince three producers, one screenwriter, two financiers, two separate distributors, and then production will decide if the notes are too expensive to film. I lose a lot.


Alex von Tunzelmann @alexvtunzelmann

Right, & then if (when!) it goes into production, it’ll rain one day so they have to shoot a famously outdoors scene inside, & then an actor will be ill so suddenly they’ll have to rewrite another scene to remove a historical character who famously should have been in it…


Greg Jenner @greg_jenner

yup, and the location you are using burns down. And the costumes you planned to hire have been bulk-taken by a Spielberg film. And you lose your lead actor to another project the week before filming. These have all happened to me.


The central issue for me is that the ‘currency’ history and fiction trade in are different. To make a horribly broad generalisation, history deals in fact, fiction, in truth. History cannot invent, even in order to serve truth. What in fiction may be considered licence would in history be fraud. Evelyn Beatrice Hall invented the quotation “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” and attributed it to Voltaire in her biography of the philosopher, then compounded the invention by indicating that it was based on a comment in a letter that contained no such assertion. She clearly firmly believed that this was Voltaire’s position on freedom of expression, but in presenting the quotation as Voltaire’s words, she seriously damaged the credibility of her work. Historical fiction can do this, precisely because as Rebecca Rideal pointed out, fiction should ultimately be judged as fiction however closely to the historical record it may stick. Furthermore, fiction can go further in evoking the history through imagination. It may not be totally accurate, but it may be close to authentic.

There are limits, and a corollary, to this. History has been appropriated for political purposes and historical fiction is an obvious vehicle for this, especially if it lays claim to truth that cannot be reached by the academic interpretation of history. The film Braveheart, for example, presented itself as ‘true’ (if not ‘factual’) while largely drawing from a 16th century hagiographical epic that presented William Wallace as an idealised chivalric hero and the English as caricatured villains. The naturalistic presentation of the film, however, implied that it was at least broadly based on fact – and the opening narration of the film makes a claim to authenticity greater than that of recorded history – “Historians from England will call me a liar, but history is written by men who hang heroes”. Efforts were made afterwards to tie in the film’s version of events, egregiously inaccurate though they were, with real history. A 12-ton statue of Mel Gibson as Wallace was placed near the Wallace memorial. The film was attributed with sparking a new wave of Scottish nationalistic feeling, described by author Lin Anderson as having “become part of the fabric of Scotland. There was anger that people didn’t know who William Wallace was, and had been cheated of their history.” Many historians would argue they still are. It would be not unlike presenting John Boorman’s Excalibur as a broadly accurate narrative of 6th Century England.

Mary Queen of Scots has not been released yet, and cannot therefore be assessed for its overall accuracy, its intent or its contribution to the understanding of history. There are other issues than just the meeting – Mary speaking with a Scottish accent, for example, when she would have spoken English with a French accent having lived in France from the age of 5 to 18. The two queens were never friends, as the trailer suggests, but rivals from the beginning. On the other hand, the script is known to be based on the work of Tudor historian John Guy.

My own take on the broad issue is that it comes down to good faith. Historical fiction owes history, because it has taken something from it. Its creators must be aware of that and respectful towards it. If the creator of fiction (in whatever role) approaches the subject matter – people, events and places, ideas and views, experiences etc – with good faith, their work will be helping the historical debate, paying it back, not hindering or cheating it. If, on the other hand, they approach the subject with an agenda that has nothing to do with the history, or as simple raw material to be mined when it suits them, then they do history a disservice.

Looking forward to continuing the debate when Mary Queen of Scots is released…

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