What Is Truth? And Does History Care?

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult as Catherine the Great and Emperor Peter II of Russia.
Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult as Catherine the Great and Emperor Peter III of Russia. Image: Rotten Tomatoes

The Great is a splendid historical drama running on the Hulu streaming channel, a delightful and entertaining tale, full of joie de vivre, set in the court of Russian Emperor Peter III and his more famous consort, Catherine the Great. The only annoyance associated with this production is arguments online questioning how true it is. Many commentators seem to have missed the self-mocking tag line in the opening title of each episode: The Great: An Occasionally True Story and, later in the series, The Great: An Almost Entirely Untrue Story. The success of the British-Australian-American production has nothing to do with the quotidian facts of Peter and Catherine’s actual lives but with the racy, outrageous script, terrific cinematography,  and endearing performances by Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in the starring roles.

There are similar grumpy and pedantic debates over “how true” were events in The Tudors, Wolf Hall, The Crown. Indeed, any time a writer of historical fiction puts metaphorical pen to paper, the peeves begin. One can only counter by asking “how true” are the books written by professional historians. Does anyone read the anti-Semitic David Irving to learn about the Holocaust, or David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies, which the History News Network ten years ago named as “the least credible history book in print.” Ask just about anyone from any African country what they think of the histories of their continental cultures written by patronising palefaces in faraway imperial capitals.

“Quid est veritas?” cried the exasperated Pontius Pilate when Jesus insisted his only mission was “to bear witness to the truth.” British philosopher J.L. Austin wrote:

“‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. Pilate was in advance of his time. Truth itself is an abstract noun. It is a camel, a logical construction that cannot get past the eye of a grammarian.”

How long is a piece of string? The meaningless question equates to asking how accurate are the narratives we construct, read and view when their purpose is entertainment. The issue of truth in historical fiction is a topic for idle discussions with friends over a glass or two; it’s not a new contestant in the vicious culture wars. Half of America, from the chambers of Congress down to small-town Arizona diners, can label what happened at the Capitol on 6 January 2021 as lies and fabrication, despite thousands of video recordings and witnesses. Let us, instead, switch on the TV and demand that The Crown inform us precisely what the queen said to her husband in their bedroom on a January day in 1959. Or check what Anne Boleyn had for breakfast the morning Henry VIII had her beheaded.

Like The Tudors, a jolly BBC sitcom, the lesser-known film The Other Boleyn Girl raised the ire of self-proclaimed history buffs: “It’s an absolute filthy smear of Anne Boleyn that presents the lies used to justify her execution as the truth while whitewashing her syphilitic mass-murderer husband,” raged one commentator. “So now millions of people are going around thinking Anne was a psychopathic incestuous black magician while Henry VIII was just a well-meaning silly old man who unfortunately let the little head rule the big one.”

Hey, steady on — it’s only a film. Let’s pause to ask what we should expect from novels and movies based on historical eras, always keeping in mind the word “entertainment.” Consistency must be preferable to accuracy in a historical narrative, or indeed, in any story. If the writer establishes a standard of seriousness, as in Wolf Hall, or comic absurdity, in The Great, and maintains that from beginning to end, there is no cause for complaint about “accuracy.” We are free to enjoy or avoid the production according to our tastes. Since we have no recordings or video from the distant past, all dialogue in historical fiction is fictitious, spoken in modern idiom with modern accents and body language. Spare us the gadzooks, forsooths, wherefores and prithees of past bad novelists straining for “authenticity.”

Good historical fiction delivers believable authenticity for a modern audience — the flavour of the period through its sights, sounds, and characters. (Not yet smells; fear the day when that arrives, bearing the odours of a 15th-century tavern or a Victorian field hospital). History in a novel is most effective when it is unobtrusive, gently including historical persons whose names we recognise. British author Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall trilogy about the life of Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell won two Booker Prizes, writes and broadcasts on the scope and limitations of historical fiction. She too has felt the ire of armchair historians who demand that her novels be definitive history texts.

In one absurd example of blurring fact, fiction, fantasy and reality, right-wing allies of late prime minister Margaret Thatcher demanded a police investigation of Mantel because she wrote a short story in 2014 called The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: 6 August 1983, in which the IRA kill Thatcher. Mantel sarcastically responded to the pseudo-outrage: “Bringing in the police for an investigation was beyond anything I could have planned or hoped for because it immediately exposes them to ridicule. These are people who don’t know how to read fiction.”

Mantel wrote in a Guardian essay that Henry Ford saying “history is more or less bunk” was not as crass a statement as it seems. Most of what we think we know of the past is unverified tradition and unexamined prejudice — we retain factoids, received opinions and accumulated moral judgments. She wrote:

“The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it. The most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator; he brings to the enterprise the biases of his training and the vagaries of his temperament. He is often obliged, to make his name, to murder his forefathers by coming up with a different take on events from the one that held sway when he learned the discipline. He must make the old new because his department’s academic standing depends on it.”

Lion's taleHistorical fiction has had a shaky history with publishers, readers and especially critics, drifting in and out of fashion like Regency frocks. But fashions come and go and return. Historical fiction has had a surprisingly good run in recent years, brushing off the barbs of historians and critics seeking an easy target for cheap shots at bonnets, bustles, codpieces and villains twirling moustaches. Like science fiction, it has struggled for respectability and literary status but has at least managed to retain its dignified genre title and has not, like Scifi, been reduced to Hisfic. When Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize in 2009, it was the first historical fiction novel to do so in 15 years. In 2017, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was the first novel set before World War II to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Hilary Mantel has perceptively suggested that agitation over the accuracy of historical fiction may arise in people who are motivated by their ignorance about the periods they are reading about or viewing. Their obsession with precision in the historical narratives of popular culture may reflect frustration that their existing knowledge doesn’t equip them to verify the details. They cannot tell whether they will learn anything of value about characters for whom they already have preconceptions:

“What really disconcerts commentators, I suspect, is that, when they read historical fiction, they feel their own lack of education may be exposed; they panic because they don’t know which bits are true. So here is a handy pocket guide. Every time the author writes, ‘He thought that . . .’ or ‘She felt that . . .’, she’s making it up. We never know what people thought or felt unless they kept frank and full journals. And even if they did, the world is full of people who lie to their own diaries.”

A telling test of a lay person’s perception of history is to ask them which period or place they would like to live in if they could time travel. Many surveys and quizzes have revealed some stock preferences, at least among European and American readers. People want to imagine themselves as 18th-century ladies and gentlemen in elegant homes and involved in adventurous or romantic intrigues. Their social class is at least upper, more likely aristocratic. (Not a good choice if you’re visiting France in the late 1780s). More adventurous time travellers may opt for ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome. A Norwegian friend once told me she longed to go back to the American plains before the Europeans arrived and live in a great native-American tribe.

There are many rocks on which these flowery fantasies quickly wither. Modern and comfortable middle-class people would not become aristocrats on relocation. Without appropriate lineage and contemporary connections, they would most likely find themselves in rural peasant hovels like 90 percent of the population. One would indeed be lucky to find a permanent place in a big house as a menial servant or labourer. Life prospects — solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, as Thomas Hobbes described the “idyllic” natural state of humankind, a state of “war of every man against every man”.

Before setting off for the 18th century, it is instructive to ask how many of us would right now like to return to the 1950s in our own country. The thing everyone stumbles over is “medical care”, before even considering the living standards or the ills and abuses of that recent past which we no longer accept. Even my Norwegian friend baulked at life among the plains Americans when I mentioned burst appendixes, natural childbirth complications, and the swarms of diseases in a world without antibiotics, anti-virals, or medical schools.

In like vein, I surmise that those critics who carp in comment forums and blogs about the historical inaccuracies of The Great or The Tudors would not thank writers and cinematographers for bringing them a really, really accurate portrayal of life, squalor and disease in 18th-century St. Petersburg or medieval Westminster. One can almost detect the true whiff of rotten tomatoes voting. It’s worth remembering that we all have ancestors in the past, in every generation, millennium and epoch. Go back to any era, 50 years, 500 years, 5000 years, and meet your direct ancestor in their homes there. Brief them and show them videos of our world, including its problems, until they vaguely grasp it. Look at their world until you fully comprehend it. Now, which of the two of you would be most keen to swap places — and bring the kids?

“Critics, contrary to novelists, do not find in books what they can, but what they want,” wrote Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He should know. His wildly inaccurate and magically imaginative One Hundred Years of Solitude was quickly swept up by millions of readers who felt a profound connection to their history, communities and personal lives across all the countries of Latin America. The fantasy historical novel by a non-historian got it. The readers got it. You don’t have to be pedantically accurate to capture the truth or the essence of life’s diversity or the march of nations. The same goes for good historical fiction or video like The Great. In Slate magazine, critic Rebecca Onion wrote:

“I liked HBO’s Catherine the Great miniseries, which starred Helen Mirren, very very much. But compared with this deliciousness, that much more accurate take on the ruler, which seemed pretty entertaining at the time, looks dry and pedantic. The wonderful new series from Tony McNamara, writer of The Favourite, takes an even looser approach to its royal subject. The Great’s alterations and embellishments make this more of a riff on history than a representation of it. … Despite all of these liberties in the matter of the rulers’ relationship, the show incorporates some themes in a way that, if not strictly “accurate,” explores the authentic questions Catherine’s life raises. The actual Catherine was besotted by books and influenced by continental Enlightenment thinkers and their ideas about equality, individual rights, and reason.”

In The Order of Time, the quantum-gravity physicist Carlo Rovelli gently leads us down an eerie, disconcerting, but solidly scientific path to convince us, along with himself and Albert Einstein, among many other great minds, that there is no such thing as time, and that we should get used to all the implications in that. There is no time, yet the time we imagine all around us appears to be accelerating at a breathtaking pace and we struggle to keep up. The present is rewriting itself faster than we can record and archive it. In rapidly changing times, every novel and film are historical fiction. Leo Tolstoy or Honoré de Balzac were not historical writers, nor was William Shakespeare. And their inaccuracies; ye gods, the inaccuracies. Yet they painted their turbulent times on a canvas of history — a history not dust-covered but living, evolving, reinventing itself. Today, good historical fiction is not misrepresenting the past; it is re-imagining the past to capture the present.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (William Shakespeare, Macbeth).