Susan’s Interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

As many of you know, Susan has been interviewing several well-known authors for their views on Philippa Gregory, “The Tudors,” and the responsibility of fictional representations to historical fact.   Today, in celebration of reaching 1536 ‘likes’, we present Susan’s interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.  I take that as a given.  But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not?

Great question. Many people learn most of their history from fiction, which gives novelists and filmmakers something of a responsibility, even if they shrug it off.

Where I find historical fiction really works is when it fills in the gaps in the historical record imaginatively, sensitively and poignantly, and brings the past to life.

For example, one thing that historical fiction has to do is to imagine what historical figures thought and felt, because, especially for a period like the sixteenth century, there is often a dearth of ego-literature – there are rarely helpful diaries with our characters’ reflections in them. We have some letters, we have some recorded speech, but fiction has much to add in filling in the gaps about people’s motivations, feelings, and thoughts.

But going beyond that, I find that there are two ways in which historical fiction can sometimes go too far for me:

1) getting basic facts wrong – like having Anne Boleyn executed with an axe or making Mary Boleyn the younger sister – things that can be easily verified (though because of that, I don’t mind it nearly as much – because interested readers can check the facts for themselves – as…)

2) failing to recreate the mentality of the period, e.g. a common occurrence is making a character essentially atheistic at a period when that was very rare, or sexually liberated in a very 21st century way, or otherwise transposing modern day attitudes to a historical character. This is what bothers me most: the tendency to suggest that people in the past were exactly like us in all their thoughts and feelings, rather than focus on the mysterious difference, as well as the shared humanity.

Ultimately, the key is whether readers are able to distinguish between fact and fiction if they want to.

In an interview with me, Michael Hirst complained that while people were constantly criticizing “The Tudors” for its departures from historical record, “Wolf Hall” got nothing but praise for its almost entirely imaginative universe.  Care to comment on that?

Wolf Hall does what I suggest above – it fills in gaps in the historical record, but it impressively remains true to the sensitivities of the early 16th century (I remember, for example, Mantel commenting that novelty was a bad thing in the 16th century, which is absolutely true and contrasts with today’s sense of ‘brand new’ being good) and also stays pretty close to the known facts. The Tudors is a very different kettle of fish – it plays constantly fast and loose with established and basic facts about the period, it projects a 21st century mindset onto the past, it dresses its actors in non-historically accurate clothing (generally, making it far raunchier than the Tudor would have worn) etc: I think that’s why it has received greater criticism than Wolf Hall.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?

Yes, this is interesting. Philippa Gregory, of course, has a doctorate in history[1], so is essentially trained as an historian and knows what she’s doing. But she does create alternative narratives, at times, which because of her standing have a tendency to stick. Also, I’m not sure I completely believe that everything she writes is based on ‘historical probability’: I can certainly think of exceptions in her writing. I think she does probably want to claim both roles.

I noticed that in the earliest novels, authors often had a section devoted to outlining for readers what was created and what is factual in their works.  We tend not to do that any more.  Why not?  And what do you think of such a practice?

I think it’s a really good idea, and really helps the readers distinguish fact and fiction. My father-in-law is a historical novelist, funnily enough, and in his last series of books, he put an Author’s Note at the end to explain the research on which he had based the book, and the controversial decisions that he had made in staging the events as he did. I think it’s really useful for novelists to do this; I imagine authors don’t because they don’t feel any sense of responsibility to do so, and because their own narrative has become firmly lodged in their head.

In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?

I think it’s also related to:
1) a general decrease in historical education, certainly here in the UK (even today, there’s an article about 156 schools in the country not offering history at GCSE, i.e. from 14 to 16 years old),
2) the influence of postmodernism (as Portman says below) – all things are seen as equally believable and therefore also equally valid or invalid.

Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond readed PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

I remember reading this interview with Natalie Portman and was shocked by the cavalier attitude it reveals. Of course, it’s a very postmodern view, and historians do provide different interpretations on sources – there’s no ‘book of facts’ out there. Yet, there are still verifiably accurate and inaccurate understandings, facts and fictions. And The Other Boleyn Girl as a film is full of historical nonsense that any historian would have been able to point out.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that actors haven’t researched, though it helps – what matters is that the writers and directors have. I recently saw a play produced by theatre company Red Rose Chain called Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn by Joanna Carrick, which managed to combine deep and accurate research with a dramatically moving, compelling story. It is possible – especially with the Tudors, whose stories are so incredible without fabrication.

In the end, I have mixed feelings. I strongly believe that people come to history through film and novels, and I’m very keen, as an historian, to meet people where they are at, and not create barriers to entry. If watching The Other Boleyn Girl makes them turn to a history book, or encourages them to visit Hampton Court, I’m all for it. But – I do think that the truth is often more interesting than the some of the fictions we are given.

[1] Note from SB:  Gregory’s doctorate is actually in literature.

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Filed under Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

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