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Tuesday, 08 November 2016 14:41

Letter from London #26

Written by
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell


It’s been said that history is the new sex. Certainly, regarding trends in literature, historical fiction has been enjoying a remarkable renaissance in recent years. Numerous spin-offs into generously budgeted productions for film and television now make the genre a tempting prospect for authors.

Recent successes over here include the much lauded Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Set in the time of Henry VIII, and focussing on his machiavellian chancellor Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall was adapted into an award-winning series for television.

As far as I know, there was no prior book on which the magnificent HBO series Rome was based. However, the production demonstrated some techniques common to historical fiction. One of these was to follow the fortunes of two ordinary soldiers in Julius Caesar’s XIIIth Legion, as the story took us through the events preceding and following Caesar’s assassination. In this way, the momentous transition of Ancient Rome from Republic to Empire was given a believable and sympathetic human dimension.


HBO Rome collageThere is, of course, no doubting the enduring appeal of ‘real-life’ stories. But historical fiction has the advantage of avoiding some of the legal problems and considerations applying to more recent events, especially in the ubiquitous genre of ‘true crime.’ Here again, different standards exist under different jurisdictions, regarding matters such as defamation, legal prejudice, and so on.

Obviously it helps if the people portrayed passed away a long time ago. In the lavish new British television series, Tutankhamun, about the sensational 1922 discovery of the boy pharaoh’s tomb in Egypt, the writer and producers have been criticised for suggesting a love affair between the explorer Howard Carter and the daughter of his patron, Lord Carnarvon:


Discussions of this sort inevitably raise questions about the legitimacy and ethics of mixing fiction and fact – what is sometimes called ‘faction.’ It’s a debate that has been going on for a long time in one form or another. Any cursory glance at the bookstore shelves or TV schedules will tell you how much the boundaries of what is permissible have been pushed back. It seems hard now to recall the sensation that followed the 1966 publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, about the murders of the Clutter family members by two drifters, a book regarded by many as the origin of the modern ‘true crime’ genre.

The ‘faction’ question has been an issue of initial concern in the TV crime series project on which I’m currently engaged. This is based on the work of a real-life specialist police recognition unit. Should one, for instance, go down the route of dramatised documentary (‘dramadoc’) that recounts actual cases? If so, under British law it becomes essential to present everything much as it happened, ensuring that all characters are portrayed fairly, while keeping a leery eye out that judicial processes such as appeals have finally expired. An alternative approach to dramadoc is to use any actual cases merely as an imaginative springboard for what becomes essentially fiction. It seems to be coming down to the feeling that the latter approach is a more interesting (not to mention less legally fraught) creative challenge.

*Tutankhamun's death mask

One traditional way in which this challenge has been met is through what has been termed the roman-à-clef – literally, ‘novel with a key.’ Here, a veil is drawn over the real identities of actual people, with quite a lot of freedom also usually being exercised over choice of events and settings.

For some, the American TV series The West Wing is a classic example of this genre. President Bartlett is possibly an amalgam of different aspects of recent and former US presidents. The series uses real and fictionalised events. More familiar to me is the prose fiction of the English writer Anthony Powell. Since his death some years ago, more and more real-life models for the characters Powell’s magnum opus A Dance to the Music of Time have been identified. This can be a fruitless, if fun, game. As Powell pointed out, many characters are mixtures of more than one individual.


There is another important aspect to choosing whether to write fact-based fiction. It does seem there is a type of writer for whom fact is an essential prerequisite in order to stimulate the fictional impulse. Greats such as Zola, Thackeray, and Flaubert might be enumerated here.

It may be worth more authors considering if the same is true of themselves.

-        ~Edwin Riddell


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