Education and Arts

Historical fiction on TV is equally about the here and now

Historical drama's currently popularity on the small screen has put the concept of historical authenticity in the spotlight. BanishedGame of Thrones and Wolf Hall diverge significantly in genre, tone, subject matter and the ways they engage with the past.

The ethics of representation

Both Banished and Game of Thrones have instigated debate about the ethics of representation and the contemporary implications of historical representation.

Banished, the BBC's miniseries about the first weeks of Sydney's penal colony does not feature any Aboriginal Australians, while fantasy medieval epic Game of Thrones regularly uses rape as a plot device.

These depictions are problematic because they perpetuate power dynamics that are not only historical, but which continue to marginalise Aboriginal Australians and women.

While it is the role of the fictional past in the present that is of concern here, historical authenticity is at the heart of such discourse. Critics have not focused on the identification of error per se, although Banished and Game of Thrones each mis/represent aspects of the past that are verifiable: it is fact that Aboriginal people lived in Australia for thousands of years before British colonisation, and women were raped in medieval Europe.

These facts are not under debate. Yet, historical representation is far more complex than merely providing the facts. "Where the totality of the past remains elusive," British historian Beverley Southgate in his 2009 book History Meets Fiction, "appropriate selections are made for purposes thought to be appropriate". The same challenges exist for writers of historical fiction.

Perspective or misrepresentation?

Jimmy McGovern, creator of Banished, told RN's Cassie McCullough that the show was made for British audiences who wanted to watch a tale about convicts – this purportedly was not an issue of erasure, but perspective.

The show, he argued, was not inaccurate; it merely focused on a particular subject and there had been an intention that a second series would explore an Aboriginal point of view.

Conversely, defences of rape in Game of Thrones have, as sociologist Debra Ferredayhas shown, invoked historical accuracy: dragons notwithstanding, it would be inaccurate to depict medieval warfare without addressing sexual assault.

Both justifications are informed as much by audience expectations as history. These programs engage with the past, even when they invoke fantasy, and have been greeted with an expectation that they remain accurate and authentic. But what is interpreted as authentic can be shaped by audience expectations – by the image we, as viewers, hold of colonial Sydney or medieval Europe.

For many Australians, we can assume McGovern's explanation rings hollow. Thus authenticity denotes the impression of accuracy that can be shaped both intertextually and culturally, taking into account moral stances that apply equally to the present as they do to the past.

An untrue telling of the truth

So, what happens when the subject of representation is simultaneously familiar and unknown?

The television adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall series takes Henry VIII's court as its subject. This text offers an interesting counterpoint to other historical fiction because, in spite of its apparent realism, it nevertheless exclaims that it is not a "true" story.

Where Banished aims for historical accuracy and Game of Thrones is a medieval fantasy, Wolf Hall reminds us that there is no simple distinction between truth and fiction.

In the novels, protagonist Thomas Cromwell tells us, "It's the living that turn and chase the dead". In doing so he articulates one of the series' key themes: we are forever trying to capture the past, but we distort it in the process.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the costumes and codpieces of Wolf Hall were scrutinised for historical anachronism; but both the show and Mantel's books have been widely celebrated as historically accurate.

Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, in her 2014 book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, took exception to Mantel's depiction of Anne Boleyn. She suggested that "Mantel paints Anne through Cromwell's eyes as a predatory calculator, brittle, anxious, and cold", before adding that she "adored Wolf Hall" in spite of this "nasty portrait".

Indeed, this is an apt description of Mantel's Boleyn — as Cromwell remarks, "the only way to please that lady is to crown her Queen of England".

But Bordo also signals the central element of Mantel's representation – we, the audience, can only view Anne via Cromwell.

Having met Boleyn for the first time, Cromwell's sister-in-law asks him, "So, what's she like, the Lady Anne?" This question is never definitively answered throughout the series.

At first glance, Anne's motives are clear. But the many silences of Wolf Hall regularly hint that Cromwell's interpretations of her may be misguided. For instance, Cromwell's belief that she will be happy once she is queen is undermined by his careful study of her face during her coronation during which she appears careful, pensive and fearful, not haughty and triumphant — but ultimately, neither Cromwell nor the audience can know what she is feeling.

This realisation is not confined to Wolf Hall nor, indeed, to historical fiction. For Bordo, Mantel's Boleyn is inauthentic because it is at odds with her own interpretation of the ill-fated queen, but neither version can be confirmed.

Despite the wealth of scholarship on the Tudors and its power players, we can only speculate as to the internal emotions, motivations and intentions of individuals such as Cromwell and Boleyn.

As Mantel wrote in her Author's Note to Bring up the Bodies, the second novel in the series, "Anne is still changing centuries after her death, carrying the projections of those who read and write about her".

That is, perhaps, one of the few definitive statements that can be made about her, and about our treatment of history for modern entertainment.

Author: Laura Saxton - Sessional Lecturer in History at Australian Catholic University

This article first appeared on The Conversation, 1 July 2015.