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. Banished, Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall diverge significantly in genre,
tone, subject matter and the ways they engage with the past.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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