I believe my first experience reading historical fiction was Robert Graves’ I Claudius which I read as a schoolboy in England. This was followed by several Ernest Hemingway novels about the Spanish civil war (For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms) and numerous other authors. I must have been around 12 years old at the time and my teachers at my prep school in Bristol tried to impress on me the socialist values of George Orwell and others. They succeeded. I loved George Orwell’s stories which we read in class.
Since then, of course, I have moved on to historical novels by celebrated authors such as Russell Banks, Gore Vidal, Hilary Mantel, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Thomas Keneally, Ronald Wright, Sean Haldane, etc. I have always enjoyed historical fiction where a large part of the story is true and based on known facts. This imparts a credibility to the work that would otherwise not exist. Recently reading Thomas Keneally’s The Daughters of Mars about two Australian nurses saving lives during the Gallipoli campaign and in the trenches of Europe, I came away disappointed when I learned in the final chapter that a large part of the story was a complete invention.
I come from a family of history buffs. My dad was a nuclear physicist and loved history, in particular Roman history. In the 1950s going to work on the bus, he read Edward Gibbon’s six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Then during a sabbatical in Rome in the 1960s, he took us children to the Forum, the Coliseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine chapel, the Villa Borghese, Hadrian’s Villa, the catacombs, etc. and for several weeks during the Easter break we drove around Sicily looking at Roman Amphitheatres. So it does run in the family this passion for history.
I have written scripts based on historical facts and scripts inspired by historical events. In the first case you try to tell as much of the true story as possible and in the second, you invent everything from the start. The big selling point for historical fiction is that it is based on true events that are familiar to the reader. So when the reader picks up the book, he or she will instantly recognize the content. In the case of an entirely fictional work, there is no recognition of story, and you are buying the novel on the reputation of the author.
My take on historical fiction in screenplays for motion pictures and television drama is to stick with the known facts as much as possible. I use all the known elements of the story and weave a fictional tapestry around them. What I call historical fiction is actually about 70% true with perhaps 30% invented. It is usually the true events in the story that attract me to the subject in the first place and those same events work their magic on my readers.
I have always been surprised to see how few stories from our collective past appear on Canadian screens. Our broadcasters couldn’t care a hoot about recent or past events. Anything older than perhaps five years is considered to be ancient history and not worth a moment’s consideration.
In Europe, on the other hand, historical fiction on the big and the small screen has been hugely successful over the years. Canada remains the exception, with its low end and often nonsensical shows such as Murdoch Mysteries, X-Company, Bomb Girls, etc. And this is not an English language phenomenon, since Britain, Australia and New Zealand have had big successes with historical subjects (Wolf Hall, The Tudors, Ripper Street, Downton Abbey, The King’s Speech, Whitechapel, Banished, The Secret River, The Piano, etc.).
Many of you have seen Banished about a British penal colony in 18th century Australia on the CBC which proves that we are more likely to see Australian history on Canadian television than any Canadian story from the past.
Does this ring any bells? Canadian history, is it that boring?
The lack of historical fiction on the big and the small screen probably explains the lousy ratings on the CBC over the last 50 years and the lack of a Canadian identity outside of Hockey.
Have you read novels based on historical fiction? Which ones are you recommending? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Next week we will take a look at other imposter stories that have been in the public eye.