ACW

ACW

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Rewriting The Past

Hands up all who remember watching Zulu - that epic film based on the true events at Rorke’s Drift in which the heroic actions of a handful of British soldiers led by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine, stave off an attack by an impi of over three thousand Zulu warriors? Good film, huh? Great action? Remember the vivid characters - the batty Swedish pastor and his lovely, but naive daughter, and Henry Hook - the skiving, malingering rogue who came good at the end? Content to enjoy a jolly good story, I never thought to question the portrayal until I began reading the history of the Zulu wars and discovered that, far from being a lead-swinging laggard, Private Hook - teetotaler and Methodist lay preacher - was a bally hero right from the start. His elderly daughter, outraged at her father’s depiction in the film, walked out of premier. Who can blame her? Who would want their father to be remembered as a lazy, thieving scoundrel?

Writing about the past gives us a degree of freedom to fill in the gaps. The further back in time we go, the more we need to embroider the thin tapestry of facts to make a story substantial enough to tell. Does it matter if we dance with the truth and dally with fiction as long as the story is a cracker that makes our editors smile and the tills ring? Well, does it? 

Some would argue that, as writers, our primary purpose is to entertain, but what about the truth? Think how differently Richard III would now be perceived if Will had taken an alternative slant, or how we would respond to the Scottish Play if he had written about the real Macbeth. Creating a caricature neither helps the quality of our writing nor does justice to the individual. Portraying someone in all their complexity makes for a more interesting character and gets further from the two-dimensional what someone did, to the multidimensional why

If Shakespeare can do such an efficient character assassination on Richard III and Macbeth, think what we can do with the reach of international publishing and the web to disseminate the truth.  And if the facts don’t add up to a whole picture, don’t we at least have a responsibility to represent history….well, responsibly?

It is understandable if the past sometimes gets left behind. It’s not uncommon for people to see it as irrelevant. It’s dead and buried. After all, for good or ill, the dead have reaped their reward and whatever we do or say won’t change the outcome of their relationship with God.  But in writing about the past, we resurrect it and display it anew to the world. Does reputation matter less if the person’s been dead for a few hundred years or more?

If you think about it, where do we glean most of our knowledge about people such as William Wallace, Lady Macbeth or King John? Or how about Alan Turing? The poor man hasn’t been dead that long and we’re already fabricating and mythologizing at a rate of knots. We learn most about these people through the medium of book or film, where their stories - right or wrong - become immortalised. Once embedded in popular culture, it is almost impossible to change public perception. 

We don’t need to be historians to write stories based on historical figures and events, but we do need to bear in mind the lasting impact our words might have on how those individuals or events are remembered in the future. As writers of historical fiction, we have a responsibility to the men and women of the past to represent them as fairly as we would wish to be remembered ourselves. Words matter, so let our words count. 




Writing as CF Dunn, Claire creates romantic thrillers with a historical twist, drawing on a degree in history and a career in literacy development to write stories that touch on people’s frailty and their unexpected strengths. Everyone has a story to tell, and she explores how the legacy of the past has an impact on the present and inevitably shapes the future.  

With a historian husband, two creative daughters and a quirky Corgi, she divides her time between running a specialist dyslexia and autism school they founded in Kent, and writing in Cornwall.

C.F. Dunn 
Romantic thrillers ~ with a twist





Website: http://www.cfdunn.co.uk

Email: cfdunn@rocketmail.com

Twitter: @clairefdunn

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/clairefdunn/

10 comments:

  1. Really interesting and fascinating Claire. Thanks for this

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    1. Many thanks for the invitation, Wendy. Marvellous idea.

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  2. Totally agree.
    I sometimes feel that biography films about figures still alive must lack objectivity, research and a breadth of perspectives.
    Thatcher was so divisive a film was bound to be biased.
    Hawking is so popular that it must be difficult to be honest.
    Cheers from Cornwall.

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    1. Greetings to Cornwall! It is such a huge subject that it is difficult to cover all aspects and a blog can only hope to skim the surface. There's more than enough material to write a book on it - or a film. How tempting.

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  3. This is a very thought-provoking post. I think there has to be a difference between a book that is serious history, and historical fiction; but even so I remember being annoyed by Phillipa Gregory's portrayal of Anne Boleyn in "The Other Boleyn Girl." I've now read a number of biographies of Anne Boleyn. I wrote this on one of my own blog posts a couple of years ago: "Inevitably we add fictional elements to a created character, who was originally based on a real person......I remember making a complaint on facebook after reading “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory. I felt that the author was playing fast and loose with the real person Anne Boleyn. As I read the book, I felt very negatively about Anne B as portrayed by Gregory. I do believe that if a historical novelist is fictionalising a real person, they have a moral responsibility to research all the sources. Of course historians do turn up new evidence as time goes by."

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    1. That's an interesting comment, thank you. I have the same misgivings about the interpretations made by some historical novelists, but then I suppose that is inevitable. Where two or more historians are gathered together they will disagree. Sometimes there isn't the evidence to create a whole character out of the scraps we have left and that's when the imagination takes over. Fair enough in those circumstances, but there are numerous examples where known characteristics have been warped for the sake of drama, and those are the ones which do not do justice to the individuals in question. Interestingly, Ann Boleyn is one of the most disputed characters of her period. For someone so often written about, we don't know much about her.

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  4. Great post, Claire. Very thought provoking.

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    1. Thank you, Mel. It brought on much gnashing of teeth at some of the injustices done to the memory of the dead. I'll need dentures at this rate.

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