Some thoughts on historical accuracy

So I was puttering through my archives, tidying things away, and I discovered a mini-rant on the subject of historical authenticity. One of the things people–me included–love to do when a new TV series or book appears is rip into its use of history. The authors and screenwriters who repackage history for contemporary entertainment run the gamut of authenticity from those who don’t give a fig what history was REALLY like as long as they can tell a good story to those who insist on every detail being as pristine as a new egg.

For clarity’s sake here are my own standards: I will never knowingly alter a fact to suit my narrative. (The exception to this is weather. I have not yet changed known weather to suit a story, but if I needed to, I wouldn’t be that fussed about it.) I will happily and with great enthusiasm put my own interpretation on situations that are open to it. For instance, the state of a royal marriage. If rumors circulated about a couple, I might choose one and run with it because it is plausible. In fact, plausibility is my watchword, and failing the plausible, I will choose the possible. If a girls’ school was not open in Kent when I need it to be, I might put one there, but I will not create an all-female college at Oxford. Every author draws their own lines; every author chooses the hill upon which they are prepared to die. I have friends who are blissfully happy taking liberties with history that I couldn’t stomach, and I say bless them.

So, the mini-rant I was speaking of was written after watching the second season of “Downton Abbey”, and here it is since I think it’s just as appropriate now as then:

Yesterday I managed to get through ALL of the second season of “Downton Abbey” just in time to see the last episode, and I curled up with my companion book. One of the things that irritates me vastly about some of the criticisms of “Downton” is when people whip out the “that would never happen” sniffiness. Until and unless you read MASSES of firsthand accounts–memoirs, journals, letters, autobiographies, etc.–you would think that people did things a very specific way and never deviated. And that would be very, very wrong. At no time in history have people behaved in one precise fashion with no room for individuality. Even in totalitarian regimes, people are still people–complex and messy and interesting. (That’s why a prison guard who shows a glimmer of humanity, a queen who abdicates, a priest who breaks his vows are all more intriguing than people in the same roles who do precisely what is expected of them.) And it is straight up ABSURDLY simplistic to say, “Victorians wouldn’t do that” or “Regency ladies never did this”. It’s as ridiculous as saying that “all Americans in the 21st century believed THIS way.” It just doesn’t fly.

In just five minutes of reading one of the lady’s maid memoirs, I learned about a second parlourmaid who valeted for the master of the house, an earl marrying the daughter of a local registry office clerk, and a head parlourmaid taking on the duties of the butler. All of those things would fall under the heading of “would never happen”, but they DID. Were they out of the ordinary? Yes, that’s what makes them worth remarking upon and worth including in a fictional work as well. Unremarkable people doing unremarkable things makes for bad storytelling. That’s why we only write about people who are either very interesting or doing very interesting things or perhaps both. To criticize any storytelling–whether the medium is film or novel–on the grounds that “that wouldn’t have happened” is narrow-minded and silly if you haven’t done the research to back up your opinion. (And I’m talking almost exclusively about social conventions and domestic arrangements here as opposed to historical fact.) Some of the most outrageous things in the Julia Grey series are not wholly drawn from imagination but were based on real people doing very odd things. And this is a very long way round of saying that while I can certainly appreciate “Downton” criticism that is based on preferences, it makes my back teeth itch to hear it savaged by people who know almost nothing about history who nitpick it on the grounds that it isn’t historical…Really? Go watch “The Tudors” and THEN complain about historical inaccuracy. I’ll wait. In a television landscape littered with atrocities, “Downton” is a thoughtful, intelligent, elegant, thinking person’s soap opera and I say bring on season three.