IIn a news cycle where separating fact and fiction is becoming increasingly impossible and where “you couldn’t make it up” is the standard reaction to every new headline, Dame Judi Dench scored a small victory for the truth last week by forcing streaming giant Netflix to acknowledge that in fact, sometimes you can and do make up. In a letter to TimeDench accused Netflix of misleading viewers over his royal drama The crown failing to warn that this is not “entirely true”. A disclaimer was later added to the new season trailer, stating that the show is a “fictional dramatization”, “inspired by real events”.
Dench’s objection was that the series, created by Peter Morgan, “seems to want to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism”. Someone, not without reason, pointed out on Twitter that this was the same Judi Dench who won an Oscar for her portrayal of another Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in lovea film that imagined the greatest playwright to ever grace the English language frolicking like a Terry Jones style impersonator while struggling to complete a play titled Romeo and Ethel, the pirate’s daughter.
Not the same thing, you will tell me. The film is obviously a comedy, as Shakespeare is dead and so is his immediate family, so we are free to dress him however we see fit, put words in his mouth and impute motives, emotions or behaviors without hurting him. . After all, it’s nothing more than what he did for a long line of historical figures with lasting effect, including Richard III, whose personal mark was tarnished for four centuries by Shakespeare’s fondness for the sensationalism.
But it’s those four centuries that make all the difference when it comes to whether inventing — and potentially misrepresenting — the thoughts and feelings of real people is legitimate or “cruelly unfair,” as Dench put it. The crown may have started out as a historical drama but, by season 5, it moved closer to textual theatre; we just watched the conclusion of its main character’s story arc in real time. At the heart of Dench’s complaint, and the responses to it, are questions about rights and responsibilities: Does an author have the right to invent the inner lives of real people, especially those who are still alive or recently deceased, and does historical fiction or drama have a responsibility to educate its audience accurately or simply to entertain?
These are questions every historical novel writer asks in every book festival interview and Q&A. No one wrestled with them more fully or thoughtfully than another beloved lady, the late Hilary Mantel, whose 2017 Reith Lectures focused on the novelist’s role in interpreting the past. “If you can locate the area of doubt,” she said, “that’s where you’re going to work.”
With characters like Shakespeare or Thomas Cromwell, it’s less of a problem. Although much is known about their lives, there are gaps in the record where a fiction writer can speculate, based on facts. But the same could also be argued from the current royal family; historian Philip Murphy wrote in response to Dench’s letter, pointing out that Buckingham Palace had been granted an absolute exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, thereby blocking historians’ access to official documents about the monarch . If researchers are denied this material, he says, “the field will be left to playwrights and those with a vested interest in disclosing information.” In other words, if they let us look behind the curtain, we wouldn’t have to invent.
The big question is: does it matter? Does a playwright have a duty of care towards a public figure and towards the public for whom this imagined version could be the first or only contact with historical material? Mantel thought it was: “You can select, delete, highlight, omit. Don’t cheat,” she advised. I tend to agree – up to a point. When I started writing historical detective stories featuring the 16th century Italian philosopher and heretic Giordano Bruno, I was aware that for many English readers these stories could be their introduction to life and history. work of Bruno, and I wanted to do justice to a man. who was – as I see it – charismatic, flawed but ultimately courageous in his defense of free thought. Genre fiction arguably gives more room for artistic embellishment, but it’s always been important to me to stay true to the spirit of who Bruno was, even if it’s just my interpretation. The idea that he participated in foiling conspiracies against Elizabeth I while working as a spy in London was not my invention, but inspired by a theory advanced by the late historian John Bossy. Professor Bossy took the trouble to write to me after the first two books were published to tell me that he thought they were idiotic, which I suppose is better than cruelly unfair, although he objected less to my license to the imagination and more to the fact that he thought I hadn’t given his book proper credit in a footnote. (It might be noted that his theory was itself considered fanciful by a number of fellow academic historians; ultimately, we all tell stories, building interpretation upon interpretation.)
Season 5 of The crown is approaching the final years of Princess Diana’s life and there is reason to say that it is unethical to do what is essentially a glossy soap opera of the lives of people, many of whom are still alive , which have been daily transformed into drama by the tabloids, with fatal consequences. But that would be tantamount to saying that certain stories are forbidden. People will always be fascinated by disc shortcomings; playwrights will always want to navigate these unknowable conversations in private rooms that then shaped events in the public sphere. We don’t look to historical fiction or drama for literal reconstruction, but for understanding and – if the writer has done a good enough job – empathy. But as Mantel reminds us, we should always ask ourselves, “Who is telling me this and why does he want me to believe him?”
Stephanie Merritt’s latest novel is Storm