Historical Fiction: How important is historical accuracy? A conversation with historian Sara Read

Last year on The Seventeenth Century Lady, we had a guest post by literary historian Dr Sara Read, entitled Menstruation & Female Bleeding in Seventeenth-Century England. To this day, this is one of the most popular guest posts in this site’s history, with over 17,000 reads. I’m delighted to welcome Sara back today, conversing with me about historical fiction and historical accuracy therein.

Historical Fiction: How important is historical accuracy?

Sara Read: Readers of this historical fiction whether in print or on screen build up an incredible amount of general knowledge about the period of history that they enjoy, and for some historical inaccuracies are a source of a major irritation. You only have to think about the much-discussed anachronisms or bloopers in the BBC serial The Tudors or even in Downton Abbey for examples of these. In 2007 The Daily Mail carried an article noting viewers’ unease about how ‘Modern radiators, Tarmac driveways, concrete bollards and Victorian carriages have all made appearances in the ten part series set in the 16th century’.[1] The following year on the forum Digital Spy a commentator complained that when the action moved to ‘Rome, they showed the Bernini square with its famous columns, nearly a century before it was built’.[2]

Andrea Zuvich: True, I remember when The White Queen aired and some history buffs were highly critical of the zippers on the costumes. I think that commentator in Digital Spy made a good point, and I think this also applies to the music used in a film. For example, in The Borgias television series by Showtime, I recall the papal procession proceeding along to the music of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. This irked me somewhat, given that the series was set in the 1490s and Handel’s music is from the 18th century. Some people may consider this overly pedantic, and I’m sure there’s some truth to that (for is not Mozart’s music used often for historical films? – Elizabeth comes to mind).

Sara Read: However, there is nothing new in making anachronisms like these. Famously, William Shakespeare had Brutus tell Cassius to ‘Count the clock’ (Act 2:1), to which he replies that ‘the clock hath stricken three’. Of course, chiming clocks were centuries away from the time in which Julius Caesar was set and the play refers to Caesar’s doublet (Act 1.2) because the actors were wearing modern Elizabethan clothing rather than Roman costume.

Andrea Zuvich: True, and I quite like that – though it’s funny how I tend to have an aversion to Shakespeare productions which use our period’s clothing! A recent guest writer on this site, historical novelist Paula Brackston, stated how she nearly named a horse “Nutmeg” – long before the spice was known in Wales – and this mistake was fortunately spotted before the book went to print. Perhaps the knowledgeable reader may overlook this kind of mistake, but if the book contains other such errors, they might well give up reading.

Sara Read: Now errors like filming in a setting, especially one as iconic as St Peter’s square such a long time before it was designed and built,[3] should really be caught at the planning stage, how far can smaller errors be forgiven? I’m not sure there is a universal answer and have mixed feelings myself. For example, I recently had to give up on a novel set in the seventeenth century which I was otherwise enjoying because the characters’ conversations and actions about sex and pregnancy were depicted in ways which jarred with what I have found in my academic research focused on the early modern period.

Andrea Zuvich: I agree, and this sort of thing tends to feed into my aversion to historical fiction heroines being given very feminist 21st-century behaviours and beliefs. If writers really want their female leads to think and behave in a modern way, I wonder why they don’t simply make a book/film set in a contemporary setting instead of a historical one, particularly in a time such as the seventeenth century in which such ideologies would be far from the norm (of course, there were some radical movements during that time which were more aligned with proto-feminist ideologies, but again, not the norm). In my opinion, it’s very important to stay true to the values and beliefs of the particular time period in question, and when a writer does that, I am more likely to enjoy the book.

Sara Read: Other people don’t like historical figures making cameo appearances in fictional settings – I do quite like that personally. On balance, though, I tend to the view that if the narrative is compelling, the setting vividly drawn, and the characters are written in ways which mean the reader becomes invested in their lives then I’m less likely to notice moments of anachronism. But obviously, the more reading around the period a screenwriter does, the more likely they are to produce a compelling work which carries along their readers and viewers.

Andrea Zuvich: I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Sara, for taking the time to visit us today!

Dr Sara Read is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. She holds a PhD in early modern literature. Her particular interest is in representations of the female body in literature and she has published widely in this field. Her first book Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013, and she has co-edited a collection of early modern women’s writings on the topic of health and spirituality called Flesh and Spirit: An Anthology of Seventeenth-century Women’s Writing for Manchester University Press, 2014. In addition, Dr Read has published a number of social history articles for Discover Your Ancestors magazine.

Sara’s book Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives, 1540-1740  (Pen and Sword, 2015) is on very special offer at just £5.00 plus P&P from Sara’s website sararead.co.uk for a limited time.

Also, Sara (with Jennifer Evans) has a new book coming out in July, Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health and Healing. It’s available to preorder now, and looks really interesting!

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-489336/Henry-VIII-The-glaring-errors-BBCs-sexed-dumbed-Tudors.html

[2] https://forums.digitalspy.com/discussion/898400/anachronisms-in-the-tudors

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Peter%27s_Square

Hear ye! One thought — so far — on “Historical Fiction: How important is historical accuracy? A conversation with historian Sara Read”:

  1. Chloë (She Noted)

    This was such an interesting discussion – one that’s a great point of contention. I for one enjoy a little escapism and, will fill in the gaps of my knowledge by reading around period dramas! Take Versailles – the glamour is intoxicating, but, you do need a little reality check. I rather enjoy this, if I find an on-screen character fascinating, I’ll delve more into their history. Reign, however… Don’t get me started! That was a bit *too* much. As a side note, I adore women’s history and will be sure to add Sara’s to my reading list! Lovely post ladies! (www.shenoted.co.uk)


Please contribute thy thoughts!

Your e-mail address will not be published.