• October 24, 2014

When Fictionalized Facts Matter

From 'Anne of the Thousand Days' to Hilary Mantel's new 'Bring Up the Bodies'

When Fictionalized Facts Matter 1

From left: Showtime, Photofest; Universal History Archive, Getty Images; Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images

Creative adaptations of the life of Anne Boleyn—shown here in a 16th-century portrait (center)—for film and television have included scenes with no historical foundation.

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From left: Showtime, Photofest; Universal History Archive, Getty Images; Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images

Creative adaptations of the life of Anne Boleyn—shown here in a 16th-century portrait (center)—for film and television have included scenes with no historical foundation.

There is a scene in the 1969 film version of Anne of the Thousand Days that has audiences cheering to this day. Henry VIII (Richard Burton) visits Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold) as she awaits execution in the Tower of London and reflects on the "thousand days" of her marriage to the king. He has come to offer a bargain. If Anne will declare their marriage unlawful and their daughter Elizabeth illegitimate, freeing him to marry Jane Seymour, he will spare Anne's life. But Anne is having none of it. Her hair disheveled, eyes burning a path straight to his masculine pride, she rejects the offer and spits out a lie: "It is true. I was unfaithful to you with all of them. With half your court. With soldiers of your guard, with grooms, with stable hands. Look for the rest of your life at every man that ever knew me and wonder if I didn't find him a better man than you!" Rattled and enraged, Henry shouts, "You whore!" Anne has an even sharper arrow in her quiver:

"But Elizabeth is yours. Watch her as she grows; she's yours. She's a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can—and hope that he will live! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth—child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher—shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes—MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!"

The scene is without historical foundation. Henry never visited Anne in the tower, and Anne never delivered her speech; indeed, at that point, Anne would have known that the chances of Elizabeth becoming queen were slim. Two days before her execution, her marriage to Henry was declared void, and Elizabeth would soon be bastardized. In the movie (and before that, the 1948 Maxwell Anderson play on which it was based), she is given a choice that the real Anne never had.

Did the fact that the tower scene was invention matter to viewers? Not a bit. While critics at the time were not particularly enthusiastic (Vincent Canby was typical in praising Bujold but disparaging the movie as "unbearably classy" and "conventionally reverential"), not one complained of the historical inaccuracies. Even today, among audiences who have seen enough alternative versions of Anne's final days to wonder about the authenticity of any of them, the general consensus about the tower scene seems to be that if it didn't happen that way, it should have.

Anne of the Thousand Days is not the only historical drama to escape the scrutiny of fact checkers. Sixties' critics were so enchanted with the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons' witty, anti-establishment dropout Thomas More (Paul Scofield) that they were unconcerned with its whitewashing of More's obsessive, brutal heretic hunting. And while the occasional academic would later reference that license with history, it was only until another fictional depiction—in Showtime's The Tudors (2007-10)—displaced it that idolatry of More was challenged in the minds of popular audiences.

Of course these renderings are fictions—and as such, it could be argued, should not have to answer to historical accuracy. Writing about The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), the critic Thomas Sutcliffe praised the movie's screenwriter, Peter Morton, as "brilliant at side-stepping the usual shrieking reflex of anxiety about mixing fantasy and truth." Many historical novelists would agree that too much "anxiety" about the fact/fiction divide would make the work of historical fiction impossible, too. Margaret George once laughingly told me about overhearing someone say about her book The Autobiography of Henry VIII (1986), "This is just a lie! Henry VIII never wrote an autobiography!"

Hilary Mantel, whose sequel to the prize-winning Wolf Hall (2009) is now being released, told me in an e-mail interview: "You have to think what you owe to history. But you also have to think what you owe to the novel form. Your readers expect a story. And they don't want it to be two-dimensional, barely dramatized."

In the case of Tudor history, there are plenty of gaps that beg to be filled in by the creative imagination if there is to be any coherent narrative at all. One of the biggest is Anne Boleyn herself. Even before her execution, Henry set about erasing all evidence of her life—emblems, portraits, and (apparently) letters—a purge that has allowed polarized camps to define and redefine her over the centuries. For supporters of the queen she supplanted, Katherine of Aragon, she was a coldhearted murderess. For Roman Catholic propagandists, a six-fingered, jaundiced-looking erotomaniac. For many Elizabethans, she was the unsung heroine of the Protestant Reformation. For the Romantics, particularly in painting, she was the hapless victim of a king's tyranny. In postwar movies and on television, Anne has been animated by the rebellious spirit of the 60s (Anne of the Thousand Days), the "mean girl" celebration of female competitiveness of the 90s (The Other Boleyn Girl), and the "third wave" feminism of a new generation of Anne-worshipers, who see Natalie Dormer's brainy seductress of The Tudors as too smart, sexy, and strong for her own time.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel's quirky yet magisterial portrait of Henry's minister Thomas Cromwell—the first volume in a planned trilogy—Anne was a bit player, but a vivid one. Ignoring the fact that Cromwell and Anne were allies for most of her reign, Mantel paints her through Cromwell's eyes as a predatory calculator with "a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes." That remains unchanged in the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which deals with the chilling, sudden turnabout of Anne's fortunes and fall, "as it might have looked from Thomas Cromwell's point of view."

The imaginative fiction of "Cromwell's point of view" is both the novel's greatest achievement and a handy rationale for playing very loose with the facts. As in Wolf Hall, Mantel is a literary wizard. There is something magical and mysterious in the way she captures the precarious yet oddly cozy world of the Tudor court as experienced by Cromwell. But channeled by Mantel, the details of Anne's fall are quite different from what most historians now believe—namely, that Cromwell (for his own reasons) played the leading hand in cooking up the ruthless plot that cost Anne her life, along with that of five others, including her brother. Mantel's Cromwell is less a master strategist than the happy recipient of some well-timed gossip, which he exploits, quieting his own "unwelcome" knowledge of Anne's innocence by reminding himself that she is the kind of woman who could "commit any sin or crime."

"What is the nature of the border between truth and lies?" Cromwell muses. "It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstanding and twisted tales." In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel brilliantly recreates that permeable and blurred experience (even Anne's guilt or innocence remains undecided), which is what makes her fiction remarkable. The 16th-century world she creates is somehow both completely familiar, and utterly strange. It's a masterpiece of a painting. Yet it is as blurred with regard to the truth as the false rumors that swirled around Anne's sexual behavior.

Should we care?

Our answer seems to be: It all depends.

Showtime's The Tudors, which despite its own inventions is arguably more faithful to historical detail than any previous film version, had critics and historians frothing at the mouth. "Perfectly preposterous"; "A Wikipedia entry with boobs," declared the British media critics. David Starkey, one of the Grand Deans of Tudor history (and a self-confessed "all-purpose media tart"), called the series "gratuitously awful."

Michael Hirst, the creator and writer of The Tudors, acknowledged in an interview with me that the first season didn't do justice to Anne's character and that "we probably had too much sex in the beginning" (a bit of an understatement). But the series is hardly "dumbed down," as some critics objected. And as Hirst pointed out, The Tudors got slammed for its gaps and inventions, while Wolf Hall got nothing but praise, despite its liberties with history. Wolf Hall, Hirst said, not without some justice, is "complete fiction. But nobody says that. They all say: 'What a wonderful book, what insights it brings to the Tudors.' Isn't that bizarre?"

It's not bizarre, but it does invite reflection on the shifting standards we apply to historical representations. Some depictions—for example, Alexander Korda's film The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)—get away with nonsense simply because they were created long enough ago that they are viewed as cultural artifacts. Others give offense because they are considered "pop" rather than "literary," and vice versa.

I loved Wolf Hall, but I have to wonder how readers not immersed in Tudor history kept all those Thomases straight—Boleyn, Cromwell, Cranmer, More, Wolsey. ... The novel is a dense, detailed, challenging work; perhaps critics were afraid to question its fidelity to history because, like students in a high-theory college course, they were afraid of displaying their ignorance.

What is seen as objectionable often depends on what you care about. The historian Retha Warnicke "shuddered" at Hirst's merging of Henry's two sisters into one character. I, on the other hand, was most offended when, in the third episode, Francis I's sister, Marguerite de Navarre—author, intellectual light of the French court, and a deep believer in platonic love between men and women—appears as a visitor to the English court, bosom spilling out of her dress, casting hot glances across the dining hall at Henry as both bite into their roasted thighs and wings, Tom Jones fashion. Later that night, two guards stoically keep watch while Henry and Marguerite grunt and moan behind his bedroom door. Most viewers would not have realized that a distinguished historical figure—often called "the mother of the Renaissance"—was being turned into a trollop for the sake of ratings. But for those who are devoted to the history of women, it seemed not merely gratuitous but nasty.

Television and movies, because they carry the illusion of verisimilitude, are more likely to be criticized for historical inaccuracy than novels, no matter how often their creators insist that they are not meant to be entirely factual. If, however, they comport themselves with enough dignity—like the 1970 BBC production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII—they are off the hook. The inventions of more recent productions are apt to be not only sexually sleazier but more epistemologically seductive. It's the post-Oliver Stone, postmodern problem: In our media-dominated, digitally enhanced era, people are arguably being culturally trained to have greater difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction. If the created reality is vivid and convincing enough (whether a flawless, computer-generated complexion or a spin on events), it carries authority; that's the way advertisers and politicians want it. The movies, which are often extremely attentive to historical details, creating a highly realistic texture for the scaffolding surrounding the actions of the characters, make it even harder for audiences to draw the line.

Increasingly, some directors and novelists are encouraging that confusion. While Shakespeare in Love (1998) was full of cues to signal that it was a fantasy, Anonymous (2011) appears to seriously propose that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of Shakespeare's plays. "Among Shakespeare scholars, the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts," the critic Stephen Marche noted. But he worried that because of the movie, "undergraduates will be confidently asserting that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare for the next 10 years at least, and profs will have to waste countless hours explaining the obvious." Thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl, they already believe that Anne Boleyn "stole" Henry from her virtuous sister, Mary (in fact, the Mary/Henry affair was over by the time Anne entered the picture), and proposed sex with her brother, George, in order to conceive a child (a charge to which only one historian that I know of gives any credence). Oh, and another trifle noted by the critic Jonathan Jones—the movie "manages to virtually edit out a rather large historical fact: the Reformation."

People, however, were being snookered by the novel The Other Boleyn Girl long before it became a movie, in no small part because its author, Philippa Gregory (who also wrote the screenplay with Peter Morgan), describes herself as a historian (in fact, her degree is in 18th-century literature), and claims she applies "very strict rules of accuracy" to her novels. What does she supply as a novelist? Only "the bits that we don't know" and "feelings." Fine, but Gregory also defends the (often preposterous) "bits" as "historical probability."

An earlier generation of historical novelists, less jaded than we are about the dangers of mixing fact and fiction, were often careful to point out exactly what was invented in their books. Some contemporary writers believe we should return to that practice. Margaret George told me she worries that we are "losing our collective sense of what really happened." Mantel doesn't go that far, but she aptly described Wolf Hall to me not as "history" but "part of a chain of literary representation. My Cromwell shakes hands with the Cromwell of the Book of Martyrs, and with the trickster Cromwell of the truly awful but funny Elizabethan play about him. I am conscious of all his later, if fugitive, incarnations in fiction and drama. I am conscious on every page of hard choices to be made, and I make sure I never believe my own story."

But even Mantel sometimes does just that. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it's not just her Cromwell who "shakes hands" with previous depictions, but her Anne as well. Her cold, feral Anne is clearly a rejoinder to the more sympathetic portraits of other generations, and possibly to Anne's current standing as something of a protofeminist. But, like Gregory, Mantel can't seem to resist calling on history to justify her narrative choices. In both novels, for example, she excludes some key historical material that, coincidentally, might cause readers to question (her) Cromwell's view of Anne as an unfeeling "strategist"—not least, Anne's eloquent speech at her trial and then the one on the scaffold. In her author's note, Mantel says the speeches "should be read with skepticism." Odd, not only because there are multiple corroborating reports of both, but also because Mantel has just told readers that she claims no historical "authority" for her version of things. It's just an "offering," she writes.

But Mantel knows, too, as she told me, that "fiction is commonly more persuasive than history texts," and some of her narrative choices do seem to be making a covert, nonliterary defense of Cromwell, rather than an imaginative recreation of his experience. For example, it's a matter of historical record that Anne's longtime ally Thomas Cranmer, shocked by Anne's arrests, sat down to write a letter to Henry expressing his amazement at the charges against her. His writing was interrupted, however (as Cranmer relates when he resumes), by a visit from Cromwell and his cronies. They apparently helped him "change his mind" about Anne's guilt, for the letter ends very differently than it begins, with poor Cranmer, clearly quaking in his boots, acknowledging that she must be guilty. Mantel chooses not to tell us about the interruption; the detail would have made Cromwell seem more like a thug. That's her prerogative as a novelist. But by the same token, it's that prerogative, not concerns about historical accuracy, that readers should understand as the reason for excluding Anne's speeches as well.

I love fiction, and believe it can put us in touch with truths that no history text can attain. But when the work of imagination is presented as something other than that—when a novel or film justifies highly inventive, provocative choices by invoking history—we've lost whatever compass we have left (and it's gotten pretty fragile) for sorting out fiction from fact. In her interview with me, Mantel astutely observed that "all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time." I couldn't agree more. Her morally ambiguous, watchful Cromwell is a man for our cynical season, and so is her greedy, narcissistic Anne. Let's not imagine, however, that just because they belong to literature rather than pop culture, they are more historically accurate than the Anne and Cromwell of Thousand Days or The Tudors.

Susan Bordo is a professor of humanities at the University of Kentucky. Her book The Creation of Anne Boleyn will be published early in 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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