One of things I enjoy most about my annual blogging marathon is stumbling across a potential topic for the day’s post and then following threads that emerge and disappearing off down a whole series of rabbit holes, discovering all sorts of interesting ideas along the way. This post started with a story that appeared on Politics Home this morning. In summary, the UK’s most senior government minister with responsibility for culture and media is on the verge of writing to Netflix (an on-line video streaming service) asking them to place an advisory notice to the start of each edition of their highly popular and critically acclaimed series on the Bristish monarchy The Crown. The Minister, Oliver Dowden, is quoted as saying : “It’s a beautifully produced work of fiction, so as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that. Without this, I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.”
I was going to write about the irony of a Minister in a government that has an at best tenuous grasp on the difference between truth and fiction, having the temerity to require a TV company to state explicitly that a historical fiction drama series was (shock! horror!) fictional. I might have gone on to suggest that every time in the next month that a government minister stands up in Parliament (or more likely writes in a column for the Daily Telegraph) that a no-deal Brexit is the will of the British people as voted for in a referendum four years’ ago, coverage should also carry a warning that such accounts are also “beautifully produced works of fiction”. Surely, without such a warning, people who voted for Brexit on the basis that we would remain members of the European Single Market and Customs Union might also “mistake fiction for fact”.
I then started to reflect on the contrast between reactions to the idea that The Crown might in some way present a distorted view of history; and the outrage felt in some quarters at suggestions that ‘whitewashed’ histories of those implicated in slavery and other colonial abuses were themselves, if not works of fiction, then at least only partial versions of the truth. The quotes attributed to Dowden in the Independent piece are particularly interesting when juxtaposed with his views on the Netflix series : “History is ridden with moral complexity. Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong. Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today.” It’s unclear whether that same analysis holds true for the behaviours and attitudes of the UK’s Royal Family during the real-life events that are the basis of the historical fiction that is The Crown.
History itself is a highly contentious subject. There is no absolutely objective, impartial, reliable and value-free account of any past event. Henry Ford is commonly believed to have stated that : “History is bunk”. But ironically, even that is historically questionable. The actual quote that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in May 1916 was : “History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today. That’s the trouble with the world. We’re living in books and history and tradition. We want to get away from that and take care of today. We’ve done too much looking back. What we want to do and do it quick is to make just history right now.” One interpretation of this is that Ford – who was known to be sceptical about US involvement in the First World War – was suggesting that a focus on history, on tradition, was not going to help address the problems facing the world as it was in May 1916. However, it’s not absolutely clear what he meant – and interpretations necessarily involve assumptions and attribution of motivation and values that Ford may hardly have recognised himself. Indeed, later in the same piece, Daniel Strohl writes that : “One explanation posits simply that Ford was trying to dissemble using a debate tactic he often deployed called the ‘Ford flurry’ or the ‘Gish gallop’ in which Ford threw out an array of arguments or statements of fact when cornered or when he couldn’t muster a sufficient response.” I wonder if it will take 100 years for somebody to write the same of the current President of the United States.
So is all history necessarily partly fiction then? This was the question posed in a fascinating essay published on the Evatt Foundation website and written by Australian historians Ann Curthoys and John Docker in 2006. Curthoys and Docker consider the question through the various lenses that have been applied to the academic study of history. They identify various dualities that exist in historical writing, including “nationalist historians [who] seek to justify and praise the nation through a particular version of its past, while revisionist historians aim to question national historical myths through what they see as an honest coming to terms with its darker aspects.” They also draw out the distinction between history as verifiable fact, and history as a literary art, “constituted through language, narrative, metaphor, rhetoric, and allegory”. It is in this “space between history as rigorous scrutiny of sources and history as part of the world of literary forms” that the discussion about the historical accuracy and validity of The Crown resides.
But there is another doubleness in academic history that is also described by Curthoys and Docker and of relevance here. They label them Herodotean and Thucydidean after the great historians of ancient Athenian conflicts. “The Herodotean is a mode of history which is expansive and inclusive, history as sexual, erotic, religious, social, cultural, as well as political and military. The Thucydidean is a mode that is highly focused on war and the state and the interaction of states, ignoring gender and social and cultural history, and is presented in an authoritative and magisterial tone and manner.” Arguably, this is the conflict that is playing out in Dowden’s proposed letter to Netflix. Dowden’s Thucydidean motive is to protect and preserve the dignity and solemnity of the state as embodied in the Royal Family. The literary narrative of The Crown is altogether more down and dirty, focusing on the characters not as officers of the state but rather less grandly as men and women subject to all the same desires, foibles and imperfections as all other men and women.
So is all history fiction? Curthoys and Docker think not, and I agree with them. “‘[W]e do indeed believe in truth and in the search for truth. We point out that no-one… would do history, would pursue historical research, unless [they] thought they could arrive, however provisionally, at some kind of truth about the past. We think, however, that the temptation to declare that the historian can objectively establish the truth about the past is to be resisted. There always has to be a question mark hovering over any claim to having attained an objective, let alone scientific, status for one’s findings.”
I have never watched The Crown and I have no idea whether the fictionalised accounts that it contains of day to day going-on in the House of Windsor during the great historical events of the last century are even close to being accurate. But one thing I do know is that Oliver Dowden can’t know one way or the other either!