‘Trash History’: Historical Accuracy in Film and Fiction

Historically Inaccurate Thanksgiving

Thought it might not look like it, this idealized painting of the first Thanksgiving is historically inaccurate. According to the notes, the costume of the Pilgrims is inaccurate and Wompanoag Native Americans depicted in the painting would not have worn the feather bonnets nor would they have been sitting on the ground. Painted during WWI, we might surmise that this idealized scene reflects a nostalgia for peace.

Photo Credit: The First Thanksgiving, 1621, Jean Leon Jerome Ferris, 1912-1915, oil on canvas, private collection: Howcheng/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 80

Each generation giving a take on history reflects its own preoccupations…” (Gristwood, par. 3)

This last week has been all about historical accuracy. I completed the final draft of The Specter, the first book for my historical fiction series, the Waxwood Series. This draft was all about “cleaning up”. I did a final proofread to make sure everything read as smoothly as it should, but I also did final research to make sure there were no errors of historical accuracy.

Historical accuracy is a huge deal to historical fiction writers and also a source of controversy at times. As Sarah Gristwood, in her blog post “When History Meets Hollywood” accurately states in talking about film, There is no such thing as a fully historically accurate movie… How could there be, when there is no one single fully authentic version of history?” (par 2) This applies to historical fiction a well — accuracy is relative to what version of history the author/filmmaker believes to be true based on his/her research, his/her perspectives, his/her biases and preferences. A while back, I wrote a blog post about one of my graduate professor’s concept of big “T” truth and little “t” truth. The idea is that truth is about what the teller of the story deems as the truth and objective truth in our modern world (even when we look back at history) is simply not possible and perhaps not even desirable.

To understand the complexity of historical accuracy, defining what historical fiction is might be helpful. Interestingly, Gristwood accepts the definition given by critic Arthur Schlesinger about historical film, that the work “has to turn on public events as well as private ones…” (Gristwood, par. 4). I both agree and disagree with this. It’s true that many of us (readers and viewers alike) recognize a historical film when we recognize the trimmings — in other words, that the context in which the story takes place is not from our time. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily believe a story must turn on historical events. There are, in fact, many types of historical fiction. Some stories do indeed put historical events at their center, like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, where events such as the Civil War and Reconstruction drive the story and the characters. But some stories use history in a more subtle way. For example, Dorothy Eden’s Speak to me of Love involves some discussion of World War I but the story uses this as a way to bring out characters (one character in particular) and the book revolves around a family rather than a historical event.

I also think historical fiction has another type of historical accuracy that defines its genre — psychological and emotional accuracy. Historical times, like modern times, have their own psychological reality. What characters experience is sometimes very specific to their own time (and also sometimes very universal and speaks to us in our own time). For example, my fiction deals many times with women’s lives in the 19th century. The separate spheres limited them in many ways and a lot of historical fiction and film addresses these limitations and also show how women transcended them. In my upcoming book, two women characters (Vivian, the main character of the series, and Penelope, her grandmother) experience the limitations of being a debutante, each in her own time (Vivian’s, in the Gilded Age, Penelope’s, forty years earlier) and attempts to transcend those limitations. Eden’s book relates the story of a woman who takes over her father’s department store in the 19th century at a time when women business owners were uncommon and “shopkeepers” were looked down on by certain classes.

Historical accuracy isn’t only in the big stuff (like events, social rituals and etiquette). It’s also about the little things, like voice, language, and expressions. The English language makes this a challenge. Not long ago, I posted a comment about this to the Historical Novel Society Facebook group and it generated some lively and interesting discussion about historical accuracy in language. From my teaching of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students, I discovered how confusing and baffling the language can be to many students who are learning it as adults. I see more and more of this as I research small things like words, expressions, and idioms for my fiction. Even the form of a word that seems innocuous enough may have different origins and come into the language at different times. One example I can give from my own fiction is the word “chirpy”. I use this word several times to describe one of the characters. The adjective went into the language in 1825 but the verb “chirp” dates well before that (in the 15th century) and the noun “chirped” from 1802. We might take for granted that every form of a root word like “chirp” came into the language at the same time or around the same time but in reality, it could be very different times in history. This might sound irrelevant, but if a story is being told in different time frames, this could be a problem. My novel has two time periods — the 1890s and letters from the 1850s. If a word came into the language after the 1850s but it appears in the letters, that means, for me, I need to find another word or revise the passage so that there won’t be an issue of historical accuracy.

Do readers really care whether a book set in the late 18th century uses the word “chirpy” (which, if we remember, came into the language in 1825)? Most probably won’t. But I think there’s a level of integrity and trust a writer or filmmaker creating a historical work must adhere to. I agree with Gristwood that “if film makers are going to blend fiction and fact, they have a responsibility at least to aim for the best version they can…” (Gristwood, par 11). This applies to authors as well — we have a responsibility to give readers quality historical fiction as accurate as we can make it and not, as a critic calls it in Gristwood’s article, “trash history” that might be entertaining but contains historical mistakes that don’t do the past or the present justice.

Works Cited

Gristwood, Sarah. “When History Meets Hollywood.” Web blog post. The History Girls. Blogger. 18 March 2019. Web. 16 April 2019.

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