Culture

Must Dramatic Art Be Historically Accurate?

Tom Hanks as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in The Post (Twentieth Century Fox/Storyteller Dist.)
A column by Peggy Noonan is answered by a Romantic novelist.

Peggy Noonan, departing from her regular political beat, recently ventured into the world of pop culture to call for “more truth in art and entertainment.” The occasion for her unusual column was the liberties taken by the Netflix series The Crown and the new Steven Spielberg film Democracy Dies in Darkness — sorry, The Post.

According to Noonan, The Crown commits “cheap historical mindlessness” and “clueless carelessness” in its depictions of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and President Kennedy. The show presents the former as both a pimp and a cuckold, the latter as an abusive husband and — egads! — a cigarette smoker. The Post, meanwhile, misrepresents President Nixon’s reasons for fighting to withhold publication of the Pentagon Papers, all in the cause of making Nixon the villain he’s contractually required to be in any film. Noonan argues that the people behind The Post knew better and “perpetuated injustice” for the sake of entertainment. (She could also have mentioned the new movie Darkest Hour, which attributes one of Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches to a ride on the Tube.)

To readers tempted to say, “Relax, Peggy — they’re not hurting anyone,” Noonan warns:

We are losing history. . . . When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.

She implies that this is particularly dangerous in the time of #FakeNews and “alternative facts”: “It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.”

Noonan’s argument captured my attention because it explores problems familiar to one of my favorite writers, Sir Walter Scott. Though rarely read today, Scott was the most significant and popular novelist of the British Romantic period. (Sorry, Austen lovers.) James Chandler of the University of Chicago calls Scott’s “oeuvre . . . arguably the most influential single body of literary work in English by any writer since Shakespeare.” His works returned the novel to critical respectability and helped shape British national identity; they inspired paintings, operas, and even (if you believe Mark Twain) the Civil War.

Scott’s novels depict ordinary men and women thrown into major political events and interacting with familiar historical figures. In so doing, the works blur the borders between history and romance. His novel Old Mortality, for example, upset some contemporary readers for what they considered its inaccurate depiction of the 17th-century Scottish Presbyterians known as Covenanters. And his best-known work, Ivanhoe, is full of what the scholar Ian Duncan calls “errors and anachronisms [that] are knowing rather than symptomatic.” Duncan identifies the particularly brazen example of two characters who flee England for the court of Muhammad XII of Granada — which wouldn’t exist for another 300 years after the novel is set.

Scott addressed concerns about his historical inaccuracy in the preface to his 1822 novel Peveril of the Peak, and his arguments are relevant to Noonan’s column. This preface consists of a letter written by a recurring character named Jonas Dryasdust, who recounts a conversation with the character known as the Author of Waverley, Scott’s curmudgeonly alter-ego.

Dryasdust warns the Author that “those aberrations, which it is so often your pleasure to make from the path of true history,” have exposed him to censure “for adulterating the pure sources of historical knowledge.” But, the Author gruffly replies, his works are clearly presented as “romance[s] . . . founded upon history,” so readers know what they’re getting into. It’s impossible to take seriously “the sober charge of falsehood, against a narrative announced positively to be fictitious.”

But, like Noonan, Dryasdust doesn’t think this insistence on generic difference will suffice, because many readers will get their history only from this form of entertainment. The Author is “in danger of causing history to be neglected — readers being contented with such frothy and superficial knowledge, as they acquire from your works, to the effect of inducing them to neglect the severer and more accurate sources of information.” That is, people will “absorb the story of their times” (to use Noonan’s language) only through novels, because those are so much more entertaining than histories.

The Author disagrees, arguing that his fiction inspires smart readers to pursue the historical subject matter in more detail:

I have turned the attention of the public on various points, which have received elucidation from writers of more learning and research, in consequence of my novels having attached some interest to them.

Historical fiction actually promotes interest in purer history.

That may be true of reasonable adult readers — but as Helen Lovejoy would ask, Won’t somebody please think of the children? Dryasdust (whose last name hints at the dullness of certain types of historical writing) explains that younger readers will read only the novels without pursuing the straight history, so the Author is guilty of “misleading the young, the indolent, and the giddy.”

Scott’s novels are like gateway drugs: Kids start with soft romances such as Waverley, but before you know it, they’re hooked on Hume’s History of Great Britain.

The Author again insists that his works perform a “real service” to bright young readers, “for the love of knowledge wants but a beginning — the least spark will give fire when the train is properly prepared; and having been interested in fictitious adventures, ascribed to a historical period and characters, the reader begins next to be anxious to learn what the facts really were.” His novels are like gateway drugs: Kids start with soft romances such as Waverley, but before you know it, they’re hooked on Robertson’s History of Scotland, Hume’s History of Great Britain, and maybe even some of that hard antiquarian stuff on weekends.

What about less intelligent young readers, the ones who won’t go on to read history? Even they benefit from the Author’s novels because they “will still lay down the book with a degree of knowledge, not perhaps of the most accurate kind, but such as he might not otherwise have acquired.” A little learning is not a dangerous thing when the alternative is no learning at all.

Applying Scott’s defenses of his novels to Noonan’s column, it’s possible to recognize that The Crown and The Post do something more valuable than simply “lie and mislead.” It seems reasonable to conclude that viewers, aware that they’re watching drama, will not assume the events are historically accurate; that the dramas may even make them curious enough about their subject matter to read histories of post-war Britain or the Nixon administration; and that even those who watch the dramas uncritically learn more truth than fiction.

Noonan raises important points that merit consideration, and I have my own serious reservations about entertainment that willfully misrepresents public figures and their ideas. But Scott would suggest that rather than signifying that “we are losing history,” historical dramas are an important way to preserve it.

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