Must Fiction Accurately Reflect The Past? Part One

Media, Reading & Writing

Shovel-making by a backyard blacksmith in Bethnal Green ca. 1900Ripper Street

It’s a problem besetting any writer working in a period setting. How far do you go to recreate the past? Only a decade or two has to pass before the past becomes almost unrecognisable. Go a little further back and it becomes almost impossible to render accurately.

This problem is particularly pronounced in film. The TV series ‘Ripper Street’ is excellent but its East End ladies appear to have wandered out of Vogue (compared to the real thing, seen here). Obviously we need to make things palatable for viewers, but equally the past should feel alien.

If, for example, you really want to know how London looked in the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’, don’t read about it in a book, watch the title sequence of ‘Steptoe & Son’, the saddest and most disturbing sitcom ever written. Beneath the titles and behind the jaunty Ron Grainer music, the misted streets look full of ghosts. Everything was grubby. If you leaned on a fence, you usually had to have your coat dry-cleaned. It was as if the spirits of the war dead had left their residue behind as a reminder for the next generation.

Go further back into the world of Sherlock Holmes and suddenly – particularly in old films – the world is full of brightly lit smoke-free pubs and rumply-tumpty whores in bodices. One of the worst evocations of the past comes from ‘Titanic’, which fussed about getting the napiery and silverware correct while getting all the social elements wrong.

When Mike Leigh filmed ‘Topsy Turvey’, the story of the making of The Mikado, he didn’t trust himself to reproduce Victorian London with his legendary accuracy and limited himself to one exterior sequence (a pub and alleyway). His cluttered interiors and the odd vocal inflections of the dialogue come very close to accuracy.
As does Charles Woods’ elliptical script for Tony Richardson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade, which reminds us that earlier Victorian speech patterning was not always baroque but often clipped and modern-sounding. I’ve tackled period only a handful of times because I find it daunting – once in ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’ and in a couple of short stories. The trick, it seems, is getting the social classifications right first.

20 comments on “Must Fiction Accurately Reflect The Past? Part One”

  1. Bob Low says:

    I think that one of the best acknowledgements of just how hard it is for a writer to evoke a distant historical period with any sense of authenticity is found in the opening paragraph of Michel Faber’s brilliant ”The Crimson Petal and the White”, where Faber uses the very Victorian convention of directly addressing the reader, in order to give us the following warning, as he prepares to lead us through the streets of Victorian London,:

    ”Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing to you is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.”

  2. Gary says:

    One might equally argue that, in any era, there is always more than one reality. George Macdonald Fraser argued that both TOP HAT and LOVE ON THE DOLE are both accurate pictures of the 30s. Neither is the whole truth, but both represent something of the era. When we look at old photographs, or bold recitals of facts, we can’t really understand what it was like. We become tourists, looking around the country that we are visiting and either praising the sights or damning the plumbing. We can’t really appreciate it on such a short visit, because we are viewing it through all of the preconceptions and prejudices of our own time. Even contemporary descriptions aren’t always to be trusted. I read Willis Hall talking about how George Orwell’s ROAD TO WIGAN PIER showed the working classes of the era to be disgustingly filthy. In fact, said Hall, although there was extreme deprivation during his Leeds childhood, all the houses were spotless and the men and women were the most fastidiously scrubbed people imaginable. Old Etonian Orwell really didn’t understand these working class areas at all, and was not,perhaps, the most accurate of observers.

  3. Mike Cane says:

    In the 1970s in NYC, you’d have to run a tissue up your snout to dig out the hydrocarbon deposits. The tissue would have black residue on it. Little details like that about the past get lost quickly. Ripper Street I bailed on within ten minutes as feeling and being just All Wrong. How alien is the past, really? See Alfred Bester’s short story, “Hobson’s Choice.” “Can you spare price of one cup coffee, honorable sir? I am indigent organism which are hungering.”

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Great topic and I looked forward to the following installments.
    I find anachronisms to be very annoying. For example in the very first show of Ripper Street, the protagonist is introduced drinking out of a modern-shaped beer bottle with a flanged top for a crown cap. (The crown cap was invented in the U.S. and patented in the late 1880’s.) A proper bottle of beer in the TV show would probably have been the size of a German beer bottle and have had a snap-off-and-over ceramic cap. Or he would have been drinking from a mug, as beer was still sold in buckets then.
    Anyway, this irked me a tad and then the coroner is found giving a dollymops – who, yes, looked like a Victoria’s Secret model (perhaps appropriate for the royal line) a “facial” – when he is trapped down and called out to examine a dead body! I think he must not have been too well-informed a “doctor” not to have known what he was getting into, so to speak, and at least he should have worn a rubber glove on his nose.
    And on and on. I finally clicked off. But I’ll try watching again.
    Somehow too many details in a book or film that are wrong turn me off and it would have been better they’d simply been left out.
    I am shopping a novel set in Leipzig in 2000 and I have visited there many times since 1998 for research and fun. Leipzig – like all significant cities in the former East – has changed very fast and so much my setting has quickly become distant history, except I have photographs, clippings, and books plus my memory to draw on. (Anyone under 25 or so would not recognize much of the city.) Things and times alter quickly and today races into the past once you cross into the first minutes of tomorrow.
    And, oh yes, the Titanic film didn’t hold water – wait yes it did – that was the whole point.
    More installment, please.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    I also hate typos, not that you’d notice.

  6. Ken Murray says:

    Gary – I think you’re correct that recollections of the past are dependent on the viewer’s standpoint as they are often based on an individual’s personal experience. However artists mostly seem to strive for a one-size-fits-all version of history. Although one that contains the essential elements recognisable from the public consciousness (foggy London streets etc…) Interesting reading Defoe’s memoirs of his travells through 18th century England it would be hard to equate his descriptions of poverty and depravity with life depicted in the paintings of Constable and the like. I think the same is probably true of Wells and Conan Doyle come across as ‘modern’? As for London, I find the city today hard to equate with the London of the late 60s early 70s. London’s pigeons were perfectly camouflaged for their environment as the city resembled some kind of gothic nightmare dreamt up by Tim Burton, with each carbon coated edifice crowding to suffocate the wary vistor.

  7. snowy says:

    Even if one could perfectly recreate the past none would believe it to be true.

    As evidence

    (Starts slow, and builds till it hits the money at 90s)

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Aside from everything else, please note the microphone he’s holding. I wouldn’t have thought that slim line little thing could have been there so early. I watched Ripper St. for the first time this week and it didn’t seem to have any real plot. I didn’t believe the accents – not even the American ones. George Macdonald Fraser is very brave to take on the period and locales he does and his writing sounds true and not true at the same time; it sounds of a different period but familiar as well. I’ll look at Ripper St. again, now that I see where it’s trying to go, I think. A reader should feel comfortable with the vocabulary and accent of the writing and yet be aware of a different sensibility. Dan’s comment about the beer bottle is good because it’s an object people are familiar with, but which was different then. Beer bottles are problematic in North America. Growing up they were tall and slim. In the 60’s they became short and ‘stubby’ so people complained. In the 80’s (I think) they went back to tall and people complained because they’d lost the ‘traditional’ bottles. Not having extensive passages in period places is probably good as there’s less space in which to make a mistake. People may well have been pristine in the 1930’s out of pride, but once you get back to a spot where water has to be carried you find much less cleanliness.

  9. John Howard says:

    Surely art or entertainment is just that and not a history lesson. If you want accuracy, then watch a documentary or a history programme. Even then what you see is going to be incomplete so you need (as admin has pointed out before) to go to more than one source to get a more rounded picture.

    Haven’t watched Ripper Street but the wife thinks its great. Looking at all the previous comments I can see that it is an issue for some. For me, I would watch it and judge it on its entertainment value and smile knowingly when a Morris Minor drew round the corner instead of a horse drawn carriage…

    Ok, it can be a drag sometimes but nobody born in 1980 (for instance) will understand how different life was for someone born in 1950. I.E. Quite a few of us. GREAT topic for discussion though admin.

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    It’s not really necessary that all little details be right and I agree with John above.
    However, for anyone born in 1938 that would be only an even 50 away from bloody old Jack; and as of today that person would be just 75, or some months less. If his/her grandparents on both sides were born before the Ripper ripped his first ripee and his/her parents were born just 25 years after the Ripper did his best, Jack should be fairly well embedded in the collective family memory. Plus how life was lived, what was and wasn’t invented, in use or available. And all the many major and minor wars. Not to talk about fashions seen in family photos.
    It all comes down to what stretch of decades you can draw on, where everyone was when, who and what they knew and experienced, and how much red and white wine was judiciously comsumed – for the mind’s retention sake. (Yes, and how detail oriented the people were/are.)
    But individuals of that age are heading out of the demographic known as shop-til-they drop, but toward the Marketing classification drop-while-they-shop. So TV and film reseachers can be given a pass on details, but obviously incorrect details should probably not be included, and not highlighted, someone out there probably knows better.
    “Did you see the film Lincoln? What did you think of it?” “Oh fine, I suppose, until the movie folks had them carpetbaggers come down here and start selling iPads.” Although that might make a Dr. Who. 🙂

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Anachronisms can get by if they are not crucial to plot or character. In the past books aimed at teen girls would often have a female lead who was not “normal” for her historical time. It was much better to read the boys’ books where ‘normal’ males went off into armies or apprenticeships or whatever sort of adventure. I can remember talking to someone and the comment being made that you could only wonder where all the normal girls were since all the ones we met weren’t.

  12. glasgow1975 says:

    I found it annoying that a lot of comments on tv reviews of the first Ripper Street were very nitpicky, ie commenting that door lintels were Edwardian not Victorian, well duh, it’s filmed in Dublin so an occasional lintel that’s a few years too early might sneak in. It reminded me of all the snarky people on IMDB complaining that Merlin had people using forks . . .the whopping great talking dragon you can accept but eating with forks is too much?
    I think it’s important for things to be believable, and can accept that a few things might slip through, but if only scholars & nitpickers notice, then I’d say it’s successful. Very interesting point about the beer bottle, but then it ‘looked’ ok. It was worked out that moving pictures were invented a mere few years after the setting so ‘technically’ there could have been a prototype ‘film’ camera, it wasn’t as if they were using a digicam . . .
    I think it’s a lot more telling that you can instantly spot a period drama from the 70s say and know by the look/costumes that it is a 70s version of a Victorian setting, just as in a few decades Ripper Street will look 2010s probably.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    A lot of it has to do with actresses makeup. No matter what the period being portrayed actresses are given makeup to suit their modern period.

  14. Dan Terrell says:

    I will be happy, Helen, when the majority of the females I now see no longer look as if they’d been punched black in both eyes, causing their eyelashes to pop out, and then been crowned with coarse hair that must have had a New York rat-ture wind dry it with a rotating desk fan set at speed.

  15. Ken Murray says:

    Dan your comments about people in the 1930s being only 50years on from the Ripper reminded me of another example. About 1970 when I had just started junior school, we had a retired relief teacher who lived next to the school. She originated from the county of Kent next to the English channel and was a bit of a battle axe. The only thing she ever taught us was about Marco Polo, which for her, appeared to be current events. However, the funny thing was
    that she recounted on a number of occasions (mostly when we were unruly) that her mother would reprimand her with: “You better behave or Boney will come and get you!” Boney of course being Napoleon Bonaparte…

  16. Helen Martin says:

    My Mother told me that her father, a Saskatchewan farmer, had left the family farm in Illinois and headed west where he witnessed a fatal gunfight in a Montana bar. It seemed like forever ago to me, but then the obvious question occurred: What was Grandpa doing in the bar? She just stared because it had never occurred to her to ask. Ken, I really understand and have had to grit my teeth at funerals as people outline the life of the departed and I realize the wonderful glimpses of history I’ve missed by just not asking a question or two. Sometimes we live too much in the present.

  17. glasgow1975 says:

    I agree Helen, my Granpa’s funeral included the story of how he’d met my Gran on army training, and how he’d been injured by shrapnel which invalided him out of the army and left him in chronic pain, neither of which I’d known. I had however once asked both my Grans for a school project ‘what do you remember from the war’ and my Gran wrote me this amazing long letter all about working in the munitions factory & the bombing of Clydebank. Far too detailed and informative for my little school jotter but so interesting and I’m glad now that I had such insights from her since she died recently and was gone with Senile Dementia for such a long time.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    That’s the thing, Glasgow, you have to get what info you have when you can. A cousin of my Mother’s was shot by police and mother sort of told me what happened but it wasn’t until I started transcribing her lifetime of letters received that I found a letter circulated through the family at the time of the funeral that I found out the background. Don’t throw out family letters until you know there’s nothing in them.

  19. Pheeny says:

    Yes Helen I find most period drama productions can be accurately dated because they invariably reflect contemporaneous fashions to a greater or lesser extent – think of all those films from the forties featuring tudor ladies with trowelfuls of lipstick…

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Pheeny, that was exactly the example I had in mind.

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