How would you like it if in years to come you were depicted in a film as a debauched, serial womaniser/seductress, who drank neat rum straight from the bottle and squashed pet rabbits for a hobby?
I’m exaggerating a tad, but not that much. I’m thinking of two films currently on in London where our historical Queens Anne, Mary and Elizabeth are portrayed not quite as they or their cohorts may have been.
Film makers are renowned for playing fast and loose with historical fact. In ‘The Favourite’ Queen Anne is shown falling under the spell and influence of two different women at different times – her friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and then her cousin Abigail Hill. So much is fact. But did she really enjoy lesbian relations with both of them? And what about her husband, Prince George of Denmark? Did he not warrant a mention, even if he was dead at the time?
It’s known fact that Mary Queen of Scots did challenge Elizabeth to the throne of England; though whether her husband Henry Darnley was a closet gay who early on in their marriage was found in flagrante delecto with Mary’s court musician David Rizzio (actually her private secretary), again is far from proven fact. (Historically, there was a rumour Rizzio was the father of Mary’s son James.)
Personally, as regards Queen Anne, I far preferred the stage play, written by Helen Edmundson and performed by the RSC a few years ago. (See my review here.) It was entertaining, thought-provoking, moving and informative, and brilliantly performed by its three leading actresses. It also contained its own fair share of debauchery, but it felt a lot closer to the truth.
Which begs the question: why mess with history when the facts are strange enough in themselves?
When it comes to family history facts of course are paramount. I know I’ve added the odd fictionalised scene into my my books, but I’ve also made it perfectly clear (I hope) where I’ve added embellishments to recorded fact. And while I’ve gone over several generations of my Australian family history with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, there are still gaps that I am eager – and hope – to fill. Every so often an exciting snippet of news emerges from an unexpected source that promises to partly fill these gaps. But when I ask where the information came from the answer tends to be along the lines of ‘I read it somewhere’.
Australian Aboriginal history is even more complicated. It tends to be passed down orally from generation to generation of the Aboriginal community. And it’s often at odds with what you might call ‘official’ recorded history; that’s to say history as recorded by white Europeans, and as often as not in newspapers. Some of it is no doubt undisputed fact, though without background knowledge it could be misleading. And you only have to look at certain of our newspapers today to see how adept they are at distorting the news.
So: written history or oral memory? It would be wrong for the family historian to dismiss either of these sources of information completely. The best we can do is try to be as truthful and factual as we can. We owe it to ourselves, and more to the point we owe it to our ancestors. You never know who might make a film of your life one day.