I was at the annual veteran’s reunion at Bletchley Park yesterday (2 Sep 2012) and The Bletchley Circle came up in conversation more than a few times. It seems that there are some who are worried that the drama could distort the true story of women codebreakers, and the work of Bletchley Park during World War 2.
To be honest, I don’t have the same concerns. I always have a clear understanding that artistic licence can impact on the representation of fact in the programme I am watching. It doesn’t ruin the programme for me, unless it is so outrageous that I don’t waste my time watching. I personally discovered Bletchley Park through fiction. This was the book Enigma by Robert Harris.
Robert Harris’ amazing novel Enigma, creates an intriguing picture of what it was like to be at Bletchley Park and introduces the reader the complexities of breaking the Enigma code but ultimately, it is a fictional story. The book contains a short disclaimer at the front of the novel:
This novel is set against the background of an actual historical event. The German naval signals quoted in the text are all authentic. The characters are entirely fictional.”
I devoured the book then went on the hunt for the true story. I am testament to the power that fiction has on influencing our historical interests. I also understand that a storyteller must create a balance of fact and fiction as not to change history in the mind of a viewer or reader. Philippa Gregory, the successful novelist most famous for her novel The Other Boleyn Girl, never reads historical fiction:
I find that it can too easily become fact in my mind. I only read historical fact.”
The technique she uses is to work as a historian to gather the facts, then as a novelist create a fictional conversation between two points within the true history, and continuing the process until there is a gripping mix of a historical truth and fictional drama. The Other Boleyn Girl later became a TV drama and a movie.
Philomena Liggons, author of a Footprints – Secret Lives at Bletchley Park, believes that authors do have a duty to accurately portray fact in historical fiction. Philomena is a fiction and non-fiction writer. She is also a Bletchley Park guide and has an in-depth knowledge of how it was used during the war. She has been able to combine fact and fiction to create a story that both educates and entertains her readers.
Footprints is her first published novel and ‘tells a moving story of the lives and time of codebreakers in WW2 as seen through the eyes of about two WRENS based at Bletchley Park‘.
I firmly believe that historical fiction has a duty to portray historical fact. By dove-tailing fact and fiction it gives a writer the abilities to reach a wider audience and bring history to life. Telling the story of historical events through the daily lives of fictitious characters offers the reader the satisfaction of learning about those historical facts whilst, hopefully enjoying a novel at the same time. As in a novel the reader can lose themselves in the period, identify with the characters and use their imaginations to create pictures in their own minds.
For the writer, the opportunities to provide historical fact and report events within a novel are much greater. They can simply tell the story of the event, they can combine research from interviews or memories and channel them through one character; they can drop a single fact into conversation; they can create a reaction in one of their characters and, whilst writing, they too can lose themselves in those corridors of time. They do however have a responsibility to be able to substantiate their research whilst in some way slightly distancing fact from fiction without spoiling the story for the reader.
To my mind, historical fiction provides the thread on which facts can be pegged. It should answer questions; it should educate and should, most certainly be a pleasure to read.”
Fictionalised accounts of history have always courted controversy. In 2011 a mini-series about J.F. Kennedy caused a heated debate, in particular about the interpretation of Kennedy’s life and death. The programme had an unpopular viewpoint that presented Kennedy in a different way to the usual portrayal of him as the ‘American Hero’.
At the time Gareth McLean, writer for the Radio Times was quoted as saying:
Audiences aren’t stupid. I think it’s a little bit patronising to assume that the audience takes everything at face value. They can make up their own minds and if they wan to find out more then they can do a bit of research around the subject.”
The BBC, where the programme was aired in the UK, held a similar view. Sue Deeks, the head of BBC programme acquisition stated:
All historical fiction has a primary duty to engage with a compelling narrative whilst not distorting historical truth. The very best historical drama will inspire the audience to investigate the fact behind the fiction.”
So it appears that where fact in historical fiction is concerned, the general consensus is balance. Fact and fiction can work in harmony, and the audience is given intellectual credit to appreciate that some artistic licence is required to drive a story forward or fill in unknown gaps in our knowledge.
The Bletchley Circle producers have also been keen to stress that the codebreakers in The Bletchley Circle are purely fictional and are not based on the real women who worked at Bletchley Park. Jake Lussington, producer explains that the characters are inspired by the women codebreakers and the show’s characters, Susan, Lucy, Millie & Jean have ‘attributes are ones those women did possess.’
What’s your opinion on the portrayal of fact in historical fiction or your view the portrayal of women codebreakers in The Bletchley Circle? Leave a comment or get in touch.
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