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Let’s not be precious about Napoleon’s distortion of facts - all historians are telling a story

Historical fiction is that canvas, waiting to be smudged and abused until something true emerges

The last decade has seen the emergence of a new global anxiety: the rise of so-called misinformation. Social media; highly editorialised right-wing American cable TV; blustering populists who wield evidence in their favour; and pundits who peddle false narratives for political expediency are all held responsible for the alleged “post-truth era” of the 2010s to now. Of course this is not a new phenomenon: people have lied and interpreted information in creative ways since the dawn of man.

“It will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself,” said Winston Churchill. Emperor Augustus’s Res Gestae (“things wot I done”) has a rather loose relationship with the facts too. For how long have the gods been invoked as a convenient cause of events?

Never mind. A new frontier has opened in this very modern anxiety: historical fiction. It is not a new genre, of course. But thanks to the explosive popularity of Netflix’s The Crown and Ridley Scott’s new biopic of Napoleon, historical fiction has been thrust under the microscope. “There is no ‘artistic licence’ to distort history”, a piece by Simon Jenkins about Napoleon, is headlined in the Guardian; Hugo Vickers, a British journalist, calls The Crown “a complete perversion of history”. The charge seems simple: these scurrilous accounts of the past disregard truth in favour of drama, corrupting the malleable minds of viewers who cannot distinguish between fact and fiction.

On the face of it this seems reasonable. In The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II is visited by the ghost of Princess Diana; the moon landings are cast as a function of Prince Philip’s middle-aged ennui; a totally made-up conversation about the queen’s potential abdication occurs at least once. The show stretches the concept of artistic licence razor thin. And then there’s Napoleon – one scene shows the general’s army firing cannons at the Egyptian pyramids. Thankfully there are enough clever clogs to tell us “that never happened, you know”.


Okay, sure it didn’t happen. But let’s drop this risibly narrow attitude to the genre. In fact, the clue with historical fiction is right there in the name: fiction. Of course Napoleon did not fire cannons at the pyramids, nor was Queen Elizabeth counselled by Diana’s corporeal spirit. But maybe both convey a different sort of truth; access to part of the story that historians could never possibly evidence; maybe “truth” isn’t such a hard and fast thing.

Facts do not actually speak for themselves; they require the historian’s interpretation

First – to suggest that truth can be accessed only via an analogue of chronological events is to diminish the role of the historian. Of course the historian is more concerned with the rectitude of their information than whoever is divining the plot lines of The Crown or the cinematography of Napoleon. But to think historians are immune from editorialising the past would be to gravely misunderstand what they actually do: organise information into a narrative.

When Polybius charted the “meteoric rise of Rome” he did not just list the order of events – that would make his histories a mere diary. Facts do not actually speak for themselves; they require the historian’s interpretation.

But this is simply a modern philosophical conundrum – central to the debate on misinformation – about what is real and what is false. Think about Rothko: his blocky, blurry, monotone canvases do not resemble anything real, so to speak. But the viewer can derive more truth about the world from a Rothko than they could from, say, a photorealistic portrait of a horse. Historical fiction is that canvas, waiting to be smudged and abused until something true emerges. Meanwhile, a photorealistic portrait of a horse is an archive of what a horse looks like, and little more.

So great history is more than accurate technicality. The so-called father of history, Herodotus – with his reputation for gossip, tabloid fascination, gods and omens – has never been taken as seriously as his successor. In contrast, Thucydides is still lauded for his cynicism, caution with the facts, aversion to ideological hypocrisy. In fact, to love Thucydides is to present yourself as an aromantic advocate of Realtpolitik and truth. To endorse Herodotus would make you an unserious person, certainly with a weak grasp on the demands of the historical discipline.

But this is not quite fair. Herodotus is more modern than his rival – his style is cinematic. He oscillates between the sweeping wide shots of Kubrick to the intense character study of the Spielberg close-up. Herodotus might talk about giant fox-sized ants that dig for gold in India and the curious long-tailed sheep of Arabia. And we might quibble for hours about the veracity of the details. But somewhere in his work emerges a moral truth that we do not find in hard-nosed Thucydides: that the world is sometimes complex beyond our understanding; that certainty is a fool’s game; that desire can cloud our judgment.

Perhaps then we can readdress Herodotus’s sobriquet. He is not the father of history but rather the father of historical fiction. If this is the case, then the discipline is a worthy one: fast and loose with the facts but containing truths we could not access otherwise. Maybe The Crown’s strange ghost of Diana is not so silly after all.