Tag Archives: historical fiction

Historifiction: Pitfalls and Peaks

Following on Becca’s most recent article, Deense has a few thoughts on historical fiction to share.


For those of us with a passion for history, fiction and cinema can be both a joy and a horror. We watch in frustration as facts are thrown by the wayside in order to provide us with what the writers or directors think is a good story. We are caught squealing with glee at small yet perfectly-realised details. There are often highs and lows in each piece and no one is more critical of anything set in the past than those who’ve studied the era.

Historically based novels and movies has seen something of a renaissance in the past half-dozen years. As with any such genre explosion, a good portion of what gets produced can no more claim to be historical than some of Shakespeare’s histories. “Are they set in the past?” Yes. “Do they use the names of once famous and powerful persons? Yes. Do they adhere to the facts?” That’s where things get interesting.

For the purpose of this ramble, I thought it best to make a distinction between period and historical. I define them thus:

Period: Based in a historical setting (though it may have been contemporary when written), these works focus on fictional characters and events, the historical setting merely acting as a backdrop to their lives. Sarah Waters’ or Jane Austen’s works are excellent examples of period pieces.

Historical: Inspired by and focused upon the lives of actual people and/or actual events, but the interpretation of these people and events may be loose. The purpose of these works is to tell the story of someone who once lived and of whom there exists extant factual record.

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Spies and Lies

Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. And sometimes fiction is the only way to truly understand fact. There is no historical topic that better encapsulates these two seemingly contradictory points than the Cambridge Spy Ring.

The Cambridge Spy Ring – or the Cambridge Five, as it is sometimes called – is one of those strange and fascinating footnotes of history. Its details are not particularly well known – I have spoken to British historians and historians of Communism that have never heard of them. But if you start digging into the history of the early CIA, or MI5, of the network of spies that criss-crossed Europe and America during the Cold War, five names begin to emerge: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Carincross. All five men attended Cambridge University in the 1930s, when fear about Hitler and the possibility of approaching war consumed Britain, the Soviet Union was still displaying a mask of power of benevolence, and intellectuals in the American, European, and British Left were enthralled by the promises of Communism. All, save for Carincross, were from wealthy, well-connected families of the British establishment. All went on to take key positions in British intelligence and government. And all, from the 1930s to the 1950s, acted as agents for the KGB and passed British and American secrets to the sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy Soviet Union.

There’s something we love about spies. From James Bond, to Spooks, to crime show dramas, they fill our popular culture and our imagination. Tales of spies like the Cambridge Five are even more difficult to resist. Not only do they have the appeal of that sneaking, underhand quest for information, but they pose tantalizing questions: what made these men betray their country? How did they go so long unnoticed and undetected? Will we ever know how much they really did, or what they really thought?

It’s the last question that interests me today. In the years since the Soviet Union collapsed and classified Cold War files on both sides of the Atlantic have begun to be released, new information has emerged about the many spies who worked during the Cold War, including the Cambridge Five. But spies lie. They are trained to hide the truth. Double agents and traitors have all the more reason to do so. Even when the spies no longer have fear of being caught – or already have been – what reason do they have to spill secrets they have kept close for decades?

In my mind, this is what makes spy fiction, even about real spies, so intriguing. The tantalizing personalities of the Cambridge Five make fictionalizing their lives and thoughts even more tempting. Burgess’ flamboyance and Blunt’s academic reticence, Philby’s cold-blooded charm and Maclean’s schizophrenic loyalty, even Cairncross’ (poor, forgotten Cairncross) own personal class struggle. The more you know about these men, the more you realize you will never know.

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‘Better than a Wife’: Homosocial Settings in Period Films

Last month there was a bit of brouhaha about a quote Robert Downey Jr. gave to the New York Post about Guy Ritchie’s new Sherlock Holmes film in which he’ll be taking the title role. Speaking of the relationship between Holmes and his famous sidekick Watson (played by Jude Law), he said, “We’re two men who happen to be roommates, wrestle a lot and share a bed. It’s bad-ass.”

The Post was horrified, declaring in a headline, ” ‘Gay’ Sherlock Holmes Could Backfire for Ritchie.” Quoting a former Post movie critic, the page six article declares, “They know that making Holmes and Watson homosexual will take away two-thirds of their box office. Who is going to want to see Downey Jr. and Law make out?”

Putting aside the rampant homophobia in such a statement, the Post seems to have missed Downey Jr.’s point. They probably haven’t been watching very many period films, either. Here’s the truth of the matter that the good people at the New York Post seem to have missed: even without Guy Ritchie at the helm, there are a lot of homosocial shenanigans in your average buddy movie, especially if the movie has a historical setting.

‘Homosocial’ describes settings and relationships in which relations between people of the same gender – sexual or otherwise – play a central part. Think of the housewives gathered in the kitchen in Mad Men, or the camaraderie among the exclusively male characters of Master and Commander. In such settings, (heterosexual) romance seems to take a secondary role and friendships in gender-defined spaces guide the story. These friendships are often as intense and meaningful as the relationships in a more traditional romance.

Though often ignored (or mocked) today, such relationships have historically played an important part in the lives of men and women. A simple historical fact that is often overlooked by the general public is that for much of history, men and women spent a lot of time apart. For most of history and in most societies across the world, men and women had different social roles, different expectations, and different rights.

As one might expect, such gender-segregated relationships and setting appear frequently in historical films, a fact that becomes odder and more, well, quaint as gender and sexuality become more malleable in modern times. Rarely do filmmakers admit to the importance – or the sometimes sexual undertone – of these relationships between men (or between women) as Ritchie, Downey Jr., and Law seem to be, but time and time again, a homosocial ‘society’ stands at the center of historical films. In an attempt to prove that Downey Jr.’s admission about his own historical film is hardly new, here are a few of my favorite examples of such films.

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