I was a little bit apprehensive about going to see 'The King's Speech'. It had been so highly praised that I feared it couldn't do anything but disappoint. In fact, I loved it. For anyone who hasn't yet seen it, it's beautifully written and incredibly well acted. It illuminates a very particular and specific area of British society - the royal family; but it also explores what it is like for any human being who has to struggle against a profound difficulty or disability - or even a relatively slight one: who among us who has on occasion to speak publically has not felt cripplingly nervous at the thought?
You're presented with the horror of it right at the beginning. Here is a stadium full of people waiting expectantly for a speech from the King's son: a man who suffers from an appalling stutter. He cannot refuse to do it: everyone is waiting. He knows that humiliation awaits: he has no choice but to endure it. Why, he must think, why did I have to live in an era when someone invented the microphone?
I won't go on - there can't be anyone who doesn't by now know the story. The reason I'm writing about it here is because of something my husband said after we'd seen the film. He's a history teacher, and he noted that in fact, Winston Churchill would not have been so prominently involved in the abdication as he was in the film. And it struck me that - in fact - Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth would have been older at the beginning of the war than they appeared to be in the film.
There may be lots of other factual inaccuracies or grey areas - I don't know. But it made me think - does it matter? I write historical fiction. I spend a ridiculous amount of time researching, but I'm not a historian so I generally start from a position of profound ignorance. I try to check facts which seem to me important - but then I make up conversations, I ascribe thoughts and motives, I imagine how that place looked, at that time, to that person; how this one felt, what that one dreamed. I imagine these things - I don't know them. I have written about real people: in Warrior King, I was writing about Alfred, a Dark Age king. I found out a lot, but there was a point at which I realised that some very basic stuff - how old he was when his mother died, how his brothers died, for example - was shrouded in mystery. I contacted an academic historian, who cheerfully reassured me that as it was all in the Dark Ages I could really make up what I wanted - and I did. And I think that's okay.
But is it okay when you're writing a book or a film about people who are still alive, or only recently dead? I felt uneasy after I'd seen the film about the founder of Facebook, The Social Contract. It had a very clear narrative, which was not complimentary to the young man at the centre of it. And he is still young - very young. How must it be for him to see writ large this version of his own life?
Is it enough for us to say - well, everyone knows it's fiction? Isn't it natural for all of us to assume that if we see something or read something, it's largely true? - even for picky individuals like me, who always want to know what the evidence is?
I don't know. I really don't. It's not going to stop me writing historical fiction, or reading it - to me, it's such a brilliant way to explore the worlds of the past. But - what do you think? Am I right to feel just a little bit uneasy about what I'm doing with the truth?