Altering the Truth

There is storytelling and there is revision. The former means entwining actual events with fictional characters, and the latter includes rearranging fictional facts to suit your agenda. As a writer, I’m caught between admiration for those who do it well and horror for those who change things too much. I’m also uncertain whether or not it is disrespectful to do whatever you like with an actual historical figure or literary character.

Recently, monster mash-up books have become popular. I’m sure you have seen them. Queen Victoria and her court full of werewolves, Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter, and so forth. Then you have the literary assault in which Jane Eyre dispatches zombies whilst hungering for the love of Edward Rochester, or Colonel Brandon just happens to be a … sea monster? These kinds of books both amuse and offend me, because as an author it seems disrespectful to take someone else’s book and rewrite it full of zombies, vampires, werewolves, and other heinous creatures. But on the other hand, no one will ever believe the story; particularly that a young Honest Abe spent his nights hunting down bloodsucking fiends.

But what about the more subtle changes to history that we see rampant in our culture today? What about Philippa Gregory’s inferences that Anne Boleyn was guilty of every charge put against her? What about the conclusions that such television series as The Tudors draw? (Anne Boleyn was a schemer, Sir Thomas More burned people at the stake, and Catherine Howard was a slut. Historians do not agree with their representation of the facts. Anne wanted nothing to do with Henry at first, Thomas More never set a pyre aflame, and Catherine Howard may have been innocent of nothing more than love letters.) How about the subtleties of the John Adams miniseries, which manages to leave out the faith of the Founding Fathers while hinting (without coming out and saying it) that Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings? Or the film Anonymous which tarnishes Elizabeth I’s reputation while stating that Shakespeare did not write his plays? Did you know James Cameron’s Titanic distorts facts? It casts the heroic actions of White Star Line officers in a dastardly light and claims that third class passengers were locked below. None of that is the truth.

Some are wise enough to know that anything on screen, no matter how historically accurate, is fiction… but really, it is just an indication of our culture’s lack of interest in the truth. We are so surrounded by lies that we do not even seek out the truth, and have come to believe whatever we are told, without consideration of the source and their agenda.

What many do not realize is that “fiction” does not end in films or novels. Revisionist history pervades our history books and taints our view of historical figures. It casts doubt on the actions of honorable men, and strives to convince us that many were hypocrites. Most would claim that the majority of the Founding Fathers were deists. It isn’t true. More than half of them were ordained ministers. The only two that were not overtly religious were Jefferson and Franklin, and not only were both far more religious than you might think, neither of them fit a deistic viewpoint. (Franklin believed in the power of prayer and asked for it regularly in Congress. Deists do not believe prayer works, since in their view, God merely set the world in motion and then sat back to watch.) If secular society is to be believed, Jefferson pushed mightily for the separation of church and state. (This is also not true; he mentioned that separation as a reassurance to a minister that the government would not interfere in his congregation.) If Jefferson was so dead set against faith in government, how do they explain him using government funds to send missionaries to the Indian tribes?

Our society has an agenda that involves removing the truth and replacing it with fiction. The tragedy is that they have succeeded. Even Christians now believe their lies about the Founders, and it reflects on our view of the Church as well. We are ashamed of some of the more notable founders of the faith throughout history, and have been trained to call them “legalistic” and “fundamentalist” while separating ourselves from the truths they embraced. What are our thoughts on the Crusades? What were their true purpose? Did you know pastors put a stop to the burning of witches? All we ever see is fear-driven ministers lighting the pyre, not preaching against it.

Have we become a culture that denies the truth in favor of lies? Have we as Christians assimilated into this culture and allowed its influence to warp our perspective? I think so. And that is the saddest thing of all.

8 Replies to “Altering the Truth”

  1. I usually like your posts, but I have to say that I find fault with some of what you are written…

    Catherine Howard was a slut. (Historians do not agree with their representation of the facts. …Catherine Howard may have been innocent of nothing more than love letters.) Actually historians generally believe that she was a slut; there was evidence from people close to her that had suspected she not been a virgin upon her wedding to King Henry VIII and that she was having an affair during the course of her marriage to the king (which many would not blame her for considering her age at the time and the age of the King), but most historians look at the manner in which she was raised, virtually left to her own devices in her the house of her Step-Grandmother…could have been taken advantage of by members of the staff (who knows), as to the cause of her behavior. But regardless, it is generally believed she was not faithful to Henry before or during the marriage.

    How about the subtleties of the John Adams miniseries, which manages to leave out the faith of the Founding Fathers while hinting (without coming out and saying it) that Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings?

    Last time I checked…Jefferson having a relationship with Sally Hemings is fact and DNA testing her descendents haven proved it to be so.

    1. There is no doubt that Catherine Howard was sexually promiscuous prior to her marriage to King Henry… but there is indeed some doubt among scholars as to whether or not she ever actually had sexual relations with Culpeper.

      As for your assumptions about Thomas Jefferson — no, it is not fact. It is “told” as fact, but the DNA evidence proves only that the children are from A Jefferson — not that they are Thomas Jefferson’s children. Documentation proves he was nowhere near Sally Hemings on several occasions in which she became pregnant, and in other instances, there are letters from doctors documenting how physically ill he was — bedridden with incredible migraines, I doubt he was much in the mood for sexing up the maid.

      You may want to read William Hyland’s book “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson.” You may be surprised how much all the historical evidence actually disproves the popular myth, as well as where the myth started — with a journalist furious that Jefferson denied him a place in the cabinet. Hmm, smells like revenge to me.

  2. I read The Other Boelyn Girl and loved it as a fictional book. However, I take issue with the author fancying herself an historian and attempting to rewrite history.

    It hasn’t been proven, but it is most likely true that Anne was YOUNGER than both of her siblings. The story is helped along if Anne is made the eldest, but Phillipa Gregory cannot honestly think that because she wants something to be, it is.

    1. I think her insistance that her books are historically accurate is what bothers me the most about her. It’s one thing to write a book and then say “it’s BASED ON history, but fictionalized,” and another to act like you discovered these characters, and you wrote a completely accurate book about their life!

  3. Every time I see those “mash-up” books at the book store, I just shake my head at them. Despite my “disgust” of them (never read one though), they do make me smile.

    Great post, Charity.

    1. Read one sometime. You will feel like gouging out your eyes and gagging — all at the same time. It’s a magnificent feeling that I think everyone should experience at least once in their life. 😉

  4. Fabulous post Charity! I grew up admiring the faith of the founding fathers, but my view was tarnished when I was assured that most of them were deists. I am glad to see that my original history books didn’t lie. 🙂

    1. No, your origial history books were right. In fact, it has only been since the 1950’s that revionistic history has taken hold. The horror of it is that so much that is speculation or were original smear campaigns (such as the alligations against Jefferson and Hemings) have been taken as fact, when there is no proof and tons of evidence against them.

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