Let’s get History right

A few weeks ago, on a rare evening with time on my hands, I sat down to watch an episode of a long-running CBC TV series that I had heard about but never seen. The series is The Murdoch Mysteries, it has been running for years, and in the space of less than ten minutes I assessed it and rejected it as an insulting waste of time and money on the part of everyone involved.

The episode I had selected was set in the Yukon during the gold rush of 1896-99 and featured a singularly attractive, well-groomed, squeaky-clean and immaculately dressed hero—a private detective—operating under cover as the representative of a pair of beautiful, highly competent and stylishly elegant young women who, between them, apparently ran the entire pathology department of the metropolitan Toronto police agencies.

I know there are people out there who will take offence and be outraged by what I have to say on this topic, but hey! This is the arena within which I earn my salt and the accuracy of the “historical” part of historical fiction is viscerally important to me. I found this particular teleplay offensive (and remember I saw only part of one episode) because it was blatantly, outrageously inaccurate on too many levels to count, and it forced me to think, yet again, about glaringly revisionist history and the sickeningly cute way “entertainment” producers today simply ignore historical reality.

Does that make me a snob or a prig? It might, and it probably does in the eyes of some people, but I don’t care. I have strong feelings about what’s right and what’s wrong in how we portray the past and I do not believe it serves any purpose other than willful deception and laziness to make everything “old” conform to today’s expectations.

Let’s start with hygiene and clothing. Take a look at any photograph, from any source, of real people from the Yukon gold rush era, either at the mining sites in the north west or in the streets of 1890s Toronto. Does anything in there look familiar in today’s reality? Do you see sets of gleaming, orthodontically-perfected teeth, 21st-century hairstyles, airbrushed complexions or perfectly pressed and tailored workaday clothes? Is there any visible evidence, in any of them, of modern cosmetics or even soap-scrubbed, fresh-faced cleanliness? Of course not. But you’ll see all of those things in the 1890s-era Toronto of the CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries, though you might be unlikely to notice them if you actually buy into the notion of the rigid, unyieldingly masculine Victorian Establishment of the 1890s being directed, manipulated and generally dominated by a highly talented and stunningly attractive duo of female pathologists, stylishly garbed and gowned by 21st-century dress designers and hot- and cold-running makeup artists.

Authenticity can be hugely well done when period specific period detail is accurate and painstakingly researched—witness magnificent American productions like Deadwood, Hell On Wheels, and Lonesome Dove—but CBC plainly doesn’t get it, which is unfortunately predictable to too many people.

The whole thing reminds of me of a mini-war I once had with a young, bright-eyed, idealistic editor who took issue with a scene in one of my novels. She had come up through the ranks of post-feminist Canadian academia and had strong opinions on all things feminine that I perceived (at first) as being amusing and provocative. I changed ‘provocative’ to ‘radical’ when she and I crossed swords over revisionism.

One of my protagonists, in one specific scene in a novel called The Eagles’ Brood, had been deliberately lured into a deadly trap by a couple of loose women and survived thanks only to an eleventh-hour rescue by his cousin. When the fighting is over and the cousins are surveying the wreckage of the roadside thieves’ den later, prior to setting it ablaze, they discover the two female miscreants hiding nude among the debris and chase them out and away to safety. But when one of the women attempts to snatch up her discarded clothing, Uther, the man she had endangered, smacks her across the rump with the flat of his sword and sends her scampering out, naked and uncontrite but alive.

That horrified and appalled my wide-eyed young editor. “You can’t do that,” she gasped. “You can’t make Uther a misogynist. Women will refuse to read the book.”

The sad part is that she was absolutely convinced that she was correct, and she was adamant that I should rewrite the entire scene to show Uther in a gentler, kinder light. And even when I pointed out, succinctly ( and believe me on that adverb), that Uther Pendragon was a 5th-century Celtic warlord who had no concept of human rights, and the woman was lucky to have escaped with her head intact, she remain unconvinced. She knew how things are supposed to be, today; she had absolutely no understanding, and no desire to acknowledge the reality, of how things had been prior to the emergence of the militant feminist movement of the 1960s. That changed, though, and quite rapidly, and she is one of my favourite editors today, but I somehow suspect she enjoys telling people about the vagaries of working with a living dinosaur.