Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mixing Fact and Fiction: The Devil's Whore


Last night I watched a miniseries set in the English Civil War that was broadcast by Britain's Channel 4 last November. I picked up a copy of the DVD in the airport while waiting for my plane back to New York. I'm fortunate to have a region-free DVD player which means that I can play English DVD's as well as American (for some reason Europe has a different system than we do). I had planned to write about the miniseries as part of my reviewing of fictional Scandalous Women but instead I've decided to write about mixing historical fact and fiction, something that crops up a lot while watching movies and TV films based on historical scandalous women.

The story revolves Angelica Fanshawe (who is fictitious) in the years 1623 when she is born until the restoration of Charles II. When Angelica is small, her mother who is Catholic decides to go to France to become a nun, leaving Angelica to the care of her cousin's family. As the boat is leaving, Angelica declares that she no longer believes in God, and she sees the Devil standing on a branch of a tree. When she is sixteen, she marries her cousin Henry who is the heir to Fanshawe manor. On her wedding day, Elizabeth Lilburne begs her to ask the King to pardon her husband John Lilburne who is being flogged within an inch of his life for his radical views. Angelica declines to intervene.

Her marriage to her cousin Harry is not smooth. Angelica has opinions which her husband does not like, and he treats her coldly for being enthusiastic in the marriage bed. When the Civil War breaks out, Harry offers his manor up to the enemy without a fight which leads to the King ordering his death by firing squad. This leaves Angelica feeling betrayed by the King, and disenchanted with the royalist cause. After her husband's death, she is left penniless and alone. She is taken in by a merchant who buys her dinner but wants sex in exchange. Angelica threatens him and when he doesn't take her warning seriously, she stabs him to death, leading his friend Jollife seeking revenge for his death. Sexby rescues her from being attacked in the woods.

She becomes involved with Thomas Rainsborough when the Roundheads occupy her families manor house, and they fall in love and are married. Unfortunately Rainsborough is assassinated leaving Angelica a widow for the second time. A friend, Edward Sexby offers to marry her, although Angelica no longer wants to be married. She wants her freedom. However there is a war on and marriage will protect her as she goes back to live at the manor house which has no been given to the Dissenters.

Sexby is in love with her but she tells him that she will never love him. She gets involved with another one of the dissenters who is actually being paid by Jollife to get Angelica arrested for indecency and promiscuity. Sexby again rescues her and this time she is willing to allow herself to love him. Unfortunately Sexby has been disallusioned by his good friend Cromwell who he suspects of ordering the death of Rainsborough. He was also disgusted by Cromwell's actions in Ireland and the idea that Cromwell might become King. He decides to take matters into his own hands and assassinate Cromwell, however he is betrayed and commits suicide when he realizes his plan has been foiled.

The miniseries ends with Angelica giving birth to Sexby's daughter and living to see the restoration of Charles II.

The Devil's Whore is sub-titled the 'true adventures of Angelica Fanshawe.' However Angelica is fictional although the majority of characters in the miniseries that she mixes with are not. My biggest problem with this story is that she marries real life historical characters. This may sound hypocritical. I have no problem with fictional characters sleeping with historical figures known to be particularly promiscuous such as Charles II, Byron, Edward VII, George IV, Alexandre Dumas, etc. But having fictional characters marry real life historical characters is going to far.

The other big problem is even though the miniseries is called The Devil's Whore, there is nothing particularly outrageous or scandalous about Angelica. She's actually quite boring compared to the real life historical figures she mixes with. Elizabeth Lilburne, who spent her life helping her husband John Lilburne with his causes, and who fought like a demon to have him set free during his imprisonment, is a more interesting figure than Angelica. Angelica seems to have no opinions of her own, she takes on the opinions of the men that she's involved with. Compared to real life women Brilliana Harley who defended her home Brampton Bryan Castle for seven weeks against the Royalist, Angelica really does nothing much of note during the miniseries.

One of the writers Martine Brant is married to a man who is descended from Lady Anne Fanshawe, the wife of King Charles I's Chancellor, who wrote a diary about this period. I would rather the miniseries be based on one the actual women who lived during the Civil War than this hodge podge that was created. When Peter Flannery was asked if he was worried that people will take their history from the miniseries, he was quoted as saying that people don't take Gone with the Wind as fact about the American Civil War, which is true but at least Margaret Mitchell didn't have Scarlett O'Hara involved with Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee.

The saving grace of the miniseries was that it was set during the English Civil War which is a neglected period in English history. I found the men in the series to be the most compelling characters, particularly Cromwell, who fought so hard against the royalists, only to end up not having achieving what he set out to accomplish when he becomes Lord Protector of England, in defacto King but without the title.

Unfortunatley I don't know when or if this miniseries will ever be available in America. If you are lucky enough to find it on You Tube, I would watch it simply for the story of the English Civil War.

10 comments:

dave hambidge said...

Hello mrs boss lady. Thankyou for having the courage to tackle what is a very important subject for fiction writes of any era and style. Namely how far can one mould the accepted known historical facts before creating historical friction.

I totally support your comment, "But having fictional characters marry real life historical characters is going to far."

If the author wishes or needs or has to 'sexup' a tale to get publicity or a contract for their work, non-conjugal frolicking by minor characters is more honest. And less likely to lead the reader to the wrong conclusion about a known figure.

The great strength of such "mini-series" is that the bring the past to life is in a very memorable way that written words probably never will. Well crafted and filmed accounts stick with the viewer, so the author has a great responsibility to preserve the facts they are inculcating into their audience.

If they break with that faith and overbend matters the author is guilty of dishonesty, IMHO.

End of rant.

dave

TammiMagee said...

I live in England but have to admit that I missed this miniseries-but I would actually quite like to see it. I wondered if you could take a look at my first post about Georgiana duchess of devonshire and let me know what you think? I'm always worried that my posts are dull. :)

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'd be happy to Tammi. I loved your posts on Jennie Jerome.

Actually, I picked up my copy of The Devil's Whore at HMV in the airport. It was about 17 pounds. I had seen it advertised on the tube.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks, Dave. My point exactly. I love historical miniseries precisely because if they are well done, they provoke thought and might actually get someone to pick up a book to read more. I object when they change facts and people to sex things up which is why The Tudors gives me agita.

Shovelhead said...

I realize this old but the series is new to me. I am always interested in the history of England as it applies the various times it committed atrocties against my religion and my ancestors. Both Irish and Catholic.

I dont think she was an instrument of sex but an instrument that is a constant in film, literature plays she was the woman that gets the man to tell his story. Men dont tell each their deep secrets but we tell them to women.

That is her part in the story. I always find it interesting how people prattle on about historical inaccuracies but will overlook the accuracy of how English for centuries has butchered their way around the globe. It is true the victory writes the history. Nazis were evil, japanese indeed evil but England has done its share of absolute butchery.

I enjoyed how she alone pointed out some of the savagery. That alone makes her a great character


alfredtheo said...

A useful comment, thanks ELIZABETH KERRI MAHON. The series is now available on Netflix. I enjoyed it and agree with much of what you have said especially about this being "a neglected period in English history"

Sean-Edward Hall said...

I just watched the American DVD release of this series ridiculously title "The Devil's Mistress". We can't put "Whore" in the title here...lol. I was none too happy to find this "true account" was NOT true...lol. I found your blog when I googled historical inaccuracies regarding the series. I agree whole-heartedly that it goes way too far to have a fictional character so HEAVILY entwined with real people. Now, if there is a mysterious person that appears mentioned in history, its fun to romanticize or fictionalize that person and how the relationships "might" have been. But to completely create someone and put them in direct connection. Frustrating!!!

Heather said...

This miniseries was aired again recently, which I recorded and started watching tonight. Thank you for letting me know Angelica Fanshawe is not a real person. And I absolutely agree that the male characters are far more compelling. As I was watching I turned to my daughter and said, "Don't get me wrong, I like this. But I didn't think it was going to be about war so much." Still, I am learning a little about England's civil wars which I haven't had a chance to study before.

Daniel Hewitt said...

I think some of you may be missing the point a little here by focusing too much on what is and isn't historically accurate. The series re-creates or interprets the texture of the period, in a similar way that a painting may help to illuminate certain truths, moods or feelings by accenuating or altering representational reality, sometimes not entitely consciously on the part of the creator. If we can take it as given that this series is a piece of art, or at least an art-form and a creative work, then we allow ourselves the freedom to accept that the interpretation of, for example, superstition and religion in the series, may be just as important in illuminating this period of history in terms of the way people of the time thought and felt, and therefore may help contribute to a broader understanding of our culture and collective history as a whole, just as much as historical fact, which is well served by text books.

Pentopaper said...

Shovelhead you are an uneducated idiot. To compare 1600's England to Nazi's of 60 years ago is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

Don't get me wrong I am also RC however, the atrocities my own religion has committed in the past makes my stomach turn. All cultures especially those as old as the English (we were also constantly pillaged throughout history) have quite often a violent past. Next you will be telling me Brave Heart was about an innocent orphan.

Point of interest the Irish have also had a somewhat shady and very recent past.