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How Accurate Should Historical Novels Be?

I have found myself - totally unplanned- the author of four and three-quarters historical novels. One of the major difficulties (for me) has been having to deal with no modern methods of communication. But one adapts. Otherwise, an author writes to propel characters through a plot. This is the main concern - to tell (or, more accurately, to reveal) their story. Historical accuracy comes in at second best.

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Hilary Mantel and the Limits of Historical Accuracy


byJames Forrester


In November 2011, I attended a seminar held at the Institute of Historical Research in London at which various novelists and historians debated historical fiction. One speech particularly sticks in my mind -- partly because it was delivered by perhaps our foremost historical novelist, Hilary Mantel, and partly because I found myself disagreeing with what she had to say.

Mantel was speaking in conjunction with the historian David Loades, who maintained that historians have a responsibility not to misrepresent or 'change' the past. Mantel claimed that novelists have a similar responsibility: she particularly castigated the historical series The Tudorsfor conflating two historical characters into one to simplify the story. And then she went further, saying how novelists have a responsibility to be authentic.

What is the problem with this? To begin with the most obvious point: 'accuracy' is a relative term. One can disprove or undermine so many specific facts about our national history, which was mainly chronicled by propagandists of one form or another. But a more profound problem lies in the entanglement of the past and present in fiction.

As Mantel herself neatly put it: "Journalists always ask: 'how much of this is fact?' -- as if one really could disentangle fact and fiction." I would say that it is effectively all fiction by being presented as a novel. If every supposed 'fact' is given a context which is at least partly fictitious, the whole work becomes fiction.