Not all historians hate historical fiction, and many of them are hugely generous towards fiction writers - I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Professor Michael Biddiss, for one, who referred me to several useful texts on Nazi Germany and particularly to the invaluable documentary history of Nazism by J Noakes and G Pridham - so helpful, particularly when I was writing Saving Rafael. However, much as I respect and value historians, I do not need their permission to write my fictions.
The thing is (Doctor Starkey), that a novel set in the past is not an easy-read alternative to a history book (however carefully we do our research, and some of us, notably Dame Hilary, do it very carefully indeed. Indeed Hilary Mantel's work is widely respected by historians). The term historical fiction may perhaps be a tripwire here. We are writers of fiction, and some of us choose to write about historical subjects.That means that we apply our imagination to those subjects, which is what writers do, and of course we go to places (like someone's probable response to a bereavement) that historians must in honesty hold back from.
In exactly the same way, I might write a story about someone, say, who is a teacher in a North of England town. There is no evidence that such a character exists or that any given human being ever behaved exactly as this character did. If I cannot find it, it is not incumbent in me to leave it out, because the job of a writer is to say: 'What if? Supposing?' It is to write a story.
|My grandmother in the '30s|
There's another idea about historical fiction that is popular among the chattering classes, even post Wolf Hall. It is that it is somehow tacky, chocolate-boxy, that the proper enterprise of novelists is to describe the present day (preferably grittily). Now I have no objection to grit, but there was just as much of it around in the past - and indeed there is a whole generation of excellent novels that deal with the undersides of history, some written by fellow-contributors to this blog.
One of my history teachers at school took this line: she said we should avoid historical fictions, which were always misleading and trashy, and concentrate on fiction written at the time we were studying. Maybe she would have liked to have a go at the English literature syllabus and excise such trashy works as Henry IV Part One, (which I studied for A Level). Also, she must have despised such trivial works as War and Peace, Schiller's Maria Stuart, Vanity Fair, all of Shakespeare's History plays, Büchner's Danton's Death, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (which I first saw, incidentally, at Kendal Grammar School with my brother as one of the Women of Canterbury and David Starkey in the star role. The poetry blew me away.)
If the past is another country, it's one that is part of our present. Humans have many means of visiting it and trying to inhabit it; through histories, biography, visiting historical sites, and drama, in which I include the novel. To talk about, mythologise, and speculate on the past is part of what it means to be human, and that makes it a valid subject for literature.