Historical fiction: good literature, bad history?

Saturday 19 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Hammerson Room Literature Wars

‘We really should stop taking historical novelists seriously as historians,’ says David Starkey, the historian. ‘The idea that they have authority is ludicrous.’ On the other hand, ‘All history is in a sense historical fiction,’ says Philippa Gregory, the historical novelist. The conflict between these two partisan views serves to highlight an important dispute, but perhaps also suggests a growing convergence between academic history and historical ‘reconstructions’, so popular in fiction, on television and in film. Historical novels and programmes are now as meticulously researched as any non-fiction history books, although their purpose may be different.

Certainly, it would seem that the public appetite for historical fiction is insatiable. From the psychological explorations of Hilary Mantel to the obsession with Roman history by writers like Robert Harris, Colleen McCullough and Allan Massie, the genre is more popular than it has ever been. Why should this be? And what are the writers trying to achieve? Are these serious attempts to interpret historical events, or projections onto the past of current ideologies and issues? Do writers have a responsibility to make sure historical fact trumps dramatic invention? Above all, should historical fiction be seen as a valid way of approaching historical investigation, or should it be dismissed as ‘mere’ entertainment?

Elizabeth Chadwick
historical novelist; author, The Greatest Knight, To Defy a King

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor, tlfw.co.uk; author, Radical Blake

Paul Lay
editor, History Today

Allan Massie
author, nearly 30 books, including 20 historical novels, including A Question of Loyalties and Dark Summer in Bordeaux; columnist, Spectator

Richard Swan
writer and academic

Produced by
Richard Swan writer and academic
Recommended readings
David Starkey: it is 'ludicrous' to suggest that historical novelists have authority

David Starkey, the historian, has criticised historical novelists ahead of a BBC documentary about Anne Boleyn.

Serena Davies, Telegraph, 11 May 2013

How realistic must we be when writing historical fiction? Victorian San Francisco Mistresses and Maids

I had planned to write about the social structure of Victorian San Francisco when two recent events got me to thinking about the tension historical fiction authors feels between accurately portraying the past and telling a good story.

M. Louisa Locke, mlouisalocke.com, 1 August 2012

When Fictionalized Facts Matter

From 'Anne of the Thousand Days' to Hilary Mantel's new 'Bring Up the Bodies'

Susan Bordo, Chronicle, 6 May 2012

The popularity of historical fiction: Elizabeth Chadwick

Why do readers enjoy historical fiction? Elizabeth Chadwick goes straight to the horse’s mouth by asking readers of historical fiction just that question. The results are interesting, funny, and sometimes unexpected.

Elizabeth Chadwick, , 22 November 2011

The lying art of historical fiction

Judging historical fiction is not as simple as 'accurate equals good' and 'inaccurate equals bad'. It depends on whether the inaccuracies are constructive lies or accidental mistakes

James Forrester, Guardian, 6 August 2010

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