Can you define historical truth, or write truthful fiction?

Well that’s a big question that I won’t even try to answer now, but it’s the lead-in to what promises to be a fascinating panel discussion at the Birkbeck Institute on Saturday 6th June: Talking Books “Novel History”.

As one of the editors of Solander, the biannual magazine published by the Historical Novel Society, and above all as a keen reader of historical fiction, the topic is music to my ears or inspiration for my fingers:

As historical fiction enjoys a huge commercial renaissance, this debate will explore how far the changes in the last forty years of historiography means that novelists willing to spend real time in the archives and libraries are now producing a new kind of historical fiction, more accurate and thus more truthful about the past, than the work of their predecessors.

“More accurate … more truthful”?  Which predecessors?  Perhaps they’ve jumped back a decade or so and gone back to the infamous “bodice-rippers” or historical romances of the 1970s and 80s?  Well, truthful is not an adjective I’d apply to many of those books.

Earlier still, Mary Renault may have relied over heavily on Robert Graves as a source, but no one could accuse Georgette Heyer of inaccuracy and her attention to period detail is meticulous.  However,  references books aside – and Georgette Heyer used plenty of those – it is certainly true that the historical novelists of the 90s and Noughties are more likely to have done serious archive research. But as any fiction writer knows, research is a double-edged weapon:  Margaret Elphinstone, whose research process encompasses every imaginable source – from libraries and archives to Icelandic farms, kayaking in Canada, and tide charts around the Isle of Man –  told me once that, having found out the facts and the endless detail, you then had to lay it all aside and write a story!

The panellists on Saturday 6th June include Sarah Dunant, Hilary Mantel, John Sutherland and Joanna Burke.  So  if you’re lucky enough to be able to book a place, let me know what direction the discussion takes?  And what conclusions, if any, the panel reaches?  It’ll be a fascinating afternoon.

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About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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One Response to Can you define historical truth, or write truthful fiction?

  1. Mary Paulson says:

    My historical novel, The Swedish Gypsy, is extensively researched. I had 50 sources, of which 14 were specific to Swedish Gypsies. Research takes a long time, but in the end is worth it to give authenticity to the work.

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