Why I no longer read historical fiction

I read a lot of historical novels both as a child and as a young adult. I still have my copies of books by Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, Ronald Welch and others. I also devoured Jean Plaidy’s historical romances (and once heard a fellow medievalist admit in a paper on Edward IV and masculinity that she’d been heavily influenced by reading her at an impressionable age). Yet now in my limited fiction reading I deliberately shy away from historical novels and find many that I do glance at unreadable.

Before I talk more about my changing relationship to historical fiction I should make two things clear. One is that I am a failed historical novelist. I originally took up researching the early Middle Ages so I could write Charlemagne the Novel. (Actually it was to be called ‘Our Emperor Charlemagne’, after a line in Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of the Song of Roland). After a while I realised that I enjoyed the researching more than the novel writing, and I was rather better at it, and so managed to sneak my way onto a MPhil course. (The rest is research history). So if I criticise historical novels, it is not with any sense of superiority or illusion that they’re easy to write. Secondly, I’m talking largely about novels set in a realistic pre-nineteenth century past. There have been some wonderful books which have been deliberately anachronistic about historical periods (two personal favourites are No Bed for Bacon and Pyrates. And novels set in a relatively recent past (roughly the last 200 years) not only have the benefit of far more sources to draw on, but also have a subtly different relationship to these sources, because there are contemporary novels from their period. Many historical novels set in the Victorian era, for example, are consciously writing stories that Victorian novelists did not or could not write. I can still read such ‘modern’ historical novels with enjoyment.

Most serious historical fiction set in an earlier period, however, now makes me uncomfortable, and has done so increasingly as my historical sense has increased. The problem for me is anachronism, but it’s not predominantly the simple errors of ancient Romans having clocks. The two things I find suspension of disbelief killers are anachronisms in dialogue and social attitudes. (I therefore do not even try to watch historical movies, since I know it’ll be painful).

I think I gained my sensitivity to dialogue from writing it myself and learning in that way what sounded authentic while still being readable. I also learned that while it’s hard enough to write contemporary dialogue, it’s substantially harder to write historical speech and gets more difficult the further back in time you go. That’s a combination of individual words and phrases becoming anachronistic (I had to think hard about whether I could use a term such as ‘automatic’ in a largely pre-mechanised age), and a lack of sources for historical registers of speech. Before Shakespeare (and to a lesser extent Chaucer) we have very little sense of how a peasant might speak as opposed to a noble, or how a child would address their parents. (I once abandoned a novel on Arthurian Britain at an early stage, because the young Guinevere referred to her ‘mama’, and I couldn’t get past the twee eighteenth century image this produced). Such informal speech (how medieval people talked to their servants, how they swore, what jokes they told) is vital to a sense of characters as real people, but not easily gained via texts such as Beowulf. One of the few things more painful than reading medieval characters say: ‘You mustn’t let this get you down’, is having them say: ‘Zounds, my lord, tis twelve of the clock, I must away betimes’.

Even if a novelist can find a ‘neutral’ tone for writing dialogue, however, it’s still hard for them to avoid their characters having anachronistic social attitudes. While I once read and enjoyed the historical works of Nigel Tranter, for example, I now find his moderate, reasonable, enlightened young men stick out like a sore thumb in medieval Scotland. Oddly, I think that portraying attitudes accurately is something that’s become harder for authors recently, since the 1960s. It may have been easier for female authors raised before feminism to portray naturally a world in which female subordination was taken for granted, just as one of the most authentic portraits of Victorian imperialism was written by George MacDonald Fraser, who clearly shared many of the period’s reactionary views. In contrast, political correctness, which I approve of as a modern phenomenon, is one of the great curses of the historical novel. Most people in the past had views about women, the poor and other races that we’d find offensive today: a good novelist must find a way round this, rather than turning his or her heroes and heroines into liberals before their time.

Anachronism in mental attitudes is also why I’m particularly wary of the historical detective novel as a genre, even though I enjoy detective stories. Detection (or at least its explanation) seems to me to require a style of practical, logical thought that sources rarely show for most periods. I can imagine a medieval man, for example, being able to know that someone was not killed with the weapon suspected, but not explaining in the logical way that a detective plot requires how he knows that. And the detective story as a concept does not really make sense in the 95%+ of historical societies in which it does not actually matter whether the wrong person is found guilty as long as it’s someone unimportant.

Professionally as well, I now find even the best of historical novels problematic, the ones that can manage the immense task of feeling right. At one level, it’s the basic issue that they’re not true (or at least not true in some key moments), and as historians we are trained to be wary about the danger of making things up. But perhaps a more subtle difficulty is that historical novels tend to make the past more coherent than it really is. (This is a particular issue for people like myself who know historical novels can be an effective gateway drug to hardcore historical study). Historical novels (and even more novels set in prehistoric times) tell us things we can never learn from the sources: they awake in us a desire for knowledge that we cannot ever obtain: did Elizabeth I have a sex life? What did the people of Skara Brae think about? Most historical novels also have consistent characters and plots: they make sense in some deep way. In contrast, our fragmented sources and the real-life inconsistencies of historical figures often don’t form a good narrative. The very skill of successful historical novelists can make the history on which they depend seem thin and unsatisfying in contrast. Historians do not mostly aim to own their readers in the way a novelist might: nor, I think, should they aspire to. But is evidence and a strictly controlled imagination (I now have a whole professional vocabulary of qualifying how secure I think my conclusions are) enough to please those who have experienced the visceral thrill of being sucked into a historical novel?

There are a few historical novelists, who I discovered before I became a historian, who I can still read happily today: Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Dunnett, for example. Maybe there are some others who I ought to discover, but I suspect that my eye and ear has now become too critical to enjoy the vast majority of historical novels. It is a loss to me of one former pleasure, but still I would, on the whole, rather have the Charlemagne of the sources than any Charlemagne of my own fictional construction.


30 thoughts on “Why I no longer read historical fiction

  1. Hear hear! You have very aptly described my experience with historical fiction as well. I too was drawn to study medieval history because of my love of historical fiction. I haven’t actually tried to write fiction since I began my studies, but I am constantly mulling the idea in the back of my head. But I can’t stand to read the stuff any more. It’s a sad loss for me, because historical fiction used to be one of my favorite passtimes, but like you, I’d rather have all the knowledge that makes those books so hard to read.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the biggest problem is that modern authors fail to understand or convey medieval mental attitudes, so the characters act modern despite being in medieval situations. Even worse is when they continue to act medieval, while their thoughts are still very modern – I have yet to find a believable religious character in a historical fiction novel.

    I thought John Hatcher did a good job in “The Black Death: A Personal History” of writing a story with sources, but I don’t think the storyline was quite “novelish” enough to appeal to most audiences, and I’m still not sure the religious attitudes were really explained very well. I keep hoping that some day there will be a good synthesis between novel and research, but I’m not holding my breath.


    • Simon Schama’s Citizens is somewhere in there, I suspect. The secondary problem of all this, however, is that if it’s so hard for us to think medievally, what chance has a writer who manages it of finding a contemporary readership who can identify with the characters?


  2. All these points you raise are issues I struggle with as a novelist. I can’t call a flower ‘monkshood’ in early 7th C Deira. I’m wary of using the term ‘explosive’. Etc. But eventually word choice is just a discipline. Internal attitudes are another game altogether. An enormous challenge.

    Question: how did you get on with Eco’s Name of the Rose? Also, how do you feel about historical-ish fantasy?


  3. What an interesting and intriguing post. I have spoken to other historians who feel the same way. As a historical novelist writing about the 11th century I found myself at first questioning, “What would a historian think of this character/action/attitude/plot development?” I finally realized that I could not write a book for historians, for the very reasons that you have so beautifully expressed. I am writing fiction, based on historical events and characters, yes, but nevertheless, fiction. For many historians, that mindset of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ is just too far out of reach. They know too much.

    Novelists must be storytellers, first and foremost, yet a story without emotional impact is just a recitation of events. So as a writer I am trying to portray human emotions, which I think were probably the same in the 11th century as they are today. Yes, attitudes will be different, and I grapple with that all the time. But don’t you think that human emotion is the same throughout the ages? If I can understand and appreciate what motivates the characters in the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, isn’t the opposite likely to be true, in spite of language, customs and world view? (Would Shakespeare appreciate Hemmingway? Why not?) It’s the human factor that is important in a story. At least, that’s the assumption that I’m working under. Can we be completely true to another historical period? No. I’m not even sure historians could do that, although they can probably get closer than a novelist. If I want history, I’ll read Pauline Stafford. If I want a good story, give me Dorothy Dunnet.


  4. Briefly: as a historian, I have some of the same problems you do with historical fiction, but my reaction is different. I enjoy reading it in part – aside from general good writing, interesting characters, intriguing plot, etc. – to see what they make of the place/period, how they deal with the problems you raise. Even when they fail, the best of them fail in interesting ways.

    They force me back into thinking: “Just why doesn’t that work? What is the exact problem – the “fact” that’s wrong, the attitude that rings false? How might someone else – me?!? – have handled that? Could it be fixed?” And this process can be salutary.

    I think of this situation in something like the way I think of movie adaptations of good novels, or attempts to turn a great play into an opera(e.g., Verdi’s Otello). There’s (almost?) always something the adapters leave out or get wrong, but I value, and generally enjoy, the effort anyway.


  5. I just try to stick to the better novels 🙂 More seriously, I find myself more able to read historical novels when I know less about the period, and also find the anachronistic attitudes to be the most difficult part. I do love Sutcliffe, Treece, et al., and love even more authors like Joan Aiken, who re-write history in such interesting ways.

    I was on a panel at Kalamazoo several years back, where we discussed medievalism in YA fiction, which ended up causing more discussion in YA circles than in medieval ones. One of the books we discussed was Catherine, Called Birdy, which I hated because of the attempts to use ‘authentic’ language and the main character’s attempts to avoid marriage as if she were a 20th C 14 year-old. But I quite liked some of the other books, which appropriated medievalisms without actually being medieval.


  6. Those wacky YA authors; they’ll talk about anything 🙂

    It would be interesting to see how many scholars of history were turned onto their study by historical fiction. (An astonishing number of scientists found their love of their work through reading SF.)


  7. This was the worst of Kingdom of Heaven’s many sins, for me. It wasn’t just that the events were wrong or people mischaracterised, but that the sentiments expressed by Balian at the end had zilch to do with any medieval sentiment whatsoever. Of course, I’m sure they made every effort to get the look of the belt buckles accurate.

    I used to be of the ‘it doesn’t matter that bits of this are wrong because everyone knows it’s fictionalised’ opinion. But one time I was talking to someone about how much I enjoyed the movie Elizabeth, to which the person responded, “Yes – you really understood how she must have felt.” It was at that moment I realised that lay audiences may know in theory that what they’re watching is parly fictionalised, but because they don’t know which parts, it makes no practical difference to how much they’re misled about history. I now have some tolerance for historical fiction with fictional characters, but absolutely none for that which pretends to use real ones. The latter is only useful for mocking in lectures to get the students to understand, through the conscious confrontation with anachronism, how different the past “actually was”.


  8. Thanks very much for all the comments: I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond (I’ve been having computer problems and relatives staying). I think Pat is probably right in concluding that novelists can’t please most historians most of the time. Regardless of how good you are, you’re still trying to produce an illusion, and that goes counter to how medievalists, in particular, increasingly think and work.

    I also think we need to take more seriously the converse of this: historians ought not to try to be novelists. Contrary to Morgan’s view, I don’t think we should be trying to synthesize research and the novel. I think we’re more likely to end up with the faults of both than the virtues of both. (There’s a new review of John Hatcher’s book on the Black Death in the latest issue of English Historical Review (124), August 2009, 940-942 by Samuel K. Cohn that compares his story telling skills unfavourably to Ken Follett’s World without end). Pat’s mention of Pauline Stafford reminds me of a recent contrast. At Leeds this year, I heard Pauline give a paper about Aethelred II’s daughters that was a virtuoso piece of historical research (and appreciated at such by the audience). She showed how you could combine scraps of information to build up a picture about what these women’s lives might have been and their possible political role, all the while making plain how limited the sources and how delicate her conjectures were. I could imagine a really good historical novelist using their imagination to write an enthralling book about the daughters, but it simply wouldn’t be the same type of object as Pauline’s paper.

    In the same way, the frequent complaints that medievalists don’t do more great narrative histories tend to be confusing literary style and historical accuracy. The only way you can produce a substantial narrative for any events between the first century BC and the fourteenth century is by relying fairly uncritically on classical and medieval accounts. (I’d place the limits at that because with late Republican Roman letters and with late medieval private letter collections and inquisition documents you start getting a few non-narrative sources from which you can create your own narrative). You can create something of great readability, but only by taking medieval narratives at more or less their face value, and ignoring all the questions we’ve learned to ask over the last forty years about why somebody wrote a particular text. And although I haven’t read Simon Schama’s Citizens, I find much of his other work too prone to claim his conjectures as simple fact.

    I do think, however, that blogs potentially offer one way of historians producing a more informal kind of history, that can be used for experiments in story-telling. If a reader wants to know about the evidence, they can simply ask the blogger for more details (or you could even have a separate post giving the source background).

    What the discussion also shows is that historians need to take historical fiction more seriously. It’s easy for historians just to dismiss it, but there’s is a tradition of historical fiction (using real characters too!) which goes back to Shakespeare. It’s not going to go away, and a lot of historians (like myself) have been drawn into historical study by it. I think we historians need to value good examples of historical fiction more, even while stressing that such works are not trying to do the same thing as historical research and trying to avoid blurring the distinction. I also think that novelists who have done some kind of original historical research (or come up with new historical conjectures) should be encouraged to present them as such, or at least discuss them with historians, rather than simply incorporate them in fictional works.

    A few specific responses to comments:

    Morgan and Pat: I’ll talk a bit more about medieval religious attitudes and emotions in my next post.

    Nicola: I read Name of the Rose a long time ago, before I became a historian, and as a librarian, was so traumatised by the ending that I haven’t re-read it much since :-). But I read Eco’s Baudolino recently and found it technically astounding, and the narrative voice convincing (even though no medieval person actually wrote like that). I think that non-medievalists have been fairly scathing in the reviews, however, because of its peculiar plot.

    William of Baskerville, meanwhile, is one of the rare exceptions of a plausible medieval detective, because you can see him in an intellectual tradition of practical logic. I think Eco’s novels also fit into a wider pattern: that the most successful historical novels about the Middle Ages have tended to revolve around a central charismatic male figure, to whom all the other characters simply react. (The same is true for Dorothy Dunnett and Lindsey Davis). It seems to me it’s possible to create a single male character who is plausibly sufficiently ‘unmedieval’ in his sensibilities (particularly in religious terms) to appeal to a modern audience, but it’s very hard to produce several such characters, or to have a female central character with sufficient freedom of action to drive a plot realistically.

    I haven’t read enough historical fantasy to have a good sense of what it’s like. What kind of authors are you talking about ? I can’t take any generic swords and sorcery stuff seriously post Terry Pratchett. I think that alternative history can work (I enjoyed Joan Aiken as a child, and I’ve just read Alan Moore’s Watchmen), but it really needs readers to have a sound grasp of the period being riffed-off. An alternative history in which the US won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon keeps on getting re-elected is only really intriguing because people know that didn’t happen. I don’t think most people know enough medieval history to recognize alternative versions of events (unless they’re very blatant).


  9. As I am currently working on a novel that covers the last year’s of Aethelred II’s reign, I am sorry that I could not hear that talk by Pauline Stafford at Leeds. (I made it to Kalamazoo, but Leeds was out of my reach this year. Now I’m even more disappointed.) I have been puzzling over Aethelred’s daughters and their marriages – how they might have come about politically and what the family politics might have looked like – for some time. Throw in Aelfgifu of Northampton/Cnut, Emma and her children, and whatever Aethelstan and his brothers may have been up to, and you have quite a brew for a novelist to stir.


  10. That’s a funny reversal, given successful historical novelists like Steven Sailor who are ABDs and much better reading than most teaching scholars! I am a working art historian/historian who longs to write Dhuoda’s Book, the Novel – or maybe Galla! the Miniseries. Just ask Another Damned Medievalist – I’ve been talking about both of them for awhile 🙂


  11. i came across this interesting blog when working on the issue of dialogue in historical fiction as a general topic, with particular relevance to a novel i am attempting. I’ve been a reader of historical fiction for years, Eco, Graves and Maurice Druon being amongst my favourites because they made tricky history more accessible. Religion, politics etc.. I am presently working on an MA in creative writing and the didactic element is, of course, of little interest here. It seems that the portrayal of character and place and time in credible terms is more important than the truth of what is written. Is this a problem? So much tosh is written generally, surely it does not matter provided that an author does not stray far and succeeds in writing something which informs the reader, if not about the events themselves then at least about people? Does it matter if we confuse our Cato’s? It matters to those who know the difference, but there are few people around who do.


  12. I think the mission of historians and the mission of historical novelists are only tangentially related. To some extent, I think the job of the historian is to tell what really happened. The job of the historical novelist is to make a reader care enough to find out what really happened.

    There are always going to be errors–biographers make them too–but how damaging are these errors? Using your example, the ancient Romans didn’t have clocks like ours. Certainly. But they did have sundials and waterclocks. Some of them also used the pace of a burning candle, marked off in increments, so it wouldn’t be wrong for an author to present the Romans as a people who had a concept and care for time.

    For me, one of the worst sins historians make is to form unsubstantiated conclusions about the way ancient man thought or felt. Historical writers also do this–but they admit that they’re writing fiction.


  13. I can kind of understand “where you’re coming from” at least from a historian’s point of view. I am a writer, who is presently writing a novel(not strictly historical fiction, more “romantic science fiction”), set in medieval England. I have a writing partner whose husband is a composer, and he has the same sorts of complaints that you have — at least when it comes to musical instruments. It seems that if you are a musician, you can tell the difference between a Steinway piano and other brands of piano. I can’t tell the difference, but he can. And it bothers him when he sees a movie, and they alwayshave a Steinway piano! So yes, this is a common problem.

    However, I come from an anthropology background, and in some ways, recognize that cultures in medieval Europe were different from ours, though people tended to react much the same to the joys and sorrows of their lives. People took certain things for granted, such as the idea that women “couldn’t do” certain things. But put this in perspective: I am old enough to remember an era when women supposedly “couldn’t do” certain things, and weren’t allowed to do them! Perhaps this gives me a perspective that some younger people don’t have. I don’t know.

    However, I think the real problem is, that a historical novelist is writing a story first and formost, not a history of a period. Historians don’t feel the same way, and as I say, I can understand this, but most of us aren’t historians. When I “do” my characters, I realize that, given the nature of my book, some of the attitudes are going to be “anachronistic” to some degree, but I strive hard to keep these to a minimum. I also try to be as accurate as the historical record of the time permits, and keep the events and historical characters in order. As for speech patterns, and words, well, in my book people speak in what I call “modern standard” English, that is English without slang or any more “modern” expressions than I can help. I really don’t think, especially with early medieval, as I am doing, you can really do much more.

    One more thing: while I know many historians and historical novel readers really admire Dorothy Dunnett, I do not. I find her narratives and writing style just too “intricate” for my taste, though I did get all the way through the Lymond series and tried reading King Hereafter to give her a second chance. My impressions were exactly the same as when I read the Lymond series, and I’ve never picked up anything by her again.
    Anne G


      • I will be responding as a whole to your, and other people’s blog comments on the blog. I have spent several days considering at least some of my comments, and I believe another response is necessary.


  14. FWIW, what you have experienced is common across many trades. I once took a workshop on audio recording and engineering. The instructor told us up front that once we learned how to record, how to mix, and how to master a recording, we would never listen to recordings the same way. He was right. It didn’t ruin listening for me, but it certainly changed it in significant ways.

    And my favorite story along these lines: I once stumbled across a website done by a typographer. He had a long (and actually interesting) essay on why getting the font wrong can wreck a movie for him. He was talking about store front signs, posters, all that stuff in the background. He said it was like watching a movie about the 1930s and seeing a Ford Mustang drive through the scene. I’ve long since lost the link or I’d post it, as it really was a good read.

    As a historian, I too am impatient with many historical works. The problem is worse the more I know about the time period. I can read a work of fiction about ancient China and never blink, but give me something on late medieval Europe and I’ll be picking so many nits the author never stands a chance.

    In short, I think this is just One Of Those Things. A hazard of the trade, as it were.


  15. Thanks to magistra and all commenters for a great blog article and very thought-provoking debate. Even though the discussion is probably closed by now, I just want to say that I think there is a role for fiction writers in promoting what I would call “historical realization”.

    It’s not about inventing history, nor is it about dramatizing great events in a Homeric style. It is about making history come alive (whether that of recent history or antiquity) by finding consistent and plausible explanations for an event or sequence of events, explanations which arise out of as thorough an understanding of the facts that we can make COMBINED with a very common sense understanding of the human aspects (usually not recorded in primary sources).

    I believe that a keen understanding of these archetypal aspects is what make a good historical novel into a literary, human-relevant work that transcends historical rapportage. Thus if the history becomes the vehicle for the timeless human condition then it is not about history any more.


  16. Interesting post. I too have a problem with anachronistic speech and attitudes in historical novels. It it not too bad I suppose if it does not stand out too much, but for Medieval people to be saying things like “Yeah” and “Okay” is really just silly- and medieval people who are anti hunting, anti capital punishment, anti arranged marriage, anti religious fanaticism- please.

    That said, I do not think it impossible that there might have been ‘reasonable’ and ‘enlightened’ people in the medieval period.
    I rather think that to depict them all as not having been these things may be as inaccurate as making them into modern liberals.
    Perhaps it depends on what we mean by ‘enlightened’ and ‘reasonable’?

    For instance, I recently read about Thomas Bradmore, the surgeon to Henry V. He was able to extract an arrow from Henry’s face when he was Prince of Wales, treat the wound successfully to prevent infection and ultimately save his life.
    The author of the history book in question however also wrote about his approach and his training if I recall, as well as procedure mentioned above.

    Reading about this I think rather changed my views on Medieval surgery, so could not writing about someone like him fictionally challenge traditional notions without being anachronistic?


    • Sorry it’s taken so long to reply – as you may have gathered, I’m running far, far behind on updating the blog generally. I admit to using “reasonable” and “enlightened” as rather vague shorthand for a lot of different mental attitudes that I think were less prevalent or even non-existent in the pre-modern period.

      Since you mention surgery, it’s certainly true that medieval technical/technological skills tend to be underestimated. A skilled practitioner of any kind of craft would learn by experience what worked, whether it was building a tower that didn’t fall down or dressing a wound so that it didn’t fester. What was normally missing, however, were two key parts of science. One was a sound theoretical knowledge of why some things worked and others didn’t, whether it’s a theory of material failure or of disease control – there were medieval medical theories, for example, but they were mostly fairly ridiculous. The other was a lack of experimentation: someone exploring in a controlled way whether you got different results from doing X or Y.

      The great problem with experimentation, of course, is that most of the new things you try probably won’t work well, which is a big problem if you’re building a cathedral or healing a prince. I think there’s an interesting paradox: it may be only be when you have lots of expendable human subjects to practice and get things wrong on that medicine really starts to improve.

      So a historical novel might show a medieval surgeon skilfully dealing with a wound, but the author can’t easily have they explain how they learnt to do so. Either they have to have their characters having learned secrets from the Arabs/Greeks/ancient masters or have them saying that if you treat the wound with this potion it will destroy the deadly miasma or prevent bad air getting in or balance the humours. You can’t plausibly have characters understand about micro-organisms or experimenting with potions for fifteen years.

      As for Nigel Tranter’s characters, what I meant more generally is that he has heroes who are noticeably more cool-headed and less prone to rage than the average medieval nobleman. There’s a lot of research currently being done on the history of the emotions which stresses that although basic emotional responses may be universal, how they are expressed is very variable historically. Medieval noblemen were raised to be touchy about attacks on their honour; to have heroes who don’t seem to feel such violent sentiments may make them more appealing to modern audiences, but at the cost of distorting the tone of medieval life.


      • From what I seem to recollect, there was actually a description of how the surgeon performed the procedure. It involved a “pair of hollow tongs” made of wood and the copious use of white whine as an antiseptic.

        What it appears is that, contrary to popular opinion, human dissection was not forbidden in the late middle ages, and so surgeons could be acquainted with some of the workings of the body. It appears to have been physicians who dealt with the more dodgy theoretical elements of medicine- surgeons seem to have been more ‘hands on’.

        As for ‘secret knowledge’ I am not sure if it was ‘secret’ – surgeons seem to have gone to university and learned what they did quite legitimately.
        The interesting thing is, I am actually getting into a Historical Fiction Murder Mystery series at the moment, in which the protagonist/detective is a surgeon in 14th century Oxford, and the books contain some interesting descriptions of surgical procedures and medical theory.

        I did not learn about Thomas Bradmore from the above though- that came from a non-fiction history book.


  17. Just noticed your Dorothy Dunnet reference, long after first reading this — when I had not read her. As an aspiring historian, Dunnet’s work is almost enough to make me stop aspiring. Someone else in the comments has written ‘If I want history, I’ll read Pauline Stafford. If I want a good story, give me Dorothy Dunnet’. But I read the courtroom scene at the end of Game of Kings as a devastating demonstration of the perils of historical method, that practically .requires. a lack of historical imagination. To which extent one might say in weak or melancholic moments, ‘If I want history, give me Dorothy Dunnet. If I want an assemblage of data concerning the past, give me Pauline Stafford’.


    • As I said at the start of the post – I’m a failed historical novelist. It’s incredibly difficult to do that sort of writing well, and even though I’ve written a lot of (unpublished) fiction in the last few years, I’ve stayed well away from anything that would need proper historical research. But I can certainly see the lure of writing fiction rather than history.

      All I can add in counter-balance is that I don’t think you can become a medieval historian unless historical truth matters deeply to you: it’s ultimately more important that you’re right than that you’re entertaining. I know that’s a deeply old-fashioned positivist sort of view, but with a few exceptions medieval sources generally do not allow us to offer the kind of rich immersion that a really good historical novel of the period can. The post-modern medievalists tend to be working on medieval literature, which does have texts that can compete with any historical novel.

      So Alex Woolf ultimately trumps Dorothy Dunnett on early medieval Scotland to my way of thinking because he’s more likely to be accurate than she is, even though King Hereafter is one of the funniest book ever about the Dark Ages (among many other things). As for the courtroom scene in Game of Kings, surely that’s more about the mystery novelist’s desire for a plot twist? (Dorothy Dunnett was a pretty good mystery writer as well). In many of her novels you get a set-up in which there is one obvious explanation for the facts, until suddenly the opposite is shown to be the truth, such as Graham Reid Mallett proving to be a villain or the final revelations of the parentage of Lymond and Niccolo. It’s a wonderful technique for a novelist, but it’s not a historian’s job to come up with the most ingenious answer possible.

      In the end you work with the materials you have: I was talking a week or two ago to the great historian of masculinity Anthony Fletcher. He’s about to publish a book on masculinity in World War I which will be able to draw on emotional insights about gender from his sources that mine will never give me. But it’s still my period and my sources and my methods I want to stick with, even if they’ll never let me show the full colour of the Carolingian world to my readers.


      • You’re absolutely right — I was only a /bit/ serious. But as for that courtroom scene, it’s not just a plot twist is it? The point is that the advocate’s reading of the evidence is entirely justified and plausible: but also entirely 180 degrees incorrect. We’re scrupulously shown all the threads of evidence, one by one, and in the end it all hangs on the gathering and proper interpretation of written documents and the analysis of scribal hands. Yet finally all of the data is quite inadequate as source material until its correct but improbable interpretation is arrived at… Okay, its not a very plausible story from a historian’s point of view, but the basic problem is still a serious one, particularly if one’s bread and butter is, say, narrative sources which so frequently seem to be disingenuous, incorrect, distorted, partial, or silent, yet still demand to be read and interrogated.


  18. What a fascinating discussion. I too have real difficulty with historical novels these days and also with TV series, which often make me squirm and start shouting ‘they would never have said that!’

    One exception for me is Hilary Mantel’s books on Thomas Cromwell. She engages with this discussion at the end of the books. She understands that she is first and foremost a storyteller but her books are meticulously researched and offer what she calls ‘a proposal’ to the reader, rather than ‘authority’. I am wondering what historians make of her work?


    • Sorry for delay in replying: I haven’t read Hilary Mantell myself, but there have been some discussions of Wolf Hall by History Today (here and here), which are not that positive about the strictly historical aspects. I suspect one of the problems is with how Thomas Cromwell’s personality is shown. In a historical novel it’s acceptable to imagine a possible character for a historical figure that can fit sufficiently well with the known facts (and the known facts can be bent a little if necessary). So Cromwell can be made a hero. In writing history, you have to work with the most likely personality as seen from the surviving sources, so Cromwell, if not as black as he’s painted, probably wasn’t an admirable person.

      There are some interesting parallels here with the idea of fan fiction and how one of the biggest complaints you can make about a story is that a figure is OOC (out of character).


      • She claims to be ambiguous about Cromwell, and I think she succeeds. She’s very clear about the difference between her own approach and that of a historian.


      • I’ve just read the profile of her in the New Yorker, which is very interesting. Especially, when she’s talking about the tensions between the unconscious and the card index: the novelist’s imagination and historical facts as they are recorded. That is a genuine difference in perspective and one I think historians and novelists should respect.


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