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Historical Fiction: No Substitute for the Real Thing

Recently-received historical novelsLast week, for the first time, the number of historical novels sent to History Today for review outnumbered ‘real’ history books.

Publishers love historical novels and everyone it seems has one in them. Of course some of them are very good: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and her even finer A Place of Greater Safety; the works of Patrick O’Brian, Mary Renault, JG Farrell and George MacDonald Fraser. History Today reviews the best of them in its occasional round ups. The vast majority, however, are awful. And, despite the excellence of authors such as Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo, so are most of the historical novels aimed at the children’s market.

I even have trouble with War Horse, Morpurgo’s dramatically enthralling stage work (and less successful film), largely due to its sentimentalising of the First World War (though he’s not alone in that vice). Not everyone hated fighting in the First World War; my paternal grandfather was anything but maudlin and sentimental about his time as a light infantryman on the Somme and Ypres and took great pleasure in recounting his experiences; by contrast my maternal grandfather loathed his travails in the Western Desert during World War Two and rarely talked about them. People were different then and their concerns were not ours, as a historian, though not necessarily a novelist, will tell you.

Michaels Morpurgo and Gove, our Education Secretary, have launched a new ‘History Prize’ for children between 11 and 18, encouraging them to write a chapter of a historical novel . There’s no great harm in reading historical novels, nor writing them, but if anyone wishes to understand history, in all its complexity, they should read ‘real’ history and then they should write it. If an intelligent child wants to begin to grasp the complexities of the First World War, for example, they should be pointed towards slim but brilliant volumes by Michael Howard or Norman Stone, or AJP Taylor. All have written accessible books about how, why, when and who people fought.

If you want to understand what the men endured, read the relevant chapter in John Keegan’s The Face of War. For budding historians, there is no substitute for history.

Paul Lay is editor of History Today and author of History Today... And Tomorrow