From the Editor: Facts and Fictions

Where does historical fiction end and ‘proper’ history begin?

One of the first history books I owned was a version of Thomas Macaulay’s History of England (1848), abridged and with an introduction by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Both scholars were supreme stylists of the historian’s art. I recently picked up the battered old thing again after many years and was enthralled. Though Macaulay’s Whiggish account of English history, centred on the ‘Glorious Revolution’, no longer convinces (and is often unintentionally hilarious), the prose retains its power.

Macaulay wrote that: ‘History has to be burnt into the imagination before it can be received by the reason’, a quote invoked by the historical novelist Hilary Mantel, whose Tudor Trilogy will be completed with the imminent publication of The Mirror and the Light. Her BBC Reith Lectures were broadcast last month and in the second of these, recorded at Middle Temple in London, Mantel spoke eloquently of the rigour, integrity and scepticism – all hallmarks of the historian – that she tries to bring to her writing. In the audience, the historian of the Reformation Diarmaid MacCulloch talked effusively of his admiration for Mantel’s work, revealing that his own, long-awaited life of Thomas Cromwell has followed avenues opened up by Mantel’s insights. Other distinguished historians of the period, such as John Guy, are more critical. He finds her depiction of Cromwell’s rival, Thomas More, unconvincing and is worried that university applicants depend on the best-selling writer for their understanding of the period.   

Yet, when a novelist such as Mantel combines compelling style with an awareness of the fallibility and bias of the historian, can fiction elide into history proper? Or vice versa. Think, for example, of Ruth Scurr’s acclaimed ‘biography’, John Aubrey: My Own Life (2015). In that case, the historian played with fiction, much as Mantel plays with ‘fact’. Put simply, when historians take care of their prose and novelists more care of their sources, reason and imagination combine to the delight of the reader.

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