A Quick Round-Up of Class Opinion


Lucinda Byatt


I asked my history class at the Open Studies department of Edinburgh University, who have been attending a course with the somewhat provocative title ‘Rome Caput Mundi: Curia, Cardinals and Courtesans 1300 to 1590’, to give me their thoughts on historical fiction.  More particularly I wanted to know what they thought about including it on the course reading list.

The answers I received covered the full range of opinion: clearly some were horrified by the idea while others possibly thought my questionnaire a waste of time, or had more pressing engagements at four o’clock in the afternoon.  Presumably those motives, and the fact that I had premised my request by saying I would not be lying in wait for them after class, accounted for the absence of answers from about half the class. However, we had a lively discussion before class ended and some of the written answers were enlightening.

Yes, historical fiction was a useful way of getting into the atmosphere of the time, or ‘setting the scene’, as well as revealing ‘the way of living, perhaps indeed the ways of thinking.’  Many agreed that it offered an excellent quick introduction to the dramatis personae of any given period. Although at least one person felt that a greater danger was posed by television historical series and films: an interesting point because they were content to rely on an author’s written interpretation and their own imagination while reading, but not on the visual, ‘less reliable’ interpretation in films and TV. 

Some gave examples: Dorothy Dunnett, an Edinburgh writer, was a favourite for one student who wrote: ‘irrespective of the “romantic” central characters, she leaves her readers very familiar with the geography of mid-15th century Bruges, the relationships between the traders, even how goods were transported. I learned what a “cog” was from her books!’  Historical crime was also popular: C.J. Sansom was noted by two or three as having enticed them into history.

One person commented on what she termed ‘cross-over’ books that manage to keep a foot in both camps: she cited John Guy’s ‘jolly good’ biography of Mary Queen of Scots which she was prompted to read following a course she took at the university this summer.  ‘Something by Philippa Gregory or Alison Weir’s book on Katherine Swynford are good cross-overs.’  However, she also added (as did two or three others) that Wolf Hall is ‘unreadable’.   (Someone described it as ‘incredibly tedious’ – but then you can’t please everyone).  However, for academic writers, the ‘revival of well-presented narrative history can be a plus – although it can be at the expense of analysis.’

A difference in the focus between academic history and historical fiction was identified by three people, also because we had been talking about it in the discussion. When talking about whether literary authors and academics learn from other, someone commented that ‘each reinforces the other. Academics tend to concentrate on the elites, while fiction [and he was thinking particularly of Sansom] provides more insight into ordinary life.’   Someone else also commented that ‘fiction can use isolated facts as a source of story and then use conjecture to elaborate on them’ – very true.  The crossover between fact and fiction was also debated: ‘some supposedly academic material, presented as fact, is fiction: i.e. theories of authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.’ 

At least one person noted that our understanding of history, or of any one period, is constantly evolving in the light of new research, and that it is also affected by our changing understanding of our own times.  However, the fact that some historians are turning their hands to historical fiction was generally seen as a money-making wheeze (no harm in that!): ‘Historians write fiction for money, which is fine if they can write good fiction!’  The same person underlined the fact that ‘historical fiction is not correlated to academic history’, adding that ‘fiction should be about people … imaginative and exciting’.

In conclusion, on the question of the popularity of historical fiction and whether it threatens academic history, various people stressed the importance of understanding where the boundaries are.  I liked the student’s comment that ‘It may be a problem in schools, but not beyond.  No harm in making history accessible, so long as it is accurate.’   This was reinforced by another who wrote that he would read historical fiction as course reading, ‘if I had confidence in the sources – otherwise it’s pure escapism’. Well, that’s the pot of gold at the end of the historical fiction rainbow, isn’t it?


Lucinda is also Features Editor for Historical Novels Review, the quarterly magazine published by the Historical Novel Society. Find out more and join the society at www.historicalnovelsociety.org

This entry was posted in Articles by Matt Phillpott. Bookmark the permalink.

About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.

3 thoughts on “A Quick Round-Up of Class Opinion

  1. Having just published a book (Presenting the Past: Past and Present published by Palgrave Macmillan) about the varying ways of presenting the past to audiences within and outside academia, I was interested to see how far conference contributors reinforced the key discussion points made in my chapter-length case study centred upon Philippa Gregory as a historical novelist. Unsurprisingly, most issues have come up and been developed. Also following Lucinda Byatt’s comment, it seems vital that history students should be made aware of alternative ways in which the past is presented today in historical novels, history films and so on.

    For me, key questions for historians, as elaborated in my book, include:

    • Should history and historical novels be treated still as either completely different, complementary, or ‘inseparably twinned’ (Beverley Southgate)? Should historians view historical novelists as allies, rather than as either saboteurs guilty of confusing readers through mixing fact and fiction, or rivals attracting higher sales and greater public visibility for their version of the past? Just as the research of historical novelists benefits from the work of academic historians, so cultural and social historians treat the publications of historical novelists as primary sources reflecting the ideas and mores of their time.
    • What do historical novelists present about the past that cannot be provided by academic historians? How far can historical novelists, like Hilary Mantel, fill gaps in the verifiable historical record, most notably by giving voice to those overlooked by academic historians or exploring people’s inner experiences?
    • Should historical novels be judged as ‘history’ in the same manner as academic histories, or be judged only as a form of entertainment, perhaps even intellectual entertainment?
    • What lessons can academic historians learn from the popularity of historical fiction, especially as the genre is no longer a niche market? Should historians investigate what historical novelists can teach them, most notably regarding methodology, imaginative writing, and engaging audiences? Despite tending to denigrate their merits, academic historians should not underestimate the challenge of writing historical novels offering intellectual entertainment;
    • To what extent do historical novels serve as a form of public history, even enhancing levels of historical literacy? Alternatively, does the mix of fact and fiction characteristic of historical novels merely foster a confused and uncertain grasp of the past? For Antony Beevor, the better the novel, the more dangerous it proved in terms of misleading readers.
    • Do historical novels encourage readers to move on to discover the characters and events around which authors crafted their stories? Several historians and historical novelists admit being drawn initially to history through a love of historical novels.
    • What insights do historical novels provide about history’s role and significance in contemporary culture?

  2. I enjoyed meeting you at the conference Lucinda.

    I enjoyed your post. Your students seem to reflect the same range as the readers from whom I canvassed opinions.

    Your post also jogged my thoughts re the threat to academia from historical fiction. I think a larger threat than fiction,(which is acknowledged to be fiction even if strongly based in fact) is badly researched popular history which is peddled as fact. Currently working on Eleanor of Aquitaine, I am horrified at the levels of historical inaccuracy and flights of fantasy that I have come across in several popular works on her. A bit of digging on my part (a non academic) has exposed all sorts of errors and unfounded suppositions. Frank McLynn in Lionheart and Lackland describes Eleanor as having ‘a dark complexion, black eyes, black hair, and was curvaceous with a superb figure than never ran to fat even in old age.’ Since there are no descriptions anywhere of what Eleanor looked like, so this is obviously male fantasy wish fulfillment and should not be in a book selling itself as fact! Marion Meade and Alison Weir give her a half-brother called Joscelin that she never had because they haven’t understood their sources properly. Ralph Turner has an important figure going on crusade when the primary sources showed he stayed at home. And this is all in my own little corner of research. I find all this quite worrying. Popular history generally means history that is accessible to a less academic less specialised readership and it’s often where novelists like me obtain information to write the novels. I heard it called a middle path at the conference, but I believe popular historical writing should be held to the same rigorous standards as academia. Just because you can write for a wide audience, doesn’t mean you should slack on the research.

    • Absolutely agree, Elizabeth – and certainly “popular history” is also at risk of getting a bad reputation precisely because of this. You can make up whatever you like in fiction provided the context and the minutiae of the historical setting are plausible (and preferably correct), but when moving towards the middle of the historical writing spectrum, speculation (or flights of fantasy like the one you mentioned) should really be flagged up so that factual errors are not generated and/or perpetuated. Your book on Eleanor of Aquitaine sounds as those it will break this circle though – really looking forward to reading it!


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