In a recent interview, the celebrity historian and Tudor expert David Starkey described Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’. The novel, he said, is ‘a magnificent, wonderful fiction’. The author of the article argues that using 'historical imagination' is the way to succeed as a historian. She cites essays she's written where she argued that Martin Luther was a fraud, Second Wave American feminists were profoundly sexist and that King Alfred the Great was a historical irrelevance. She's also argued that the Counter-Reformation was a success because the Catholics were so flexible, tolerant and easy-going — not mentioning the Inquisition at all. Saying it was ‘completely wrong, but a delight to read’, her tutor gave it a First.
The list of historians who’ve been led by their imaginations as much as their sources is distinguished. In the 1960s, John Prebble’s reconstructions of the great disasters of Scottish history were blood-soaked bestsellers. His vivid narratives brought to life first the rainy, desolate moor that staged the Battle of Culloden, then the betrayal, disease and starvation of the Highland Clearances. Prebble was described by the current chair of history at Glasgow University as the man who ‘had interested more people than anyone this century in Scottish history’. But he’s still dismissed by most academics as a glorified historical novelist.
The young Niall Ferguson was the inspiration for Irwin, the provocative history teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. He taught his pupils to make tutors sit up and take notice by arguing (to use one of Ferguson’s real-life examples) that Britain should have sat out the first world war and left the Germans to battle it out. At the end of Bennett’s play, one of Irwin’s less able students recounts the arguments that got him through his Oxford interview: that ‘Stalin was a sweetie and Wilfred Owen was a wuss’.
Most bestselling history books tend to be one parts fact to two parts fiction, and that may be more because that's what historians have to work with than anything else. Starkey considers himself to be ‘someone who actually knows what happened’ in Henry VIII’s court, but he doesn't. No one does. A scrupulously honest historian has to leave gaps and this does not make for a bestselling history book.
There is a difference between 'historial imagination' and 'historical sins', Binney argues. To speculate is one thing, but to deliberately lie is quite another. Creatively joining the few dots of knowledge we have about the past is the historian’s craft, and it takes skill. Writing something you know to be untrue because it fits your story takes no skill, and is the point where history becomes fiction.
Binney finishes with a quote from Alan Bennett, ‘History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.’
My own opinion on this subject can be found on previous blogs I've done, such as 'Is Historical Fiction More Truthful Than Historical Fact', so please have a look at them if you're interested in my own opinions.