How much of history can you make up?

This morning I was listening to Books and Arts Daily – Michael Cathcart was talking to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things, a historical novel. They were talking about how Hilary Mantell, the author of Wolf Hall, has been criticised by some historians for giving her characters actual conversations which are not recorded by history.

Obviously Michael Cathcart and his guest agreed that, if you’re going to write a novel, you have to do this. But how much trouble should you go to, to make sure that the history, rather than the conversations, are accurate?

One argument is that you have a responsibility to both reader and historical subject to make it accurate. Certainly, as I was growing up, I gleaned a lot of my history from novels by Jean Plaidy and Mary Renault. This was a responsibility I felt keenly with my first historical novel, The Black Dress. Since the main character was Mary MacKillop, who was not only a major historical figure abut about to become a saint, I was conscious that, for many of my readers, my book was the first thing they might have read about her, and could colour all subsequent attitudes. I felt deeply – well, scared. I researched for 18 months before I dared begin, and then kept researching throughout the five major rewrites I did before I sent it to a publisher. And I had it read by the subject experts – the Sisters of St Joseph.

It was the hardest book I’ve ever written.

But with my next historical novel, The Soldier’s Wife, there was only one real person in it – my grandfather, whose war record I used to map out the career of my main character’s husband – the ‘soldier’ of the title.

I never knew my grandfather, and that gave me some freedom to imagine him based on the stories I had heard.

Other than that, how closely did I have to stick to history?

Pretty damn close. My soldier was an ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp); he was wounded at Gallipoli. And the Anzac legend is so revered and alive in Australasia that I again felt a great responsibility to get it right.

I doubt that responsibility will ever go away. I’m not comfortable with playing fast and loose with history in order to have a cleverer story. Better to take what really happened and build the story from there, because it’s all fascinating, and if you pick the right characters, you can build a story which will have all the excitement, interest, tension and emotion you could wish for.

Of course, everything I write is my take on history – my interpretation will be different from someone else’s, inevitably. But the facts can be true. And the ‘feel’ should be as true to your research as you can make it.

Elizabeth Gilbert said to Michael Cathcart, ‘The original contract with art is to delight’, and I couldn’t agree more. To delight with your interpretation of the truth is even better. And if you don’t like my interpretation? Well, that’s the great thing about fiction – you can write your own!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *