10/12/2012 07:39 am ET | Updated Dec 11, 2012

Hilary Mantel and the Limits of Historical Accuracy

In November 2011, I attended a seminar held at the Institute of Historical Research in London at which various novelists and historians debated historical fiction. One speech particularly sticks in my mind -- partly because it was delivered by perhaps our foremost historical novelist, Hilary Mantel, and partly because I found myself disagreeing with what she had to say.

Mantel was speaking in conjunction with the historian David Loades, who maintained that historians have a responsibility not to misrepresent or 'change' the past. Mantel claimed that novelists have a similar responsibility: she particularly castigated the historical series The Tudors for conflating two historical characters into one to simplify the story. And then she went further, saying how novelists have a responsibility to be authentic.

What is the problem with this? To begin with the most obvious point: 'accuracy' is a relative term. One can disprove or undermine so many specific facts about our national history, which was mainly chronicled by propagandists of one form or another. But a more profound problem lies in the entanglement of the past and present in fiction.

As Mantel herself neatly put it: "Journalists always ask: 'how much of this is fact?' -- as if one really could disentangle fact and fiction." I would say that it is effectively all fiction by being presented as a novel. If every supposed 'fact' is given a context which is at least partly fictitious, the whole work becomes fiction.

Suppose you have a speech about Henry VIII by, say, Anne Boleyn, written down by multiple witnesses. Its 'truth' still depends on who was there to hear it and why she delivered it. If her father was there, that is one thing, if only females were, that is quite another; and if the king or his friends heard it, that gives the speech a still different meaning. And since the context of every such historical scene is capable of being misrepresented, historical novelists aiming for 'accuracy' have an impossible task.

Clearly, a few 'facts' underpinning a story does not make it 'true'. It follows that all the things that go into a historical story are in some small part misleading. They are exactly the misrepresentations David Loades and Hilary Mantel agreed that all authors should avoid.

On top of this you have the filter of the novelist's own experiences. Nothing in a historical novel that has any power or emotion does not depend in some part on the novelist's own life. Even the choice of subject and period depends on one's interests. Disappointment or euphoria in love might alter the emphases of a book. A short temper might cause a particularly whimsical character to be described with a certain lack of tolerance. Thus a historical novel entangles the modern world and the past, and distorts the latter.

This is where the impossibility of accuracy blends into the impossibility of authenticity. Not only does the author's character influence the story, the readers' expectations do too. This not only applies to the language used but to the emotions and sensitivities portrayed. A novelist writing about people in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I is unlikely to want to stress how much the hero enjoys watching animals baited to death (as most Elizabethans did).

In meeting these impossible challenges of accuracy and authenticity Mantel does a good job -- better than anyone else -- but she still fails. Sometimes, to give a semblance of authenticity, one has to lie about the past. This is what Shakespeare understood so well when he blended Edmund Mortimer the rebel and his nephew, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, into one character in his Henry IV Part One. The resulting composite character sums up the complex relationship between the Mortimers and the Crown in a dramatic way.

It was exactly what Hilary said should be avoided, in her example from The Tudors. I pointed this out to her at the time and she responded "Many sins are committed with the excuse that Shakespeare did them -- but you are not Shakespeare!"

No. I am not Shakespeare. But I think that we can learn from him. In his entanglement of the old and the new, the interweaving of past and present -- with no presence at accuracy or authenticity - Shakespeare is the more complete historical storyteller. He touches on truths that are not purely of the past but true for all times.

For me, the sixteenth century is much too interesting a place just to leave it to historians to argue about what actually did happen. Just as I explore the past as a different place in my non-fiction Time Traveller's Guides (written under my other name, Ian Mortimer), so I use these different periods to reflect aspects of the story I want to tell. In Sacred Treason, the first novel in my 'Clarenceux' trilogy, the emotions I describe come from my own life. They are about the temptations of the flesh, and loyalty - to one's wife, to one's faith, to one's country and to oneself. In the modern world these disloyalties don't make headlines unless one is famous; but when set in a period that saw men tortured and killed for disloyalty to the state, publicly flogged for adultery, and burned for heresy, they become more dramatic and more frightening.

This is why I follow Shakespeare's example, not Hilary Mantel's. I step aside from all pretenses of accuracy and authenticity. If I want to write about the real past, I will write a history book. If I want to tell a story that is meaningful and draws on my own experiences, I write fiction. That my novels are set in the sixteenth century does not mean I am trying to describe that century accurately; it means I am searching for meanings in human experience that are common to both times, and thus timeless, and have resonance in all our lives.