Tony Blair took a slow drag on his Cuban cigar and looked at his wife, sleeping contentedly beside him. Oh yes, there really was something about these royal palaces; and they sure beat the Holiday Inn. Today he felt like a man who could do anything. The hell with it all; he would bomb Iraq. Excerpt from Here and Blair, 2253 Booker Prize winner.
Yet another blow was struck for the historical novel this week when Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a fictionalised account of the career of Thomas Cromwell claimed the UK’s Booker prize. Though meticulously researched it offers a more sympathetic view of Henry VIII’s chief minister than is normally accorded him, prompting one historian to describe it as “historical tosh”.
But tosh or not, historical fiction has a record of popularity dating back far beyond Shakespeare – although his history plays were written for propaganda rather than enjoyment (as any schoolboy will tell you). The US has also excelled at historical political fiction – who can forget the report of the Warren Commission? One can only imagine the novels that will be written about our own era and the yet-to-be-penned fictional accounts of Mr Blair’s Balmoral romp or George W. Bush’s pretzel moment.
The problem comes when people mistake these novels as a primary history source. Consider the impact a play like A Man for All Seasons had on the reputation of Sir Thomas More. All anyone really knows about him now is that he was a good egg, put God before his king and bore a striking resemblance to Paul Scofield.
But this is not the real issue. For while these novels are unreliable sources of history they can be rather well researched. Since they also tend to be read by people who, well, read, they may encourage the consumer to go off in search of further information.
No, the real problem comes not with novels but with films. We British are well used to Hollywood’s lamentable trifling with the facts. We recall, for example, the recent movie U-571 about the American (!) submarine crew that captured the Nazi’s Enigma machine. We also resent the way Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Garner survived The Great Escape while poor old Dickie Attenborough and the other Brits got mown down.
But perhaps the nadir of public credulity came when Scottish tourist officials commissioned a statue of William Wallace, which in no way resembled the 13th century freedom-fighter but looked uncannily like Mel Gibson, who had recently played him in Braveheart.
In fairness, that film was based on historic writing; the epic poem The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace. The poem was written 170 years after Wallace’s death and is riddled with errors. But there was probably a clue to this: its author went by the name Blind Harry.
The writer’s curriculum vitae may have been fictionalised
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