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The Novelist’s Responsibility to History

Masterpiece’s Richard Maurer recently interviewed Bernard Cornwell and asked him the following question:

“Each of your novels ends with a historical essay about the actual incidents and sources behind your story. What do you believe is the historical novelist’s responsibility to history?”

Cornwell: “I think those afterwords are absolutely necessary, because I am not an historian; I am a storyteller. Whenever the demands of the story clash with the dictate of real history, the story is going to win, because my job is to entertain; it’s not to educate. But I do understand that for many people, as it was for me when I was young, historical novels are a gateway to history; and they will persuade people, I hope, to go on to read the real history. I think that once you finish a book, it’s incumbent upon the historical novelist to tell people where he changed history and maybe why; and also where they can go to discover more about the period. So, yes, I do think that my job is to serve history and to serve historians โ€” but to do it by doing a song and dance.”

Do you agree or disagree with Cornwell? What are your thoughts?

6 thoughts on “The Novelist’s Responsibility to History”

  1. I think in today’s world we can perhaps inform the reader via our websites as well. I try to provide historical background data on my site where possible.

    I think it’s important for readers to understand history better. What always surprises me is how little readers know about history. They often seem to get tetchy when your accurate portrayal of past life does not meet with their perception. For instance in a new story that I have coming out soon my main character is a priest who lusts after a woman. Some readers in my critique group thought that this was unrealistic because catholic priests are supposed to be celibate. But of course it’s well known that in the middle ages priests were often satirized for having mistresses.

  2. When I finish a historical fiction novel I always wonder how it’s differed from the real events. This post makes me want to read Cornwell so I can have that urge really fulfilled!

  3. Steven:

    Cornwell’s reply is pretty much where I stand. He’s a good author, and while I disagree with some elements of his storytellying techniques,I think it is absolutely incumbent on any author who deals with historical times and historical characters, to describe these events as accurately as possible. The book I’m writing is something of a hybrid; it’s not totally “history” and it’s not totally “science fiction”, but sort of a blend of both. That said, if you’re going to write anything set in historical times, keep it as close to actual history as possible(unless you’re writing “alternate” history), then explain where you deviate. Which is basically what Cornwell suggests.

  4. I agree with Cornwell that afterwords are necessary. I certainly enjoy reading the historical notes to learn the actual history and where the author took creative liberties.

    I do wonder about his statement, “Whenever the demands of the story clash with the dictate of real history, the story is going to win, because my job is to entertain.” I wonder at one point, when writing your story, do you make that determination, that real history is not interesting enough or does not fall in line with the rest of your story, so you choose to deviate from what actually happened. Is that a conscious decision before you ever begin writing or something that happens along the way as you write?

  5. In my case, it’s not so much that I “choose to deviate from what actually happened”. Nor is it that I don’t find “real” history “uninteresting”. But I do feel that Cornwell is right, and that if you are a novelist, “story” is going to “win”. IN my book, “story comes first”. Some writers and devoted readers of historical novels don’t like this approach; they feel they have to stick to the history no matter what. The writers in some cases feel they can make the “real” story interesting without deviating from the “history”, but the methods by which some of them do it may be questionable. Some f hem also feel that the only way a lot of people wil learn “real” history is from novels. Okay. Maybe that’s true. With me, the problem is to actually glean enough facts to actually tell a story! Because thereare gaps, I sometimeshave “invent”. Besides, like said, what ‘m writing isn’t srictly “history” as in “histrical novel”; i’s hybrd. I don’t tke libertiesih known facts, but Ihave decded hat, wher these facts aren’t available,(and e fcts are often open to interprttionanywy), am beng forced t inent. And since my novel’s main focus, for th e most part,is on chaacters I’ve invented, “story comes fiirst”.
    Anne G

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