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Truth And Fiction

June 2024
1min read

Asking what historians think of historical novelists is like asking cows what they think of butchers. Of course they won’t like them. They see brash amateurs, accountable to no standards of scholarship, invading their field and exploiting their body of work.

Historical novels are never written for historians. Is the sportswriter’s history of the game written for the coaches? It is historians who write for historical novelists, among others. Historical novelists’ purposes, you see, differ from historians', though they both start with the same material.

Novelists lay down a warp of history which is as painfully correct as their honor requires. They fling a shuttle across that warp, carrying brilliant silks in and out—homey furniture, fury, symbolic gestures, rain. These silks often snag—on a fixed date, an embarrassing bigotry of that culture, a household utensil not yet invented. Laboriously a tapestry is woven. Why? So that you can swim in another culture, as Professor Smoler says of Patrick O’Brian, when that writer re-creates the “intellectual and moral universe of [two] Enlightenment gentlemen.” So you can live another life, as another person, in another time.

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