Wednesday, 9 February 2011

I already know the ending.

Various people have asked me if I’ve read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize. Several have offered to lend me their copies.

I’ve always declined.

I’ve never read Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, which many fans consider to be her best work, for the same reason.

I already know the ending.

Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell, the man who had the job of sorting out Henry VIII’s marital problems. King Hereafter is about Macbeth.

This is just my personal preference, of course. Historical fiction focusing on the lives of real people is read by many people. It can be an enjoyable way of learning about past times. Jean Plaidy was the queen of the genre in the 1960s and 1970s, and some of her books have recently been re-published.

I first encountered Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France, in historical fiction. The novel only focused on one part of his life, and at the time I read the book, in my early teens, I didn't know how his story ended.

For me, knowing in advance how the story will end takes away much of the pleasure of reading a novel for the first time. And I particularly don't want to read someting that I know in advance will not have a happy ending.

When I’ve mentioned this, people have said the books are still worth reading, for the quality of the writing or the research. But if I wanted to read a well-researched book about a real person, I’d look for a biography.

I think including a real person as a secondary character can add depth to the story. It helps to set the scene and tie the fictional events of the novel into the real world. If it’s a well known historical figure, the reader will already be familiar with him or her and be able to anticipate, to some extent, how he or she will interact with the main characters.

A writer of Regency romances, for example, doesn’t need to devote paragraphs to introducing the Duke of Wellington, or the Prince Regent, and therefore the story can move along more quickly.

But I prefer to get to know the central characters in a novel for the first time over the course of the story, and experience the twists and turns of events along with them.


  1. There was an article in the Review Section of the Guardian this weekend by Anthony Beavor commenting on the practice of using real people in fiction. He thinks that it is a profoundly unhistorical practice - presuming to put words and ideas into real people's minds when we have no proof they ever thought anything of the sort. And there has been a lot of controversy over the depiction of Churchill in 'The King's Speech' - he is shown as being favourable to Bertie when in fact he supported Edward VIII. My own view is that when you try and mix real people with fictional characters, the real people somehow always come over as totally unconvincing!

  2. It's not as if there's any doubt about Churchill's views - on anything! He's one of the best documented people of the 20th century, between his own writing and what others have written about him. So what's the point of misrepresenting him?

    the real people somehow always come over as totally unconvincing!

    I suppose some novelists either feel so restricted by what is known of the person that they can't allow the character to develop naturally and he or she seems wooden - or they end up writing him or her so out of character that the person in the book bears no resemblance to the person in real life. Either way, it's an argument for keeping real people out of fiction, except in very secondary, background roles.