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.