I was sent a prepublication copy of Elizabeth Goldsmith's book, The Kings' Mistresses, for review recently. It's about the lives of two sisters, Marie and Hortense Mancini, who scandalised Europe at the end of the 17th century. (If you want to see the review, it's here.) The book is a solid piece of work, thorough and well researched. But I was continually frustrated by the way that the author's concern not to go beyond the documented facts meant that a fascinating and romantic story often became quite dull, bogging down in details of the women's movements around Europe and skipping over fascinating stuff (including at least two alleged murder plots) where solid evidence was lacking.
I'm often worried about the liberties that I take with history when I'm writing. In fact, my books are pretty solidly rooted in reality, and when they are not, I do put in author's notes. Even so, what I'm writing is fiction and I try not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Some people take exception to this and feel that historical novelists should always be true to their source material. But then you're just writing historical non-fiction, like The Kings' Mistresses. And while this is a very good book, I can't really recommend it as a particularly relaxing read. In fact, I think one of the best reasons for reading it will be to get source material for writing historical romances. If anyone does, it may well generate the sort of interest in these sisters which would lead people to read a biography like Goldsmith's.
Yes, I am defensive about the kind of writing that I do. But I think that fictionalising the past is not only entertaining, but does give people a greater understanding of who we are and how we got here. They can always go off and read an academic book on the period afterwards.
What do you think?