Difference between historians and novelists

Dear Editor, David Quinn writes apropos of Wolf Hall and St Thomas More that “a historian and a novelist can use history much like putty” (IC 29/01/2015). He is wrong to conflate these two very different categories of author.

Novelists are entitled to some licence in fashioning the events depicted in their work.  They are pursuing a species of ‘truth’ which is other than literal truth.

Historians, on the other hand, are concerned to achieve the “best obtainable version” of the literal truth about the past (to quote the yardstick of Woodward and Bernstein, the Watergate journalists).

Of course, absolute truth about the past is impossible. David Quinn is right about that, which is why history is a never-ending study. However, historians must be faithful to the evidence about the past which is available to them.

Novelists are not so constrained, and are free to give full rein to their imagination – even when writing ‘historical fiction’.

Yours etc.,

Felix M. Larkin,

Cabinteely, Dublin 18.