History Professors

Having seen it so often, I know it well: the smile of a history professor, on learning that I write historical novels.

I have studied it, like the smile of the Mona Lisa - that just discernable movement at the corner of the mouth - faint, controlled, full of inner resonance. Yet unlike La Gioconda 's smile, there is nothing enigmatic about it. Polite, yes. But it's meaning cannot be mistaken. At best, it is the amused contempt of a judge gazing at a con artist.

What do historical novelists write? Boddice-rippers, set against false romantic backgrounds? Adventures whose heroes and villains totally misrepresent the complex politics of history? Tales where today's social attitudes are ludicrously superimposed on an earlier period, and economics non-existent? Above all, since novelists come from a literary tradition which, as every historian secretly knows, is quite inferior to the rigorous disciplines of the history faculty, these purveyors of fiction probably won't even see the value of portraying the past accurately. When has a novelist ever cared about accuracy, if the facts get in the way of a good story? Indeed, when I have asked for help in conducting my research, some historians have appeared genuinely surprised that I should want to research at all; and when I explained that I'd like them to correct my text, they clearly didn't believe me.

Down the years, thanks to introductions, word-of-mouth, or even a prior acquaintance with my work, the smile of contempt has grown less frequent, or turned into something warmer. At least, they may have heard, this fellow tries, and does his homework. I commit howlers, of course, but they mostly get picked up in review. Once or twice, I have even had an entire chapter returned to me by a distinguished professor with, at the end, a single tick. These are big moments in my life.

And something else, rather wonderful, has happened. I think that historians, seeing my efforts - and those I should add of many other historical novelists - have become more friendly towards us as a tribe. Indeed, many historians now acknowledge the value of fiction as a discipline for getting into the warp and woof of history - a subject I treat elsewhere in these notes. Not only that, but working with me, historians have quite often started getting into the thing themselves. "What about setting a scene there," they may suggest, or, "You could have a character like So-and-So." When I asked one professor for a good ecclesiastical scandal from the seventeenth century, he gleefully emailed me two by return, with the happy injunction: "Take your pick!" I used the first. The second, alas, was too indecent. I have even been lucky enough to be given small items of unpublished research for my use. It has rather amused those historians, I think, to see these little insights appearing discreetly in a work of popular fiction before they make their more sedate way through the academic presses.

So now, when I see that professor's smile, I am patient. For I hope to make it vanish. And I know, from happy experience, that it may be the prelude to friendship.

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