So I just read this article which I have several problems with. Don't get me wrong; I see where the author is coming from. He's pointing out the difference between mistakes and intentional changes to the historical record in history. This is an important distinction to make. However, I must differ with his idea that this is the fundamental distinction to be made in the matter of historical accuracy in historical fiction. If fiction existed in a vacuum then yes, any intentional changes made by novelists (or playwrights, or filmmakers, or what have you) in the service of their storytelling would be fine. (We're assuming, for the sake of argument, that said changes actually improve the story, though we know well that they often do the opposite.)
I've said it before, I know, and doubtless the author of this piece would accuse me of being one of those fussy historians who think "the facts are the story" - I, of course, would say that the facts are often the story, but not always - but I think the spinner of historical fictions has a duty both to the people, events, ideas even that s/he writes about and to his or her audience. As such, a minor mistake such as a miscount of priests, unless it happens so often that it's clear the author either did no research and thus does not respect his or her readers, matters much less to me than a deliberate historical manipulation. Turning a real historical figure into the opposite of what they were - which, by the way, happens much more often for political than for entertainment reasons - shows a level of disrespect to the past and to one's audience that I for one cannot abide.
Shakespeare (whoever he was), as one commenter points out, is not a good role model in this case. I know little enough about Richard III, other than he was a king and that for this alone he has earned from me a certain base level of contempt, and that Shakespeare wants me to despise him, because the Tudors want me to despise him. I understand in terms of Shakespeare's own historical context, why he portrayed Richard, or really any of the characters in his history plays the way he did. That doesn't mean because Shakespeare did it, the best literary decisions are made based on political expediency. Lying to blacken or whitewash a historical figure tends to make less interesting reading/viewing in any case. History, apart from its own merits, tends to provide one with nuanced characters, and in that sense, yes the story *is* in the facts.
Does this mean that a novel needs to get bogged down in a bunch of little facts? That I've sinned against history if I don't quote a speech in full or describe in detail all the disgusting things lying in the street every time someone goes outside? Of course not. But if I rearrange that speech so that it says the opposite of what the original conveyed or if I claim that the streets were squeaky clean in centuries past? Well, then I've done both history and my readers a disservice.
Which brings me to what I think is the real point to be made about historical accuracy: not mistakes vs. intentional changes, but the letter vs. the spirit.
(I should note, by the way, that saying "I'm writing a historical AU" changes the situation somewhat. But not entirely. An AU is asking "what if" and there are only so many what ifs a story can take and retain credibility. If you have more than one, they should probably be a result of one another. In other words, you can either start from the premise that there were unicorns in 18th century France or that France won the Seven Years War or that France won the Seven Years War because of the unicorns. Don't ask, "what if there were unicorns in 18th century France" and "what if France won the Seven Years War" if those two questions are unrelated. And certainly keep scrupulously within the realm of historical accuracy for other unrelated details, or why the hell are you writing an AU and not just a fantasy novel?)
(I should also note that I'm not among those who thinks that history should be used as pure entertainment or that things that are "just for entertainment" should be beyond the reach of critique, but if you're going to write some such historically inaccurate work would it kill you to put a disclaimer on it instead of proclaiming what you've written to be history or even historical fiction in the traditional sense?)
...And after all that, I still fine myself agreeing to a large extent with this commenter (though I would put in that I don't think it necessarily has to be that way).
Actually though, this whole post was just an excuse to reply to this comment. While it's nice to know we're not the only ones who have a problem with Mantel's misogyny, and I obviously agree that manipulating history to make "some wicked, wicked woman," in the commenter's words the root cause of every historical event (especially the negative ones) is helpful for nothing, least of all for making for a more interesting plot... "humane yet corrupt indulgence" vs. "idealistic but ruthless virtue"? Seriously? Did this person get his or her history for Wajda? Because, honestly, I don't think setting up these sorts of dichotomies is a much more evolved explanation than "it was all the fault of those evil wimmens." Because, I don't know about you, but if I can't think of any time when Robespierre was corrupt, I can certainly think of many times when he was humane and it could be argued that there were times he was even indulgent. Likewise, there are certainly times when Danton can be argued to have been idealistic, ruthless, and even virtuous, depending on how you read his actions. But Supreme Being forbid a novelist should explore these nuances and abandon a perfectly good opportunity to regale us with the dangers of virtue and idealism.
In other news, I have my visa now, and it is shiny and amazing. And it also has the nifty feature that if I were to decide I wanted to renew it for another year (not that I'm planning on doing that at the moment) I wouldn't even have to leave France to do it. I love it to death. ♥