Fact and Fiction

The popularity of historical fiction is riding high – novels as well as television, radio and cinema adaptations. As historians, it is difficult to switch off, because we need to know what is true and what is invention, but some readers treat fiction as a way of getting inside historical periods. This can be hazardous, since the priority of a novelist is to produce a convincing story with an authentic atmosphere, even if it means subverting facts. One of the joys of writing history books is that they are based on evidence, and everything is true, however strange.

Having been immersed in Jane Austen for ages, we have spotted numerous spin-off novels, from vampires to prequels and sequels. With two exceptions, we have resisted them – to avoid mixing fact and fiction in our own minds. One exception was Death Comes to Pemberley by the late P.D. James, which is a Pride and Prejudice sequel with a mystery plot – but it was a disappointing novel full of errors. At our talks, everyone agreed and also asked: ‘Is Longbourn accurate?’ This novel by Jo Baker is a version of Pride and Prejudice told from the servants’ quarters. Try as we might, it is impossible to find fault with Longbourn. It is exquisitely written, and Jane Austen would surely have loved it. We are now looking forward to the film. If you have read our book first (Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s EnglandJane Austen’s England in the US), you will appreciate Longbourn so much more.