I admit it; I'm a fanatic for historical accuracy in historical fiction. Minor discrepencies don't bother me much, and many authors use them to make the book flow better or to speed up the action. In fact, whenever I encounter such an inaccuracy, I can almost bet that the better authors will have a few pages toward the end of the book explaining what's gone on and into the reasoning for the change or inaccuracy. I can respect that. It's a nod to those who know the time period well, and it assumes that we will understand the rationale.
Last night I began a book I'd had lying on my nightstand for a couple of months entitled The Last Wife of Henry VIII by Carolly Erickson. It looked good, and the author is well-known for her biographies. Plus I'm a bit of a Tudor afficianado, though I'd never count myself among its experts. I made it to page 50 before chucking it; it's already been listed and requested at pbswap.com. I almost felt like I should've warned the requestor away, though I suppose to some people the problems I had with the book won't matter. But they matter to me and it makes me wonder: Why on earth would a well-known author play so fast and furious with the facts, knowing that the audience she's seeking to appeal to will be the one most likely to find fault?
I understand that the book is FICTION and as such, the author can do whatever she likes with the facts. I do not believe that exonerates her, however. How many people will pick up this book, with its stylish, headless cover, and, not knowing the time period, believe every word as fact? Don't tell me it doesn't happen. Recently on a book list, another friend and I enumerated for a third reader all the inaccuracies in Philippa Gregory's The Constant Princess. This reader took forgranted that the author simply brought to life the story of Catherine of Aragon by adding dialogue and a bit of intrigue. We extended the discussion into Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, which is a wildly popular title (and a very good read as well, setting aside its inaccuracies). Once informed, the third reader spent a bit of time looking up facts herself and came up with a laundry list of inaccuracies in both novels, none of which she would have known about had we not brought the subject up.
So why does this matter? It matters in a day and age when history is pushed further and further aside in schools and students never learn the names and actions of past leaders such as Elizabeth I, King John, Henry VIII, or anyone else like them. Remember, when we don't know the history, we're doomed to repeat it! It also matters in that this is just another way rumor becomes fact; before we know it, the only view of Henry VIII is that of a fat, licentious despot (okay, maybe there's *some* truth to that, but only in his later years) based on works of fiction. Why do lots of people think Richard III was a humpbacked miscreant responsible for the murder of his brother's sons? Because Shakespeare said it was so, and few people have been bothered to learn the truth. And that's not fair, and it's just one more way we've managed to dumb down the population at large.
I could list the inaccuracies in The Last Wife of Henry VIII, but I won't list them here simply because this post is already long. And to be fair, perhaps after 50 pages, I might have found that this story picked up nicely and stuck to the details. I'm not counting on it, however; the missing Author's Notes pages at the end of the book told me far more about the substance of this book than anything else could. And that's a shame.