A true story: defining accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction

Historical fictions create stories about events and individuals that once existed. Anxiety around the truth of such fictions is common and ‘authenticity’ and ‘accuracy’ are familiar terms in such discourse. However, this language is often used interchangeably with both terms typically referencing a text’s perceived truthfulness. This article argues for a distinction between accuracy and authenticity in historical fictions, proposing definitions for both terms. Accuracy denotes the extent to which a text’s representation is consistent with available evidence. It is concerned with historical veracity and whether specific aspects of an historical fiction can be considered factual. Authenticity, however, refers to an impression of accuracy and the extent to which readers believe that a representation captures the past. Appraisals of authenticity are subjective and are shaped by the prior representations of the past that have been encountered by an individual reader. Such perceptions might be informed by historical research, yet they are not necessarily so. Authentic representations need not be accurate. Using textual analyses of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Peter Morgan’s The Crown, the article demonstrates how accuracy and authenticity allow for discussion of the complex relations between fiction, evidence, truth, and culture in our reading of historical fiction.