One of Britainâ€™s most respected Tudor historians has expressed concern that prospective students imagine Hilary Mantelâ€™s novels are fact.
John Guy told the Hay literary festival in Wales that Mantelâ€™s Thomas Cromwell novels needed to be enjoyed for what they were: fiction.
Mantelâ€™s two novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, have been a literary phenomenon, both winning the Man Booker prize and being adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But they are novels, said Guy, despite what some applicants he interviews to study history at Cambridge seem to think.
â€œWe are starting to get people coming up who want to talk about Thomas Cromwell,â€ he said, and when asked where they have read about him the answer comes back â€“ Mantel. â€œThis blur between fact and fiction is troubling,â€ he said.
Guy has written numerous books on Tudor history, including a life of Mary, Queen of Scots and his latest book on Thomas More.
He said it was nonsense to think that Mantelâ€™s novels were historically accurate.
Guy recalled being out for the day after Mantel won the Booker prize for Wolf Hall in 2009 and returning home to find a stack of requests to write 1,000 words on how historically accurate the book was. He was also invited on BBC Radio 4â€™s Today programme. He declined all the offers.
â€œIt is a novel. It is just silly. When you are in a world of the novel, a world of theatre, you tell a lie to tell the truth.
â€œLet us get this straight, the genius of Mantel is that she is aiming to summon up ghosts and if you look at some of that dialogue, it is absolutely remarkable.â€
For what it is worth, Guy said, many things in Wolf Hall were wrong, particularly the depiction of More as a misogynistic, torturing villain.
Guy quoted from Anthony Trollopeâ€™s Barchester Towers (1857) about a novel always needing a male and female angel and a male and female devil.
In Wolf Hall, Anne Boleyn is the female devil, depicted in a way which â€œhistorically is completely untrueâ€, and More is the male devil.
He said there was no evidence More was a misogynist or torturer. The case that he was comes from the writings of the Elizabethan John Foxe and Guy said Mantel was not the only one to rely on Foxeâ€™s word.
Guy said that his old tutor, the late Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton, â€œbelieved every word Foxe wrote, he lapped up everythingâ€.
Guy said much of what Foxe wrote was because he loathed More. Foxe often uses phrases such as â€œas reported by credible witnessesâ€ or as â€œcredible witnesses sayâ€.
â€œLadies and gentlemen, I have to tell you, when any Tudor writer says â€¦ â€˜by credible witnessesâ€™ it means: â€˜Here come the alternative facts.â€™â€
Mantel also gets facts wrong, such as referring to the wrong sheriff of London who leads More to the scaffold, he said.
â€œDo I care? No. It is a novel,â€ Guy said. He said Mantelâ€™s depiction of More was over the top and â€œtoo stark for my tastesâ€, but it was more scary that the writing was so good that some people think it is true.
Mantel has never claimed her novels are anything but fiction, although based on fact and exhaustive research. This year she railed against her â€œcringeingâ€ contemporaries in historical fiction who â€œtry to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliographyâ€.
â€œYou have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringeing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary,â€ she said.
In Juneâ€™s edition of BBC History magazine, she said she had to know as much about the characters as any biographer would â€œand then add value by taking the story where the historian and biographer canâ€™t go. However much you learn, factually, there is plenty of scope for imagination.â€
Asked if she could understand why some historians dislike historical fiction, she replied: â€œPerhaps they think we are parasites and that we steal their sales. To be fair, I think historians worry about the prospect of the public being misled.â€
Mantel, who is writing the third and final instalment of her Thomas Cromwell story, will this summer use the BBC Reith lectures to explore the subject of fact and fiction.
She told the Observer: â€œFacts and alternative facts, truth and verisimilitude, knowledge and information, art and lies: what could be more timely or topical than to discuss where the boundaries lie?â€