Some academics think the authors of historical fiction peddle myths, exploit their labour and wallow in sentimentality. But could dialogue between the two play a role in promoting public understanding of the past? asks Matthew Reisz

In 2005, the novelist Kate Grenville published The Secret River, a book about a petty criminal transported to New South Wales who builds a new life on “virgin” land already occupied by Aboriginal people. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Australian film director Neil Armfield described it as “a key to understanding our past”.

How had Grenville managed to write so convincingly about another era? Along with a great deal of library research, she had set out alone into the bush and even used a rag dipped in lamb’s fat to make a traditional “slush lamp”. When she lit the rag and was engulfed by the foul smell it produced, she reported in her account of the book’s genesis, Searching for the Secret River: The Story Behind the Bestselling Novel (2007), she “learned more about life in a bark hut on the Hawkesbury (River) in 1817 than all the books in the world could have told me”.

Her claim is not unusual; we often hear that novelists use empathy to transport themselves to places mere historians can never reach. They are said to offer a different – and perhaps a deeper – kind of truth than those constrained by hard factual evidence. Many believed that Grenville was implying that she had created a new sort of history.

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