A guide to historical fiction

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This quote comes from the 1953 novel by L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between. And in recent years many people have been travelling to this country via historical fiction; there has been a glut of books taking us back in time – Cold Mountain, The Girl with the Pearl Earring and Restoration to name but a few. And all of these have been made into Hollywood films. I myself have just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, which is about Thomas Cromwell and is set against the backdrop of the court of Henry VIII. And I have also been watching the third series of The Tudors with Jonathon Rhys Meyers as the six-times married monarch.

We need to define what we mean by historical fiction. Looking on the internet one definition I liked referred to a historical novel as one set fifty or more years in the past and which is based on research. Not everyone will agree with this definition but it is a nice starting point for discussion. Historical fiction can also be divided into different subgenres. Here are some typical ones:

Traditional Historical Novels

These novels portray a historical period, place, and its inhabitants in a realistic way. For me the best example is Mary Renault, whose most famous works are set in Ancient Greece.

Sagas/Multi-Period Epics

These may focus on the domestic lives and family relationships of the protagonists. The action often takes place over various generations. Some authors condense this into one volume, whereas others prefer multiple volumes. Edward Rutherfurd uses a place – London, Dublin or New York as the central character. Into this milieu he transplants four to six fictional families and their descendents, who interact with real historical figures. His books tend to last around 1.000 pages, divided into a number of parts, each representing a specific period in the history of the place. This is rather formulaic but his novels are well-researched and do give you a feel for the history of a place.  

Historical Mysteries and Thrillers

In these novels fictional detectives from the past have to solve crimes, using techniques appropriate to the time period. At the same time we are immersed in the culture of a particular place. Examples include detectives such as Ellis Peters’s 12th-century monk/sleuth, Brother Cadfael and Lindsey Davis’s ancient Roman detective Didius Falco.

Romantic Historical Novels

These novels are set before WWII and the most famous subgenre is the regency romance. They are not generally characterised by their accuracy and their heroines often are for more educated than would have been typical at that time. What comes to mind is the helpless heroine who is rescued by the dashing hero. These novels are often known as “bodice-rippers” It is virtually obligatory for the cover picture to show the swooning, scantily-clad ample-bosomed heroine being grabbed by the hero.  Romantic fiction is not my cup of tea but it does enjoy a large following. Examples include Barbara Wood and Georgette Heyer

Historical Adventure

These novels go at breakneck speed and their heroic protagonists, always men, travel all around the world in their quest for adventure or to defeat their foes. Authors such as CS Forrester, Bernard Cornwell and Arturo Perez-Reverte spring to mind.

Alternate History

These novels examine alternative possible outcomes for past events, exploring how history may have changed as a result. As you may remember I am a big fan of counterfactuals as a way of making history more appealing. There is genre of fiction based on this premise.  My favourite has to be Harry Turtledove, who imagined aliens getting involved in WWII.

For some critics the term historical fiction may be an oxymoron. But I think that it is a fascinating way to bring history alive. I’ve never been into Tolkein I think the real world is so much more interesting than this artificial world. What really got me hooked on Rome were the book and the TV series of I Claudius. I love the feeling of being transported into another time period.

However, this is a complicated endeavour. I remember hearing a historian complaining about historical films. He said that they would claim that everything on the set was an exact reproduction of the particular period. But then the characters would open their mouths and would say things that no one of that period would have come out with. It is really important to capture this worldview. I’m not so worried if the author gets all the facts right but I don’t want them to project our ideology onto this period. Mary Renault is one of my favourite authors in this respect. I want someone to see both the differences and the similarities with our world. These similarities can be uncanny. In Ben Hur Messala tells his childhood friend you are either with us against us, a turn of phrase which George Bush would use to garner support in his War on Terror.

How important is accuracy? A couple of films about recent events bring this into relief. In the film In the Name of the Father the poster of Jimi Hendrix in the jail cell is a 1993 MCA reissue. This is pretty trivial. In the movie about the boxer Rubin Carter, the world championship bout with Joey Giardello is portrayed as a fix. Apparently the reality was different and even Carter himself, didn’t dispute the decision at the time. This is very serious. Firstly. because it is an insult to Giardello, whose training skill and sacrifice get in the way of the story that the director wanted to tell. I am also worried that if they can be so fast and loose with the truth in this instance, what credibility does the rest of the film have? Just because Bob Dylan sang about it doesn’t make it true. Books too can give a false impression. In I Claudius Robert attributes more murders to Livia than she was really responsible for. The problem is that it is difficult to know what happened all those years ago.  In The Da Vinci code Dan Brown claimed that 5 million women had been burned at the stake as witches. While the number is in dispute, most reasonable estimates put the true number of people burned – men and women – at between 40,000 and 60,000. Dan Brown was not alone in this error – this figure was also claimed by radical feminist Andrea Dworkin.

But I remain a fan. It is the job of schools to teach history. We will be in a sorry state if we depend on Hollywood or novelists for knowledge of history. Historical fiction can bring history to life in a way that non-fiction is just not capable of. Once that interest has been aroused, you can then go on to read what professional historians have to say.

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