The past fifteen to twenty years have seen a marked rise in the publication of historical novels, which have notably become increasingly represented in literary competitions such as the Booker Prize. In de Groot's opinion, after years as being regarded as a substandard genre of romance or military fantasy, this increased representation and recognition was long overdue.
‘Nowadays, many of our important and popular writers – Sarah Waters, Pat Barker,
Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, David Peace – have spent most of their careers
writing about the past. But I’ll bet many writers will still describe themselves
as ‘writers of fiction which is historical in nature’ – rather than ‘historical
novelists’. That‘s because many people still associate the genre as
bodice-rippers with a bibliography. These novels have always been popular- just
not necessarily with middle class intellectuals. The influence of the greatest
historical novelist of them all, Sir Walter Scott who pioneered the genre 180
year ago, is still felt today.’
Historians have attributed this renewed popularity to a change in the writing of history, which has moved away from a history of ‘great men’, monarchs and statesmen, to focus on a more emotional and intimate history of ordinary people and their everyday lives. This history writing ‘from below’ has given a voice to women and poor people, for example, who were previously ignored and silenced.
The reviews section of our October issue is devoted to historical novels. It features a series of reviews and articles discussing the genre and questioning why historical fiction has come to recent prominence, what it may add to the record or whether it constitutes a different source altogether. In one of the articles, Jerome de Groot himself discusses the rise of the historical novel over the past two decades. He argues against former Booker Prize judge Natasha Walter who, in 1999, claimed that the novelist’s obsession with ‘the minutiae of the past prevented engagement with serious issues’. In de Groot’s words:
‘The historical novel has always been a vehicle for writers to consider issues
of representation, nationhood, identity and to reflect on the state of
He refers to a sort of pact and complicity which historical novels create between the author and the reader and explains how part of the pleasure of reading historical fiction is the very fact that the reader is knowingly drawn into a manifestly false but historically detailed world.
‘Historical novels lie: they make a contract with the reader – who understands
it’s not for real which is why critics - who are normally historians- have no
grounds for complaint. This genre is the most profound and influential form of
The winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction will be announced on October 6th. Will the historical novel triumph at last?