Thursday, 1 October 2009

Historical novels are back in fashion: how useful are they for gaining a deeper understanding the past?

by Kathryn Hadley

The Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist, announced at the beginning of September, was, this year, dominated by historical novels. According to Jerome de Groot from the University of Manchester and author of The Historical Novel, published at the end of October, historical novels have finally been given the recognition they deserve. Do works of fiction with a historical theme, however, deserve the same recognition as historical studies? Do historical novels not constitute an altogether different source for the study of the past, which should be evaluated by very different rules?

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
contemporary politics.’

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 novel.’

The winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction will be announced on October 6th. Will the historical novel triumph at last?


Cathy Marie Buchanan said...
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Cathy Marie Buchanan said...

Natasha Walter's idea that historical novels "prevented engagement with serious issues" is absurd. My debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, in part, tells the story of early hydroelectric development on the Niagara River. In doing so it takes a look at our predecessor’s growing need for energy and the tradeoffs made in terms of diverting massive amounts of water (up to 75% of the natural flow of the river) way from Niagara Falls for the generation of hydroelectricity. Is our continued insatiable need for energy and the damage we continue to wreak on our natural world (i.e., climate change) not a serious issue? Did I miss something?

Sandra Gulland. said...

As a writer of historical fiction, I've been somewhat puzzled by the line between fact and fiction. In my extensive research, I often discover that historians create fictions, and, conversely, that works of fiction often reveal profound truths.

(I rather like this quote from Peter Ackroyd: "In biographies you can make things up. In novels you are obliged to tell the truth.")

I very much agree with Cathy Marie Buchanan: historical novels often not only deal with serious issues, but they can do so in a way that an academic approach may fail to do, and that's by connecting events to the human dimension: the cause with the very real day-to-day effect.

I'm thrilled to see so many historical fiction titles on this year's Booker list. (I'm placing my bet on Wolf Hall.) In Canada, as well, historical novels have taken pride of place in the awards lists this year.


Sandra Gulland

Author of the Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun

Unknown said...

Historical novels are a completely different endeavor than nonfiction history books and should be read quite differently. Novels are intended to engage a reader's imagination, to challenge a reader to ask "What if...?" Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (which I've reviewed here) is a great example of responsible historical fiction. It takes the bare documentation of factual history and weaves a fully imagined world around them to give readers a visceral sense of how people may very well have thought and felt about the events of their time. Engaging the emotions and imagination as powerfully as it does, it's much more effective as a corrective to the myths we have come to believe about Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More than a merely factual account would be. But it's fiction - as such, it should teach us to keep our minds flexible, not to accept any particular account as the absolute truth.

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