Historical Novels

By Gardiner, Juliet | History Today, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Historical Novels


Gardiner, Juliet, History Today


History Today has not by tradition reviewed historical novels, but it's a position that has seemed increasingly purblind as more such novels are published. Several respected historians are turning to fictionalise their subjects and major novelists are delving into the past to great effect. In future occasional reviews of historical novels will appear and this month a series of articles and reviews discuss the genre: why it has come to recent prominence, what insights it might bring, what historical fiction might add to the record, or whether it constitutes a different beast altogether to be evaluated and appreciated by very different rules.

It is a protean field: novels bring to life the past from prehistoric times to decades that nudge our present one. Apart from the novels discussed below, this autumn sees a departure by Lindsey Davis from her successful Falco series set in the Ancient World (a Companion is promised in 2010) into the English Civil War, with Rebels and Traitors (Century, 18.99 [pounds sterling]); Fiona Mountain's latest novel, Lady of the Butterflies (Preface, 12.99 [pounds sterling]), is based on the life of Lady Eleanor Granville, a pioneering 17th-century lepidopterist; Mary Hoffman's Troubadour (Bloomsbury, 10.99 [pounds sterling]) is a 'story of poetry and persecution,' published 800 years after the crusade against the Cathars; Kate Mosse, fresh from the triumphs of Labyrinth and Sepulchure, moves into the 20th century with a mystical story set in the aftermath of the First World War, The Winter Ghosts (Orion, 14.99 [pounds sterling]); while Philippa Gregory releases another, no doubt bestselling Tudor tumult, White Queen (Simon & Schuster, 18.99 [pounds sterling]), the story of Elizabeth Woodville. There will be more, many more ...

'We need a new kind of historical novel because there's a new kind of history,' urged a successful practioner of the former art, Sarah Dunant, speaking at an event organised by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London, in June. Dunant, whose latest novel, Sacred Hearts, the final volume of a trilogy set in Italy 'within 100 years of the Renaissance,' was in conversation with Hilary Mantel, whose acclaimed exploration of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, was also published this summer, and with John Sutherland, Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of English at University College London, critic, biographer, autobiographer and author of such literary teases as Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? Birkbeck's Professor Joanna Bourke, one of Britain's most imaginative and innovative historians, held the ring.

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Dunant's challenging words would seem to have already found a response. In 2009 alone, other major novelists such as Sarah Waters (A Little Stranger), Adam Thorpe (Hodd) and Giles Foden (Turbulence) have mined the past for their plots and their characters. The historian Saul David has projected his interests in imperial conflicts into the sphere of fiction in Zulu Hart and Stella Tillyard, whose Aristocrats set a benchmark for the empathetic history of women's lives, is now finishing her first novel set in the Napoleonic Wars.

Empathy and evidence

But what is it that is 'new' about history that such novels reflect? 'I hate the term historical novelist,' Mantel protested.' It makes it sound as if we all write the same sort of book. I would prefer it to be thought of as contemporary fiction about past events. It was history that brought me to history, not novels, and I try to write a kind of fiction that balances empathy with evidence.'

Dunant, however, admitted that it was reading historical novels when she was young that kindled a love of history: 'I grew up in the suffocatingly dull 1950s,' she recalled, 'and the question was always how to escape it. As a fast-track the past was compelling. It was everything the present was not. Vibrant, flamboyant, immoral, careless, war-torn and so interesting. …

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