Like a number of other bloggers I am preparing to start the Coursera MOOC, Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction and one of the papers suggested as prior reading before the lectures begin has set me wondering what exactly fits into the category of historical fiction.
Perry Anderson’s essay, From Progress to Catastrophe, first published in the London Review of Books, takes a broad look at the genre from the earliest days of its inception through to the present day and while all the usual suspects are discussed in respect of the period up to the 1950s and 60s some of the more recent novels he mentions took me by surprise.
One of the reasons I decided to take this course was that I have always considered myself to have a problem with historical fiction. Probably this is because I grew up in the 50s and 60s and was not a particularly discriminating reader. As Anderson says:
The Second World War, when it came, reinforced the effects of the first. The flow of historical fiction at the lowest levels of the genre… swelled again as the mass literary markets expanded with the post-war boom: in Britain hoary sagas of doughty patriots battling against Napoleon poured – and still pour – off the presses… over time, this output has yielded a teeming universe that can be glimpsed in such omnibus guides as What Historical Novel Do I Read Next?, with it’s capsule descriptions of more than 6000 titles, and league tables of the most popular historical periods, favoured geographical settings and, last but not least, ‘top historical characters’ – Henry VIII and Jesus Christ tie for fourth place.
I know that some people will take exception to the phrase lowest levels of the genre but what I was reading was and as I began to study literature more thoroughly and became more judicious in my selection of reading matter I left historical fiction behind me not realising that even then there was more to the genre than I was giving it credit for. As Anderson points out this was also the period in which Lampedusa’a The Leopard appeared and the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairene Trilogy, Palace Walk, was published. However, I read neither of these books because I had walked away from the historical novel, I was now looking for more literary material.
Except, as the latter part of this essay makes clear, I hadn’t left the genre behind. What I somehow failed to recognise was that many of the literary novels I was reading (and let’s not get into a discussion as to how you define the term literary in that context) were also historical fiction. I’m afraid my early acquaintance with those hoary sagas, not to mention an occasional session with the odd bodice-ripper, had blinded me to the fact that it is perfectly possible to write a literary novel and set it in a period that pre-dates our own.
So, when Anderson starts to talk about such favourites as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and A S Byatt’s Possession, I find myself being brought up short. These are not historical fiction, they are literary novels. But of course they are historical novels as well, it is just that in my blindness I haven’t been able to see that. As Bones might have said: “it’s historical fiction, Alex, but not as you know it”.
I have been equating historical fiction with some of the poorly researched and even more poorly written novels that I read in my teens – how much more stupid can I get? Especially as I know just how much research goes into some of those current historically based books. I was listening to Simon Mawer, author of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky only last week saying that a novelist who works in an historical period must always know that period so well that they are aware every time they deviate from the facts and be able to defend their decision. And for goodness sake, the writer I probably admire more than any other is Hilary Mantel!
I suspect that what has been happening here is that I have been more concerned with what has been occurring in the plots of these books and with the universalities of the themes that the writers have been exploring than I have with the setting. That they are placed in the dim and distant past (or in some cases not so dim or distant) has passed me by as I have focused on what the author has had to say about the eternal truths of human nature, forgetting that the very fact that those truths are eternal means that they cross centuries as well as geographical and social borders. If nothing else, this course is going to make me re-evaluate my approach to the genre and reconsider some of those books that I have read without really taking account of their historical context in the past.
Oh, and by the way, if anyone happens to know who came first, second and third in that list of ‘top historical characters’, i have to admit that I would dearly love to know.