Beyond the Bodice-Ripper
It would now be difficult to think of a serious contemporary novelist who has not written at least one historical novel and many 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.
Try thinking of a writer who hasn’t done ‘history’ over the past few decades – the list is pretty short, reflecting the fact that novelists are increasingly comfortable writing historical fiction. The form can no longer be dismissed as ‘a bodiceripper with a bibliography’. At the same time, historical writing has achieved huge commercial and global success in an unprecedented way. Popular writers like Philippa Gregory, Ken Follett and Bernard Cornwell sell in their millions, but literary novelists such as Waters or Atwood also have large readerships. Historical fiction is written by a variety of authors, within a developing set of subgenres, for a range of audiences.
The literary turn back to history was noted by the Booker prize judge Natasha Walter in 1999. She claimed that a novelist’s obsession with the minutiae of the past prevented engagement with serious issues. This concern seems misplaced. 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. Novelists realise that writing about the past allows them to explore the present imaginatively and undertake sophisticated investigation of a multitude of issues, themes, places and characters.
The historical novelist explores the displacement between then and now, making the past both recognisable but simultaneously, authentically unfamiliar. As Alessandro Manzoni argued in 1850, the historical novelist is required to give ‘not just the bare bones of history, but something richer, more complete. In a way you want him to put the flesh back on the skeleton that is history.’ Or, as Hilary Mantel recently wrote, the writer must ‘unfreeze antique feeling, unlock the emotion stored and packed tight in paper, brick and stone’. Much criticism of the historical novel concerns this imaginative superaddition to ‘fact’, and indeed those who criticise the form believe it knowingly misinforms, misleads and dupes.
Yet as Jonathan Nield pointed out in 1902, when reading historical fiction ‘we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked’, consciously engaging with a text that is actively, explicitly lying to us while simultaneously claiming that it is somehow historically accurate and truthful. Part of the pleasure of reading historical fiction is this process of being drawn into a manifestly false but historically detailed world. This is why the overly self-conscious conclusion of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), when the narrator is revealed as an insincere historical novelist, divided readers. The form might be likened to science fiction, which the great critic Darko Suvin claims works due to ‘the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition’. We recognise the past while being distanced from it. This is perhaps why many contemporary historians are taking up the mode. Fictionalising history allows them latitude and freedom to explore the past while also encompassing questions of indeterminacy, authenticity and truth.