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Signposts: Historical Fiction

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What can historical fiction tell us about the past that factual history can’t? Does it distort the record and confuse the reader? What exactly is historical fiction anyway? 

First edition (Italian) of Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose'These were some of the questions raised at a recent conference at the Institute of Historical Research at which History Today Editor, Paul Lay, hosted a discussion between Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, and the Tudor historian David Loades.

Historians often describe themselves as detectives, seeking out a kind of truth among the conflicting evidence of the past. There is, furthermore, a large and growing subgenre of historical crime fiction. From C.J. Sansom to Philip Pullman, from Orhan Pamuk to Walter Mosley, from Ellis Peters to Boris Akunin, novelists have been keen to use the past as a backdrop for their stories of detection and mystery. The most famous historical detective might be Brother William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s peerless The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa, 1980). Recently we have seen a flowering of historical crime fiction as the subgenre attains maturity and becomes increasingly popular and innovative. Jason Goodwin, Philip Kerr and Susan Hill were all shortlisted for the prestigious Crime Writers Association Dagger this year (recent historical winners include Arianna Franklin, Jake Arnott and Craig Russell). Clearly the combination of thriller, crime and historical detail is compelling.

Anne Perry’s new Inspector Pitt novel, Betrayal at Lisson Grove (out in paperback from Headline this year) is a pacy, twisting thriller. It is 1895 and Pitt is up against a conspiracy in the Lisson Grove offices of Special Branch (in best le Carré tradition investigating the enemy within is more hazardous than looking outwards). The novel outlines a huge conspiracy and ranges from St Malo to Dublin. While it is often too lightly written and some of the relationships are awkwardly handled, the novel is compelling and narratively satisfying. Perry’s series of Victorian crime novels based on Pitt in the 1890s and Inspector Monk in the 1860s are well worth getting to know. She has a feel for quick period detail and a flair for character. Nothing if not prolific, her two key series (Monk and Pitt) have produced some 45 novels.

Series concerning a central character are the main way that these types of novel develop (reflecting their roots in Holmes, Cadfael and their ilk). Andrew Martin’s The Somme Stations (out in Faber paperback) is the seventh Jim Stringer novel. Stringer works for the railway police, so his investigations take place around trains and stations. They are evocatively written and thoughtfully put together. While they can be a bit dry for my taste, they do the trains well and are page-turners. A more interesting option might be the Victor Legris series by Claude Izner, the latest of which is Strangled in Paris (trans. Jennifer Higgins, Gallic Books). These French novels of 1890s Paris are nicely louche and full of elegant intrigue, and worth taking a look at.

Away from the crime scene, there are a few literary historical fiction books of interest. Barry Unsworth’s novel Sacred Hunger won the Booker prize in 1992, groundbreaking insofar as it was one of the first books to take an unflinching look at the slave trade. The loose sequel, The Quality of Mercy (Hutchinson), has been long-awaited but is disappointing. It follows various of the characters from the previous novel and introduces a new sub-plot about mining in the North-East (concluding by making some relatively simplistic comparisons between class and slavery). The dialogue is static and the prose over-expository – in reaching for a style that echoes the formality of the period Unsworth unfortunately produces a book that is, despite its incendiary subject matter, quite dull. There are some long and over-involved legal scenes and the representation of the abolitionists makes them out to be effete and anodyne. Even Erasmus Kemp, the monstrous figure from Sacred Hunger, becomes a listless figure and his supposed redemption lacks bite.

Ellen Feldman’s Next to Love (Picador) is a very interesting account of the impact of war (and bereavement) on the lives of American women in the 20 years from 1944. It is thoughtfully written and traces well the shifts and changes in life over two decades.

Lastly, two books have recently appeared that discuss the origins of historical prose fiction in British culture. Anne Stevens, British Historical Fiction Before Scott (Palgrave), discusses work from the 50 or so years preceding Waverley and makes the case for the genre as being vibrant and complex before the incisive intervention of Scott. Alex Davis’ intriguing Renaissance Historical Fiction (Boydell and Brewer) looks at the prose writings of Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas Nashe and others to construct an argument about Early Modern historical culture. Both make the case for thinking about the historical novel in a much wider chronological way (although both point out the difference in definitions of ‘history’ between then and now). They are academic but accessible and point out once again that this is a time for great innovation in the ways in which we think about historical novels and the writing of fictions about the past. The historical novel as literary genre is increasingly well resourced academically, as Brian Hamnett’s forthcoming The Historical Novel in 19th-century Europe: Representations of Reality in History and Fiction (Oxford University Press) demonstrates.

Jerome de Groot is author of The Historical Novel (Routledge, 2009).



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