For or Against the Historical Novel?

    I have always loved historical novels. As a girl, I was never interested in what has become known as “teen literature”. I had enough gum-chewing high school classmates struggling with parental authority and weight issues, obsessing over their latest crush and the snide remarks of the local Little Miss Popular, and I had no wish whatsoever to find them again within the covers of my books. I wanted stories that were set in a previous century, and heroines who wore their hair and their dresses long. I wanted candlelight, not electricity; horses and carriages instead of cars; pewter and willow ware in place of Tupperware; embroidered bodices and hoop skirts instead of jeans and tank tops. Almost fifteen years later, I have broadened my literary horizons somewhat, but my gratitude to Sir Walter Scott for introducing this genre into literature is undiminished, and books like Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, or Penelope Williamson’s Heart of the West still rank high on my list of favourite reads.

      Yes, historical novels have afforded me a great deal of pleasure over the years. And I have learnt a lot through them as well. Indeed, I think that historical novels – provided they are not chock full of anachronisms and inaccuracies, of course – are a wonderful way of teaching (and learning) History. They make History come alive in a way that textbooks full of dry facts can never hope to equal. What better way to explain the complex and dangerous world of King Henry VIII’s court than through the novels of Philippa Gregory, to take but one well-known example? I read novels about pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, about the quest for lapis lazuli to make blue paint for the Virgin Mary’s robes in Renaissance Italy, about the 1689 Massacre of Glencoe and the 1745 Jacobite uprising, to name but a few. And later on, when a teacher referred to one or other of these events, I was able to say to myself: “Ah yes, it’s like that book I read” and the date stuck. Educationally, historical novels are invaluable.

     But as literature, what are they worth? Jude Morgan, another well-known historical novelist, whose comedy of manners An Accomplished Woman I had occasion to discuss here a few weeks ago, is a case in point. His Regency novels are well researched, well written, and entertaining. Yet in my opinion, they are not – and cannot be – in the same league as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility and the rest of the Jane Austen novels they seek to imitate. They cannot be Literature for the simple reason that that is exactly what they are: imitative rather than creative. In this sense, Jude Morgan is a craftsman rather than an artist: he has learnt the tools of his trade, and very creditably makes his money by banking on his readership’s desire for empire waists, impeccably tied neck cloths, familiar landmarks such as the Bath Pump Room, and Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet type relationships. The setting appeals more to the reader here than the plot (which is comfortingly predictable). Reading books like these is a form of escapism.

     From a writer’s point of view, I used to swear by the historical novel and nothing else. A heroine was not worth her salt if she wasn’t surrounded by the romantic golden aura of the Olden Days. A heroine swept up by the winds of history, destiny, and passion did not sit in her pyjamas eating ice-cream out of the tub and snivelling over her latest break-up – she did something desperate, made some grand gesture, or at the very least roamed a lonely heath, and made herself worthy of featuring in a ballad (or on a Walker’s biscuit tin…). Accordingly, my closest friends were subjected to pages and pages of beautiful maidens, wearing beautiful dresses, in love with beautiful gentlemen – all, needless to say, in beautiful coats and powdered wigs – who ended up languishing in remote and romantic castles in graceful attitudes of inconsolable sorrow. Until I realized that kind of thing only worked when you knew what the hell you were talking about.

     Which brings me to my next point: that historical fiction is only pleasurable and educational if it is historically accurate. It is simply not enough to throw in a reference here and there to the length of a sleeve or the cut of a coat – or, as I once did, to have Dr. Johnson talking about his dictionary, Samuel Richardson about Pamela, and the members of the Hell Fire Club about The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (all in the same room!!) – in  order to bring the eighteenth century to life. Every little detail becomes important and significant, and the amateur historical novelist can be caught out in an embarrassing number of inaccuracies. I deeply admire those who are capable of writing this kind of work, for thorough research is necessary – and this is where I balk. I have no intention of becoming a fact checker or data processor. I really do not see myself like Georgette Heyer, filling boxes with notes on eating habits, appropriate endearments, common terms of abuse, and thousands of other similar details. The very thought of that is quite simply exhausting. 

     So, with considerable regret but also a little secret relief, I have abandoned all intention of writing historical novels. I shall continue to read them, but shall leave the writing of them to more assiduous and competent people. I have decided to write about my own world, to place my stories within contemporary settings (the world is wide enough, and rich enough, heaven knows, to allow for variety and exoticism!) and to create heroes and heroines who are hopefully less romantic than real and believable. And because the lure of past centuries is too strong to be completely ignored, I will play with historical references, and by weaving them into the very fabric of my writing, attempt to show that History is not remote and fixed – caught, as it were, like an insect in amber – but that it continues to affect us and to add layers of meaning to our lives.

© Florence Berlioz 2011

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About Miss Darcy's Library

I love books - buying books, reading books, discussing books, and generally admiring them from all angles (except the e-book). I also love tea, roses, and my dogs, and seldom pass up an opportunity to slip them into the conversation.
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