Historical fiction…some brief thoughts

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall cover

Cover image (Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia)

I have never really thought of myself as a reader of historical fiction but of course I have read quite a bit of historical fiction, not because I seek it as a genre but because some of the, for want of a better word, literary fiction that comes my way is, also, historical fiction. Take last year’s Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for example. (This is not my review of it, that will come next week)

A writer of The Guardian Books Blog wrote a little on the topic after the announcement suggesting that historical fiction has regained some “gravitas” in recent years but also recognised:

Writing in 1850, Alessandro Manzoni argued that novelists were different from historians because they 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”. This is key, I think, to understanding fiction about the past.

However, the tension between the bones of fact and the fictional flesh can be problematic, as Leon Garfield argued: “Often you have to suppress what you actually know, and do it in a way that doesn’t seem as though you’re doing it, and you can only do that, I find, by being very subjective in your writing.” The historical novel writer is forced to acknowledge the innate fictionality of what they are doing and the way it suffuses everything, even the so-called “facts”.

Here in Australia we had a little furore over an historical novel, Kate Grenville’s The secret river, as I briefly referred to in an earlier post, and it was largely over her suggestion that novelists could add to our understanding of history. I think she understood very well “the tension between the bones of fact and the fictional flesh”: she knows that there are things that history can’t tell us and that there is a place for “imagining” how and why things actually happened, for trying to get in the heads of the people of the times. Sophisticated readers of fiction, I believe, can make this distinction, can understand that it is fiction they are reading while also recognising that this fiction may also contribute to their appreciation of the past.

I’ll probably come back to this again in future posts, but I thought I’d make an observation about how a couple of recent authors have handled presenting to their readers the historicity of their fiction. Salman Rushdie in The enchantress of Florence provides an 8-page bibliography at the end of the book demonstrating the extent of his research and giving his readers the option of following up anything they are interested in. (The fact that this book also includes magical/fantastical material as well doesn’t, I think, deny its historical aspect). Hilary Mantel doesn’t do this, but she provides an extensive list of characters and two family trees at the beginning of the novel. And like many authors of historical fiction she provides an Author’s Note to explain some of her sources and historical decisions. Kate Grenville, though, went one step further: she wrote a follow-up book, Searching for The secret river, which chronicled in detail her writing process for her book and how and why, in fact, she turned it from a biography of her ancestor into an historical novel with a fictional protagonist!

22 thoughts on “Historical fiction…some brief thoughts

  1. I concur wholeheartedly with your comments here Sue, on the ‘fact’ that fiction gives us greater imaginative depth and a possibly more intimate approach to historical ‘truth’ than an historian might. Mind you, historians as we know, can be very subconsciously subjective and shape a perspective on history that is strongly directed towards one position. Just see the postmodern view of history!
    However, if the novelist lacks sufficient literary skills then the hsitorical novel can be a very dry, overly-structured thing indeed.
    I’ve almost finished reading Edward Rutherford’s ‘New York’, and whilst I’ve found the imaginative presentation of history interesting and the huge novel is very readable, I find myself longing for more artistic literary language!

    • Thanks Steph…agree too with your comments. As I said to Hannah below I have been known to argue that fiction is more “honest” in that at least it admits to being an interpretation! But, of course, as you say there is a lot of ordinary historical fiction out there – I guess many people write and read it for the racy stories and/or adventurous plots rather than for insight into people and their motivations. It’s the writers who are interested in the latter whose books, I guess, make it into the literary fiction lists. Nothing wrong with the others if that’s what you love to read but for me it’s the literary language and approach to the subject that I tend to look for. Another great example is, I think, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace!

  2. I think historical fiction can lend great insight into both “history” and “fiction”, so long as one remembers that it is, in fact, merely one writer’s re-imagining of something that happened. I’ve enjoyed quite a few historical novels, but I never start acting as though they constitute “the” truth – instead, I enjoy how they lead me to think about just how and why people are the way they are, past and present!

    • Absolutely Hannah – just like any history cannot really be taken as “the” truth either, Eh? Both are interpretations and I have been known to argue that the best historical fiction can be more honest in the sense that by its very form it admits to being an interpretation!

  3. Of course fiction can go where non-fiction cannot. Historians, if they are publicized, would be taken to task for inventing anything but writers of fiction just bow out saying, “It’s Fiction!” They don’t have to justify anything they write because their only rule is that they must be entertaining. If the author of a novel wants to tell us that her stuff is history then she’s going to be held to the same standards as those who write history and asked about sources. I much prefer Olga Clendinnen to Grenville.

    Anyway, I am really really really enjoying Wolf Hall! I feel like I’m there in the 16th century with Cromwell. But it’s written for contemporary readers in lovely contemporary English. I should finish today or tomorrow.

    I also enjoyed The Enchantress of Florence in part because I think Rushdie was giving us glimpses of 16th century India and Akbar (born like 2 years after Cromwell’s death).

    I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction but I do love a really good book with an historical setting.


    • LOL Bekah…I somehow thought you would reply. I’m enjoying Wolf Hall too – and will HAVE to finish tomorrow for my f2f group. The thing is I don’t think the fiction writers are necessarily saying what they are writing IS history but that they can contribute to our UNDERSTANDING OF history, but perhaps this is just my interpretation of what they are saying!

      I don’t really agree that fiction writers’ “only rule is that they must be entertaining”. I don’t think they have a rule at all really: historians work within an academic discipline and do need to meet the going “rules” of their discipline, but fiction writers are, essentially, creative artists for which there are almost as many rules as there are practitioners. At least that’s how I see it. In fact, I think for the novelists we are talking about their goal is usually something to do with expressing themselves and, often, expressing a view they have about the human condition. They hope to engage their readers so that we will hear what they are saying and to engage they may need to entertain, but “entertain” is a loaded word isn’t it? It can imply something superficial – like an in-the-minute experience like, say, a roller-coaster ride – and I don’t think that’s the primary aim of all fiction writers. Many/some hope to challenge our way of thinking, to present a particular view of the world/humanity, don’t you think? Now, back to Wolf Hall.

      • Oh I didn’t mean that the only goal of fiction writers was to “entertain, ” I only meant that this was one thing they all seem to have in common, from Tony Hellerman to Toni Morrison. Of course some want way, way more than that.

        And I think you’re right – most authors of historical fiction don’t set themselves up as historians – what they write is not meant to be a work for the history shelves. And I think that’s where Grenville got into trouble – she said she had a new way of doing history – this puts her book into the category of one which can be examined for historical accuracy. If she had not done that there would not have been the stink.

        The best historical fiction (to me) can be lots of things, I think. It can be incredibly fanciful and imaginary like The Enchantress of Florence (Rushdie) and Against the Day ( Pynchon,) or it can be pretty straightforward – like The Killer Angels (Shaara) and Wolf Hall. Most historical fiction is in between somewhere – light but accurate history for inclusion in a tale – the tale fleshes out the history for us – gives us human truths, perhaps, no footnotes needed. (g)


  4. Ah, that makes sense Bekah…”fleshing out” the history is essentially how I see it – nice expression. 🙂

    I do think though that poor old Kate Grenville has been a little misrepresented. I’m not sure that she really said she was writing history and I read somewhere that her words were taken out of context. I think she makes very clear in Searching for The secret river her understanding of the fiction/history nexus. But then, I am a Grenville fan (and Clendinnen fan though I think she went OTT on this one!) and think Grenville is a pretty clue-y person. BTW I believe she is researching at the NLA now – new historical novel coming out I wonder?

    • Thanks Anne (or is it Erato 30??!), I’ve heard of Dorothy Dunnett but have never read her books. I must add them to the toppling piles!! (Or the toppling virtual one at least!). Where would you start with her?

  5. I’d start with the first Lymond novel ‘Game of Kings’. It takes a while to get into, but once you’re in you’re hooked. I warn you it’s a long haul reading both sagas, but well worth it.

  6. I always get myself into trouble talking about history per se. Oh well!

    I think any fiction can assist one in understanding the world simply because it allows one to alter one’s perspective. I don’t think of that as a primary purpose – and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a primary purpose. Entertainment is fine with me but I do think the production of stories – whether we call them history or fiction – is some inextricable part of our humanity. We are social and this is what it means to be social. To me the separation of ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ is artificial though perhaps necessary. I don’t mean that there aren’t some bare facts which we might reasonably call ‘true’ or other claims of fact that we would call ‘false’ but that the bare facts aren’t the point of it at all. It’s the narrative we need and use and that’s perhaps closer to fiction.

    Having said all that I’ll admit a twinge of irritation when my kids report learning things in Social Studies which are straight out of Washington Irving. I suppose this proves that there is a long ‘history’ of getting historical fact from fictional sources. 🙂

    I have Wolf Hall on my kindle – looking forward to it.

    • Oh, it’s so murky isn’t it Sidney? I’m with you on the somewhat artificial separation – and yet agree that we should have some sense of what we are learning from what…some understanding of form and function! BUT, agreeing with you last point, if you think how much was handed down orally – for simplicity’s sake, say in our own family histories – you realise the blurring of fact and fiction: how fact can be changed over time in the telling of the stories so that it becomes fictional but is taken as fact! It’s a shifty, murky world…

  7. Oh i do have to say something again. Yes, I agree with you, Sidney .

    I think the thing is that history is never finished – it’s always being revised. (That’s the thing we need to teach in school along with some basic facts.) History is the sum total of all the written material about the past and any book can (and is usually) wrong about some stuff. History has come to have two meanings – the written record and the people/events as they actually transpired. We study both in our limited fashion – only the written record is open to revision and we will likely never know the whole of what “really” transpired.

    Fiction, otoh, is set in stone from the start. There is one Jane Eyre and it’s all there and it cannot be wrong – interpret as you will. Otoh, (as I said above) history will never be “all there” and a history book can certainly be wrong.

    So if I’m reading a book of historical fiction I do try to remember that it is primarily fiction and try not to get too aggravated by any misinformation. But if someone wrote a fictional book about my hometown and got the street names all wrong, I’d have a hard time with my suspension of disbelief – it would just be aggravating. Otoh if it’s a book about New York and the street names are in error I’ll likely not have a clue but I might look it up after the fact. It wouldn’t bother my first reading.

    Am I making sense?


    • Yes you are Bekah …. And yet, I have some questions because bringing the notion of “wrongness” into play makes it very tricky I think? For example, how, in a sense, can anything that is “always being revised” ever be “wrong”? In concrete terms, specific details can be wrong but…even some of the most basic “facts” can change over time as more/different evidence comes to light.

      Anyhow, when it comes to fiction, if we the reader love one book because we don’t know some specific facts are wrong and hate another book because we know some facts are wrong, what are we saying about assessing literature? What are the criteria by which we judge fiction? That it got the facts right? I’m being purposefully simplistic here but for me “facts” play a very minor role when I am talking fiction, even historical fiction! I would notice if my city’s street names were got wrong … but should I care? I guess the point is, is that what fiction is about? And this, perhaps, brings us to Sidney’s point regarding “narrative” and “stories” – it is the sense and meaning we glean/make from the stories that are the critical things I think? Hmmm…it’s so easy to get bogged down in language when discussing these topics!

  8. The way that written history (non-fiction) can be wrong is if what the author cannot writes document what s/he wrote or it’s not “general knowledge” (and even that can certainly be in error, of course). In non-fiction an author, especially if his work becomes popular or noteworthy in the field, is really taken to task for discrepancies and errors of logic.

    In fiction, however, we’re supposed to just take those things in stride although it’s very difficult if you know the subject matter – whatever it is – street names or medicine or fashion. Some historians get really picky about historical fiction while others value the creative process.

    Imo, (and this is just me!) I’m bothered when I know something is in error and I wonder why the author did that. Sometimes I think the author was careless and other times I think s/he did it deliberately. Sometimes it’s fine with me (Pynchon) sometimes I suspect an agenda (Roth and Styron). Usually, it seems to me, that authors are very careful with their material and want to get it right and spend a lot of time researching.

    Of course I probably use notable errors as a part of a much larger and mostly subjective assessment process – but I don’t find that many real errors. Maybe I don’t look very hard on the first reading but often I check things out after I’ve read a book (or am in the middle of it) and am very pleasantly surprised when I find the book accurate in so many ways. If I remember correctly, the last books I where error problems disturbed me I read about 5 or 6 years ago and they came so close together I think I got a bad reputation in discussion groups. (lol) I’ve not said much of a word about that sort of thing in a long time.


    • Sounds fair enough Bekah … I would add only one point and that is that probably all authors have “agendas” of some sort (some more political than others of course!). It may be more a case of whether you/we like their agenda or not. 😉

  9. Psst, would like to second Anne S’s recommendations: do try ’em. And persevere: the Lymond Chronicles take a bit of adjustment; less so, the House of Niccolo (although latter becomes almost hilariously PC at times IMV).
    This is such a fascinating question! IMHO there are very, very few truly good historical novelists. It is such a difficult thing to get right, not least because it inevitably poses enormous problems with detail (how much is enough? Too much, you lose the reader, etc). Most are merely romantic twaddle: we know who they are! Important to remember that many classics are in effect historical novels (eg ‘War and Peace’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘La Chartreuse de Parme’). Others up there with DD are, of course, H Mantel + Prescott’s ‘Man on a Donkey’ and Helle Haase’s ‘In a Dark Wood, wandering’. Others in transl. = Régine Pernoud, Zoë Oldenbourg. On the historical whodunnit side, I’d recommend: Ariana Franklin*, Rose Melikan & newcomer, Shona McLean (great début novel). The much-trumpeted series by Sansom, starting with ‘Dissolution’ er, rapidly did just that (the first one’s vg tho’).
    But by the same token, E H Carr had ‘historical facts’ nailed, as in ‘WTF IS an HF anyway?’. And some historians (Robert Bartlett (mediaeval Europre), Jonathan Sumption (crusades/100 years’ war), Blair Worden (17th cent civil wars), Miri Ruben on late m ages, Simon Schama on Fr Revolution, John Julius Norwich on Byzantium and David Crouch on the Normans … loads, actually!) can and do bring their chosen period to life in ways we might not otherwise have supposed possible outside the pages of a novel.
    * real name: Diana Norman; if you can get hold of huge, sprawling but compelling ‘The Vizard Mask’, its a painless (and entertaining) means of learning all about restoration theatre; Anglo-French relations (always difficult!); the Plague + The Great Fire; the slave trade; the Monmouth Rebellion; the Glorious Revolution, & a great deal more. Oh, and it contains intriguing portraits of John Churchill (before he became Marlborough) & Aphra Behn (DN clearly a fan of AB; one of her more recent historical novels includes set-pieces relating a staging of ‘Oroonoko’).
    Blimey, have blathered extravagantly when only meant to second Anne. Whoops!

    • LOL, love it Minnie – I’m glad I’m not the only one who sometimes rambles on in a comment. This issue engages me. EH Carr has been my point of reference for “what is history” for the longest time. Have just bought a book titled Is history fiction? by Aussie historian Ann Curthoys and John Docker. It looks truly fascinating, but I have to find time to read it!

      I agree re good historians (and biographers!) also being very readable and bringing their periods to life, though I haven’t read as many of them as I’d like. Thanks for all the recommendations. Some I haven’t heard of. One of my favourite works of historical fiction is Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Peter Carey’s True (not THE true) history of the Kelly Gang is also a fascinating work (once you get into the flow of the very idiosyncratic language).

  10. Yup, biographers also – very good point, thanks. That book on historiography sounds very interesting, also.
    Oooh, recommendations: great! Thank you. Haven’t read Peter Carey for years, including overlooking his novel about the Kelly Gang. Also haven’t read MA since the mid-90s (loved her earlier work); somehow missed out on ‘Alias Grace’. Must remedy.

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