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!