Last week I mentioned Jerome de Groot’s book, The Historical Novel and said it was a slog. The book’s chapter headings are indicative of the scrutiny de Groot offers his readers in the realm of historical fiction: Origins, Genre Fiction, Literary Fiction and History, Postmodernism and the historical novel, Challenging history. Having finished it, I thought a few tidbits might be helpful to others who write or read historical fiction.
Authentic – de Groot speaks about historical fiction (HF) as “‘authentic’ characters in a factual-led framework”. Novelists have the “ability to take dry facts and information and invest them with fictional life”.
Authority – he suggests that writers are quick to position the authority of their works using bibliography, footnotes, maps, acknowledgements and author notes detailing research
History – “writing about history demonstrates the innate falsity of History”; history is open to multiple interpretations; as I read, I drew a continuum starting at one end with the word novel …. then history …. then fact and wondered about where the novels I’ve written fit on that continuum. The past can illuminate the present.
History as process – “all of life is historical, or steeped in the process of history”. This is followed by “the events of history have an impact upon the contemporary.
Social change – “writers such as George Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Elizabeth Gaskell used the historical novel to contemplate social change”.
Attitudes – “during the twentieth century the historical novel became a more prevalent sub-genre but also one which was increasingly marginal is discussion of the novel proper”. There was a sense that the historical novel was more and more read by women and in some way that made it less admirable than the mainstream novel.
Education – some assert that the purpose of historical fiction is to educate. de Groot observes that readers approach historical fiction ‘wishing to learn more about something unknown”.
Historical romance – “one of the most popular, long-running and widely read types of writing in the world.”
Men and women – “Men tend to rad novels about one fictional character in a range of situations, where women tend to concentrate on one historical period or figure.” Women are prolific writers and readers of historical fiction. As readers, historical fiction offers women “the imaginative space to create different, more inclusive versions of ‘history’ where women take a ‘lead role’ in history. Men seek authenticity, adventure and heroism.
National stories – de Groot observes that historical novelists tend to “keep within their own national historical boundaries”.
Post-modernism – while previously the attitude was that ‘the historians job is to explain the otherness of the past, whilst the novelist explores the differences of the past”, now the roles of historian and novelist are less distinct. “[A]ll historical fiction is predicated upon fictionalized ‘versions’ of the past.” Post-modern novelists ‘interrogate history’ to challenge its mainstream versions and to offer “history from the margins”.
De Groot traces the roots of the novel and the historical novel, he touches on commoditization of novels, changes in production and distribution, and the gradual shift from authors in control of their works to publishers in control of their products. He has a whole section on Anne Boleyn and another section on military adventure stories and crime fiction, he writes of gay and lesbian historical fiction and magical realism within historical fiction. Throughout, de Groot brings commentary and perspective from a range of authors writing about the genre.
On a critical note, de Groot’s language is much more complex than necessary if his purpose is to communicate clearly. In addition, he offers no summary or concluding commentary to highlight his insights and pull together the themes he presents.