A second reading of Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel offers insights on the purposes of historical fiction beyond entertainment.
Historical fiction offers an “analysis of recognizable human character within a specific set of circumstances,” such that we can “re-experience the social and human motives which led men [and women] to think, feel and act as they did in historical reality.”
Historical fiction develops an “awareness that the events of history have an impact on the contemporary.”
Historical fiction gives “the reader insight into the mind of a member of a past society” and therefore induces empathy and a “live connection between then and now.”
The historical novel allows us “to contemplate social change.” We see change in hindsight, “which then allows the individual to reflect upon their contemporary circumstance.” Similarly, historical fiction can trace the “path of religious and political change.”
The historical novel educates readers about the past. It might even be used “by teachers to supplement their classes.” This “educational element of historical fiction means that the reader approaches wishing to learn more about something unknown.”
“One of the major elements of the historical novel has been as an expression of national character and self-definition.” It allows us to explore the ways “nations, and therefore national identity, are constructed.”
Historical fiction “offered women readers the imaginative space to create different, more inclusive versions of history.” Historical fiction can “report from places made marginal [by history] and present a dissident or dissenting account of the past.”
Historical fiction allows us to “understand the extremes of human behaviour.” The novel can explore “various ways of facing, understanding and living with the horrific events in the past.”
Historical fiction helps us retain the past.
Noble purposes indeed. Something to think about the next time you enjoy historical fiction.
NOTE: some of these quotes were themselves quoted by de Groot while others are de Groot’s words.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.