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When Susan Storer Clark and I connected, we agreed that a guest post was in order. With such an intriguing title – They’re Not ALL Bodice-Rippers – how could I possibly resist?

Susan blogs at www.HistoryMuse.us and like me is a contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books. I hasten to add that Susan is a more prolific contributor than I am! Many thanks for being on the blog, Susan.

They’re Not ALL Bodice-Rippers by Susan Storer Clark

When I told a friend of mine I was writing historical fiction, she got a naughty gleam in her eye and said, “And when does the first bodice get ripped?” When I started telling her it was really more about truth, power, and the cross-currents of history, her eyes glazed over.

I can’t really blame her. The bodice-ripper genre is lusty in more ways than one: lots of people have fun reading it. Some good writers write it. It’s been around for a long time, and will probably go on for a lot longer. Some of the older ones have situations we now see as abusive, and newer writers have to work with knowledge of that. Still, for many women, it’s a perfect fantasy: a female central character, lots of passion, and great clothes.

Would you call War and Peace a Bodice Ripper?

War and Peace is a historical novel, about the lives of five families swept up in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1805. Of course, Tolstoy said it wasn’t a novel at all, since great Russian literature did not conform to standards, but we don’t know what else to call it. Tolstoy had read the standard histories about the Napoleonic Wars, and used his work to challenge those historical approaches. I think a historical novel brings alive the history of a time by showing the impact of historic events on real people, as represented by characters in the novel. Some of the characters can, of course, be real people.

I personally would not call War and Peace a bodice-ripper.

I wouldn’t call Gone With the Wind a bodice-ripper either, although it has some elements of one. GWTW showed us one important thing historical novels can do—create mythology. We have a persistent set of myths about the American Civil War and Reconstruction: Southern whites were all plantation owners before “The War.” All the women were beautiful and spirited. All the men were gallant. African-Americans were nominally slaves, but they were really happy, good-hearted people who did the work of servants, and incidentally provided sensible advice and comic relief. All the white people who supported Reconstruction were sniveling weasels, and white vigilantism (read Ku Klux Klan) was a justifiable reaction after the slaves were freed. That’s a persistent set of myths in our American canon, and, while it has had other sources, the book and the movie of Gone With the Wind were powerful voices in that storytelling.

What Makes a Novel “Historical”?

My friend Leslie recently complained that her unpublished novel set in 1960s Swinging London will probably be a historical novel by the time she gets it published. Well, Leslie, it may be close. The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction specifies that the events of the novel must have taken place more than 60 years ago. Just for the record, Leslie’s book doesn’t qualify as a bodice-ripper, although she writes terrific sex scenes. And, of course, “miniskirt ripper” doesn’t carry the same panache.

I consider some novels that don’t make the 60-year cut to be historical novels. Grapes of Wrath is a prime example. If you want to understand what make the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the struggles and injustices people faced just because they wanted scratch out a living someplace, Steinbeck’s book will do that for you, even if it was published in 1939. I also think To Kill a Mockingbird is a historical novel, even though Harper Lee wrote it only 25 years after the time the novel took place. I think any fiction that explores history on a personal level is historical fiction.

Trashy?

James Wood of the New Yorker scoffed that historical fiction is “a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness.”

Bah.

There’s plenty of trash in every type of writing, and lists of all-time great novels are jammed with historical fiction. Historical fiction is jammed with great stories.

Great stories make history come alive, make it memorable. Historical novels are well represented on lots of lists of the best novels of all time. The most intriguing list to me was the Library Journal’s list of the most influential fiction of the 20th century. High on this list are some of the books I’ve already mentioned, plus others I think of as historical novels: Beloved, The Color Purple, The Good Earth, and Lonesome Dove.

Want to Explore?

The Library Journal’s list was published on the Harris County (Texas) Public Library site. I couldn’t find it on the Library Journal site. The list was compiled in 1998, and I noted that it didn’t include the Harry Potter series, which was published in 1997. Yes, I know Harry Potter is not historical fiction, but I would argue it has been influential. Still the list is fun to browse.

Mary’s blog came to my attention when I read her list of the top 10 historical fiction authors. I also enjoy Sarah Johnson’s Reading the Past and the Historical Novel Society based in the U.S. and the U.K., with members all over the world. The Society has a fairly comprehensive picture of what’s going on in the world of historical fiction.

Many thanks for contributing to the discussion of historical fiction, Susan. I wish you great success with your writing.

The Monk Woman’s Daughter by Susan Storer Clark – This eye-opening and entertaining first novel paints a vivid picture of the rough-and-tumble of 19th century urban America. Vera St. John is a resourceful girl growing into an unconventional woman. She comes of age through the wild streets of New York City, the quiet rural village of Flatbush, the mob violence of Baltimore, and the turmoil of Washington City during the Civil War, struggling to make her way out of poverty. All the while she hides an explosive secret: she is the daughter of the “infamous Maria Monk” one of the century’s most notorious women. Vera sees her world with irreverence and insight, and comes to learn about the corrosive nature of power, the importance of freedom, and the real meaning of belonging.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.