I recently saw an article on the "Public Books" website which sets out to ask why it is that the historical novel needs to be "rescued" (http://publicbooks.org/fiction/why-does-the-historical-novel-need-to-be-rescued), and identifies Hilary Mantel as the rescuer. The article is by an American academic, Rachel Teukolsky, and takes as its starting point a number of reviews of Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Such reviews insist on "the embarrassing reputation of historical novels," before praising these specific books as the sole exceptions that redeem an entire genre (in fact Teukolsky cites only one such review - that by James Wood, which I commented on in my blog-post of 6/5/2012 - and recognises that its claims are overstated).
I certainly share Teukolsky's admiration for Mantel's writing, and much of her article is taken up with a detailed analysis of Mantel's "close third person" narrative technique. This analysis is packed with insight, making it a text that I would recommend to every writer, as well as every student, of historical fiction.
I have a problem, however, with her conceptualisation of "the historical novel" more generally. She catalogues many of the characteristics of badly written historical fiction (the tendency of authors to "show off" their research in unnecessary detail; "static formulae;" "over-familiar character types;" the twin dangers of romanticising a past that never was and creating historical characters with modern, "politically-correct" opinions). This should be helpful, and indeed is helpful (I shall certainly have it to hand when reviewing my own early drafts), but is Teukolsky really justified in tarring the whole of historical fiction with this broadest of brushes?
I had to ask myself how it was that she had never read William Golding's The Inheritors, The Spire or Rites of Passage; or Akira Yoshimura's Shipwrecks; or Sarah Dunant's Sacred Hearts? Then I re-read her article and realised, with some surprise, that she almost certainly has read them: she just does not consider them to be "historical novels."
"Not every novel set in the past counts as a 'historical novel,' she tells us. "To do so, a work must also depict world-changing public events like wars, natural disasters or political struggles." This, I must confess, is a "defining feature" that is quite new to me. I could still ask whether she has read Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian or The Abyss, which do meet this criterion. I don't doubt for a moment that she has, but she probably considers them, like the works listed above, to be "literary novels," and therein lies the real basis of my disagreement with her. It is why she can, without embarrassment, include Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter as a historical novel, whilst excluding Shipwrecks; and it is why I can, without embarrassment, identify myself as a historical novelist.
For commentators such as Rachel Teukolsky and James Wood, "historical fiction" and "literary fiction" are, or ought to be, mutually exclusive categories. For Hilary Mantel to have succeeded in writing novels that inhabit both categories simultaneously is, for them, little short of miraculous. For me, Mantel's writing is remarkable, inspiring, but not uniquely so. It stands in a tradition that also includes Yourcenar and Yoshimura, Golding and Graves, and other writers of their time and of ours. It is a tradition that can and should inspire those writers who have not yet published.
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com.