Monday, 29 July 2013

Does the Historical Novel Really Need Rescuing?

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" (, 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 and


  1. I've read your blog with great interest Mark. I found myself nodding in agreement with you all the way through. It is my view that if the author has placed their story in an historical environment, then surely that is an historical novel, and thereby placing it firmly in that genre.

  2. Thanks, Louise. There are always some books that are hard to categorise (I think of David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas," in which some chapters are historical and others Science fiction; or Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad," which is set in a historical period, but the history is deliberately not taken too seriously. Historical fiction is a big tent, though. Peter Ackroyd, in "Hawksmoor" takes historical liberties that I wouldn't take, but I have no problem seeing it as a "historical novel."

  3. And then there is the book often called the novel of the 20th century - 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison. I think I am right in saying that the name Abraham Lincoln is never mentioned but it says more about the experience of being a slave than anything else I have ever read. The distinction between literary fiction and historical fiction seems very adaptable to fit in with the reviewer's prejudices.
    By the way, I know it is sacrilege but I much prefer Hilary Mantal's first novel A Place of Greater Safety set during the French Revolution than Wolf Hall

  4. Thanks, Bridget! Yes, the boundaries become even more fuzzy when we reach the 20th Century, especially when characters are reflecting on their early lives, or on the experiences of their parents and grandparents (I think also of Carol Birch's "The Naming of Eliza Quinn"). One lazy definition of "literary fiction" is any work that has been nominated for a major prize but, as you say, "A Place of Greater Safety" (which I also love) is every bit as "literary" as "Wolf Hall."

  5. Hi Mark! What an interesting post, and what an idiosyncratic POV from Rachel Teukolsky. It made me go back and re-read my own blog post on genre: I still think quality of writing, thought and structure- as well as the over arching necessity of having something to say, are all more important than genre.