Monday, 6 January 2014

The Polarities of Historical Fiction: Choices that Define a Genre

In an earlier blog-post (29th July 2013), I took issue with the American academic, Rachel Teukolsky, and her insistence that "historical fiction" is not only, by definition, set in the past, but must also "depict world-changing public events, like wars, natural disasters of political struggles." The expectations of UK and North American markets for "historical fiction" may, of course, be different, but it seemed to me, both as an author and a reader of historical fiction, that Teukolsky's criteria were just a little too restrictive.

The question of what constitutes "historical fiction," however, has been thrown into sharp relief by one of my favourite novels of last year, Jim Crace's Harvest (reviewed here on 12th December 2013). At no point whilst I was reading the book did I question the fact that it was a work of historical fiction, although the absence of specific reference points (a date; a reference to a monarch, however distant; a recognisable place in what is clearly an English landscape) certainly beguiled me.

"I am not interested in getting the facts right," Crace has subsequently said of the book. "I am interested in telling lies in order to explore contemporary themes. This is not a novel about Tudor life. It is not a novel about enclosures. It is a novel about xenophobia."

Is it, then, a work of historical fiction at all? It may, perhaps, be useful to see it as occupying one end of a continuum of fictionalised responses to the human past.

Historical novels are, first of all, novels, and, as such, they can be considered alongside other works of fiction. They may be located at any point along the continuum between "literary" or "commercial" fiction; they may be narrated in the first or third person, and in the past or present tense; they may deal with affairs of the heart, or affairs of state, or with any other aspect of the human experience. Any writer, however, who chooses to set his or her work in the past, has at least two fundamental questions to answer which relate quite specifically to the engagement between the present and the past.

The first concerns the extent to which historical "accuracy" matters to the author, and his or her willingness to take "liberties" with the historical content of the story in order to ensure its resonance with a contemporary readership. Crace's comment that he has no interest at all in "getting the facts right" places his work at one end of a spectrum, the other end of which is occupied by such meticulously researched novels as Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall or Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian.

The second choice to be made relates to the characters. All of Crace's characters in Harvest are fictional (he takes great care not to mention, even in passing, any historical characters whose presence might tie the story to a particular time or place), whereas almost all the characters in Memoirs of Hadrian or Wolf Hall are historical. Many writers opt for a mixed cast of historical and fictional characters (even Shakespeare's history plays, which are pre-eminently occupied with the great deeds of great men, include fictional characters such as Falstaff, Bardolph and Pistol, who provide both comic sub-plots and an alternative, humbler viewpoint on events).

On the chart below, I have attempted to place various works which I have discussed here over the past year or two (together with a handful of historical novels that are often seen as "seminal" or "canonical") in relation to these two axes.

1. Harvest (Jim Crace); 2 Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel); 3. Memoirs of Hadrian (Marguerite Yourcenar); 4. I, Claudius (Robert Graves); 5. Dark Deceit (Cathie Dunn); 6. Zeus of Ithome (T.E. Taylor); 7. Life After Life (Kate Atkinson); 8. Magda (Meike Ziervogel); 9. The Spire (William Golding); 10. Mr Darwin's Gardener (Kristina Carlson); 11. Shipwrecks (Akiro Yoshimura); 12. Pompeii (Robert Harris); 13. Claudius (Douglas Jackson); 14. Pure (Andrew Miller); 15. Waverley (Sir Walter Scott); 16. Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks); 17. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett); 18. A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens); 19. The Persian Boy (Mary Renault); 20. The Spanish Bride (Georgette Heyer).

Positioning works along these axes is no more a precise science than is writing historical fiction, and is only helpful to the extent that it allows writers to clarify their thoughts as to how they might wish to position their own works. The "Accuracy/Contemporary Resonance" axis, in particular, relies on an assessment of a writer's intentions, which may not always be clear. Strive as we might for accuracy, it is difficult to achieve, and impossible to be sure to what extent we have succeeded. As A.N. Wilson cautions in a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement (3rd January 2014), "Hilary Mantel's supposedly authentic picture of life in the time of Henry VIII will surely, in fifty years' time, seem as off-beam as Tennyson's Middle Ages do to us." If that is true of historical fiction, then it must be true of historical writing more generally, except that, as novelists, we cannot sit on the fences that the writers of historical non-fiction are often obliged to occupy. It is for historians to reflect on what people might have said or done: our characters have actually to say and do things.

Jim Crace could, of course, have written a book about xenophobia set entirely in the present. Alternatively, he could have dealt with the issue in the context of a narrative set in a clearly defined time and place, in an "accurately" depicted past (I have seen this done very successfully in a short play about the Great Fire of London, an accidental disaster which many at the time attributed to the malice of immigrants). The most interesting thing about Harvest, however, is that Crace chose to write it as he did, conjuring up a past that is as familiar (he has described his setting as "The Forest of Arden") as it is unreal and, through that illusion, holding up a mirror to those aspects of our own society that we most readily distance ourselves from. No other approach to the present or the past would have suited his specific narrative intention quite so well.

That is not to say that this is the only approach to writing historical fiction. Historical fidelity was as central to Marguerite Yourcenar's narrative purpose in Memoirs of Hadrian, and to mine, in An Accidental King, as historical infidelity was to Crace's in Harvest. If the past is the clay with which we work, then the present provides the showcase in which our works are displayed and judged (we may aspire, with Thucydides, to be writing for the future, but can have little idea of how our works will be seen from a vantage point that we will never reach), and the ways in which we choose to mediate between them will always define the nature of what it is that we do.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and


  1. What constitutes historical fiction is such an interesting concept, Mark. I like the way you've charted those quoted. I can see I need to find more time to read!

  2. I like your chart, Mark. It is a good way to get a handle on historical fiction.

  3. Thanks, Nancy & Martin. Apologies to Georgette Heyer, whose book I seem to have accidentally left off the chart. Thanks, also, to Simon Scarrow, who pointed out a problem with the horizontal axis. I think, on reflection, that the tag "Contemporary Resonance" should be replaced by "Historical Invention" - it was never my intention to suggest that historically accurate novels lacked contemporary resonance.