Taking the helm as our first Historia guest, Livi Michael considers how historical fiction has changed and how we can define it now.
In the course of my lifetime, historical fiction has been on a journey, from mass-market romance to literary bestseller. It has absorbed and reflected the key changes of the 20th and 21st centuries along the way.
When I was a teenager there was little in the way of Young Adult fiction – a genre that has blossomed in recent years. I read classic books for girls, such as Little Women and its sequels, Anne of Green Gables, etc. which took their heroines from feisty adolescence to maturity. I also read more traditional classics by Jane Austen, the Brontés and Dickens. And I read the historical fiction of the time – novels by Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Norah Lofts and Georgette Heyer.
From them I learned a history that was not taught at my school; about the wives of Henry VIII, the loves of Edward IV, the tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots and the relationship between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. The emphasis was on romance. It was in a Jean Plaidy novel that I first encountered the word ‘breast’ in fiction and thought it very rude.
These novels tended to portray actual historical figures who were royal or at least aristocratic, and they were presented in a glamourous, if tragic light. Although, in fact, all of the above-mentioned novelists wrote more than one kind of fiction, these royalist romances were the ones I read. Not until I went to university did I encounter a different kind of historical fiction, by Umberto Eco and Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson and Virginia Woolf. These novels interrogated the idea of history and historical research. They rewrote received history by focussing on the lives of those who could leave no record, or on the lives of fictional characters who were unconstrained by the usual boundaries of gender or time.
This change in the historical novel reflected shifts in social ideology, and historiography itself. In the latter half of the twentieth century, historical revisionism has focused on what has been excluded from the historical record. As a result, there has been an increasing interest in social history, in life as it was lived by different classes and races of people. At the same time, post-modern historians such as Hayden White or Keith Jenkins have questioned the assumptions behind historiography. How can this one body of knowledge claim the authority to decide what history is, how it must be studied, and whether it can be ‘owned’ as cultural heritage?
These trends have continued to the present day, and have been reflected in the historical novel. For example, Antonia Byatt’s Possession questions the authority of historical research. Other novels focus on the hidden histories of those who have been silenced for reasons of gender, class, race or sexual orientation, e.g., works by Sarah Waters, Patrick Gale, Colm Toibin, Andrea Levy, and Chimamanda Ngosi Adiche to name just a few. These are all writers who choose not to portray the known historical character and this seems to me to constitute a definite trend in contemporary fiction – the tendency to depict an invented character set against a ‘real’ historical background.
There are also experimental fictions that play with the presentation of time, e.g., Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, Ali Smith’s, How to Be Both, and Sarah Waters’ Nightwatch, while in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Susannah Clarke reimagines the Napoleonic wars in the context of a faerie world that has a different temporal reality from our own.
What is common to all these novels is an interest in the gaps and silences. They explore what lies beneath the surface of the historical record. Actual historical characters may be represented but the focus is on the imagined life, the associative aspects of human experience or memory, and the secret underworld of the psyche. In Atkinson’s Life after Life, for example, the main character repeatedly dies and at different points in the narrative seems to recall different aspects of these previous selves.
The novel HHHH by French writer Laurent Binet forms an apparent exception to the trend of writing about what has been left out of the historical record. Binet refers constantly to historical events but makes explicit an anxiety about falsifying facts throughout his novel. This same anxiety seems to me to underlie the questioning of the authority of historical narratives, and the trend away from depicting actual historical figures – how, after all, can the 21st century writer authentically reproduce the experience of a 16th century character?
In recent years of course, Hilary Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize twice for her masterly portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies feature a large cast of ‘real’ historical figures: Henry VIII and three of his wives, several members of the aristocracy, cardinals, ambassadors, among others. But it can hardly be said that these novels mark a return to the traditional royalist romance.
Cromwell is not from the aristocracy. As the son of a blacksmith, he is not from the lowest class of society either, but he has been rendered homeless at a young age by his abusive father. Throughout a remarkable career he accrues wealth and influence, various honours and a title, and the old aristocracy never forgives him for it. Indeed he constitutes a major threat to them, brokering the destruction of the old hierarchies of the land.
There is an interesting similarity between Cromwell and another historical figure who has appeared as a major fictional character in recent years. Robert Harris’ Imperium trilogy is very different from Mantel’s and is, perhaps, aimed at a different readership. Cicero and Cromwell have enough in common, however, to bear comparison. They are both from a lower class than the elite groups who are so challenged by them. They are men of ability who rise through ranks of a society that is opposed to social mobility. They retain a certain feeling for the common man, an anti-authoritarian stance. And ultimately they are both executed (no spoilers here, I hope, even though Mantel’s third novel has not yet been published).
What does this tell us about our contemporary society? The narrative in these novels is not about the ‘little guy making good’ or winning against insuperable odds, as is the case in so many American dramas. The outsider comes to power and is then destroyed. These are novels about the corruption and limitations of power (as exercised by the individual). Their nearest televised equivalent would perhaps be House of Cards. This is set in the contemporary era, but it reflects, like Wolf Hall and Imperium a contemporary perspective on political power, rejecting the ideology of aspiration in favour of a more troubled and disturbing, near dystopian view of hegemony.
It is difficult to generalise about historical fiction which is a huge and burgeoning genre. We have C J Sansom’s depictions of the Tudor underworld in which known figures and invented characters are mingled, for instance, and novels about royal dynasties by Philippa Gregory, Suzannah Dunn and Alison Weir among others.
I am suggesting, however, a distinction between the historical novels that deal with invented characters and the ones that portray actual historical figures. I think it is a valid distinction, but difficult to precisely define, since both are, in their own way, commemorative and revisionist; both compel us to rethink received history. The distinction is, perhaps, something to do with the exploration of power and oppression. Those people who have had power are more likely to be known to us. Morrison’s magnificent retellings of black history portray those exploited people who have been written out of the historical record. In contrast, Mantel and Harris offer instances of people who rose through a class-ridden society to exercise a certain influence, only to be destroyed in the end. Keith Jenkins has asserted that a work of history is as much about the historian’s own world view and ideological position as it is about history. This is also true of the historical novelist, who inevitably participates in the consciousness of his or her own time. Mantel has retold the story of Cromwell, and Harris, Cicero, in a way that suggests that power does not reside in the individual, but in older hierarchies and mechanisms which render any individual disposable.
These retellings seem to resonate with the contemporary zeitgeist. We are unavoidably aware of what power does to the powerful, as well as the powerless. The fact that we are moved and convinced by these novels depends both on artistry and the common ground of 21st century experience. The ‘reality’ of these stories lies in the realm of historical record; their rewriting lies in the realm of the contemporary historical imagination.
Livi Michael is the author of seven novels for adults and twelve for young adults and children. Her Novel Accession is the third part of her trilogy about Margaret Beaufort and the Wars of the Roses. It is published by Penguin Random House.
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