Our resident agony aunt, Dr Darwin, answers a common question: what counts as historical fiction?
Dear Dr Darwin,
I told my grandmother that I was writing a historical novel set in the Liverpool of the early Beatles, and she laughed so hard she nearly fell off her motorbike. I told my brother the Beatles weren’t in it, and he said historical novels have to have real historical people in them. I told my boss there wasn’t much romance in it, and he said it couldn’t be a historical novel if it didn’t have swords, or bodices to rip. So what does count as historical fiction?
Exasperated of Everton
Some definitions of historical fiction are straightforward. Margaret Atwood defines it as ‘fiction set in a time before the writer came to consciousness,’ which is important when you’re thinking about the process of writing: by definition your material is places, times and people you can’t have experienced directly. On the other hand, by that definition the Sixties are historical fiction for you but not your granny, which complicates things.
Here at the Historical Writers’ Association we define it simply as fiction set fifty years before the present time, while our friends at the Historical Novel Society go for thirty years – so by either definition, you’re in! The main Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction defines it as sixty years, to reflect Scott’s subtitle for Waverley, ‘’Tis sixty years since’, and the definition for their prize for writers aged 11-19 is simply, like Atwood’s, ‘before you were born’.
One of the few major literary critics to write about historical fiction, the philosopher György Lukács, said in The Historical Novel that to qualify, such a book must deal with real historical events, and contain at least one real historical character. Perhaps, as a good Marxist, he felt that only big historical processes count as history, and so only stories of events that historians agree changed the lives of big groups of people count as historical fiction. But, as we’re all slowly getting better at remembering, white male historians have tended to privilege events caused by white male actors. Sticking to a traditional idea of ‘what counts’ sidelines the lives of those who, by virtue of their gender, class, ethnicity or disability, may only have had agency and action locally, if at all. And yet such people live ‘in’ history too – and most of us, transported back, would be them, not a king or a general.
The book industry’s definition is different again. Three years ago, I was chairing a panel of agents and editors, and one of them said: “Isn’t it funny how in the last five years the Second World War has become historical fiction?” The others nodded, but why, I wondered, did we have to wait till 2010 for air raid shelters and ration books to become passports to a particular bookshop shelf and Amazon algorithm?
I think what happened is that the Second World War has now passed beyond adult living memory, as the First did many years ago. Everyone now buying books has only stories, or the childhood memories that become stories, of the war: self-contained, widely-recognised packages of events, emotions, tastes, technology, clothes and objects. So there is a ‘Second World War of the mind’ now, as there has long been a First World War, a Venice, and a Roman Empire of the mind – and above all, of course, a Tudor Court of the mind. This is important if you have your eye on selling your work: it’s readers’ existing sense of the textures and dramas of a period which publishers must tap into, to draw them to a book, and get them buying.
Your boss, on the other hand, was (mis)taking a different angle on the question: historical fiction as a genre. It’s not a genre in the true sense, of course: to say that something’s set in the past tells you nothing about whether the story is built round saving the world or the monarch, or saving the main character’s heart and mind, nor whether it’s comedy or tragedy, fantastical or down-to-earth. That’s why, very often, ‘historical’ will come with a subset – historical crime, historical adventure, historical romance. This is particularly true at the commercial end of the spectrum, where satisfying what the reader already knows they want a story to deliver is the key to selling lots of books. At the literary end, the readers’ demand is for something which complicates and expands their sense of the language, experience and ideas of the past.
And that points towards one more thought. A story set in 1968 is historical for the HNS, and for my twenty-something children. But if everything about the characters and how they act is indistinguishable from how they’d act now, except that they happen to drive Ford Cortinas, hear about the assasination of Martin Luther King on the wireless, and have certain singles in the jukebox, then you could argue it’s not historical fiction in any meaningful way: it’s contemporary fiction which happens to have an interesting setting, just as a novel of marriage breakup doesn’t become a book about Sri Lanka, just because that’s where the marriage finally falls apart.
Perhaps Lukács has a point, if we reckon that stories only become historical fiction in the sense of novels about history, when they’re trying to say something about the Sixties (or the first century BCE) as a point in ever-changing historical time. By digging in to how different Then was from our Now, such stories embody historical change – which is what makes history interesting – even if they don’t speak of it directly. And by ‘different’ I don’t mean haircuts and menus, I mean hearts and minds: what it meant to hear a siren tested for a nuclear attack; to live in a marriage when a husband committed no crime if he raped his wife; to have a boss who’d bombed Dresden. Such things mark a time in history, and shape the humans in it, which is different from our time and our shape – and yet they are humans as we are. That paradox, it seems to me, is at the heart of what historical fiction is about.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now, and her forthcoming memoir, This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin, will be published in February 2019. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.
Image: A Lady Writing by Johannes Vermeer, c 1665, via Wikimedia