Marianne Kavanagh ponders the definitions applied to fiction set in the past.
What is historical fiction? It might seem a strange question to raise with readers of Historia, rather than, say, members of the AA or Greenpeace. Surely we are exactly the people who should know. But sometimes it feels as if we’re working with other people’s definitions rather than our own. Contentious borders are always difficult – think of recent debates about gender, class and the customs union.
Some months ago, I told someone at a party that I’d just published my third novel.
She said, “What’s it about?”
I looked at her with some anxiety. I have never perfected the elevator pitch. “It’s about loss and guilt and the need to confess.”
She looked mystified.
I said, to be helpful, “It’s set in the 1940s, and looks back to the 1880s.”
“Oh,” she said, rapidly losing interest. “It’s historical.”
Obviously, she didn’t have a very high opinion of historical fiction. (Why should she? Maybe she was into dystopian futures.) But I couldn’t help wondering what pictures had rushed into her mind. A frivolous bodice-ripper? Blood and battles? Marguerite Yourcenar, Tolstoy, Bernard Cornwell, Georgette Heyer? Perhaps historical fiction means different things to different people – or perhaps there’s a common definition but preconceptions get stuck to it, like barnacles to granite. After all, the historical novel hasn’t always basked in the warmth of literary approval – in the last century, it was distinctly unfashionable until John Fowles, A. S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd came along.
Perhaps we should establish at the beginning that categories like ‘historical fiction’ are useful for those who sell and review books. Writers might prefer an overlapping, Venn diagram kind of approach, nudging ourselves into as many circles as possible for maximum exposure (“I write a sort of cross between historical thrillers and magical realism”), but booksellers need to signpost customers straight to the shelves most likely to appeal to them, and reviewers are more likely to grab their readers if they group books in terms of similarity. (The Daily Mail’s Friday books pages, for example, sometimes has a section devoted to ‘debuts’.) It’s the kind of direct marketing we see online all the time – if you like x, you’ll probably like y.
This makes categories sound straightforward. The reality, of course, is very different. One of the big divides these days is between ‘literary fiction’ (sometimes ‘general fiction’) and ‘genre fiction’ (which includes headings like crime, thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy and romance). Historical fiction is considered to be one of these genres, with various sub-divisions like ‘historical noir’ or ‘historical mystery’ (first made popular by Ellis Peters, creator of the medieval detective Brother Cadfael).
The problem with the ‘literary fiction’/’genre fiction’ division is that it leads us straight into the murky world of taste and respectability. Judgements about novels are made all the time – in longlists and shortlists for the Man Booker, the Costa, and the Women’s Prize for Fiction (with entry criteria which are themselves like sorting hats), and in everything from newspaper and magazine reviews, to book blogs and social media. But for many of us the ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ classification is deeply worrying because no one quite knows what it means – except, perhaps, that ‘literary’ seems to stand for All-Things-Good and ‘genre’ suggests Enjoyable-But-Maybe-Not-So-Good.
What makes everything even more complicated is that this fiction map is full of exceptions. You only have to think of Hilary Mantel, whose meticulously researched Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are clearly historical but are usually thought of as literary. (Although it’s also probably true to say that in all the creative arts the big-hitters move out of classifications altogether – because they’re forging something new, and because their names alone are enough to make us want to buy their work.) Some historical novelists, like Sarah Waters, are always found under ‘general’ or ‘literary’ fiction, as are authors who have written historical novels – like Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), Colm Toibin (Brooklyn) and Ian McEwan (Atonement) – but write other types of fiction too.
One further anomaly, as these last three titles show, is that a novel seems to shift from historical to general if it’s made into a film or becomes a commercial success, like Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. A. J. Pearce’s heart-warming new novel Dear Mrs Bird, set in wartime Britain, moved from debut to Sunday Times bestseller without ever being classified as historical at all.
As to when the division between ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’ came about, no one seems to know. The general feeling is that the idea of ‘literary fiction’ started in the 1970s or 1980s (maybe with Thatcher-era Granta names like Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie). Dr Nicola Wilson from Reading University reckons it has its roots in ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’, first used at the turn of the last century, and joined in the 1920s by ‘middlebrow’, possibly as a reaction to the kind of fiction promoted and sold by popular book clubs in the interwar years. Then, as now, the argument was over standards of taste and who should set them, exemplified by Virginia Woolf’s vitriolic (and unsent) letter to the New Statesman in 1932 in which she said, “If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow’ I will take my pen and stab him, dead.”
Set against this background of loose definitions, can we say that ‘historical fiction’ is a useful term? Yes, says Professor John Mullan of University College London, author of How Novels Work. “Publishers and booksellers aren’t stupid. There is such a thing, even if the boundaries are blurred.” You can trace the whole concept of historical fiction back to the nineteenth century, when it had high status both in Britain and Europe. By using history as his subject matter, Sir Walter Scott raised the novel from what some thought of as trivial and vulgar beginnings to something noble and intellectual, so much so that pretty much every major British author of the period – including Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, Thackeray and Trollope – had a go at writing a historical novel (although some might say that Romola, The Trumpet Major and La Vendée are not their authors’ greatest works).
As to what defines historical fiction, John suggests two important criteria. Firstly, he says, the novelist has to rely on something other than his or her memory – the chosen period is far enough back in time to necessitate research. (As Margaret Atwood says, the book is set in the historic past “before the time at which the novel-writer came to consciousness”.) Secondly, the novel traditionally deals with significant historical events, like the French Revolution or the Jacobite Rebellion. Hilary Mantel takes the formula to its logical extreme, in that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies include only events and names that can be historically verified.
So historical fiction is a distinct genre? Novelist and mentor Emma Darwin, author of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, suggests that it can be compared to other genres like fantasy, sci fi and speculative fiction “because it’s dealing with something other than the here and now” (although she points out that novelists often use the past to comment on the present – Rose Tremain, for example, used Restoration to write about the extravagance of the 1980s).
But you could also argue, Emma says, that historical fiction isn’t really a genre at all, because it doesn’t shape and style plot, or follow a set of conventions. In a contemporary romance, for example (and I know this, as I’ve written two of them), both writer and reader are following a well-trodden path, and everyone knows what to expect. But a historical novel could take you anywhere.
Imogen Robertson – writer of historical crime fiction and HWA chair – takes up the same point. “Historical fiction is a setting rather than a genre. It encompasses every different kind of storytelling you can imagine – crime, adventure, dramatised biographies, the rediscovery of lost voices. It allows you to go into the gaps of historical record. It helps you to imagine what other stories should be told.” She points to the diversity of fiction shortlisted for the 2017 HWA Gold Crown, including Giles Kristian’s Viking adventure Wings of the Storm, Ian McGuire’s powerful, visceral The North Water, Kei Miller’s beautiful evocation of Jamaica in Augustown, and Sarah Perry’s extraordinary tale of love, faith and superstition, The Essex Serpent.
So, to go right back to the beginning, what is historical fiction? It’s a huge subject, and I’m not sure it’s possible to get everyone to agree. But I’ve come to three tentative conclusions. Firstly, it’s a tradition that includes some of the greatest British novelists past and present. Secondly, it’s a category that groups together a wide variety of styles and voices.
And thirdly, by the time I go to my next party, I really need to have come up with a better way of describing my novel.
Should You Ask Me by Marianne Kavanagh is published in paperback by Hodder & Stoughton on 31 May. Find out more about Marianne and her work at her website.
Lead image: Fragment from Marie Stuart, reine d’Écosse et prétendant au trône d’Angleterre, au moment où l’on vient la chercher pour aller à la mort © RMN (Musée du Louvre) via Wikimedia Commons.