Novel Notion: Reflections on History and Fiction

The historical novel is one of the most significant literary trends of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am an avid reader of historical fiction, particularly those set usually in Victorian British or American contexts, which revolve around a mysterious murder. History as a source of literature has been around as long history has; one needs only to remember that Homer’s Iliad, as well as being literary, is historical; or think of Shakespeare’s great historical plays from Julius Caesar to Henry V. In the case of a historian like Edward Gibbon, writing before the novel as a form had really taken hold, to write history was to entertain as well as enlighten.

gregorys other boleynThe historical novel is a rather new phenomenon; its proliferation is driven largely by the success of female authors like Philippa Gregory,  who has been writing historical novels since the late 1980s, but more particularly her Other Boleyn Girl and most recently in the wild success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; it is also one which historians would do well not be as dismissive of the genre as was David Starkey when he was quoted as saying that

The modern historical novel… is largely written about women, written by women and read by women. Stuff like The Other Boleyn Girl. It’s a quite amazing book, in the sense that the author, Philippa Gregory, has managed to write a historical novel based on four known facts. I think it’s one fact per 75 pages.[1]

Toby Litt, writing in 1998 was equally dismissive of historical fiction in an article in the journal Irish Pages, and used the device of a reader of one of Gregory’s novels for his purposes, in a soaring invective that gives the form no quarter, says that historical fiction is written and read in ‘bad faith’.[2]  Rather than speaking on her behalf, I’ll let Gregory speak for herself; in an article entitled “Born a Writer: Forged As A Historian” she concludes her ruminations on the topic by saying

People often ask me whether I am firstly a writer of fiction or a historian. It’s an easy one to answer. I cannot help but be a story-teller, it is my way of describing the world; but I have learned to be a historian, it is my way of understanding the world. I am both. [3]

She is thoughtful about the implications at least on a personal level, if not on a professional. Such dismissive remarks  like those from Starkey or Litt, to dismiss pretty well all historical novels on the basis of their dislike for Gregory are rather narrow and more to the point, far from the full story. [4]

mantels hall

In 1997, the Historical Novel Society was founded in Britain. In 2010, the first Walter Scott Prize was awarded. In 2011, Britain’s Institute of Historical Research held a four-day conference: Novel Approaches: from academic history to historical fiction. The website of the conference, includes podcasts of the proceedings as well as general introductions to each days theme. On Day Four, when the theme was “Does The success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history?”, Matt Phillpott asked

Not long ago the challenge of postmodernism sought to overturn the historian’s craft and still to this day there is a degree of uncertainty as to where history ends and fiction begins…What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the predominance of historians who can only be described as frustrated novelists in disguise. How many are there out there who sheepishly dream of unburdening themselves from facts and evidence so that they can spring their imaginations free with historical fiction?

A Suzi Feay book review in the Financial Times on 1 July, 2011 noted of the historical novel that

Historical fiction is riding a wave of critical and popular acclaim in Britain. Philippa Gregory and CJ Sansom, the great names in commercial historical fiction who confine themselves to the well-trodden paths of history such as Tudor England or the Regency, are now being joined by authors more familiar for their scholarly non-fiction…

Once dismissed as “bodice-rippers”, historical novels tended not to be literary prize-winners; that is, until Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall came along in 2009. A subtle and sympathetic portrait of Thomas Cromwell, one of English history’s supposed villains, it won the 2009 Man Booker prize and also the inaugural 2010 Walter Scott prize, which was set up, ironically, to counter a perceived lack of respect for historical fiction.

The success of Wolf Hall seemed to chime with a shift in popular history writing. Personality-rich, royalty-based tales in the mould of Jean Plaidy had looked old-fashioned during the social history boom of the 1960s and 1970s. Historians were stressing underlying forces rather than large personalities, uncovering the lives of the people rather than the thin top-crust of society.

As she notes though, the rise of popular historians like Starkey who focus on major figures of history, has meant the rise of more traditional historical novels again, but I would argue that a different breed of historical novel also now exists, beyond revamped versions of the old ‘bodice-rippers’. After all Mantel’s Wolf Hall focuses on creating a humane version of one of English history’s great villains. The historical novels of Matthew Pearl for instance, revolve around élites, but typically non-political historical personages: Sigmund Freud, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, or Charles Dickens.

Alex Grecian's debut novel The Yard
Alex Grecian’s debut novel The Yard

Recently I have been reading two historical novels: The first of these, The Yard by Alex Grecian, was the debut novel from the comic book artist behind Proof. The second was The Prague Cemetery, by the Italian author Umberto Eco, famous to most people as author of In The Name of the Rose. The Yard, the publisher boasts of its author, is penned by a man who had never even been to London – a boast because the reviews of the books praise the ability of the book to evoke late Victorian London so well; and certainly it does. Set in 1889, a year after the Ripper murders, which while they did invoke horror, also saw a building in the Whitechapel area that was ‘by September 1888…home to a waxwork exhibition themed around the Ripper murderers’ where as Matthew Sweet notes ‘the killer was still active in the very streets on which this display was being offered.’[5] This was a horror mixed with a morbid fascination. But the failure to capture the Ripper, and the possibility of both him and others like him still roaming the London streets hang as densely over the murder to be solved in Grecian’s The Yard as the fog of London hung over the city he renders. Grecian’s evocation of late Victorian London owes a great deal it seems not just to historical research (there is certainly evidence of it in the details of his novel) but also to the popular visions of the Victorian world – dark, shadowy, full of steaming horses and hansom cabs, gas-lights and cobblestones.

Grecian’s Victorian London it seems to me is a mélange of the world conjured on screen for us by the recent Sherlock Holmes films (with Downey, Jr. And Law), From Hell (with Johnny Depp as the Ripper), in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, or even the similarly magician-centric Illusionist (which evokes Victorian Vienna with all the gas-lit glory you might expect). In Grecian’s novel , London is a Victorian world as rendered after a reappraisal of the Victorian era of the kind that Matthew Sweet conducted. One which Sweet insists was not ‘any right-wing nostalgia’ but rather a re-appraisal based on the fact that our view of them ‘as cruel, hypocritical, repressive, intolerant, prudish, and cheerless’ is wrong-headed. Rather he hoped to convince readers of his book ‘that Victorian culture was as rich and difficult and pleasurable as our own; that the Victorians shaped our lives and sensibilities in countless unacknowledged ways; that they are still with us, walking our pavements, drinking in our bars, living in our houses, reading our newspapers, inhabiting our bodies.’[6]

The policemen, doctors, street beggars, prostitutes, children and criminals that inhabit the particular vision of Victorian London that Grecian creates are all recognizable – their ambitions are more in tune with those of today, particularly the ambitions of the bizarrely-named Welsh policeman Hammersmith (from the fictional town of Collier, Wales) who had no pride whatever in his family’s coal-mining tradition and was concerned to be upwardly mobile. The characters’ language, as rightly noted in the Observer review of the book, is wildly anachronistic – more at home in a Frank Miller rendering of Batman than Victoria’s London. But this is an out and out page turner. It combines my favourite things in a novel – historical setting and a murder mystery. On this last count at least, its historicity is interesting, introducing through the character of Dr. Kingsley two real-life historical pioneers of police work:  Alphonse Bertillon and Henry Faulds. Both of these men Dr. Kingsley refers to when demonstrating the new technique of brushing for fingerprints.[7]

Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery. Notice the similarity of presentation on this cover compared with Grecian's The Yard.
Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery. Notice the similarity of presentation on this cover compared with Grecian’s The Yard.

Yet to my mind, it doesn’t hold a candle to other similar recent efforts of other American novelists in the same vein. Jed Rubensfeld’s Interpretation of Murder, or Mathew Pearl’s The Last Dickens, or even his earlier efforts The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow are all much stronger showings than Grecian’s The Yard. Still this is a compelling novel – historical, but as is often the case – the historicity is secondary to the core functions of the novel. Eco’s novel betrays Eco’s learned qualities in a way that isn’t present in Grecian’s novel. In contrast to Grecian’s novel, for instance, the only fictional character to appear in The Prague Cemetery is the figure of Simonini. Of course, this is still a novel before it is anything else and is quite different from some of Eco’s other recent work like Inventing the Enemy say or his book with Jean-Claudé Carriére, This Is Not The End of the Book.  Peter Conrad, reviewing the book for the Observer in late 2011, sums up with the statement that ‘History is a nightmare, and Simonini’s enfevered babbling won’t help us to awaken from it.’ Be that as it may, it is no reason not to see the historical novel as an aide to the historian who might struggle to draw out the story that will drive their analysis along. And as with the historical profession, as Peter Beck notes, some historical novels bare the hallmark of greater scholarly research than others. Here I return to Beck’s consideration of Gregory, who holds a doctorate in history for work on popular fiction of the eighteenth century from the University of Edinburgh; Hilary Mantel’s work as Beck notes, though, by focusing less on the sex lives of the Tudors and more on their power relations in Wolf Hall is considered a more credible writer, and piece of historical fiction.[8] In general, it seems to me, this might be a fair assessment.

The popularity of such books, any more than the particular two which I have recently read, should not be cause for skepticism amongst academic historians, but rather it seems there are many lessons to be drawn from the best historical fiction. Many works of historical fiction, and I know for instance Rubenfeld and Pearl whose book I enjoy immensely, do include author’s notes on historical accuracy, and even occasionally include select bibliographies at the end of their novels. It is after all, another means of representing history, just like historical movies or even historically-minded comic strips (witness Hark! A Vagrant or the recent Irish publisher  O’Brien Press graphic novels on 1916 and the War of Independence).[9]

Perhaps what makes its popularity so terrifying to some historians is that its medium is the same as theirs – it comes in the form of a book; unlike a graphic novel, a comic strip or a film, historical novels are, much like popularly written history itself, widely and readily available to the reading public in their local bookshops. Perhaps it also derives from a feeling that style and substance are an either/or decision – the historical novel a case of style over substance – a view that sees these qualities as mutually exclusive rather than one being contingent on the other, and much academic history writing is the poorer for this jaundiced view of style. The aim should be not to have the reading of one discourage the reading of another, but rather encourage the reading of all three together. A novel idea? It doesn’t have to be.

[1] Quoted in Peter J. Beck, Presenting History: Past & Present, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, p. 206

[2] Toby Litt, Irish Pages, Vol. 5, No. 1, Language and Languages (2008), pp. 111-115

[3] Philippa Gregory, History Workshop Journal, No. 59 (Spring, 2005), pp. 237-242

[4] There is also the not-unreasonable suggestion to be made that part of the problem is at least driven in part by gender disparity in terms of those who read historical novels; This suggestion is made by Diana Wallace who says that it has become ‘one of the most important genres for women writers and readers’, quoted in Beck, Presenting History, p.207

[5] Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians, London: Faber & Faber, 2002, p.83

[6] Sweet, Inventing the Victorians, p.xii; p.232; p.xiii

[7] Alex Grecian, The Yard, London: Penguin 2013, pp.230-232

[8] Beck, Presenting History, pp.208-209

[9] A new book discussing representations of history on film worth seeking out is Jim Cullen, Sensing the Past:  Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012


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