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Why Historical Fiction Matters | Inside Higher Ed

Ours, wrote the critic and essayist Megan O’Grady in 2019, is the golden age of historical fiction. Think of the greatest contemporary novelists, and many – Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, E.L. Doctorow, Barbara Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Salman Rushdie, and Colson Whitehead – made their name writing historical fiction.

Now, no matter how great these authors are, some would question whether this is indeed the genre’s true golden age.  After all, how can today compare with the 19th century, when such giants as Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and Anthony Trollope, walked the earth.  Or how about such 20th century luminaries such as Willa Cather, John Fowles, Robert Graves, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Mann, Gabriel García Márquez, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Wallace Stegner.

Yet if historical fiction has attracted many of literature’s leading lights, it is also often dismissed as genre fiction and is associated with hacks and cliches — with bodices, corsets, crinoline, doublets, jerkins, petticoats, and ruffs.  The fact that many of the genre’s best-known practitioners – like Howard Fast, James Michener, Margaret Mitchell, Leon Uris, Gore Vidal, and Herman Wouk — wrote for a popular audience didn’t help the classification’s reputation.

Still, at its best, historical fiction exposes the way that “history shapes, wounds and implicates” people past and present.

Unlike history and biography, which are constrained by extant evidence, historical fiction isn’t.  “Historical novels can transport us to another era,” wrote the novelist Margaret George, and restore “history’s vast panorama.”  It can fill the historical record’s gaps and lay bare history’s human side, allowing readers to enter into the past’s emotional interior and psyche, and explore people’s motives and their mental and moral development, and judge their character and choices.

In addition, historical fiction can offer a more inclusive portrait of the past, recover and develop stories that have been lost or forgotten, and foreground figures and dissenting and radical perspectives that were relegated to history’s sidelines.  

As the author Tim Weed put it, when he reads historical fiction, he’s “looking for something bigger than a simple reconstruction of history.” 

“I’m looking to experience a new world, to enter a new and de-familiarized version of the past. I’m looking for an immersive story that brings interesting characters to life while simultaneously capturing something essential, not only about the historical setting, but also about the deeper truths of human existence. The fact is that any contemporary historical novel must to some extent reflect contemporary values and preoccupations, and setting a book in the distant past can give us a uniquely clear-eyed perspective on the present.”

In E.L. Doctorow’s words, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”

It is not an accident that many of the earliest authors of historical fiction were women, like Mme de Lafayette  and Jane and Anna Maria Porter, since the genre made it possible to recover the lives and voices of those whose voices had been erased and whose historical experience had been excised. 

As Jerome de Groot has shown in three important works of literary history and criticism, The Historical NovelConsuming History, and Remaking History, historical fiction embodies a fundamental contradiction:  A large part of its appeal to readers lies in its depth of research and its sense of authenticity; yet it must necessarily move beyond historical fact, adding flesh and blood to history’s bare bones. “It can render something ‘richer, more complete’ in a way that mainstream historical accounts cannot.” These works “investigate strata of society generally unnoticed by mainstream history and they are deeply interested in the lived experience of day-to-day life.” Indeed, historical fiction shapes popular understandings of the past. 

Of course, historical fiction can exploit the past – reducing the past to an exotic stage set.  It frequently romanticizes, aestheticizes, and simplifies the past and often include many anachronisms.  Still other examples emphasize “the venal, the grim, the shadowy and the dark.”  These are among the reasons that academic historians distance their scholarship from historical fiction and dissociate from anything that smacks of the fictive and the imaginary, even though their writings make use of a variety of literary devices (e.g. trope, metaphor) and strive to craft compelling and engaging narratives.  

This led the late philosopher of history Hayden White, who was heavily influenced by postmodernism, to regard the past as essentially unknowable and written history as itself a form of fiction.  In his view and de Groot’s, historical fiction is one of many ways of connecting to an enigmatic, ultimately unrecoverable past.  Others approaches include bearing witness or mythologizing, commemorating, and celebrating the past as a counter to the present-day ills. 

As de Groot has shown, over the past three centuries, historical fiction takes multiple forms and has served competing purposes.  Alongside attempts at historical realism, including histories from the margins that reconstruct the lives of marginalized, there are alternative or speculative histories, time travel novels and short stories, and historical fantasies, as well as many examples of nostalgia for a past that never was, postmodernist pastiche, magical realism, and Downton Abbey and Mad Men-like edu-tainment.  

He, like Diane Wallace in The Women’s Historical Novel, shows that the genre has long been characterized by a deep gender divide, with many male novelists focusing on adventure or war and many women novelists placing much more attention on the realities of female lives in the past.  He also examines the shifting functions of historical fiction at various times.  As he shows, it has served as a vehicle for constructing and reconstructing national, regional, and ethnic and other group identities; for drawing a stark contrast between past and present (for example, by contrasting a more enlightened present with a superstitious or repressive past; for challenging established historical narratives; or for showing how the past reverberates in the present.

What, you might well ask, is historical fiction’s appeal today?  Part of the answer, I am convinced, resides in the current struggle to overcome traumas rooted in the past: to wrestle with past crimes, to come to terms with the past’s persistent presence, and to make sense of the legacies of slavery, imperialism, homophobia, and more.  

Today, the popular image of ghosts is either like Casper, friendly, welcoming, and approachable, or Halloweenish, scary in a way that delivers thrills and goosebumps, but that pose no real danger.  In the early modern era, ghosts served a very different function.  Those apparitions, specters, and phantoms, offered a tangible reminder of unfinished business — unresolved debts, unsettled affairs, unsolved mysteries, and unanswered questions.  That, I think, is historical fiction’s highest role today: To be the ghost that haunts our collective imagination and forces us to process unpleasant truths and come to grips with disquieting realities.

Historical fiction can, in its basest form, be little more than a costume or period drama, an entertaining narrative set in the past that seeks to capture the atmosphere and mood of a long-past era.  But as the philosopher Nikhil Krishnan writes in a fascinating review of Tom Crews’s The New Life, a fictionalized “alternate history” of the Victorian reformers who defended same sex desire — John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis – the free floating realm of fiction can do things that no card-carrying historian can: explore how these figures grappled with their stigmatized sexuality, the threat of social opprobrium, and conflicting ethical imperatives. 

Crewe, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge, has written something far more meaningful than a late Victorian “Brokeback Mountain.”  Nor is his novel reducible to a treatise on the late 19th century challenges to heteronormality.  Nor is it merely an account of the suffering and unhappiness inflicted by that era’s stifling sexual norms.  As one Australian reviewer, Levi Huxton, puts it

“the text brims with vivid detail and vibrant colour, rescuing the characters from period abstraction. The prose is pure rhythm and melody… Nor is it hagiography. John and Henry (as they’re known here) are multi-faceted human beings, with complex personal motives they don’t always fathom…. The New Life is less about social justice than the inexorable force of lust, how sexual desire cannot be contained, appetites of the body overriding the mind to lay society’s best (and most coercive) intentions to waste.”

The novel offers, in short,  the history that lies beyond pure fact, the quest to understand how our forebears, so similar and yet different from us, managed, handled, or survived issues that still trouble us today.

The historian Mark Damon describes three different ways of accessing the past.  History can be recovered or remembered or invented.  Mainly, I think, it must be reconstructed, not just out of the surviving shards and slivers of evidence, but through acts of imagination and empathy and identification.

Historical fiction isn’t history, but it can reveal the historical truths that lie beyond the evidentiary.  It is an expression of our ongoing, unending quest to understand our forebears who formed us, scarred us, and, to a certain extent, freed us.  It’s an attempt to comprehend how people, so similar and yet so different from us, thought and felt and dealt with many of the same existential issues and primal realities that we confront today.  In Hilary Mantel’s words, historical fictions “takes us far from our time, far from our shore, and often beyond our compass” so that we can see our own lives from a radically altered angle in the past’s dim light.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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