As most of you know by now, I love and adore historical fiction. It’s my preferred genre, although I will have a go at most things if it’s well-written, has an interesting premise or I’m in the mood. However my go-to, when I need a guaranteed read, a read I can simply fall into with comfort and ease, will always be historical fiction.
Historical fiction is a novel where an author sets their book in a period of time before their own and populates it with fictional characters (think Thomas Keneally, Geraldine Brooks, James A. Michener). To refine this even further, you could include authors who write about the immediate past. A time they may have lived through themselves or perhaps their grandparents lived through, providing a personal perspective to the historical context (think Tolstoy, Zola, Harper Lee).
In and around this are books that might be classified as alternate histories (think The Man in the High Castle or Stephen King’s 11/22/63 or George Orwell’s 1984) where the author plays with what might have happened if just one event changed.
AH is a genre of speculative fiction consisting of stories in which one or more historical events occur differently. These stories usually contain “what if” scenarios at crucial points in history and present outcomes other than those in the historical record. The stories are conjectural but are sometimes based on fact (wikipedia).
We can also have books that are historical now by default. I guess you might call them period piece fiction or literary realism. These are novels that are now historical to us, but they were once contemporary (think Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott). For the modern reader, the historical period and setting of these novels now plays an important part in understanding what’s happening to our beloved characters.
And then there is the relatively new fictionalised biography.
Or is that, biographical fiction?
Whichever way you look it, it’s where an author takes real events and real people and makes up stuff about what they said and did to make a story. I love this sub-genre. When done well, it can provide insights into a time and place or a much-loved person that would be impossible to know otherwise, due to the sparsity of primary sources (think Hilary Mantel, Robert Graves, Philippa Gregory).
The biographical novel is a genre of novel which provides a fictional account of a contemporary or historical person’s life. This kind of novel concentrates on the experiences a person had during his lifetime, the people they met and the incidents which occurred. Like other forms of biographical fiction, details are often trimmed or reimagined to meet the artistic needs of the fictional genre, the novel. These reimagined biographies are sometimes called semi-biographical novels, to distinguish the relative historicity of the work from other biographical novels (wikipedia).
One of the things I love about this particular genre is it’s ability to view history through a different lens.
In recent times, many authors have been exploring history through a feminist lens or an Indigenous lens (think The Secret River, Benang or Alias Grace). Given that the historical record favours the winners (who usually happen to be older white men) being reminded that other people were involved and impacted is a good thing. A necessary thing.
Historical facts and data are not static; they have always been open to differing opinions and manipulation.
historical revisionism identifies the re-interpretation of a historical account. It usually involves challenging the orthodox (established, accepted or traditional) views held by professional scholars about an historical event or time-span or phenomenon, introducing contrary evidence, or reinterpreting the motivations and decisions of the people involved. The revision of the historical record can reflect new discoveries of fact, evidence, and interpretation, which then results in revised history (wikipedia).
Revisionism and re-interpretation are a natural human process. We all adjust our personal stories as new evidence comes to light and as experience and maturity enhance our ability to see beyond our own biases and prejudices.
The history of the world is no different. The stories around the facts, change with time. New information, fresh perspectives and the advantage of hindsight can all have an impact. It opens the doors to exciting new possibilities and original ideas.
Which brings me to the massive disappointment I feel, when this story telling process fails to work it’s magic over me.
It may be that the weird times under which we now live, are adversely affecting my reading habits. I do seem to be leaning more towards narrative non-fiction lately. But let me tell you about two of the disappointments.
Firstly, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.
Shortlisted for this years Women’s Prize and claiming to tell the story of Shakespeare young son who died at age 11 in 1596, this is a lifelong fascination for O’Farrell come to fruition. It sounded so promising.
I loved the first chapter that shows us a young Hamnet playing with his twin sister Judith who suddenly falls ill. She puts herself to bed and Hamnet goes searching for a family member to help, but everyone is out. This is unusual. Hamnet’s search becomes more desperate and tense when he suspects that Judith may have caught the Plague.
But then we switch to back story. The wild, untamed daughter attracts the attention of the dissatisfied tutor to her brothers. Yuck! Her witchy habits means she is an outsider and considered dangerous to know. He knows he shouldn’t, but he does, anyway. Blah, blah, blah.
I picked it up and put it down three times, hoping it was just my bad mood or tiredness. But no. This is just trite and awful. Not even the stuff about the Plague was enough to keep me interested (if only a few more world leaders had been like Queen Elizabeth I thought “The playhouses are all shut, by order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public.“)
My next fictionalised biography disappointment was a bit closer to home.
I’ve been looking forward to the new Kate Grenville for some time now. It’s an embargoed title until the 2nd July, but some pre-publicity stuff tells me that the premise of this story about Elizabeth Macarthur hinges on the sudden discovery of some “shockingly frank secret memoirs.”
I many give A Room made of Leaves closer attention in July, just to make sure, but the blurbs unnecessary use of the words ‘notorious’, ‘miraculously’ and ‘playful’ have turned me off, as has this particular paragraph.
Marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her heart, the search for power in a society that gave women none- this Elizabeth Macarthur manages her complicated life with spirit and passion, cunning and sly wit. Her memoir lets us hear-at last!-what one of those seemingly demure women from history might really have thought.
That has to be one of the worst written blurbs ever. It’s made the story sound like some kind of bodice-ripping, pot-boiler.
I am now feeling rather nervous about starting the final book in Hilary Mantel’s (so far) magnificent trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light. The reports coming in from customers and other bloggers are encouraging, so all I have to do I is make the time to reread the first two!
A copy of Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is also lurking on my TBR pile. I love the idea of an alternate history story line with a feminist lens, but what if the writing is dull and awful? I’ve never read any Sittenfeld before, so I don’t know what to expect.
Despite the above, I do in fact, love this genre. Remember how much I enjoyed In Love With George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy earlier this year. And my most recent Zola (surely the master of fictionalised history), and my current chapter-a-day read of War and Peace plus a whole stack of literary realism or period piece dramas devoured this year alone (ranging from Katherine Mansfield to Angela Thirkell to Mena Calthorpe and just this week Martin Boyd).
I’m certainly not done with fictionalised biographies, but I am a little more wary of late.
As always, I’m happy to consider your favourites, in this genre, for future reference.