The Historical Novel

December 17, 2009

Is the historical novel in vogue as never before? Five of the six books on the 2009 Man Booker Prize shortlist were in the historical category. From the richly painted Tudor world of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the modernist, inter-war, central European environment evoked in Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, historical fiction is attracting a lot of attention.

It’s a pity Jerome de Groot’s academic survey of the historical genre didn’t come out in time to address itself to this year’s shortlist. On the surface at least, this year’s prize was a nostalgia-fest. Are we drawn to historical fiction because we want to live in the past? Or does the historical novel’s appeal lie in the idea that, if things are bad, at least they are not as bad as they were? The Glass Room chronicles the rise of Nazism from the perspective of a Jewish family; Wolf Hall plunges the reader into the bloody wranglings and terrifying witch-hunts of Tudor politics.

De Groot’s thesis is that we’ve always craved a good dose of history with our novels and, what is more, that the novel as a literary genre is intrinsically historical. When Daniel Defoe tried to pass off his travel fantasy Robinson Crusoe as a true account in 1719, he was not to know that he would set in motion a struggle between “truth” and “fiction” that was to dominate the story of the novel for the next 300 years. As a result, the idea of “true history” (or not) has always plagued the novel’s art. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me,” writes the narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, a story that creates a fantastical Napoleonic world in which the gondolier families of Venice have webbed feet.

This playing with the concepts of trust, truth and veracity is at the core of the novel’s existence, de Groot argues. The historical novel both teases our desire to know the “truth” behind historical events and encourages our urge to create our own, distorted version of the past. Historical novels are the most apt form of commentary, not on the history they describe, but on the contemporary world they emerge from. Walter Scott’s versions of Highland history become a record of his conflicted Toryism, and the Jacobite fantasies of Barbara Cartland an articulation of her blue-rinse Conservative politics.

An interesting case study in the book is the various fictional treatments of Anne Boleyn, and it is here I really wished the author had had time to consider Wolf Hall. De Groot sees the common characterisation of Thomas Cromwell as an “attack-dog zealot” as a weak thread in the novels dealing with this period – a situation amply remedied by Mantel’s book, with its intention to challenge the image of Cromwell as stage villain.

Boleyn herself has served, over the years, as a political football for multiple revisions of the historical events in question. In the hands of some writers, like Jean Plaidy, she is a proto-feminist heroine. In others – as in Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl – the charges of adultery and witchcraft levelled against her are upheld.

Literary academics and undergraduates will be grateful to de Groot for providing a detailed overview of this fascinating area. My only criticism is a personal one: at times I felt the book could have benefited from a livelier style. It is, of course, a textbook; but students’ enthusiasm can be spurred by a more accessible, even playful, account of the genre. Nevertheless, this study opens up a wealth of new possibilities in the current literary climate. It remains to be seen where the historical novel will go next.

The Historical Novel

By Jerome de Groot
208pp, £55.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9780415426619 and 6626
Published 24 September 2009

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