What is ‘historical fiction’? How does it differ from other genres? Like ugliness, we know it when we see it but it is difficult to define, except by context. To be pedantic, the word ‘history’ is Greek in origin; it derives from historia, a term whose primary meaning is ‘inquiry’ (OED). Thus, every scheme of data - factual or otherwise - that we compile with the hope of discovering something would qualify as ‘history’. This is unhelpful.
One expert proposes that ‘[i]t is necessary to include at least one ‘real’ [person] in a novel if it is to qualify as historical’ (Fleishman 1971: 3). This is no more helpful. William Golding presents no ‘real’ person among his imaginary Neanderthals in The Inheritors and the period is known to us largely from fossil relics. Yet, because The Inheritors squares with recent research into the period, it is more likely to be classed as historical fiction than fantasy.
The historical novelist Manzoni concluded that ‘the historical novel was impossible - a contradiction in terms, as seen in its very name’ (Fleishmann 1971: 17) But that is just word-chopping. By the same logic, Manzoni would regard the journal New Literary History with extreme suspicion. Another writer suggests ‘a true “historical novel” is one that is historical in its intention’ (Butterfield 1924: 5). That is not helpful at all. What - precisely - might the historical novel ‘intend’ by its historicality?
A simple way to solve the question might be to look at the time-period of its predominant setting. Scott sited his historical novel Waverley in the period of the Jacobite rebellion (1745), a safe 69 years before the novel’s publication in 1814. He didn’t want to stir up bitter memories. But he did so, anyway. The novel provoked much waving of claymores among nonagenarian Scots. A cautious definition of historical fiction, therefore, might be: ‘a work set primarily in a period at least 100 years earlier than the author's time of writing it’. Thus, its setting and period details would precede the lifetimes of any likely author or reader and our novels might avoid libel suits.
Still, this doesn’t entirely address the problem. The House of Dr Dee by Peter Ackroyd segues between the 20th and 16th centuries. Is it historical fiction? In despair, critics have labelled the novel ‘neo-historical fiction’, a work that plays games with time. But, by this definition, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando would be neo-historical fiction. After all, her time-travelling androgyne skips from Tudor England into 1920s Bloomsbury. And what about Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? Or even King Lear, where the Fool says, anachronistically: “this prophecy shall Merlin make, for I live before his time” (III, ii). Are these works ‘neo-historical’ too? The term is too vague.
I suggest the problem of definition might be simplified by splitting ‘historical fiction’ into two sub-genres: heritage and serio-historical fiction. Heritage fiction depicts modern people, sensibilities and conflicts but it cloaks them expediently with props from history’s wardrobe: ruffs and farthingales, gibbets and jousts. This is the film producer’s approach and it will always make the most money. By contrast, serio-historical fiction exposes the reader to a profound whiff of strangeness.
We find it in certain episodes in Nothing Like the Sun (Anthony Burgess), They Were Defeated (Rose Macaulay), Restoration (Rose Tremain), The Bull from the Sea (Mary Renault) and countless other works unvisited by Hollywood. We do not find it in Philippa Gregory.
Of course, this frisson of alterity need bear no relationship to historic ‘truth’. But when we feel it - for example in the seduction of the novice and the burning of the maid in The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco) - we know emphatically that we are no longer in Times Square.
By this revised scheme, Ackroyd’s The House of Dr Dee would be serio-historical fiction, regardless of the time period of any particular episode. The entire narrative reeks of Otherness. And The Other Boleyn Girl would be heritage fiction, a sentimental blend of history and kitsch.
No value judgement is implicit in the terms heritage and serio-historical, of course, and the new scheme should please literary agents.. Whenever they meet an historical novel that is too challenging to be sold in supermarkets they could rate it as serio-historical rather than dumping it in the Literature bin.
Is there a review site dedicated to serio-historical novels? If not, perhaps somebody should devise one. Seriously.
Butterfield, H., 1924, The Historical Novel, Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Fleishman, Avrom, 1971, The English Historical Novel, Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins Press, 0-8018-1433-2