Sunday, April 25, 2010

How do we define ‘historical fiction’? A modest proposal

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


Anonymous said...

At Speak Its Name ( we very definitely expect as serio as it we can get it. We DON'T want modern men in pretty costumes with modern sensibilities, and if we spot such anachronisms - even in the romances (which for some reason people think gets a bye just because it's a romance) we point it out.

Stephanie Dray said...

How helpful is it for marketing purposes to slice and dice up the genre anymore than it already is? Costume dramas like HBO's Tudors might be considered heritage fiction, but because it gets maybe 70% of the history right while capturing the imagination, it inevitably leads readers to other related historical fiction that might more rightly be classified as serio-historical novels, and I think that's a good thing.

Moreover, I always caution historians and historical fiction writers from believing too much of our own propaganda. Yes, there are some profoundly strange outlooks from times past, but the human mind hasn't changed drastically in thousands of years. Our ancestors aren't _aliens_.

For example, the Roman viewpoint on slavery, religion, and a whole host of other issues would be utterly foreign to us. On the other hand, read some of Juvenal's work and it could be something you'd hear from a modern day commentator talking about illegal aliens. And then you have figures like Spartacus, who obviously held beliefs that ran contrary to the societal norm.

So, whenever I read a Regency historical where there's a plucky young heroine who believes in women's liberation, I think to myself that there were surely a few women of her time period that thought the same way. It's just that she was an aberration.

Stephanie Dray said...

Oh, but I do want to thank you for bringing up such an interesting proposal. I love debating this kind of thing!

Marina Maxwell said...

Great proposal, John, there must be some restlessness in the air on this topic as I am just in the process of setting up a new blog offering to help frustrated authors by reviewing books that fall into the serio-historical category - terrific term - I might pinch it with your permission? No Tudors need apply though.

Dr John Yeoman said...

Marina, please free to use the term 'serio-historical'. It's possibly less clumsy than Linda Hutcheon's now infamous phrase for neo-historical fiction: 'historiographical metafiction'. Why didn't she just call it 'metafaction' - and leave it at that?

I was once tempted to set up a group called Real History Authors (RHA) in a bid to switch web traffic from the Royal Horticultural Association. But it might have started another war of the roses...

KK Brees said...

Even writers of history must endure the slings and arrows of their outraged fellows. I'm reminded of Barbara Tuchman and the scoffs and jeers and putdowns of her historical writing - most of them probably jealous because of her success. Perhaps some unhappy that a woman was writing for the masses and somehow corrupting the purity of history.

History has always been a polyglot. Take people from any era, plop them down in an historical setting, and let them have at it. You'll get a ripping good tale if the author's skill is there, and you'll get utter boredom if it isn't (probably the reason so many people learn to hate history. Make it interesting and make it provocative and there will always be an audience.

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