Thursday, 26 August 2010

Historical Fiction gets academic

I must thank US blogger Sarah Johnson for highlighting 2 interesting articles in the recent UK press which discuss Historical Fiction. Pages Ago is all about finding links between factual and fiction books, so seeing a current debate in the press is rewarding.

In the Independent Saul David illustrates the potential difficulty academic historians such as himself face when trying to turn to writing fiction. His particular struggle seems to focus on the amount of accurate detail it is appropriate to include and what sorts of detail bring fictional writing to life.
Historical facts are the vital framework around which non-fiction writers construct their narratives; they are, quite simply, indispensable. Yet now I was being told that if I wanted to write decent historical fiction I had to avoid being constrained by events as they actually happened.

Eventually I saw the sense of this. I wasn't being asked to sacrifice historical accuracy per se. Just to accept that a historical novel, or any novel for that matter, stands or falls on plot and characterisation; period detail is important, but only in so far as it gives a sense of authenticity. It must remain in the background and never be allowed to dominate the story.

It was gratifying to see that 2 of the authors he quotes have both appeared in NW libraries recently. Kate Williams- see blog entry for 15th July and Harry Sidebottom- see blog entry 5th August. Both these writers are academic historians who discovered that they needed to research new aspects of history to animate their fictions- essentially in both cases, the domestic detail, sights, sounds, smells of the periods they are imagining.

We must read Saul David's book Zulu Hart for ourselves to see whether or not his cross-over from academia has been successful.

The other article was from A.N Wilson in The Financial Times
He takes Wolf Hall as his starting point but also points us towards other recently published novels such as Sacred Treason by James Forrester (aka Dr Ian Mortimer) and The Courier's Tale by Peter Walker. He highlights the same issue as Saul David above, saying
If reading a work of history is like being guided round an old house by an expert, reading a good historical novel offers the illusion that we have stepped back in time to inhabit that house with its original residents.

He is less convinced by Phillipa Gregory's The Red Queen but seems in sympathy with her approach to challenging accepted historical fact. In a lengthy article which points us towards a number of older books and writers, Wilson celebrates Historical Fiction for its imaginative and creative use of historical fact.

These books surely contribute not merely to our enjoyment but to our historical understanding. Mantel, too, has shown that the phenomenon of genuine historical understanding conveyed by art still has effectiveness. Perhaps, then, the ideal holiday reading would be one history book for every historical novel – David Starkey’s volumes on Henry VIII, alongside Wolf Hall. Or you might decide that you have had enough of “Enerey the Eighth” for one summer and turn back to War and Peace.

I think A.N Wilson might like our Pages Ago promotion!

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