Special issue - Historical Fiction
In Western imaginations, the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–76) – in which one of the world’s oldest, most elaborate cultures began destroying itself, in which a successful, disciplined political organisation tore its own heart out, and in which colleagues and classmates turned murderously on each other – stands among the landmarks of the recent Chinese past.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novel The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow in 1913 but written at the height of perestroika, conveys an ambivalence familiar to those of us who spent time there during the Gorbachev years.
One would naturally expect the two books under review, one a history published by an academic press and the other a novel, to be very different treatments of their chosen theme. Yet it is the similarities between them that consistently strike the reader.
I was 16 or 17 when I first read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and 26 when I completed my PhD on shell shock in First World War Britain.
Pompeii is the quintessential ghost story, frequently told by archaeological and literary scribes working together in symbiosis, not always for the good. In this multitude of ghost raconteurs novelist Robert Harris stands tall.
For those historians who have studied the English Reformation or the writing of polemics, histories and plays in the 16th century the name John Bale (1495–1563) appears high on the list of English scholars supporting a reformist agenda. Bale popularised the genre of martyrology for an English audience, later taken to its logical conclusion in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Sir Walter Scott, masquerading both as ‘The Author’, as well as his pompous alter-ego, the historian ‘Dr Jonas Dryasdust’, inserted the following dialogue into the beginning of his historical novel of the Restoration period, Peveril of the Peak (1823):
The challenge in writing a comparative review of Kate Lowe’s fine study of early modern Italian convents Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture with Sarah Dunant’s gripping novel Sacred Hearts is to find ways of making sense of the experience of reading both beyond stating the obvious.
When a late-medieval or Tudor historian is asked to compare and contrast a historical novel with a scholarly book that both take as their subject Thomas Cromwell, and the latter work has been written by the late G R Elton, the inevitable disclaimer becomes compulsory unless that historian has spent several decades inhabiting a historiographically-isolated cave during the rise and fall of t
‘I am what you would call a Fallen Woman, but I assure you I did not fall – I was pushed’ (Faber, p. 336).
Jan Guillou is a well-known Swedish author, journalist and political commentator.
Any historian analysing a historical novel is bound to appear a little pedantic, taking a spade to the proverbial soufflé, but here goes.
This special issue was commissioned to coincide with the IHR’s November 2011 conference, ‘Novel approaches: from academic history to historical fiction', which sought to to explore this current publishing phenomenon. It brought together a wide range of speakers, including academic and public historians, authors and publishers. They examined such questions as: Why have historical novels become ‘respectable’, and why anecdotally are historians being encouraged to write them? What is the difference between historical fiction and academic history, and how rigid are the boundaries between the two? How good are readers at differentiating between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and how much does it matter if they don’t? Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history, and what can literary authors and academics learn from each other?
To coincide with the physical event, a virtual conference was also scheduled, which featured podcasted lectures from the Novel Approaches conference; articles by historians and historical novelists; opinion pieces; bibliographies; lists of online resources - and book reviews.
For the book reviews we commissioned academic historians to compare and contrast a work of historical fiction and a work of academic history on the same subject, and had a great and varied response, as you can see below.