Most of us remember the writers from our youth who transported us to some thrilling place in the distant past. Mine included Mary Renault and Georgette Heyer, those spinners of exotic, romantic tales. Few traces of their stories remain in memory, alas. But I still recall vividly the excitement of discovering the life of Michaelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone.
Stone was in the vanguard with his many imaginative recreations of the lives of real historical figures. But he somehow tapped into a Zeitgeist that was ready to emerge. Some critics and serious readers still find historical fiction a sub-par genre, but in recent years the historical novel has grown up: it’s “finally respectable,” in the words of Paul Lay, editor of Britain’s History Today. The best are increasingly concerned with faithfully reproducing an historical period—and in growing numbers, even the actual people who populated that past.
As Stone, and Robert Graves’s I, Claudius remind us, there have always been novels about famous dead people. By and large, however, historical fiction was about fictional characters whose stories were set in days of yore, with the backdrop more or less cunningly arranged. Marguerite Yourcenar, author of Memoirs of Hadrian, sniffily disparaged the whole genre as “a bad costume ball.”
Today it remains the rule that “the hallmarks of good historical fiction are romance and intrigue,” according to the blog of the American bookseller Barnes & Noble. A large chunk are spirited entertainments on accurately detailed stage sets, like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake books or Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. But something else has been happening for a good long while—and not just thanks to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series dramatizing the life of Thomas Cromwell.
Towards historical faction
More and more authors are turning to imaginatively recreating important historical figures and events; one might even term this a new kind of novel, the ‘historical faction’. The trend has been apparent since at least the turn of this century. A by no means exhaustive list might include: Peter Carey’s The True Story of the Kelly Gang; Susan Vreeland’s fictional accounts of artists from Renoir to Tiffany; Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List; Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace; Colm Toibin’s The Confession of Mary; Paula McCain’s The Paris Wife (one of Hemingway’s wives); Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Gentleman (about the Dreyfus Affair); Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing (the first native American student at Harvard); passing by my own Gutenberg’s Apprentice (the inventor of printing).
What these novels aim for, I think, is a hybrid that joins the rigour of non-fiction to the delight of a good yarn. If Mantel’s portrait of Tudor political intrigue is “startlingly accurate,” she is not alone in hewing as close as she can to documented facts. “I am very, very committed to accuracy,” the bestselling historical novelist Sarah Dunant said recently; her most recent novel is about the Renaissance pope Rodrigo Borgia and his notorious clan. As both a reader and writer of such fiction, I have come to think that this development marks a fascinating shift. These stories, it seems to me, take their readers extremely seriously—as indeed they must in an information-saturated age.
Getting the facts right is the least one can do at a time when every reader has a world of data at their fingertips. I was somewhat startled to hear that many readers flipped back and forth to Wikipedia from their Kindle while reading Gutenberg’s Apprentice. Still, this makes sense: readers want to know what’s true, what’s not (though online resources, in my view, often give a fairly standard, often erroneous account that may be at odds with what a writer unearths in the archives.) This in turn has set the bar much higher for the author: it’s easy to be unmasked as an idiot for the errors of fact you may make.
‘Truth’, trust and transparency
The trend also challenges us to use our imaginations more, and better, to go deeply inside these figures who for whatever reason intrigue us, make us want to know the way they tick. This is the province of literature—of motivation, the little choices that may have resulted in historic decisions that shape our present time. In a data-soaked world, historical faction must paradoxically be less about the what and more about the why, all the while staying as true as possible to what is actually known. Ultimately, the reader’s trust must be earned; it must become clear, through historical notes or interviews, that the author has made a sincere effort at factual accuracy.
Academic historians are divided about this emerging trend. Some concede that any recounting of history is necessarily interpretive; many rightly worry that the storytelling form will convince readers that a particular version is ‘the truth’. It is notable that a number of us writing in this way are former journalists or historians, people with a fairly obsessive belief in facts.
The question remains: why now, why in this particular way? With so much of history’s music, art, and daily ritual freely accessible online, it may have been inevitable that writers would turn to mining these rich veins. Yet above all I suspect that the richness and variety of actual human activity on this planet is the real draw. As the boundless creations of reality TV attest, truth really is stranger than fiction—and the past a nearly limitless pool from which to haul up a glittering catch.
Alix Christie is an author, printer, and journalist. Her debut novel “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” is out in paperback from Headline Review. www.gutenbergsapprentice.com