Historical fiction, and why it grips us so…

By Sandra Heath Wilson

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that . . . . Well, the famous Jane Austen opening line is one of the most memorable of all time, and not only in historical fiction, which is what Pride and Prejudice has now become. It was, of course, current when written.

To me, it is a truth universally acknowledged that once an author becomes enthralled by the past, whether a person, famous event or quarrel, or something as fascinatingly complicated as the Wars of the Roses and the machinations in Renaissance Florence, it’s very difficult indeed to change genre.

The past beguiles us, and leaves us with so many intriguing puzzles that weaving one’s fictional plot through the known facts can be very rewarding. Whether you’re a gifted writer of thought-provoking books, as is Hilary Mantel, or a teller of tales, like me, the passion is the same. I am entranced by the Plantagenets. The thought of all that pageantry, bloodshed, dangerous love, wicked plotting and heinous treason fires me with interest. I’m alight with it. The colour, fashions and romance join in, and everything melds into a wonderful microcosm that is contained within the pages of a novel. Begin to read, and you’re carried back into those hazardous times, you meet the kings, queens and nobles, you accompany them on their adventures, into battle . . . and into love.

Richard III's skeletal remains discovered under a car park inspired a wave of Plantagenet fiction.

The discovery of Richard III’s remains inspired a wave of Plantagenet fiction.

I do not suggest for a moment that Hilary Mantel approaches her works in the same way, but this is how I write, and my Cicely trilogy is the result of that imagined time-travelling excitement. My characters—both real and fictional—are there, in the thick of it. I’m there too, and so are my readers, being part of everything. We can’t possibly know what those real people said and did in private, so when they slip away secretly from the floodlit stage into the novel’s shadows, it will be for purposes that the author has invented.

This is where fiction blends with fact. The imagined events are woven intricately through the cloth of truth by the storyteller, and the result is a tale of what might have happened. Not what did. Provided the author makes sure the reader is never deceived into thinking the book tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then the world of imagination awaits.

The discovery of Richard III’s remains in Leicester has made him the most talked-of King of England, at once notorious and tragic, and the TV serialization of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen sparked a lot more interest in his life. An antidote to Shakespeare’s monster. I first became fascinated by Richard back in the very early 1970s, when I read a little detective novel called The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Tey was clearly convinced Richard had been lied about throughout history, and her detective hero set about getting to the truth. His conclusion was that Richard was a good man and king who had been betrayed at the Battle of Bosworth.

There has been a huge increase in fiction and non-fiction about this last Plantagenet monarch, and judging by reviews at Amazon and similar sites, the trend is set to continue. The market is there, and publishers have responded, although whether individual publishers are presenting their fiction titles in the most advantageous way is another matter. Some do, some don’t.

6a010536b33b69970b01a73dbf3ee3970d-400wi  The Dance of Love  9781910208069  9781910208052

Historical fiction from Buried River Press

In these days of increasing self-publishing, traditional publishers need to be one step ahead. Their clout is their distribution, marketing, production, well-honed editing and, of course, their reputation. Their authors expect their support and advertising, but with the Internet and social media, have to do a lot of self-publicizing as well. It’s up to all concerned to tap into the growing, hungry market, which does await its next meal! Thus it is even more incumbent upon publishers to do all they can to see their books do as well as possible.

Richard III and the Wars of the Roses may be almost fashionable now, but other figures and periods have just as strong a grip on the imagination of writers and readers alike. The Tudors, the Romans, Roundheads and Cavaliers, the Regency, the Victorians, Edwardians, the Roaring Twenties and the two World Wars. I’m sure I’ve missed many more that cry out to be mentioned, but the point is that the past — even the recent past— bewitches us.

This Victorian novel by Michael Faber (2002, Canongate) was adapted as a BBC series in 2011.

Will this continue? Mediaeval storytellers entertained with tales of King Arthur and his knights, who inhabited a glorious, golden age that should be emulated in the mediaeval present, and since then every age has produced stories that look back longingly at what has been lost. So yes, historical fiction is going to continue to be popular. It may ebb occasionally, but the tide always comes in again and often stays high for a long time. Richard III may be the man of the moment, but if the remains of King Harold are discovered, as is expected, then there could be a trend towards Saxon/Norman-set novels. Ditto King Alfred, or even King John, should his lost treasure be found in the Wash. Publishers have to be ready to second-guess what will take off next—as will authors—and those with this prescience will steal a march on the rest.

A time machine is something for which many of us long, to go back to witness it all. But in the meantime, there are novels, where our imagination, not the skills of a film or TV director, or even Shakespeare, gets to work and recreates it all. For writer and reader alike, historical fiction is a wonderful escape from present woes.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers and the reading public are enthralled by centuries gone by, and I for one do not think it will ever change. Authors and publishers need to be on their toes to satisfy demand.

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2 thoughts on “Historical fiction, and why it grips us so…

  1. Pingback: Historical fiction, and why it grips us so . . . . | murreyandblue

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