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But a great deal of what is on offer is no more than decoration. The past is a place where they may seem to do things more colourfully. And it is the colour and detail that his more feeble imitators took as the essential ingredients of the historical novel. He also failed to solve the problem of finding the right language for his characters to speak, so that they express themselves sometimes in what one might call ersatz medieval — "zounds" and "gramercy" — and sometimes as 18th-century ladies and gentlemen transported back in time. The result, especially in the works of his imitators, was what has been called "tushery" or "Wardour Street English". His real distinction is to be found in the Scottish novels, more generally, in what Carlyle identified as his ability to remind us that historical figures were men and women of flesh and blood, not abstractions, and that events in the past were once in the future. This is something Robert Harris does successfully in his two Cicero novels, Imperium and Lustrum.

Scott wrote at a time when interest in history as a means of understanding the contemporary world was being born. He contributed to this and stood also on the threshold of one of the 19th century's most significant features — the development of history as an academic study. The father of academic history, Leopold von Ranke, insisted on the autonomy of the past and sought to recreate it "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" ("as it actually was"). This is the aim, or at least an aim, of the serious historical novelist, who sets out to offer more than entertainment. In Wolf Hall, for example, Mantel evokes the revolutionary decade of the 1530s, and her hero, Thomas Cromwell, is an emblematic figure precise ly because he represents a new way of thinking. Mantel uses him to show how a new England will take shape.

Why do novelists turn away from the present day to the past, and sometimes, like Harris, to the now far distant past? There is evidently no single reason. The writer may have become fascinated by some historical figure, as Mantel with Cromwell or Adam Foulds, whose The Quickening Maze was one of the six on the Man Booker shortlist, with the poet John Clare. Obsession with a particular period — the First World War, for instance — may suggest the theme for a novel. The author may wish to explore the past for its own sake, or to use it to point up the present. Harris's Cicero novels certainly offer a vivid picture of late Republican Rome, but Harris has worked as a political journalist, and these books are also an examination of the nature and craft of politics, all the more effectively so for being divorced from immediate political concerns.

The past is more manageable and easier to grasp than the present. It rewards brooding, whereas the contemporary world shifts and defies reflection. To write a novel that deals with public affairs set in the present is to flirt with journalism. A comic novel or a domestic novel is a different matter. Comedy thrives on observing contemporary follies and fashions. The domestic novel may properly and successfully address the shifting social attitudes and moral codes of the contemporary world. But a novel with a public or political theme seems to require a degree of distance.

It poses other problems for the author. Trollope, writing his political novels in the mid-Victorian years, could acceptably give his Prime Ministers names of his own devising. But this is scarcely plausible in our news-dominated world. On the other hand, to introduce real politicians by their own names is not only to invite a libel action, it is improper. Real-life public figures may only be introduced into fiction under their own names when they are safely dead and have become historical. So the novelist who wishes to write on some public theme is well advised to set his book in the past. And, if it is the comparatively recent past, then he is also wise to follow Scott's practice in his Scottish novels and allow real-life historical figures to be presented through the eyes of fully fictional characters. This makes for their verisimilitude while allowing them to be fictionalised themselves. Conversely, the further you retreat in time, then the more free you are to make fictions of historical figures such as Cicero and Thomas Cromwell.

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May 5th, 2010
1:05 PM
I may be jumping the gun here - no doubt others have mentioned him - but why have the works of Patrick O'Brian not been considered in the article? I love Mary Renault's books, but even she yields to O'Brian in terms of characterisation, historical veracity and intellectual depth. I could never wholeheartedly enjoy Scott's works - far too full of conscious archaism, tediously plotted and with many stylistic infelicities. Besides, he is at least partly responsible for many widely believed untruths about medieval society.

May 5th, 2010
5:05 AM
I suspect that the past seems easier to grasp than the present at least partly because we are more easily capable of deluding ourselves that we have grasped it because no one remains from that past to insist we have got it all wrong. That said, historical fiction is my favorite kind of fiction (I've devoted a website to it at When done well, it strikes an exceptional balance, I think, between the discipline required of the author to study a particular space of time that is not one's own and present as faithful a reimagining of it as possible, down to the smallest detail, and the enormous freedom of letting one's own time and biases go so that one can play with the possibilities of going altogether naked of cultural preconceptions. In this way, there might even be said to be a special nobility of purpose in reading for "escape" - people of the past were immersed in biases that we find ridiculous, reprehensible and/or monstrous, but when we put ourselves in their skins and realize how committed they were to these biases, it can make us wonder what biases of our own may seem equally appalling to some future age.

May 2nd, 2010
1:05 AM
Wendell Berry has some thought-provoking comments perhaps more relevant to American poetry and Rain: A Dust Bowl Story, but also meaningful to the larger discussion--he suggests that the lack of interest in narrative verse "is indicative of a serious lack of interest, first, in action, and second, in responsible action." In other words, the historical dimension takes the work directly into contact with the world, where some contemporary readers/critics do not want it to be.

April 30th, 2010
9:04 AM
Ben, I share your enthusiasm for 'Julian'. I've read it approximately once a decade since the 1960s, each time with added pleasure. And I agree about the added pertinence of the book today. Amongst Vidal's other books, I found 'Lincoln' masterly. I've yet to read 'Woolf Hall' but Mantel's earlier historical novel,'A Place of Greater Safety', was possibly the best English language fictional work to date on the French Revolution (a category that includes "A Tale of Two Cities") . But the greatest historical novel of them all is, to my mind, 'The Leopard'. No book better encapsulates the simple truth that everything changes and everything stays the same. And no book is so subtly sensual, almost tactile, in its ability to describe a vanished reality. Like War and Peace, it's only semi-historical, as its epilogue is set at a time when the author must already have been born, with characters based on his family. I think Allan Massie is right to point to the distinction between such books and those set in a remote past. The former can be highly instructive with respect to how the present grew out of the past. The latter, on the other hand, hold up a strange, compelling mirror to the present. Many of the great novels of the Mid Victorian period (e.g. Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, the memorable first part of David Copperfield) are set a few decades earlier, as the commercial civilization of the nineteenth century was just coming into being. There's a hint of the explanatory about them, but that doesn't detract from their literary greatness. Meanwhile, Massie has re-whetted my appetite for Scott. I think I've got "The Heart of Midlothian" buried away somewhere.

April 28th, 2010
7:04 PM
An excellent essay, but indeed the genre continues to develop as more and more accurate historical information is revealed. Several writers (e.g. Bernard Cornwell, Diana Gabaldon and even Ken Follett) continue to write very successfully with historical action. When the characters are invented within the realities of a historical period, a powerful teaching tool is created for use. If the writer is adept at wielding that tool, it becomes a hard book to put down. When could you ever say that about your history text book? Go Flashman.

April 28th, 2010
1:04 PM
I thought the Rome series by Colleen McCullough well researched and lively, and I did not think much of Harris' Imperium.

Miguel Cavalcanti
April 27th, 2010
8:04 PM
Another title worth considering is Michael Crichton's Timeline. It's basically a time-travel caper novel, but Crichton's researched the Hundred Years War thoroughly and addressed one aspect that I think contributes to historical fiction's low repute: the longing on the part of the reader to escape the present, to indulge in the feeling that one would have been better off living in the X-age. Most common are fantasies of living in the Middle Ages--not as a peasant, slave, heretic, or whatever, but as the king or at least a knight. Crichton addresses this fantasy while Scott only exploited it.

April 25th, 2010
7:04 PM
Not a single plug for Harry Flashman ? MB not great literature , but there's a lot of history learnt as you roll on the floor laughing .

Jonathan Stone
April 24th, 2010
4:04 AM
Fans of Sabitini and O'Brian should give Arturo Perez-Reverte a try. Undoubtedly better in the original Spanish, his works are marvelous even in translation.

April 23rd, 2010
9:04 PM
Dame Dorothy Dunnett, hands down. Fourteen marvelous books in two (related) series take one directly into the entire renaissance from the fall of Constantinople to the reign of Elizabeth I, and includes both the middle east and africa. oh, and russia. in great detail, and brilliantly.

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