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Novelists go back in time even when, for future generations, their novels may not appear to be what we call "historical". War and Peace is a novel featuring real historical events and characters (though the historical characters play a smaller part in the novel than the fictional ones). If it is possible to read it now without thinking of it as an historical novel (despite those chapters on the philosophy of history, which many wisely skip), this is because the events of 1805 and 1812 were nearer in time to Tolstoy than he is to us. 

This raises the question: what qualifies a novel to be regarded as "historical"? I have written three novels that centre on events of the Second World War. All three span much of the 20th century (with a passage in one which goes back to the 19th), and all are written, or written in part, by a narrator from the standpoint of the 1980s. When I was working on them, I didn't think of them as "historical novels" but, given that they are all retrospective, even though for my characters events now in the past were then in the present and looking to an unknown future, I suspect that this is just what they are. 

Scott gave Waverley, his novel of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, the subtitle 'Tis Sixty Years Since (he should have said 70, since the novel was published in 1814, but he had written the first chapters ten years previously). The rising was only 26 years before his birth. His father was then a boy in his teens. As a child and youth, Scott knew men who had been "out", as the word had it, in the rising.
The '45 was history, certainly, but he was as close to it as anyone born in 1970 is to the Second World War. Scott drew on history to delight his readers, but also to show how present time has come to be what it is.
The past is, as L. P. Hartley said, another country where they do things differently, and exploring this difference is one of the things that may attract the novelist. There is a fine moment in Alfred Duggan's novel about Cerdic, the first king of Saxon Wessex. Duggan has him as a Romanised Briton who, after misfortunes and adventures, becomes leader of a Saxon war-band. Early in the novel, he is reading Ovid in the courtyard of his father's villa when word comes of a Saxon raid. He puts down the book and picks up his sword, and observes, casually, "I think that was the last time I read a book." In that brief observation, the reader has a moment of illumination, catching the transition from Rome to Barbarism. This is something the novelist can do better than the historian.

But if the past is that other country, it is also a place that in certain respects is much like ours. Human nature does not change, though ideas and practices do. People are always subject to the same emotions: love, hate and fear. The Seven Deadly Sins offer the same temptations, and men are driven by ambition, idealism or the desire to exercise power, in any and every age. By turning to the past, free from the busy distractions of the present, the novelist gains the advantage of perspective.

There are essentially two sorts of novel, the open and the closed, even if many straddle the frontier that divides them. The closed novel is self-sufficient, free of the influence of public events. In the open novel, such events become characters in the action. The open novel is exposed to the winds of the world, its characters actors in history or victims of history. Given the difficulty of understanding the confusion and turbulence of the ever-changing present, it is natural that authors drawn to the open novel should turn to the past. Hence, in our present uncertainties, the attraction of the historical novel and the vogue it once again enjoys. Meanwhile, the Waverley novels that delighted several generations wait on the shelves to be discovered by those who have never known them, to be read again by those who, like Virginia Woolf, already love them.

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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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