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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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kit
April 23rd, 2010
7:04 PM
For another marvelous Scots novelist, I enthusiastically recommend the work of Dorothy Dunnett: the Lymond Chronicles (6 volumes), the House of Niccolo (8 volumes), and King Hereafter (a stand alone about the historical Macbeth).

DaveNash
April 23rd, 2010
6:04 PM
What the deuce! No Flashman?

Marc
April 23rd, 2010
5:04 PM
I would reccomend David Liss' works to anyone interested in historical fiction

Jared Carter
April 23rd, 2010
5:04 PM
I wholeheartedly second Patrick's opinion above. Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels is a marvelous achievement

jacrews
April 23rd, 2010
4:04 PM
No mention of Dumas? Forsooth! jacrews.wordpress.com

Robert R.
April 23rd, 2010
4:04 PM
My guilty pleasure in this genre: Rafael Sabatini.

Zoomie
April 23rd, 2010
3:04 PM
The Shaaras (Michael and son Jeff) are adept at weaving historical events and people into wonderfully believable novels. Highest recommendations!

Matthew M
April 23rd, 2010
3:04 PM
At this point I have to put in a plug for the great historical novelist Rafael Sabatini. Some people have heard of Scaramouche, Captain Blood, and the Sea Hawk, though probably due more to the Hollywood treatments. But his novels are fine rollicking adventures. I've found more than a dozen more at odd used bookstores, and have been please to find his deeper catalog of works holds up well next to his most popular novels.

Ben
April 23rd, 2010
2:04 PM
Gore Vidal's "Julian" (1964) has long been nearly forgotten. It is one of the finest historical novels ever written. It has profound themes and tells its story as well as the finest fiction of our time. Its themes also happen to have deep pertinence to our day.

Patrick
April 23rd, 2010
1:04 PM
Lovely essay. Let's not forget Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, which combine Austenian humor and delicacy of observation with genuinely thrilling adventure.

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