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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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Speedy Tuft
April 23rd, 2010
11:04 AM
Massie fails to mention his own Roman novels, Augustus, Caesar and Tiberius, which, if not quite as good as Graves's Claudius and Claudius the God, are certainly in the same league.

AnonShalom Freedmanymous
April 23rd, 2010
9:04 AM
There is a 'historical novel' which is considered by many the greatest novel of all. It not only goes well beyond anything that genre had produced it in its own way goes beyond any other 'novel' written before it. 'War and Peace'.

April 23rd, 2010
5:04 AM
In my opinion, one of the best historical novelists is Anya Seton and her books are once again in print. Katherine, Avalon, and The Winthrop Woman were well-researched and well-plotted. Very good reads. A beautifully-written historical novel, The Man on a Donkey by H.F.M. Prescott was written by an Oxford historian and reading it is like entering a time machine and being whisked into the sixteenth-century. I can't recommend it highly enough. I think it's out-of-print but used copies are for sale at

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