On historical novels

July 2, 2018

What, exactly, is a historical novel? I realise that I’ve probably been quite snooty about them at various times in the past, and dismissive of the genre, as not being ‘proper’ literature. But recently I’ve been thinking, particularly as I suspect I’ve been reading and enjoying them without realising…

What I mean is, does any novel set in the past count as a historical novel? Does it depend on how historical personalities and events are integrated imaginatively into the plot? And what, if anything, makes one of these novels count as ‘proper’ literature? I’m not interested in novels populated by kings and queens, aristocrats and royalty, for instance, and I didn’t choose to read Hilary Mantel’s recent novels set at the time of the English Reformation. But that is a historical period I’m interested in, and the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar I reviewed recently was set then, and certainly involved some real persons from those times, as was the case with Luther Blissett’s Q, which I also drew attention to in that same post.

I found myself questioning my attitude because of a novel I’m currently reading, set in the Middle East and Central Asia at the time of Tamburlane, but centring on a number of Arab scientists rediscovering the knowledge of the ancients, as well as pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. And Jean-Pierre Luminet’s Ulugh Beg isn’t that good: almost non-existent characterisation, and tenuous plot that seems to exist just to flesh out the history of Arab science. I was reminded of John Banville’s novels featuring scientists from history; I tried the one about Copernicus but was so annoyed I gave up. On the other hand, Gilbert Sinoué’s novel about Avicenna I found thoughtful, detailed, interesting and quite moving at times; I got a real picture of people, places and science of the times he was writing about.

Back to my question: is War and Peace a historical novel? Yes, obviously, and so much more. There are real people from history in that novel just as there are, for example, in Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; all three of those novels go into my – for want of a better word – ‘proper’ literature category.

So I find myself wondering about proportion. You can have a story set in a particular historical context, but with fictional characters; a great deal of care will ensure its plausibility. If you don’t try and weave in too many real characters and events, a reader will suspend disbelief sufficiently for the story to have the author’s desired impact; too many historical characters, as in Luminet’s novel, and I may as well be reading a history book. Thus, for example, Rybakov uses a few carefully crafted and plausible scenes involving Stalin and some of his henchmen, but most of his story involves imagined characters plausibly deployed in accurate background which accommodates them without challenging the reader’s response or credulity too much. With too many historical characters, we perhaps begins to feel more as if a writer is developing a fantasy involving real people and we start to think, would Tamburlane really have spoken/ acted like that? The sense of proportion is wrong and the reader is jolted into noticing that something here isn’t quite right… our credulity is over-stretched.

The imaginative effort also counts for something here, both on the part of reader and writer, I feel. I’m rarely reading a historical novel to escape into the past, I’m reading because I hope the writer’s imagination will be powerful enough in her/ his creation to develop my understanding of a particular time and place in history, to flesh out what I’d have got from a textbook, in the same way that, for instance, a poem by Wilfred Owen develops my understanding of the experience of the Great War.

I’d be very interested in any thoughts on this topic from you, dear readers: it’s quite a new area of reflection for yours truly…

Advertisements

3 Responses to “On historical novels”


  1. This is something I think about quite a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it really depends on your own definition of a historical novel. For example, I would class Birdsong as a historical novel as it’s set in a defined period and has obviously been well researched.

    I also find that I prefer those historical novels which don’t have well-known characters (I’m think specifically of the Wolf Hall books). For some reason, I find them awkward to read, and often don’t finish them; I’ve tried and given up on Wolf Hall three times now. The exception to this is See What I Have Done, but that might be due to it being mainly a crime novel with historical basis.

    Anyway, if I want to find out about a period, I’ll find a biography or book about the period rather than reach for a novel.

    Very long comment, sorry!

    Like

    • litgaz Says:

      Your comment was long enough to say something interesting, which is what matters! I think your point about preferring historical novels that don’t have well-known characters seems to fit in with my thinking in that I find myself resistant to novelists doing things with people who actually existed…

      And I guess I’d have to agree with Birdsong being a historical novel, except that it’s also one of those that’s something more, for me at least.

      Thanks for your ideas, which give me more to reflect on!

      Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: