Fiction takes rightful place in history
Anne Marie Scanlon credits the ascent to the throne of the historical novel to a number of contemporary authors
Published 13/03/2011 | 05:00
In the past decade historical fiction has finally started to shrug off its fluffy image, but there are still those who think the genre consists wholly of frothy bodice-rippers filled with knights and ladies wearing impossibly tall, pointy headdresses -- basically chicklit in a long skirt. While it's true that many historical novels are steeped in fashion, fine clothing and flirting, they also contain the sights, sounds and smells of life in a very different time.
But why historical fiction? Surely any half-decent historian could conjure up a picture of real-life in the past. Yes, but what the historian cannot do, and should not do, is make the reader experience the feelings of the characters. Take Katherine of Aragon -- the unfortunate first wife of Henry VIII. For history readers Katherine is merely a name -- a queen whose womb dictated the course of history. Rarely does anyone give a second thought to the fact that Katherine was a "real" woman, an actual person. Katherine is vividly brought to life in Philippa Gregory's The Constant Princess (2005) where her devastation at multiple stillbirths and the death of her infant son is not just political but deeply personal.
Ironically, while some historians bemoan the liberties taken by historical novelists, Philippa Gregory, who also wrote the bestselling The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), thinks that the historians themselves triggered the current trend for novels based on real-life events and people. "From the Fifties onwards, historians started to experiment with writing a different sort of history -- one much more based on ordinary working people, sometimes looking at the history of minorities."
After reading a number of Gregory's books there can be no doubt that women were very much a "minority" in Tudor England, as they were completely powerless. Forget the romance of the damsel in distress (with or without her pointy hat) and the chivalrous knight, the medieval world was a brutal and unforgiving one for women of all classes. Given the way women were treated it is hardly surprising that Queen Elizabeth I (herself a perennial favourite subject of historical fiction) chose not to marry. Then again, the fact that her father had six wives and beheaded her mother might have soured her slightly on matrimony.
The other thing that comes across very strongly from Gregory's books and those of her contemporary Alison Weir which include Innocent Traitor (2006) about the short and very tragic life of Lady Jane Gray, and The Lady Elizabeth (2006) about the early life of Elizabeth I, was that the Tudor court for all its finery, furs, jewels and glamour was something akin to a medieval Big Brother house. There was no privacy as everyone in court lived their lives in public with every gesture, facial expression and glance scrutinised and analysed.
It's more than 500 years since Henry VIII assumed his throne, yet the public's fascination with him is seemingly unwavering, which is unsurprising as Henry was a larger-than-life character (in every sense of the word) tailor-made for story books. These days Henry is in Hollywood, on TV and even on Facebook -- but instead of the Tudor period reaching saturation point with the public, Philippa Gregory thinks that "the adaptation of the 'new' historical novels into films and dramas has broadened the readership of historical fiction far beyond its traditional group".
Henry is a central figure in Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel, the epic, page-turning blockbuster about Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose and fell spectacularly under the King's patronage. With Wolf Hall, a work that pleased readers and critics alike and went on to win the 2009 Man Booker Prize, historical fiction finally shed any pretence to frothiness.
Successful though the Tudor period may be, historical fiction writers are not containing themselves to one particular era of history. Alison Weir's latest book, The Captive Queen (2010), follows the life of 12th-Century Eleanor of Aquitaine while Gregory kicked off her latest series -- The Cousins' War (eventually to contain six books) with The White Queen (2009), the story of Elizabeth Woodville, maternal grandmother of Henry VIII and mother of the ill-fated "Princes in the Tower".
The mystery of the "Princes in the Tower" who disappeared, presumed murdered, more than 520 years ago has fascinated both serious historians and amateur sleuths ever since. Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951), which has a bed-ridden modern policeman investigate the historical conundrum, is a precursor to today's historical whodunits -- Ellis Peters' first Brother Cadfael book appeared in the late Seventies and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose was published in 1980.
While "proper" historical fiction may have finally gained the respect it deserves, the sub-genre of historical whodunit, while wildly popular with readers, still comes in for the same sort of snobbery as contemporary crime fiction. The sheer range of situations available to the author of the historical whodunit is easily reflected by the prodigious output of Cambridge academic Susanna Gregory, whose latest book, The Body in the Thames (2011), is the sixth in her Thomas Chaloner series set in London in the 1660s. Gregory has also penned 16 Matthew Bartholomew books set in 14th-Century Cambridge.
"I think there is something very exciting about travelling back in time," Susanna Gregory said, "to places when rules of society were so very different. It is simultaneously familiar and alien."
She, as with other authors of historical fiction, is very aware of the biggest pitfall of the genre: "Readers might know more than you do when writing about fairly well-known historical figures ... there is a lot of potential for making mistakes."
But Gregory enjoys fitting her fictional stories around the historical facts. The striking thing about her mysteries isn't so much the crimes themselves but the fact that she really does take the reader back in time, especially with the amazing detail of life in 14th-Century Cambridge in the Matthew Bartholomew mysteries.
The current undisputed king of the historical whodunit is CJ Sansom, who has written five mysteries following the adventures of Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Sansom's books work equally well as either historical fiction or crime fiction and his blend of the two couldn't help but beguile even the harshest of critics.
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