Thursday, 29 October 2009
Historical Fiction gets recognition it deserves
The shortlist for the 2009 Booker Prize was dominated by historical fiction with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall scooping the £50,000 prize. Indeed many of the books appearing on the bestseller lists these days are historical novels. Jerome de Groot, author of The Historical Novel, says that historical novels have finally been given the recognition they deserve. Writing in History Today, he says that "historical writing has achieved huge commercial and global success in an unprecedented way. Popular writers like Philippa Gregory, Ken Follett and Bernard Cornwell sell in their millions, but literary novelists such as Sarah Waters or Margaret Atwood also have large readerships. Historical fiction is written by a variety of authors, within a developing set of subgenres, for a range of audiences". There has been a marked rise in the number of novels being published in this genre over the last fifteen to twenty years. Historians have attributed this renewed popularity to a change in the writing of history, which has moved away from a history of "great men", monarchs and statesmen, to focus on a more emotional and intimate history of ordinary people and their everyday lives. This history writing "from below" has given a voice to women and poor people, for example, who were previously ignored and silenced. Antonia Senior, writing in The Times said "All of world history can be viewed through the prism of a handful of extraordinary fictional characters". Senior suggests that the starting point for any historical fiction tour must be with the novels of Mary Renault, whose Alexander trilogy follows the life and death of Alexander the Great in Ancient Greece. Robert Graves’s Cladius novels – I, Claudius and Claudius the God – are classic books covering the Roman period. More recent books on this era are Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome series, and Simon Scarrow’s Eagle series which centres around two Roman soldiers, Cato and Macro. Bernard Cornwell, perhaps best known for his Sharpe series set during the Napoleonic wars, has recently published Azincourt, a novel closely based on the very exciting non-fiction work "Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle" by Juliet Barker. The recently published The Burning Land, also by Bernard Cornwell is the fifth book of The Saxon Stories which tell the tale of Uhtred, a Viking-reared warrior bound by oath to Alfred the Great in his quest to rid England of the Danes. Robert Low's recent Oathsworn trilogy charts the adventures of Orm and his band of Viking brothers, The Oathsworn, and deals with the lost treasure of Attila – as well as a journey to Constantinople, while Tim Severin’s Viking Series is about the young Viking adventurer Thorgils Leifsson, who travels from Iceland to Vinland (North America)and Ireland and also winds up in in Constantinople in the service of the Emperor (The Basileus) at a time of momentous change. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall - the Booker winner - is set in the England of the 1520s and tells the story of Thomas Cromwell's rise to prominence in the Tudor court. The early 19th century is expertly portrayed in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and these novels act as a kind of counterpoint to the now largely neglected Hornblower series by C S Forester. As already mentioned, Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series features the adventures of Richard Sharpe, an English soldier during the same period. The history journal History Today announced in its October issue that it would henceforth publish reviews of historical novels in recognition of the growing popularity of the genre. It also reported that several respected historians, among them Simon Sebag Montefiore, are writing fictionalised accounts of their subjects, and that major novelists are delving into the past to great effect. Lovers of historical fiction can expect to be well served in the future as the genre goes from strength to strength.