Historical Fiction

In the latest in her series on Themes for The Substantive, Joanne Sheppard writes about Books on Historical Fiction, including works by Hilary Mantel, Michel Faber, Diana Norman and AS Byatt.

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, a sequel to her Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, has recently arrived in bookshops in a flurry of hype. I haven’t read it yet, so I couldn’t say whether the excitement about its publication is justified, but frankly, if it’s even half as compelling a read as Wolf Hall, it will be worthy of any praise heaped upon it.

James Wood, a professor of literary criticism at Harvard University and also a reviewer of books for the New Yorker, recently claimed that the historical fiction is “a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness.” I don’t know anything about James Wood, and based on that statement I don’t believe I want to, but I rather wonder what his definition of “greatness” is.

In fairness, Wood did like Wolf Hall, at least – and rightly so. Wolf Hall is one of those historical novels that manages to be both intimate, minute in focus and yet also broad in scope. Told entirely from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, it’s not just an insider’s account of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the its irreversible effects on the church, the government and countless individuals, but also a deeply personal portrait of a figure commonly depicted in literature (and indeed history books) as a unscrupulous weasel of a man, feathering his own nest at the expense of others, including the saintly Thomas More. Mantel’s Cromwell is an impressive, perceptive reinvention of this image: a pragmatist rather than a villain, with a sharp mind and a sharp wit. At times, touchingly, he is a genial family man, and yet we also see flashes of the cunning mercenary he used to be. Cromwell is both deeply involved in everything, personal and political, that happens around him and yet simultaneously somehow detached; he is both the lynchpin of his family and of Henry VIII’s machinations, and yet he remains forever the outsider, always observing from his own unique vantage point.

Those who turn to Wolf Hall looking for pace and action won’t find it; Cromwell’s progress through one of the most important periods in English history is gradual and his viewpoint is contemplative, understated and considered. And yet it doesn’t matter. Every single historical detail is carefully selected without being obviously so, every line exquisitely crafted, and every character constructed to perfection. Although Wolf Hall is a long novel – my copy runs well past 600 pages – Mantel’s prose is flawless, and not a word is wasted. Despite its historical setting, there is still something freshly contemporary and entirely modern about it.

By contrast, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal & The White, while also a huge brick of a book, is a baggy, rambling, meandering read, a seedy, baroque-gothic affair into which we’re drawn by a sly, conspiratorial narrator, who opens this Victorian tale like voyeuristic tour-guide, peering through the grubby leaded windows of backstreet brothels and dubious gentlemen’s clubs in a world where the definition of ‘gentleman’ extends only to status rather than character.

Crimson Petal is richly detailed – almost uncomfortably so, with every foul smell, physical defect, fetish, bedbug and chamberpot rendered with skin-crawling clarity – and, like all the best historical novels, immensely atmospheric. And yet, none of this is at the expense of character, of plot, or of astute social comment on the roles of women in Victorian society. Mimicking the structure and style of a novel from the Victorian era itself, it charts the rises and falls of Sugar, an ambitious prostitute who becomes the mistress to a wealthy but weak-willed industrialist. Sugar alone is quite engaging enough to fill a novel entirely by herself, but Faber spoils us with a huge cast of complex supporting characters and intricate subplots, pulling us into Sugar’s world and trapping us there until the final startling pages.

Diana Norman’s The Vizard Mask also refuses to shy away from the grim realities of its setting, this time Restoration London, teeming with every conceivable facet of 17th century life. Its stammering heroine, Penitence, has been brought up among Puritans in Massachusetts, and when she arrives in England searching for an apparently deceased aunt, the lawless hedonism, casual violence and raucous poverty of the London slums shock her even more than they do the reader. And yet somehow, Penitence survives, overcoming her own prejudices and re-evaluating her own morality as she forms friendships, forges a career and falls in love. If it sounds like a naff bodice-ripper, don’t be fooled – yes, there is a love story of sorts, but it plays second fiddle to the Plague, the history of theatre, Aphra Behn, the Monmouth Rebellion, camaraderie through appalling adversity and a spell in a debtors’ prison. There’s a barely a page that passes without incident. Peppered with real historical figures and epic in scale, this rollicking read appears to be out of print, which is a clear sign that the world is going to hell in a handcart. Scour your local Oxfam for a copy.

The best historical novels for me are the ones that manage to truly embody the spirit of the age in which they are set, without compromising on character. With The Children’s Book AS Byatt absolutely achieves this: rarely have I read a book where I cared so much about so many people, and yet it is as much a portrait of an era as it is of a group of individuals. It begins in 1895 and is set among a community of creative, bohemian people – Fabian Society members, Arts & Crafts Movement devotees, writers, sculptors, radicals – and charts the lives of two generations. The book has much to say about the notions of childhood that were prevalent at the time, and it appears that the children are leading the most idyllic lives possible, but it’s soon revealed that there are times when the parents’ creative talents are being explored at the expense of their children, and that the relationships between parents and children, and between the children themselves, are far more complicated than it first seems.

To what degree are the celebrations of childhood that appear in the literature of the time – E Nesbitt, JM Barrie – really about children, and how much are they really about adults wanting to remain children themselves, while neglecting the needs of their own offspring? In The Children’s Book, parents’ actions continue to have an impact on the next generation as it grows up, and the First World War at the book’s conclusion is the devastating culmination of that theme.

More historical fiction:

Misfortune by Wesley Stace: something of a maverick recommendation, this, as it bears little relation to actual history and although it supposedly begins in the 1820s, some of the details are distinctly misplaced. That doesn’t matter, though, because this deeply peculiar tale of gender confusion, class, greed and family ties, reads like a darkly comic, borderline-surreal cross between Bleak House, Gormenghast, Orlando and A Series Of Unfortunate Events.

Year Of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: a tautly claustrophobic novel set in a fictional version of Eyam, the Derbyshire village that famously voluntarily quarantined itself to avoid spreading the Plague. At times harrowing, it’s sensitively written with a complex, convincing protagonist.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind: some might suggest that the historical setting of Perfume is secondary to the plot, about a young man with a uniquely acute sense of smell who sets out to make the ultimate perfume from the scents of young women, but for me, this novel couldn’t have worked in any other time or place than 18th century France, which Suskind evokes in vivid detail.

The Shardlake series by CJ Sansom: world-weary, hunchbacked lawyer Shardlake is reluctantly drawn into various cases of gruesome Tudor intrigue in these engaging whodunnits. Characters recur throughout the series and while Shardlake’s outlook on certain matters, race and religion among them, is suspiciously contemporary on occasion, his own status as a perpetual outsider just about accounts for this and helps him retain plausibility.

Joanne Sheppard

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.