By MICHAEL CAINES
Historical fiction is, according to Toby Litt, a "deeply bogus" genre. Not that there's anything "essentially reprehensible" about it – or, as Litt admits, that any arguments against it will stop people writing and reading it. Over recent years, historical fiction has attained new heights of popularity – or rather, of both popularity and prestige. But maybe it's nonetheless important to recognize that the name itself can be taken as an oxymoron: it conjoins "what was" (history) with "what might have been" (fiction). A historian is bound to assert the "dull truth" about the past when it is necessary; the prudent novelist takes the opposite course. The reader does not end up knowing more about the past through reading such fiction, Litt suggests, but less: what is offered instead is a "woozy melding of fact with fiction – of accurate fripperies of dress and inaccurate motivations of the heart". . . .
I read Litt's fine piece of provocation in his essay collection Mutants (which will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS) a little while ago. It kept coming to mind over this weekend, however, during the course of a lively, friendly, engaging conference hosted by the Historical Novel Society in Oxford. Here were enthusiasts from as far as away as Tasmania, professional and amateur writers of historical fiction, brought together for a weekend of "talks, workshops, panels and fun events". It's the only conference I've attended where a tea break was interrupted by outbreaks of Saxon shouting, as part of a modest demonstration of how soldiers would have comported themselves at the Battle of Hastings – and very good fun it was, too, even when somebody mentioned Brexit in the context of Melvyn Bragg's talk about his recent novel Now Is the Time, about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. ("It's all going to boil up" was his response.)
For those who work in the genre, the question of how to combine what was with what might have been is, of course, constantly and productively present; and the HNS, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary next year, has fostered a vast international conversation among its members online, including tens of thousands of book reviews. The conversation continued in Oxford, through the various panels about writing battle scenes, medieval heroines, the Great Fire of London and many other themes. Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discussed writing about the country house; Kate Williams, Margaret George and Manda Scott discussed "faith and morality in historical fiction and biography". The oxymoronic side of things surfaced several times during that last panel alone, as one novelist admitted to giving her heroine more personal freedom to roam around London unaccompanied than she knew to be possible for a woman of her class at that particular time; "it always rings false", another observed, when "modern sensibility" is imposed on historical characters.
Lord Bragg likewise made it plain that the question of depicting the past for the present had preoccupied him during the writing of Now Is the Time. That novel includes an authorial guide to what he had researched and what he had made up – and the inventor of fictions here has to work with his sources rather than against them. "You invent along the lines of what you think happened"; historians know, apparently, that the rebels held elections in Kent to pick their leader, gifting the novelist "a great chance to make up speeches". He drew the line at compiling lists of fourteenth-century vocabulary for his dialogue, which was, he admitted, not for him. (And not for his readers, either, implicitly: "Reading a historical novel we have to collude with the text in its fictionality", as the novelist and classicist Harry Sidebottom once put it in a TLS review.) Bragg's further point was not only that the past might inspire a speculative story set in a particular time and place, but that it's a challenge in itself to capture what we can only see with hindsight as if it were happening in the present: "things happen on our blind side again and again and again", although we might prefer to tell ourselves that we knew what was going to happen all along.
Does capturing this dramatic sensation matter more, in the end, than succeeding in the impossible struggle towards the mirage known as "authenticity"? Hilary Mantel, over the course of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, uses a fine range of anachronistic terms: "panicked" (1827, according to the OED), "paperwork" in its bureaucratic sense (1861), "sabotage" (1910), "peripheral" (1808), "thumbprints" (1900) and so on. I take these examples (although I've amended a couple of dates) from an essay by Bernard Richards, who offers examples of phrases that tend to survive in television versions of the same novels: "see you again some time", "trading partners", "downed tools", "liquidate their assets", "while you're at it". "The modern words and phrases have the effect of making 1530 sound like now". One critic's insight is another's pedantry, true – but why spend vast sums on using "real Tudor buildings" and "real candles" (on which the producers of the Wolf Hall television adaptation spent £20,000) and invest so little in the real language of the times?
With these questions in mind, one of most interesting HNS panels I attended concerned "bestselling eras". Angus Donald, the author of a series about Robin Hood, spoke up for the medieval period, Elizabeth Fremantle for the Tudors, Antonia Hodgson for the gorgeous Georgians, and Essie Fox for the Victorians. Each talked up their chosen era in a different way. Fox noted the sheer commodious plenitude of nineteenth-century life, and recalled walking into Wilton's Music Hall and imagining the "miniature gilded melting pot" it must have been over a century ago. Hodgson could gesture to Hogarth's populous canvases and say "I know these people . . .". Given that there was also a rightly dismissive reference to Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth films ("contemporary themes pasted over Tudor characters"), I wondered if the basic question here was not so much about which period to write or read about, but whether there was any that could not be made amenable to a modern sensibility. I'm reminded of a TLS review that began "Medieval Scandinavia has proved surprisingly successful as a seedbed for historical fiction . . .".
Fredric Jameson once noted that the "historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only 'represent' our ideas and stereotypes about the past (which thereby at once become 'pop history')". Yet here we are, in a historical period when, the fiction editor of the TLS tells me, he receives a steady stream of novels about the Second War, Spanish fiction understandably harks back to the Spanish Civil War, and – in this anniversary year – you can easily lay hands on more than one novel about the Great Fire of 1666. Readers seem to be as comfortable now with this hybrid genre as they were in the age of Scott or Georgette Heyer – and writers are still trying to satisfy what Jameson called that "chemical craving for historicity". As another TLS critic put it, L. P. Hartley's famous line about the past being a foreign country is true; and it seems that "we all enjoy reading the guidebook".