When I arrived at Library Journal in 1986, most works of historical fiction, with high-end exceptions like E.L. Doctorow’s oeuvre, were passed to the review editor handling popular rather than literary fiction (that’s my bailiwick). Such works were seen as strictly genre fiction, either adventure-filled saga or rosy romance. That wasn’t always true‚ Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I’d definitely toss in the literary pile despite all its adventure and romance, was the historical fiction of its day, chronicling events that had happened 60 years before its publication. But for a time historical fiction came mostly wrapped in bodice-ripper covers.
In recent years, with the appearance of books like Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (a “brainy novel whose passion is ideas,” said the New York Times) and awards winners like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, our understanding of historical fiction has broadened considerably. In fact, today’s historical novels vary so widely in tone, depth, and audience (fans of Wolf Hall aren’t likely to pick up Philippa Gregory’s Tudor romps) that bunching them together can seem a little odd. Should these titles even be called historical fiction?
It’s a question I got to debate last Thursday while serving on the panel Historical Fiction: An Enduring Genre in a Changing Landscape, sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association’s New York City Chapter. My fellow panelists included Kathryn Harrison, whose most recent historical novel is the vivid Enchantments, which imagines a friendship between Rasputin’s daughter and the Tsarevitch Alyosha.
Also on hand: Carole DeSanti, Viking Penguin Vice President and editor at large (her authors have included Chevalier), whose first novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., is set during France’s Second Empire; Writers House agent Daniel Lazar, who’s given us Anne Fortier, Michelle Moran, and, most recently, Regina O’Melveney’s The Book of Madness and Cures; and Heather Lazare, currently at the Simon & Schuster imprint Touchstone, whose interests as an editor include historical fiction.
Such is the protean nature of literature in general that we couldn’t exactly define the parameters of historical fiction‚ not even the time frame, though World War II came up as a dividing line. I did like DeSanti’s wonderful term hybridity to describe the current climate, one in which historical fiction has gotten richer and deeper and might best be summed up through compound terms, e.g., literary historical, historical romance, historical thriller, time-travel historical, and more.
In the end, it seems best to think big, keeping books like Francine du Plessix Gray’s austere and magisterial The Queen’s Lover (see interview) in the historical fiction fold, along with more obvious choices like Madeline Miller’s current Mary Renault readalike, The Song of Achilles. Publishers must simply market them wisely (Lazare’s point), and reviewers must stress the nuances (my point). For despite those nuances, works of historical fiction have one thing in common: through them, we enter a world different from our own, almost as in a fantasy. But it’s a real world, and with the best books we leave with some real understanding.
Not that historical novels are encapsulated history lessons. That would be a bore, and in any case novelists take an entirely different tack. Don’t go to historical fiction to learn history, warned Harrison. We use history, we don’t remain faithful to it.
What historical fiction instead delivers is an era’s sensibility. For her novel, DeSanti relentlessly examined Second Empire artifacts, from clothing to cookbooks, visiting Paris’s Musée Carnavalet to study its coins, signs, ceramics, and even a bit of bread preserved from the time of the Paris Commune. Her purpose? I wanted to feel myself into the time, to live there. She so immersed herself in the Second Empire that she feels she’s still living there, which makes The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. seem less historical to her than contemporary.
When you read DeSanti’s novel, you’ll feel that you are living in that world, too. Gray’s The Queen’s Lover will take you back to the French Revolution and O’Melveney’s The Book of Madness and Cures even further back, to late 1500s Venice and beyond. And just as the novelist’s continuing research can change the arc of a story‚ having discovered efforts to raise silkworms in 17th-century Spain, Harrison made the narrator of Poison a Spanish silk grower’s daughter‚ we’re changed by our reading of these novels. It’s an easy way to make our fantasies come true.