The Art of Historical Fiction

After Hilary Mantel scooped the Booker Prize for the second time, author Andrew Pepper considers the form that continues to intrigue

With Hilary Mantel’s double Man Booker Prize triumph (Wolf Hall, 2009 and Bring up the Bodies, 2012) it is safe to assume that the historical novel is no longer viewed as the inferior cousin to the so-called ‘literary’ novel (whatever this term might mean).

But what does Mantel’s success signal? What does it tell us about why novelists might want to write historical fiction and why readers might want to read their novels?

I think we can dismiss, straight away, the notion that the historical novel presses upon us a nostalgic, sepia-tinted vision of the past, a vision that in turn uses the notion of a ‘simpler, friendlier’ era to reflect on how far and fast we’ve fallen in the present.

In Mantel’s novels, as in the best Victorian historical fiction, the past is presented as a good deal more brutal, unpleasant and unequal than our contemporary world.

Sugar

 

We might think about where we have come in relation to what has come before but, if anything, it is like looking at our own world through a dark looking glass: something that produces discomfort in us more than reassurance.

I also think we can dismiss the objections of historians who admonish historical novelists for deviating from the historical ‘record’, as though there was or is ever a single, agreed version of the past. In any case, most readers are perfectly well aware that these novels are not giving us, and do not purport to give us, the objective truth, even if such a thing was possible.

Writers, of course, want to achieve a degree of authenticity (imagine Thomas Cromwell taking out his mobile phone), but rather than compete with history, fiction comes into its own if it addresses the issues and questions that history cannot.

Authors of historical fiction can breathe imaginative life into the dark recesses of figures long since dead; can conjure their fears, their anxieties; can fill in what official histories have to omit because there is no supporting documentary evidence.

The historian might call such an approach irresponsible, but we can make too much of a thing of accuracy: of getting all the details right and assuming this will automatically give us something nearing the truth.

My own most recent novel, Bloody Winter, set in Ireland and Wales in the long, hard winter of 1846-7 – when industrial unrest was besetting the ironworks of South Wales and famine was starting to spread and kill in Ireland – is not intended to be an accurate document of the times.

The devious machinations of the industrial magnates or landowners in the novel are the work of pure fiction, even if I want readers to believe that such figures could have existed.

But I have told lies, if you like, to get at a larger truth: not just that events in Ireland and Wales might be linked and that the same system of free trade that emptied Ireland of its harvest and brought famine to its people was responsible for the excesses of wealth and inequality in Wales, but also that the ‘great’ ironmasters of towns like Merthyr deliberately courted Irish labour to keep down costs and set Irish and Welsh workers against one another in order to keep the work force as a whole divided and weak.

Can historical fiction that plays around with, and perhaps also challenges, certain accounts of the past also be ethical? I hope so. Because here the impulses of historians and novelists may not be so far apart.

Just as the former may want to recover and give new life to figures struck from official accounts of history, the latter’s motivation is often to give voice to the lowly and excluded, to tell us what we don’t know rather than giving us a pastiche of what we do know.

If the Victorian historical novelist cannot hope to outdo or out-write Dickens, there is still the scope for exploring those areas where the Victorian novel had too little to say (about trade unionism, the Irish famine, the lingering presence of slavery, for example) or on those characters who played only bit parts in the great novels of the day.

And what is finally so affecting about figures like Sugar, the cool, unrepentant prostitute in Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, which was recently made into a drama for the BBC (see picture above) is not that their voices have been struck from the record but that they are beguiling, messy, contradictory characters in their own right; and this is surely why we want to read fiction, historical or otherwise.

Andrew Pepper is Senior Lecturer in English at Queen’s University. He is the author of five historical crime novels set in Britain and Ireland in the mid-19th century. The most recent, Bloody Winter, was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2011.