Historical Fiction: what’s the point?

18 Apr

This months’ historical reading theme is making slow progress; life events are getting in the way.

But now we’re over half way through April, I’m resolved to read more. Before I restart, I wanted to consider why I’ve chosen historical fiction this month.

It’s transportative. Reading a book about Viking battles, medieval courtly love, Tudor intrigues, Regency romances, Victorian mysteries, Edwardian emancipation, wartime life, and so on, can allow the reader to live in another age for a short while. In your imagination you can be rich or impoverished; starving or sitting down to a medieval feast. You can fall in love with a dashing, restrained hero (cf most women’s love affair with Mr Darcy) or join Arthur on the battlefield.

You can also convince yourself that reading historical fiction can be educational. They can bring ‘boring’ history lessons to life, injecting romance and intrigue, details of daily life to the bald narrative of rulers and eras.

And there are rollicking good stories to be told. You can read of murder and mystery; mayhem and upheavals; intrigue and plots; in addition to stories of everyday life, how the ‘average’ person lived and loved.

And the costumes can be amazing!

However, my usual reading pattern is to jump straight from one type of novel to something completely different. Not in this reading ‘plan’; I’m following one historical novel with another. The question is, do I vary the period or can I jump forward and backwards in time indiscriminately?

First this month, I finished The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Set in 1937-8New York, the story of a trio of friends – Katy Konstant, Eve and Tinker Grey – was light, enjoyable and fairly inconsequential. Perhaps a reflection of the age it was set, the goings-on of a group of middle class friends was important at the time of reading but fades in to insignificance when real life takes over again.

In contrast, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain told the story of Ernest Hemmingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. In her voice, we read how ‘Hem’ began his writing career, their friendships with great writers of the Jazz Age (Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein making significant cameos), and the development and decline of their marriage. This was a story that has stayed with me; I really cared about Hadley and Hem and was affronted when (spoiler alert!) he left her. It has also prompted me to dig out some Hemmingway and see what all the fuss was about, now I know something of the background to the writing.

Set in 1880s Oregan, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, was a very masculine tale of mercenary brothers in the wild west just at the start of the  gold rush.

For the rest of the month, I’m reading:

Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn (suffragettes and cricket in Edwardian England)

She by H Rider Haggard (a ‘boy’s own’ adventure story of plucky Brits exploring ‘dark’Africa)

Lined up I have:

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox (Victorian murder mystery set in the music hall);

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen of Edward IV);

The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick (a medieval romance, it seems); Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (the immensely detailed story of the early career of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII)

Does anyone else enjoy historical tales? Which eras? Do you read a glut of the same things consecutively, or do you – like me – time travel? Does human nature ever change? Do we read these to escape or reflect on how history repeats its lessons.

And now to escape: into an Edwardian, Victorian or medieval adventure?

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Posted by on 18/04/2012 in Uncategorized


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