I love and loathe historical novels. I’m rarely indifferent.
LOVE the books that capture a different way of thinking and being, that give you the feeling that, while human nature remains constant, this really is another world that operates by different rules (and not simply a place where they wear bodices more often).
A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY by Hilary Mantel
French Revolution. I actually prefer it to Wolf Hall. So accurate it’s worth reading if you are studying the period. Recommended to me by a history lecturer many years ago who hated all historical novels with a passion but could not fault this book, Mantel’s first novel. BELOVED by Toni Morrison (probably THE novel of the 20th century. Set after the American Civil War, it explores the horrors of slavery without mentioning Abraham Lincoln, manumission etc etc. Reminds me of Ian Jack’s comment about the Koran “We know it’s authentic because it doesn’t mention camels.” Emotionally intelligent – two people who haven’t met since they were both slaves don’t share the pain and humiliation they suffered when they see each other again. It is still too raw. Instead they treat each other with careful dignity. THE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG by Peter Carey. What did a charismatic, self educated, semi literate 19th century Irish Australian sound like? Maybe it wasn’t like this but Carey makes me believe and he sustains a vernacular voice throughout this long novel, making it engaging and accessible. And never once uses a comma.
Most historical romances with the exception of Georgette Heyer which you just have to accept on her own terms and hey! she invented a genre all by herself. (And she has heroes called Tarquin…)
Novels which are choked with research. Just because the author knows the twenty kinds of bread made in the 17th century he or she doesn’t have to tell the reader.
Novels stiff with unnatural conversations that no one in their right mind would ever say aloud. The modern equivalent would be something like mother and daughter talking in the supermarket: “Well, David Cameron, the prime minister, says….” “Yes, mother but doesn’t the leader of the opposition have a point? Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday reminded me of the great days of the 1966 to 1970 Labour administration…
STAR OF THE SEA by Joseph O’ Connor. I’m probably in a minority of one here but it didn’t work for me.
It’s a story about a long sea voyage to New York in 1847 in a ship full of people trying to escape the injustice and disaster of the Irish famine. I studied Irish history as my first degree and I don’t think O’Connor puts a foot wrong and yet, and yet…he didn’t bring it alive for me. And the way all his characters subvert stereotypes seems a little too contrived (the caring English landlord, the exploitative Irish serving girl) and as a result become representations rather than real people I feel able to care about.
This was the Irish holocaust. I don’t think people still traumatised by their experiences would have processed what had happened in the way O Connor describes.
What do you love and loathe in historical fiction? And have I totally missed the point with Star of the Sea?