Is Historical Fiction an Oxymoron?

In a recent post, I referenced an excellent article by Michael Caines published in the Times Literary Supplement last month on this subject, apropos of the HNS Conference in Oxford this September. Taking the assertion that historical fiction is a “deeply bogus” genre, the author goes on to argue that while history tells us “what was,” fiction tells us “what might have been.” And yet as the popularity of historical fiction today suggests, the public continues to enjoy venturing into this hybrid genre, bogus or not. I would also add that the majority of successful historical novels today are deeply researched “for historical accuracy,” even the most imaginative page-turners among them – my own personal favorites in that category being C.J Sansom’s Shardlake, a brilliant series about a lawyer/detective in Tudor England and anything that rolls off the pen of Bernard Cornwell.

By contrast, the historical novels I first fell in love with (back in the time which some today would consider “history”) historical accuracy was barely a consideration – think Walter Scott (no I was not a contemporary!) or Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy, and Anya Seton (who didn’t love her Katherine, the story of the mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt?). And what brought Roman history alive for many of us? Not Julius Caesar dividing Gaul into three parts or declaring that the ancient Britons were “weeny, weedy and weaky,” to use a less than reputable translation of Caesar’s (allegedly) original declaration regarding his invasion of Briton in 55 B.C.: “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (more boringly translated as “I came. I saw. I conquered.”) Who cared when you could escape into the immortal musings of the the Emperor Claudius, as imagined by Robert Graves in I Claudius and Claudius the God?

One of my favorite books, 1066 and All That – all the history you need to know about Britain from 55 B.C. to 1918.

My point about good historical novels (even inaccurate ones) is that they often inspire the reader to delve more deeply into the subject. Perhaps this exploration stops at fiction, but many times leads to a lifelong passion for history and a desire to learn as much as possible about a particular area or era – my own life’s obsessions being a case in point, from the history of early Christianity, through ancient Rome and medieval Europe to the Tudors and Stuarts through to the darkest recesses of the Third Reich.

Which raises the subject, “What is history?” I was one of those at the conference who voted that history ended with the Second World War – and that was pushing it. If I were being honest, I would probably have said 1918, but that would really have dated me! It was an interesting little debate in which it seemed to me (not surprisingly) that the younger the person, the later “history” began: someone even suggested that the 80s constituted “history” though this was a minority opinion given the average age of the attendees! Others said that it wasn’t history if your parents remembered it happening. But the most outlandish suggestion was that it was “history” if they wore different clothes – would that include the era of “grunge” and padded shoulders? All fascinating stuff, and yet another example of “history” being neither fact nor fiction but a matter of perspective!

After a career that could not have taken me further from my first love, I can finally return without guilt to reading historical novels from all my favorite eras. It is now my “job” as a writer of historical fiction to know what’s what and who’s who in this world. And what a joy it is!

One thought on “Is Historical Fiction an Oxymoron?

  1. Believe it or not, I have arrived at this fairly vintage stage of life without ever once considering the question of when “history” starts. Now there’s a puzzler!

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