Reading Historical Fiction

I think I’ve been reading HF for as long as I can remember. I think I started reading HF pretty early, I recall having read almost every book by Odile Weulersse in my middle school library by the time I was 10. Also, I think that HF had a major role in my love for literature. The first “adult” HF book I recall reading is Christian Jacq‘s The Judge of Egypt series. My parents bought it for me to read on first summer camp when I was 12. I’ve always been interested in Egypt so I read Beneath the Pyramid in less than a week. It also helped me to forget about the fact that I was having quite an awful time in the summer camp. I’ve never been a very sporty person and during my pre-teens and teenage years I was mostly shy and judged weird and boring by most of my peers. So being surrounded by them for two full weeks didn’t make life very pleasant.

It was during that summer that I learned one of fiction’s powers: the ability to let you escape from reality.

From that moment onwards I’ve always enjoyed HF that happily fulfill this role but, as I grew older, I started to ask more of them. I think that the first time I was aware of this was when I incidentally bought my first HF Romance novel when I was around fifteen or sixteen. The plot seemed decent enough, and I started reading on a nice summer afternoon and I finished a couple of days afterwards. I found it somehow disappointing. Everything was there, a historical setting, nice dresses, fancy vocabulary with some extra risqué scenes the purpose of which I didn’t quite understand.

After some similar experiences in the realm of HF I had to admit that the process of finding novels of the genre that would appeal to my newly-developed tastes would require more time and effort than before. The number of HF books I read dropped sharply for some years, but I soon started making some discoveries.

The classics proved to be an excellent source to read about other eras (for instance, Zola‘s Rougon-Macquart series or anything by the Brontë sisters) and I even found some excellent HF written in the 18th and 19th centuries (e.g. The Princess of Clèves by Madame de LaFayette). And then, slowly but surely, I’ve developed a sixth sense for possibly good HF.

During the last couple of years I’ve had the pleasure to discuss HF with other voracious readers. I think that the most interesting one was with a friend who didn’t like Historical Fiction at all. Her point was that it was impossible for any author to fully capture or understand an ear in which he or she had not lived. I couldn’t entirely disagree with her.

Regardless of the amount of hours a writer spends documenting on the era he/she wants to write about, I’m sure it is not the same.

However, in my opinion, this doesn’t take any literary merit from those novels. Also, I think that, precisely, the best Historical novels are those who try to bring together a modern reader and an historical setting. Being an outsider to the events of, let’s say, the French Revolution, can be an advantage. From the modern era an author can try to shed new light on how we may understand the motives of people that lived in a different cultural and political setting, that had different customs and perception of human relations, society, and so on. Two examples of that are Possession by A. S. Byatt and The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Not only are they brilliantly well-written, but also the authors’ insight on Victorian psychology is amazing.

On the other hands, together with many other readers, I’ve always been a bit reluctant to start any novel whose main characters were people who actually existed. I felt it was unfair to impose a certain personality to a real human being, given the insufficient amount of information there is. Of course, it is fiction, and I’m sure there isn’t any claim by the authors that what they write is actually what went through their minds, but yet, it doesn’t feel quite right. Nevertheless, there are authors that perfectly manage to draw a line between the character and fiction. One of them is Hilary Mantel, whose works on Thomas Cromwell and the French Revolution are perhaps some of the finest HF nowadays.

To conclude, I want to stress the fact that in no way I’m implying that HF novels whose purpose is mainly to entertain readers should be avoided or regarded as a lesser for of literature. I started reading because of the diversion it provided and a reason as good as any other. Also, reading tastes evolve with your own personal circumstances and development and right now what I enjoy the most is HF where the author’s knowledge of the era doesn’t only show in the choice of costumes and description, but also in the understanding of the characters and the society that surrounds them. Finally, my next reading goal is to start reading historical non-fiction!

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