Historical Novel Essays

Hilary Mantel, twice awarded the Booker Prize for her detailed fictional explorations of the court of Henry VIII, recently remarked that “women writers…can’t resist retrospectively empowering” women of the past in historical fiction. She presents us with a false choice: “If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?”

Historical fiction poses unique challenges and opportunities. Writing a historical novel requires all the same things writing a contemporary novel does—intelligence, dedication, research, and a whiff of heedless optimism—as well as a fine-tuned commitment to not betraying the “historical” elements for those better fit by the label “fiction.”

Writing feminist historical fiction adds another layer of complexity. Any historical novel worth its salt has to address society’s expectations of women at the time it’s set. Some authors focus on ordinary women, some on extraordinary ones; both options offer countless possibilities for advancing or contradicting feminist viewpoints. But knowing one’s time period is essential, no matter what. A historical novel in which women play key roles doesn’t resonate unless the author can faithfully and honestly depict ordinary women, and ordinary men, of the time.

Reducing the possibilities of historical fiction to two options, as Mantel does, represents a failure of imagination. The good news is that the imaginations of many writers, women and men alike, are up to the task of telling stories set in the past that are both faithful and feminist.

Did Amy Stewart have to “retrospectively empower” Constance Kopp to make her a law enforcement pioneer, appointed the first female undersheriff of Bergen County, N.J., in 1915? Not a bit. Kopp’s cases were well-documented in the newspapers of the day, and Stewart has woven her stories into three novels so far: Girl Waits with Gun, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, and the upcoming Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. Kopp was quoted by a reporter as saying “Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.” Ahead of her time, yes, but still someone who made her way within it.

Stewart was a non-fiction writer before she was a novelist, and sticks close to the known facts with her novels, but that’s far from the only approach. On the more fictional end of the spectrum is Kate Quinn’s new novel The Alice Network. Its historical kernel is a real-life World War I spy ring run by and consisting of women, named for its leader, whose code name was Alice Dubois. Quinn interlaces the war story with a second timeline, this one centered on a fictional, pregnant protagonist searching for a lost cousin. Quinn’s book offers an unusually entertaining way to examine how women, both ordinary and extraordinary, are called upon to act in the world during wartime.

Naturally, the historical novels it’s easiest to recognize as feminist are those written about women who explicitly fought for women’s rights and women’s issues, like Terrible Virtue, written by Ellen Feldman about reproductive rights pioneer Margaret Sanger. Similarly, novels that center on women adjacent to more famous men—Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb (artist Camille Claudel) or The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict (physicist Mileva Maric)—argue without stating outright that in a fairer world, these lesser-known female subjects would be as famous and renowned as their better-known partners. Biographies can make these arguments too, but fiction puts us there in the moment, breathing and crying and cheering with these women. Paula McLain, whose biographical historical novels The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun are some of the best-known in the genre, was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying “We love to learn about history, but don’t we love to get close to it?”

Returning to Mantel for a moment, she takes issue with “women writers who want to write about women in the past,” implying that male writers are in some other category, possibly exempt from the “persistent difficulty” of wanting to write female characters of action and agency. But it’s hard to think of a book that takes its heroine’s part more wholeheartedly than Alexander Chee’sThe Queen of the Night, which is by turns rip-roaring, tragic, giddy, dramatic, and delightful, but never loses its keen awareness that its extraordinary heroine, soprano Lilliet Berne, operates within the constraints of a man’s world. Her fate is changed at every turn by men’s decisions, men’s gifts, men’s egos, men’s wars. And her journey is all the more riveting because of it. Chee’s heroine was inspired by real-life opera singer Jenny Lind, known as “The Swedish Nightingale”; Lilliet Berne is fictional. But this is what the best historical novels do—blend fact and fiction in a way that sweeps us into the world of the past and informs our experience of the present.

The characters above could be considered extraordinary women of their time—historical novels can also focus on ordinary women without, as Mantel suggests, reducing them to “victims.” The very act of centering a novel on a woman’s story, of giving her the same respect and attention men’s stories have traditionally received, can be feminist. The women of the distant past may only appear in sepia-toned photographs today, but when they lived, they lived in full color. Historical fiction and feminism can work hand in hand, and novels may in fact be the best delivery mechanism for certain stories. The question then becomes not whether or how historical fiction can be feminist, but which feminist historical novel you’ll choose to read and recommend next.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

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Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright, and novelist who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel, The Magician's Lie, was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain's Freckle Films. Her new novel, Girl in Disguise, also an Indie Next pick, was inspired by the real-life first woman detective in the U.S., Kate Warne, who was hired by Allan Pinkerton in 1856 Chicago to solve cases and fight crime. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "Loaded with suspense and action" and "a well-told, superb story."

Nineteenth-Century Historical Fiction

The genre of nineteenth-century historical fiction includes novels and romances written about the distant past, about the recent past, or about the time period contemporary with an author's experience. Although they agree about the general characteristics of the genre, critics debate the degree to which historical accuracy or realistic representation should be present in a work of historical fiction. Depending on the novelist's motives, historical fiction may emphasize realistic depiction of historical facts throughout the novel, truthful portrayal of the spirit of an age, or correctness in the representation of specific historical movements or themes. Nineteenth-century novelists, including Sir Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Benito Pérez Galdós, wrote historical fiction in order to demonstrate similarities between the past and the present, to initiate social reform, to change readers' views about historical persons or events, and to supplement and encourage the formal study of history.

Most critics agree that Sir Walter Scott became "the father of the historical novel" in 1814 when he wrote Waverly, a novel about life in the Scottish borderlands. Waverly achieved enormous popular and critical success and sparked the public's interest in history, and many commentators hold it as the standard by which historical fiction ought to be judged. Scott followed Waverly with several more historical romances, including Ivanhoe (1819). As the popularity of the genre increased, so did the critics' and the public's desire for historical accuracy. Scott and his numerous imitators were criticized by essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle and others who frowned on novels written solely for the sake of readers' amusement. Many commentators held that authors had a responsibility to ensure factual accuracy within their work. In 1846, George Henry Lewes praised Scott's achievement in Waverly, stating that "no grave historian ever succeeded better in painting the character of the epoch." Throughout the 1830s and 1840s readers and critics alike began to look to historical fiction as a necessary complement to historical studies. Novels produced at this time include Bulwer-Lytton's extensively researched Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes (1835) and Harriet Martineau's The Hour and the Man (1841), both of which provided detailed evaluations of historical figures and eras. However, there was growing concern among scholars that with so many historical novels being written, readers would start to view historical fiction as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, the formal study of history. Concurrent with these developments was the trend among some authors to write novels about contemporary social issues, with the aim of realistically representing the problems in Victorian England. Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), for example, examines the cruelty experienced by children in workhouses. During the 1850s and 1860s, the public's interest in the genre dwindled, partly in response to the high volume of historical novels being published. Similarly, critical sentiment toward historical fiction ranged from skepticism to hostility, although highly esteemed historical novels such as Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Eliot's Romola (1862) were still being published. By the 1860s, as James Simmons has written, "the vogue for historical fiction had expended itself."

Many scholars have noted that in nineteenth-century America historical novelists often romanticized aspects of the past to some degree in order to accomplish their aims. Some American novelists wrote about colonial America in an attempt, some critics have argued, to redefine or to reemphasize nineteenth-century national values. According to Beverly Seaton, many novels about the colonial period assured white readers of their racial superiority. William Gilmore Simms's The Yemassee (1835), for example, centered around conflicts with Native Americans in which white settlers are depicted as virtuous while Native Americans are rendered as cruel and dishonest. Novels such as Paul Leicester Ford's Janice Meredith (1899) and S. Weir Mitchell's Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1897) incorporate analyses of religious fanaticism in colonial times in order to remind nineteenth-century readers of the importance of supporting liberalism in organized religion. Pauline Hopkins, in Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1899), uses the motifs of traditional nineteenth-century romances—such as ending the novel with the heroine's happy marriage—in order to interest both African American and white readers. After capturing the attention of this larger audience, Hopkins then focuses on the realities of African American history. Still other novelists, rather than detailing specific movements, events, or themes, chose to characterize a time and place, as Hawthorne does with his depiction of seventeenth-century Puritan New England in The Scarlet Letter (1850).

Critics continue to debate the definition and attributes of historical fiction. Harry E. Shaw has maintained that a "minimal" definition of the genre is necessary to accommodate the variety of views on history. Brander Matthews has claimed that novelists who wrote about their own time period produced the most "trustworthy" historical fiction. Joseph Turner has admitted that defining the genre is problematic, and has categorized historical fiction in terms of the novelist's treatment of past. Modern scholars have also studied nineteenth-century historical fiction with a view to understanding how each novelist addressed the social issues of his or her day through his or her treatment of the past.

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