Largely Pointless Rant About Historical Novels, Amen

As with most of my preferences, the fact that I hate historical novels that are based on real people and events is, well, more of a guideline really. I mean, I might pick up a book, give it quick a contemptuous glare and still read it all the way through anyway, but that’s more of a function of my reading addiction.

And really, it’s not so much all historical novels as… well, the kind of thing that would get featured on Oprah’s Book Club and tends to be read by middle-class women who fantasize about being noblewomen in whichever historical era is currently fashionable – the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the “Jane Austen” era (because you know, thinking of it as the Napoleonic era or Regency period would be too complicated) – basically any time where the fashion was good and people had “dainty manners”/ “chivalry”. Never mind the lack of indoor plumbing or human rights.

Anyway, I’ve just finished reading The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory. It has been interesting (I can now confidently name all of Henry VIII’s wives, big achievement). It has also been everything I utterly despise about historical novels – sentimental and full of supposition. Oh sure, it might be very well researched, but at the end of the day it’s someone making n awful lot of suppositions about people’s actions, motivations, dialogue and mindsets four-and-a-half-centuries after the fact.

The problem with this is that it a) romanticizes the people and the era and b) turns unprovable supposition into Cold Hard Fact (not the Rodriguez album) which then makes its way into Wikipedia articles or becomes “common knowledge” – something that sounds so good that it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true (similar to the way anything witty is attributed to Winston Churchill). Seriously. I looked up some of the characters in The Boleyn Inheritance and the Wiki articles are suspiciously similar to the book, even though the author admits in a post-script that “very little is known” about certain characters and she basically made it up.

I do understand how people could get a bit misty-eyed about some distant historical era – the fog of ages means that it’s a little unreal and therefore we can fill in the bits we don’t like with nicer, more romantic bits that are more agreeable. But what I object to is transposing a modern mindset onto historical characters, particularly ones that actually existed. The past, as they say, is another country: it’s a culture that is probably as unrecognizable to us as, say, one on the other side of the planet. As someone who lives in a very different culture to what I grew up with, “they” are not just “us in another place”, so why would “they” be “us in another time”?

I’m probably being a bit churlish about it, and honestly it’s probably because as a kid I was severely shocked and disappointed when it turned out that the stuff I’d read about wasn’t in the slightest bit true (fuck you, Wilber Smith and your screwy Egyptian history). I couldn’t conceive that a writer would make up stuff that sounded so factual. And then, worse still for the historical novelists of the world, I discovered how history is actually studied and reported, what a bizarre jigsaw it is, how so many things are controversial because until time travel is invented, we just can’t know.

I don’t object to people being entertained. But just remember that if you went back in time to the Middle Ages/ Renaissance/ whatever, you’d probably end up as a peasant mud farmer. With no indoor plumbing.

Just saying.


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