Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Novel Notion: Reflections on History and Fiction

Not having much time to do much reading of historical fiction at the moment due to writing my dissertation, although I have read a lot of histories of Mary Tudor and books on history and film,  I have actually just read Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. Unlike Wolf Hall, I really enjoyed this, although there are some valid questions about how much actual ‘history’ is in the novel, considering we know little personal information about Cromwell. Anyway, the last paragraph of this concerning historical fiction being terrifying to academic historians is exactly the kind of comment I have been reading when it comes to researching historical film. Am yet to decide how far I agree with it, but an interesting point, I completely disagree about the Interpretaion of Murder though, I hated it!

The Dustbin of History

The historical novel is one of the most significant literary trends of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am an avid reader of historical fiction, particularly those set usually in Victorian British or American contexts, which revolve around a mysterious murder. History as a source of literature has been around as long history has; one needs only to remember that Homer’s Iliad, as well as being literary, is historical; or think of Shakespeare’s great historical plays from Julius Caesar to Henry V. In the case of a historian like Edward Gibbon, writing before the novel as a form had really taken hold, to write history was to entertain as well as enlighten.

gregorys other boleynThe historical novel is a rather new phenomenon; its proliferation is driven largely by the success of female authors like Philippa Gregory,  who has been writing historical novels since the late 1980s, but more particularly…

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More historic fiction – Katherine Webb – The Legacy

When you get a book free with an eye test you don’t really expect it to be good especially when it has been recommended by Channel 4´s Book Club, who have the most unqualified, inane reviewers ever.  I only managed one episode and got so upset with Gok Wan, etc. reviewing books that I could not bring myself to watch any more.   I was also initially pessimistic due to  the terrible book cover, which does not relate to the time frame of the story and looks like a trashy chick lit read.  Despite these drawbacks the book actually turned out to be a good read.

The story has a good opening hook, it has a baby being abandoned by Caroline at the turn of the last century, which is extremely moving.  The chapters have a dual narrative and alternate between the current day story of two sisters Erica and Beth, who have returned to their ancestral home in Wiltshire after the death of their grandmother,  and the story of Caroline, a New Yorker who moves to Oklahoma after her marriage to a cattle rancher.  The story of Caroline has an interesting historical context, focusing on  the theme of white settlement of the previously Indian owned Oklahoma Territory.  It highlights difficulties of being a woman in the west, and the sense of isolation and the unknown.  The story also touches on the plight of the Native Americans, although not as much as I would have liked.  This is not the period  of the great settlement of the west largely because Webb needs to make Caroline´s life span long enough so that her grand daughters Beth and Erica can know her.

Both time periods deal with the issue of missing children.  We gradually discover the mystery of the child that Caroline abandons at the start of the novel.  Beth and Erica meanwhile, are trying to cope  with their own disappearance of their cousin Henry over twenty years before.

I am very jealous of the author.  I always read the biography of the author and get upset when they are younger than me, have studied history, and have gone onto write a successful historical novel.

My only negative was that I found the end slightly weak and a bit of an anti climax.  There is also the obvious criticism of the amount of novels that use the theme of history mirroring the present.   Overall though,  a good page turner,  ideal for a weekend or on the beach.

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Historical Fiction – David Mitchell- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

This takes place at the end of 18th century in Nagasaki in Dejima, a Dutch trading post in the final days of the Dutch Empire. Jacob de Zoek is a clerk trying to make his fortune in Japan in order for him to marry the woman he loves back in Holland. However he meets Orito a Japanese midwife and falls in love with her but cultural prohibitions make the relationship taboo.   At this time it was illegal to be a Christian and foreigners were unable to take Japanese out of the country.

The book is divided into three main parts:

Jacob at Dejima

Orito in the Mount Shiranui Shrine

Conflict between the British navy and the Dutch, and their attempt to take over the trading post.

Whilst reading the book jacket I was impressed by its  amazing reviews such as it being a ‘masterpiece’ or ‘my book of the year’, eg http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/09/thousand-autumns-jacob-zoet-mitchell.  Therefore I was very excited as I love Mitchell’s books (except for number9dream) and historical novels, but I was very disappointed with this. I just couldn’t get into it for the first 200 or so pages, however the second part in the shrine is more interesting and the third part seems more like the old Mitchell and it is much more humorous.  He has also obviously done a lot of research on Japanese culture in the 18th century and that is very interesting, especially the concept of honour suicides but sometimes it does fall into the trap of showing off the research at the expense of the story.

There is a timeline of the real historical  events at back  of the book but it is a shame it wasnt at the front as it gives some context and it was sometimes hard to follow exactly what was going on.   Mitchell has written an article on historical fiction which is good on the history of historical fiction – even referring to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as a piece of historical fiction.  He argues historical novels were previously linked with blue rinses and how this type of fiction can  illuminate our world today – although I would debate these points.  Lots of authors have argued that in fact historical fiction can just be entertainment in its own right and doesn’t have to have a message.  I heard an interesting podcast on this on Radio 4’s Open Book although was  completed wound up by Mariella Frostrup’s comment that history teaching is undergoing a crisis – a view I would argue is only held by nationalist Tory politicians.

Open Book Historical Fiction

But anyway overall  it was unfortunately largely unenjoyable and disappointing – I am hoping one of my favourite authors goes back to form.  Everyone else loves it, why don’t I?

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