Modern Historical Fiction. Out of time – or is it?

11th March 2014

Thoughts on the relevance of modern historical fiction

Sometimes people compare modern historical fiction unfavourably with 'proper' historical fiction - that is, stories written by people from the past, writing about what they experienced at the time. Far better, surely, all those novels written by those who were there - those who really knew the times in which they lived.

So, for example, the Brontës are good because they were writing about circumstances they knew in 19th Century rural England. 'All Quiet on the Western Front.' The novel, set in the thick of WWI by Erich Maria Remarque, is good since he had first-hand experience of life in the trenches.

So where does all this leave modern writers of historical fiction - those who blithely turn their hand to a little bit of Egypt or Rome at one time, or Tudor royalty or the odd Highland fling at another? Should we regard their work as inferior? A bit intellectually suspect or out of touch?

I don't think so. At least not always. And here's why:

Great Novels

To begin with, and leaving aside the many excellent contemporary authors of our own era, here are a few examples of great novels from writers of the past who happened to write about times earlier than their own, times of which they had no direct experience. See if you think these are inferior in any sense:

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

book cover - War and Peace
Published in 1869 but set around 70 years earlier at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

Book cover to Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, red
Published 1859 but describing events before and during the French Revolution of 1789.

Orlando - Virginia Woolf

Cover to the modern historical fiction novel Orlando
Though published in 1928, the action in this great biographical tour de force takes place across the centuries. From the 16th century right up to the 20th. It was made into a great movie too.

Narcissus and Goldmund - Hermann Hesse

Book cover with bold text, assorted fonts - the modern historical fiction novel Narcissus and Goldmund
A wonderful modern historical fiction novel - well nearly modern, published in 1930. Nobel-prize-winner Hermann Hesse describes events that took place in medieval Europe (14th Century) - a whopping 600 hundred years earlier.

Modern historical fiction - the advantages

Written many decades or centuries after the events they describe, these are stories that continue to inspire and entertain. They have remained in print and enjoyed still today because they combine sound research with brilliant writing skills. There might even be an argument for suggesting that modern historical fiction written retrospectively has advantages over that which was simply written at the time - steeped in all the confusion, propaganda, prejudices and misinformation that every generation is prone to.

With the blessings of hindsight, an author can provide a broad-ranging perspective on events, setting them in context not only with cause and effect, but also viewing them in the light of future repercussions. And from the late 19th century onwards, writers of fiction have been able to bring advances in psychological understanding to characters in ways that those living earlier would rarely have done, with full-spectrum characters driven by unconscious needs.
four black and white photos of famous authors from the past, Dickens, Hesse, Tolstoy and Woolf
Dickens, Hesse, Tolstoy and Woolf - all wrote great novels about the past.

Not forgetting Shakespeare!

Although a playwright rather than a novelist, Shakespeare should not be forgotten in this context. Hardly anything he wrote was of his own times. Yet the universality of his work means that he can exist happily in any culture, in any translation at any time. And probably always will.

So don't be put off if your favourite writer of historical fiction seems a bit removed in time from the reality of what they are writing about. They might well be seated in a comfy chair, with a cup of tea to hand. And they might well be surrounded by all the modern advantages of electronic media. But if they have done their homework, and if they are blessed with imagination and invention, they might just be a little more in touch with the past than we give them credit for.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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