atmospheric landscape, dark brown with oak trees and tower
tablet size version of atmospheric landscape with oak trees and ruin
Hamburger menu bar
 
dark Gothic style landscape with oak trees and ruined church tower
background to navigation bar, canvas style with ragged edges
small up-arrow linking to top of page
 
ROBERT STEPHEN PARRY
Historical Fiction
background to navigation bar, canvas texture with rugged edges
Modern Historical Fiction- out of time. Or is it?

Thoughts on the relevance of modern historical novels

Sometimes people compare modern genre 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 Bront√ęs 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:

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 and of which they had no direct experience. See if you think these are inferior in any sense:
War and Peace - Leo Tolsto

Published in 1869 but set around 70 years earlier at the time of the Napoleonic wars.
front cover of novel War and Peace
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

Published 1859 but describing events before and during the French Revolution of 1789.
book cover to the novel Orlando, abstract design
Orlando - Virginia Woolf

Though published in 1928, the action in this great biographical tour de force takes place across the centuries, from the 16th to the 20th.
book cover to novel Narcissus and Goldmund
Narcissus and Goldmund - Hermann Hesse
A wonderful novel published in 1930. Hesse describes events that took place in medieval Europe (14th Century) - a whopping 600 hundred years earlier.
front cover of novel Tale of Two Cities
Written many decades or centuries after the events they describe, these are stories that continue to inspire and entertain us. 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 historical fiction written retrospectively has advantages over that which is simply written at the time - steeped in all the confusion, propaganda, prejudices and mis-information that every generation is prone to.
For instance ...

Writing about the past, with the blessings of hindsight, means that the author can provide a broad-ranging perspective on events, setting them in context not only with past cause and effect, but also viewing them in the light of future repercussions.

Authors looking back at the past can be free of narrow ideology, extremism or prejudice that might have prevented those at the time from seeing all sides of an argument.

From the late 19th century onwards, authors might well be able to bring advances in psychological understanding to characters and events of the past in ways that those living earlier would rarely have done, with full-spectrum characters driven by unconscious needs.
Dickens, Hesse, Tolstoy and Woolf - all wrote great novels about the past.
And although he was a playwright rather than a novelist, dear old 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.
Robert Stephen Parry 2014
small logo with heart shape and quill linking to poetry index