Top five: historical fiction

Contributed by Patrick Walsh

That’s wrong! Oh God she was not like that! That dress is so anachronistic! Grr they wouldn’t have had that then! Oh my God it was so more complex than that! How many times have we as historians made these or similar exclamations while watching “historical” films or reading “historical” fiction? It probably runs into the hundreds each; historians are after all prematurely cranky old men and women. However, we are usually rather harsh critics; for every Alexander there is a Lives of Others, for every The Tudors there is a Wolf Hall. The latter novel; by Hilary Mantel, which I am currently immersed in, is every bit as good as its legions of fans claim, both an excellent read and also a reasonably accurate portrayal of a very complex period in English history. It has given me a new appreciation and insight into Henry VIII’s England, and the most famous divorce in history. It has also got me thinking about historical fiction, both the good and the bad, just as there is some very good…there is some very bad! What follows is very much a personal selection, including some of the books that have stuck with me, and indeed have introduced me to histories and cultures I would never have found otherwise.

1 Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)

It would be wrong to write on historical novels, and not include Tolstoy’s masterful tale of the doomed Napoleonic invasion of Russia. It is not just a gripping story, but also a superb treatise on the impact of war on society. Famously long it is still very readable; I read it comfortably travelling Europe by train almost ten years ago. Its length also adds to its gravitas. It is written in the venerable epic tradition that began with Homer and continued right up to the great nineteenth-century novels including superb historical fiction by, amongst others, Sir Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas. Tolstoy however, in his characterisation, detail and narrative skills, surpasses all and provides the definitive portrait of the war of 1812.

2 Captain Marryat, The Children of the New Forest (1847)

As a young bookworm, I read everything I could get my hands on but even then I had a special attraction to history. To this day Roger Lancelyn Green’s version of the tales of the King Arthur, which I first read aged eight, remains a key influence on the development of my historical career. However, even I am unwilling to include the Arthurian romances as historical fiction. Instead I want to offer up the superb treatment of the English Civil War found in Frederick Marryat’s wonderful story of the orphaned children of a Cavalier colonel. The adventures of the four Beverly children as they negotiated the complexities of the civil war have remained clear in my head since I first read them, and it remains my favourite fictional treatment of a period served well by many historical novelists including Ronan Bennett and Iain Pears.

3 Sebastian Barry, A Long, Long Way (2005)

Written by one of Ireland finest living writers and the only Irish novel on this list, this is to my mind the finest fictional treatment of the revolutionary period, as well as an outstanding first world war novel. Telling the story of the only son of the Dublin Castle chief, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the conflicting loyalties and identities of the period. This is an era which has attracted many would-be contenders for the great Irish novel, and few have emerged with credit. Amongst the worthies are James Plunkett’s masterpiece Strumpet City and Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys, while
amongst the failures, at least to my mind, are Morgan Llywelyn’s 1916, and Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry.

4 Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red (2001)

This wonderful novel set in medieval Constantinople is one of many historical novels that have explored the interaction between east and west. Other favourite examples include much of Salman Rushdie’s works including the fantastic, and underrated, Enchantress of Florence and Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. Pamuk’s tale of a group of miniaturists at the Ottoman Court, like so much of Rushdie’s work, introduces the reader to a whole new world, which we as readers have to take on trust. As with other historical novels set in exotic places, and as with unfamiliar histories, I have learned a lot, much of it possibly wrong, but as with history surely part of the raison d’être is to spark curiosity!

5 Peter Carey, Parrott and Olivier in America (2009)

My final choice is Peter Carey’s latest, and perhaps finest, novel is very much in the news having earned its author an opportunity to win a record breaking third Booker Prize. Interestingly, his previous two winners Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang are both historical novels, unlike much of his fiction. What this tells us I don’t know. What I do know is that his reimagining of the life of Alexis deToqueville is a un-putdown-able masterpiece.

These are but a selection of my current favourites. Please add your own selections below, and I may even reveal some more of my bottom five!

Patrick Walsh is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow in the School of History and Archives, UCD.  His first book, The making of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy: the life of William Conolly, 1662-1729, will be published by Boydell and Brewer in November.

9 Responses to “Top five: historical fiction”

  1. Daily Links 24/09/2010 | Irish Publishing News Says:

    […] Top five: historical fiction Nice post on Historical Fiction from Pue’s Read more… […]

  2. Tina Says:

    Thanks for the great suggestions, Patrick! Totally agree with you on _War and Peace_ and _A Long, Long Way_; I enjoyed both immensely! (I also loved _Lives of Others_; it’s probably my favourite film of all time!)

    Anyway, I think historical authenticity is always going to be a thorny issue when it comes to the historical novel. Scott, for instance, was praised for introducing the historical novel with _Waverley_, and frequently, if subtly, manipulated verifiable fact. Nevertheless, he was lauded for his ‘authenticity’, which contemporary critics (and, later, Georg Lukacs) defined as capturing the spirit of the age rather than sticking strictly to known details. A bit of artistic license, I suppose! Speaking from a non-historian point of view, I think with fiction, we’re willing to forgive certain deviancies, as long as they’re not too blaringly ‘wrong’ or anachronistic.

  3. puesoccurrences Says:

    I would recommend JG Farrel’s ‘Troubles’ which won the lost Booker. I couldn’t put it down. Its very good.

  4. thelittlereview Says:

    As historians, even when we are writing history, I think we are always taking a certain license, without necessarily being aware of it. We impose our own structure on a messy and unknowable past, stringing together what information we have into a more coherent narrative, and imposing our own interpretations or surmisings on the gaps in our knowledge. The opposition between history and historical fiction isn’t always as clear as we’d like to think it is!

  5. thelittlereview Says:

    Having said that, some of my favourite books about the past are historical novels. Books like amitav ghosh’s the glass palace gave me a real flavour of burmese and Indian history. Even though they can of course never be accurate, the best historical novels do try to give a sense of how people might have thought and felt in historical situations and a sense of what it was actually like to live in the past, something that history books are not quite as good at. Two other excellent examples are Andrea levy’s small island, about the lives of Jamaican immigrants in post war Britain, and kazuo ishiguro’s the remains of the day.

  6. Joanne Says:

    John Boyne is another author of historical fiction whose work deserves much acclaim. His attention to historical detail, ability to create complex, realistic characters, and fluid writing style make his books highly addictive. I dare anyone to read ‘Mutiny on the bounty’ and not chuckle at the antics of young John Jacob Turnstile. ‘The House of Special Purpose’ is a must for those partial to a bit of early twentieth century Russian history and, of course, ‘The boy in the striped pajamas’ (in both literary and cinematic format) is worth a read for the interesting perspective on the Holocaust it presents. All definitely worth a read!

  7. Dave McGowan Says:

    Yes, there are often scenes, statements and actions that just don’t jibe with our concepts of what took place in the site being depicted.
    However, is our concept based on the facts?
    There is a stong perception that the majority of settlers to Western Canada, in the early years at least, were from what we now know as the British Isles with a few from Eastern Europe. However, many diaries … most notably that of Sir James Douglas, the Hudson’s Bay Company and later British Governor in Victoria … state that most settlers were from the US.
    I’ve come to depend more on those written records that might not show the writer in the best light rather than those that proclaim the writer mankind’s saviour.

  8. Frank Says:

    I really enjoyed Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety which deals with the French Revolution. Also, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a compelling read about the Biafran struggle.

  9. Pue’s recommendations for October « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] War to claim his Irish fiancee but the Troubles in Ireland are escalating. We have been debating the historic novel at Pue’s and this has made it to the top of my list of favourites. The National Concert Hall […]

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