Historical Fiction and The Romance of the Past

I’ve just given my ‘Historical Fiction’ lecture. I’ve really enjoyed delving into this topic. There were pedagogical reasons as to why I added this lecture this year. We lost reading week and I needed to find an additional topic. At the same time, History and English students take this module and it seemed an interesting way to consider how novelists engage with the past and how this expands our understanding of historical writing. It has also enabled me to explore a topic that I have a real passion for. Simply put I love reading. Stacks of books can be found everywhere in my house and no charity shop is left unturned. I long to visit Hay-on-Wye, and despite what friends have told me, I am convinced that its streets are paved with books.

Yet this lecture has forced me to reflect on my own love-hate relationship with the historical fiction genre. I don’t actually read much historical (or contemporary) fiction. I prefer to buy and read novels written between 1930 and 1970. I collect second hand Penguin books for their orange spines and their tales of this period. Instead I find reading historical fiction frustrating, which has left me wondering if in becoming an historian I have become too questioning of this genre; too concerned with authenticity, historical accuracy and trust. I can’t read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I can’t help thinking that the Tudors wouldn’t speak like that and that you can’t put words into the mouths of people who once lived. (I’ve never moved beyond the first chapter). I can’t forgive A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book for being such a dense historically driven narrative that for me forefronts the author’s research to much. Worst still, I don’t understand her late nineteenth-century timeline. It doesn’t fit with my (academic) timescale of the East End (I stopped at page 80).

ImageConsequently, historical fiction does not offer the escapism I want. But this wasn’t always the case. Indeed there are many historical romances that I have adored and still recollect with fondness. I’m convinced that, together with period dramas, novels were the reason I become an historian. From my local library I borrowed Virginia Budd’s Fathers. I remember the librarian’s reluctance to lend me this adult novel at first, but I must have convinced her to, because for one summer in my early teens I read and re-read this novel with insatiable appetite. Fathers is the story of Cathy Hamilton’s love affair with her childhood neighbour. The reader steps in and out of their lives at key episodic events to witness them fall in and out of love with each other. Their love story is the most prominent thread in the novel but there were glimpses into the past such as Cathy’s childhood fascination with her neighbour’s indoor flushing toilet. I was fascinated too!

ImageIn contrast Margaret Mayhew’s Bluebirds, as the novel’s tagline tell us, is ‘the heartbreaking and triumphant story of four women in wartime’. Here we join Felicity, Anne, Virginia and Winnie in their journey to join the WAAF during the Second World War. Here they ‘show their worth- behaving heroically under fire, supporting the pilots with their steadfast strength, [and] loyalty.’ This novel charts the romantic tales of these characters: ‘a love that was sometimes tragic, sometime passionate, but always courageous’. This novel was given to me by my aunt in a supermarket carrier bag, which also contained several oversized bras. I didn’t keep the bras but I still have this novel. Despite numerous moves I have kept and enjoyed this book for all it offered me as a teenager. The spine is broken. The first couple of pages are falling out. I wanted to be Winnie. It probably helped that I was in the Air Training Corps.

It is perhaps not that surprising that I should have loved these novels. Historical fiction, according to Jerome de Groot, knits together the past and the present. Whereas the historian’s job is to explain the past, the novelist makes the past both familiar and readable. The past is no longer a foreign country in the hands of a novelist. It becomes both captivating and modern. The spirit, tone and focus of historic novels may not strictly be authentic but they are readable to contemporary audiences who are invited to delve into the past. As someone who loved history from a young age, these novels presented me with a glimpse into a ‘foreign country’ not offered to me at secondary school. They provided me with an alternative history and one that was primarily centred on the personal stories of women. Bluebirds must have had some stronger effect on me then I realised. My BA dissertation, for instance, explored the representations of femininity in Second World War films and women’s magazines. If I couldn’t be Winnie then I was certainly going to understand her world.   

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