Thursday, May 03, 2012

Unpicking the past masters: what makes a 'historical novel'?

The genre is 'not exactly jammed with greatness', according to one critic. Not true, there are tales that are truly great

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
Making history … Hilary Mantel reimagined the life of Thomas Cromwell. Photograph: Gustavo Tomsich/Corbis

James Wood, professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard and a regular reviewer in the New Yorker, is the critic I most admire, and I disagree with him on a great many points. We did, however, concur in our high estimation of Hilary Mantel's novels about Thomas Cromwell; even though the opening paragraph of his review seemed to be designed to make me bristle. Wood writes: "Both this new book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness." My initial response was that the statement was pure phooey.

As usual with Wood's work, my second response was that something needed unpicking here, that there were ideas curled inside the provocation. What exactly is the "historical novel"?

Of course, there are historical novels that are truly great: from Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian right up to AL Kennedy's Day, David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. There are, equally, formulaic, cliche-ridden and preposterous historical novels. But is this a difference of genre or talent?

The Walter Scott prize for historical fiction defines historical novels as those set at least 60 years in the past, a neat nod to the subtitle of Scott's Waverley, 'Tis Sixty Years Since. It's also moderately problematic: George Eliot's Middlemarch, for example, is set only 40 years in the past. (Then again, Middlemarch isn't normally described as a historical novel.) My little list of historical novels also shows that the form seemed to be in abeyance during the modernist period: Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Flush are both technically historical novels, but they're "more than" historical novels.

Full essay at The Guardian.

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