Can historical fiction ever be truly radical?

Given that this year's conference of the Historical Novel Society was at the end of September, and I missed it once again (I will get there one year!), I thought I'd write a post about historical fiction as a kind of nod to it. We're familiar enough with the notion that historical fiction has been undergoing a new appeal for some time now - and that 'literary' writers like Hilary Mantel, Philip Hensher, Rose Tremain, David Mitchell and others have all preceived to have helped give it a 'new seriousness', a new respectability. New literary prizes, too, like the Sir Walter Scott Historical prize which was set up only a couple of years ago, and the presence of historical novelists on the Booker lists, all go to shore up that impression.

But I want to ask a different question here. Not, why is the historical novel so popular, as many recent conferences have asked (for example here:, or even, why is it attracting so many writers of calibre and winning so many prizes? Rather, I want to ask: is it always a conservative form, given that it, by its nature, involves looking back into the past, and can it ever be radical about that past, particularly in its form?

I'm asking the question for two reasons. Firstly, because I spent a long time working on a historical novel that I've only recently finished and which is currently doing the rounds of publishers, and I'd thought about that issue while I was writing it (I don't think I am being terribly radical with what I'm doing, but I'm not being too traditional either, I hope). And secondly, because I grew up during the age of the post-modern historical novel. The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles with its parallel narratives and double endings (almost a cliche now, its once-groundbreaking techniques taken for granted); One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which questions the knowability of history, the search for sources, the supposed reliability of it all.

This week, the New Yorker published an interview with Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall I loved, and who is probably the most innovative historical novelist since the days of Marquez and Fowles who published in the late 60s: I was interested to see that the interviewer mentions Robert Graves' I, Claudius (published in 1934) as a benchmark, but not Fowles or Marquez. And in a piece by David Mitchell, written two years ago (, he investigates the popularity of historical fiction and gives a roll-call of past masters like Scott and Tolstoy, as well as recent exponents of the genre, like Tremain. But again, there's no mention of Fowles or Marquez.

In Mantel's interview, she says she 'dislikes people playing with the facts' (she also dislikes what her interviewer calls 'maudlin feminist myth-making' which is mainly, it seems, all about making herbs and being witches, and I can't entirely say I disagree with that). Fowles and Marquez did like to play with facts, but that doesn't mean to say they didn't do their research properly. Mantel clearly works hard to make sure she's as factually correct as possible. What's innovative about her writing is the way she transforms those facts into psychological markers, and beyond that, into a psychological structure itself (and not in the first person either, traditionally the favoured form of the more psychological narrative).

Facts are particularly important when you're writing an imagined version of real people - Fowles wasn't, although Marquez was writing about real events, so perhaps they had more licence. If so, they made sure they used it.  We seem to be more fearful now - messing around with facts, like the TV Series, The Tudors, did, as Mantel says, can have you tying yourself in knots when you get it wrong. Certain events happen in sequence, and for a reason, as we're constantly reminded by those celebrity historical professors, Simon Schama and David Starkey.

Yet is that always the case? Is history always linear? Are key events shaped by key individuals? Part of our fascination with Henry VIII is that he bears out that belief - that one man could shape so much. It leads to a whole load of tantalising 'what if' questions - what if Ann Bolyen had had a boy? What if Katharine of Aragon had had a boy? Would Protestantism have had the hold in England that it did if either of them had, and so on.

But these questions, fun though they are to ask, can mire us in the linear and the safe and the conventional. It seems to me that it's almost as though the post-modern innovations of the 60s and 70s are being erased by today's history practitioners, both in fiction and non-fiction - as though we are being asked to forget that history might be unknowable, that sources are muddy and narrators are unreliable. That 'facts' aren't facts at all, or not the facts we thought they were.

It's as though we're being asked to forget that history is malleable - and with the recent death of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbaum, we're losing proponents of an alternative view of history, one not necessarily written by the victors. 'People's history' in terms of locality and family trees, has grown in popularity - oral history is now hugely valued in ways it wasn't before. It would be nice to think that's a legacy of Hobsbaum, but it's more likely to be an effect of people's desire to know about themselves in particular - the popularity of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? programme testifies to this. How much of it challenges the status quo, though?

Which brings me back to my opening question about historical fiction - can it ever be radical? I don't think it's any coincidence that the two most radical historical novelists, to my mind at least, began publishing in the 1960s. What Fowles and Marquez did was radical, indeed. And for a while, they spawned many imitators. But how to carry on their legacy? Not to repeat what they did, which is falling away anyway now. But what radical direction to take? Or was that historical fiction's most radical moment, gone forever?  



  1. I think historical fiction can be radical - I guess it depends on how you use it - whether as a mere backdrop to the narrative or whether to inform, educate, illuminate, revise or question. I have two novels of historical fiction coming out in the next couple of years. One of the underlying themes of the first is the accusation that America is in denial about the huge civilian casualties caused by its firebombing of Tokyo and the dropping of the atomic bombs. It is historically accurate and meant to question issues that still remain unresolved in American society to this day. The second concerns Palestine in the 1920s - it is not historically accurate in that while it portrays real events, they do not unfold at the exact times when they actually occurred. The idea behind the book is to inform the reader about territorial issues still relevant today and to make up their own minds about the truth. Is that radical? I don't know. But the subject-matter certainly is.

  2. Yes, I think content is always a tricky one - one woman's radical is another woman's conservative! But the political-literary-historical novel is an interesting one - your novel, The Liberation of Celia Khan, would maybe fall into that category? - because perhaps the ones that work best are the ones where the politics are a bit more radical, or the writer is taking a more radical view? The narrative maybe needs it?

    In terms of form, I'm trying to think of a political-historical work that's radical in the way it reinvents the genre, turns it inside out etc., but can't think of one.

  3. Sorry Lesley. I know this is an old post but I wondered whether you've given this any more thought over the past three years? Main reason is that some of us are planning on a Radical Historical Fiction Festival - maybe to coincide with the Tolpuddle Festival. Just wondered whether you might be interested in any way, and also whether you've got any favourite Radical HF writers???? Best regards

    1. Hi David! Can't believe it's three years since I wrote that post. A Radical Historical Fiction festival would be a great idea. I think for me 'radical' really lies in that sense of challenging the status quo, either in form or content, so I'd favour the two i mention above, Fowles and Marquez, but in terms of content, I'd have to think really hard. You want a different social or political point of view - I'm guessing that's what you offer in your novels? - that's a challenge, whilst the format may be traditional.But there will be a lot, especially post-colonial writers, a massive area. I've just followed you on twitter - if you want to follow me back I can DM you my email address.


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