This month other History Girls are writing about favourite books. I did that recently, so I thought, to balance those posts, I’d give you some context. Those books that we read and that we treasure and that we remember are part of a gorgeous cultural pattern. Right now, that cultural pattern means that historical fiction is changing. I want to look at what exactly is happening.
|Photo: Gillian Polack, Sydney 2015|
Two decades ago there was a vast gulf between historians and fiction writers. This hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t so much the case in the time of Walter Scott. And it’s not the case right now. It’s now socially far more acceptable to read certain types of fiction as part of enjoying history. The way history is written into many novels has changed: it’s more sophisticated, more aware and far more researched.
Writers have changed. Some of the writers who changed are here, in the History Girls. They looked at the history they fell in love with and they said “We can do this better.” They researched and they learned and they understood and they brought to their novels a greater depth of understanding. It didn’t happen overnight, but if you look at any of the established writers here, you’ll find that, over the years, their work has developed.
I discovered how this happened when I started researching historical fiction writers. Historical fiction writers have always loved history (why would someone write a novel on a historical theme if that someone didn’t enjoy history, after all) but what I discovered was that their attitude to research is at the heart of the sea-change in historical fiction. Some talk to scholars on their specialist subjects. Some frequent specialist archives. So many historical fiction writers do site tours and understand the place the novel is set.
When I looked at the different attitudes towards research that writers of different kinds of novels have (for a book, which is still a new release and which I am still celebrating), the attitudes of historical fiction writers were closer to those of academic historians than those of science fiction writers, even of science fiction writers who write time travel or alternate histories. There’s still a big difference between history and fiction, but in recent years, historical fiction writers have worked to diminish that gulf.
Next came the readers. I discovered this very personally when I suddenly became more popular at conferences and conventions. Readers wanted to talk about my fiction with me, but they were even more interested in understanding history. These active and questioning readers of novels don’t just pose their technical questions to the historians: readers can be a lot tougher on the history fiction writers use than they used to be.
There have always been some readers who knew a lot and questioned a lot and thought deeply about the subjects of novels, but the sea change means that there are a lot more of them. I meet them when they want a signature for the Beast (aka The Middle Ages Unlocked, which I co-wrote with Katrin Kania), for they love checking out the sort of background their favourite writers might use. Their favourite writers are usually those same writers who have done so much extra work on the history for their novels.
Some readers will spend as much money on books related to the history in their favourite fiction as they spend on that fiction itself. I’ve been asked about my sources for Langue[dot]doc1305 so often that I put a list of them on my blog, and written articles about them. And I’m not alone in this. So many writers end up talking about their experience in archives or in exploring primary sources or establishing an accurate date for an event as much as they talk about the characters their readers love and love to hate.
Readers do not work alone. They often join groups with similar interests. The Historical Novel Society has been a critical component of this change in historical fiction, and so have organisations like the SCA and the Richard III Society.
Popular history and serious history are no longer as deeply divided. This opens the door to readers who want to approach novels with more insight into the history and more of an understanding of what possibilities it holds.
Writers respond to their readers. Often, they share similar interests. Elizabeth Chadwick, for instance, is a member of Regia Anglorum, a re-enactment group. She doesn’t just write the Middle Ages: she researches it, performs it and comes to understand it on many levels and from many angles. She is not alone. I can think of at least a half dozen writers who delve into the past during their spare time and whose novels reflect this. The tales these writers tell are still easy to read, but the history in them is better understood and more carefully thought out. It’s part of a complex feedback loop that has led to where we are right now, where historical fiction is successful commercially while its readers and writers see its historical contexts more clearly. They create possibly the best bridging between history and the general public that we’ve had since Walter Scott.
Compared with the demands of writers and readers, the critical world is a step behind. This is because the critical world is undergoing changes of its own. As I love saying, this is another story for another time, but it’s worth noting here. It’s also worth noting that blogs like the History Girls will help the world of criticism catch up, as it becomes clearer and clearer what audiences demand from historical fiction and what writers are willing to give.
Yesterday the History Girls turned five years old. I’m hoping it has many, many good years ahead because it’s very much a part of these changes in the way we see history and think about the past. It helps bring the work of scholars out of the university and gives it directly to the reader, whether the reader is on the train, on the beach or sneaking in a few pages of a favourite book on an e-reader.