Ballgowns and corsets, politics and treason, romance, hatred and secrets. These images characterise the vast range of literature that falls under the historical fiction label. From Ancient Egypt to World War II, medieval times to more modern eras, the span of historical fiction is one of the largest in any genre. The Historical Novel Society suggests the time period written must be at least 50 years prior to the author writing, and the author must be writing from research rather than personal experience. This means that historical fiction is one of the oldest genres, with a number of Chinese literary classics categorised as historical fiction. The Ancient Greek poets, too, enjoyed writing about the past, though many of their works are categorised more as epic poetry than historical fiction as they are only loosely based in historical fact. Nevertheless, this demonstrates the long standing canon of historical fiction on a global scale. As a result, this genre is ripe for escapism, taking readers away from the stresses of modernity to a time only connected to our own by the ever consistent chain of humanity.
Setting can vary widely among different historical novels. However, as discussed above, it is generally accepted that the novel must take place 50 years before the author is writing and should be based on research rather than the author’s own experience. Due to the sheer quantity of research often required to build a sense of authenticity in the historical location, settings are often the result of the author’s own specialisation and area of interest. Setting will also often determine plot elements and characters as all elements of the story must fit within the chosen historical setting.
Character archetypes can be as varied as setting in historical fiction, depending on time period and location. However, characters are often derived from real historical figures. Whether they were royalty, nobility, merchants or soldiers, much of historical fiction draws on records of real people. This provides a template for the plot of the novel, often recounting real events in their lives with a fictional flourish. The extent to which this follows historical fact often depends on how many of their records have survived, and therefore, how much we already know. Better documentation of an event or historical figure can offer more structure and detail to a story, whereas fewer records can allow for greater creative licence. Having to adhere to recorded history can make characters less prone to cliches in the hands of a historically dedicated author. However, authors still reconstruct these characters through the lens of modern society and their own personal interpretation, and have to make them marketable to a modern audience. As a result, historically-based characters are not immune to cliches.
Despite being works of fiction, a lot of research goes into historical novels. Accuracy is generally expected when detailing the food, dress, architecture and social conventions of the time. If a book is based on historical figures or events, research needs to be done into those aspects, even if the final product deviates in some ways. The result is that authors tend to write about areas they already have extensive knowledge of or experience in, and books take a long time to be written. Anthony Doeer’s All the Light We Cannot See took a decade to write, and Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series is the culmination of 50 years of research in the field. This means that historical novels can be used to learn a lot about life in those eras. However, fictionalised historical narratives should be taken with a grain of salt. It can be difficult to tell where the line between fact and fiction lies, and not all works are well-researched and accurate learning resources.
Whilst not universal, particularly with books focusing on more recent eras, many characters in the genre tend to be either royalty or incredibly wealthy. Think about how many historical fiction books chronicle the Tudors and Wars of the Roses. There are a number of reasons for this. Wealthy people tended to leave more records. They had the money for portraits, literacy education, regular correspondence, ink and paper to keep diaries, and, due to their wealth, kept detailed financial records. These records are often the basis or inspiration for historical fiction. Similarly, people of high status or political importance are more likely to be written about by others (ambassadors, political allies or enemies, etc.). As a result, there is simply more information about the powerful, and therefore, more basis to form the foundations of a novel. In addition, it is far easier for writers to romanticise the lives of the wealthy, with their beautiful dresses, political intrigue, castles and palaces, than the lives of the poor who were often subject to worse conditions, disease and hard labour. This can create unrealistic perspectives for readers about what life was actually like for the average person in a historical period, and can also lead to writers missing out on potentially great stories. As much as I love a good old court intrigue plot, the popularity of some periods over others (cough Tudor England cough) can get repetitive. Where’s my Ancient Persia historical fiction novel?
In order to create a comfortable story and appealing aesthetic, historical fiction often (though not always) leans into the romanticisation of the past. This is closely linked to the predominance of wealthy and royal characters. Writers will often gloss over the everyday lives of working people and bad living conditions in order to create an aesthetic that readers will be inspired by. This is particularly prominent in stories that focus on European royal families, who exist in these stories quite insularly from ordinary people. This trope in itself is not necessarily negative. It may potentially lead to an over-romanticisation of the past and ignorance regarding real conditions, but as long as readers interact critically and understand these novels are works of fiction and not an accurate depiction of all life at that time, it can remain a nice aesthetic. This, in fact, contributes largely to the escapist appeal of historical fiction. Whilst these highly-romanticised worlds are not necessarily accurate, Readers are able to temporarily believe in a world where disease was not so rife and poverty not so common.
One of the most interesting (and controversial) aspects of historical fiction is how an author balances the historical and the fictional. Because the genre is so broad, completely fictional stories (fictional characters, fictional events) that happen to take place in a historical setting are often placed in the same category as novels that follow, event for event, a historical figure’s life, only fictionalising specific interactions and dialogue. There is nothing inherently better or worse about either approach, but it can get confusing. What about when a character is a real historical figure but all of the events are fictional (The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel)? Or the events are true but the participants are made up (Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables)? Is an author obligated to stay true to a historical figure? When does the work of fiction become a misrepresentation of the real figures or events? There are no easy answers to these questions, and different people will approach the challenge in different ways. This highlights the importance of the author making their intentions known. Many historical fiction books will have an author’s note at the end clarifying the truth or falsity of what was represented within the novel. These are a great way to clear up speculation and start discussions about what we don’t or can’t know. Issues arise when novels which lack historical basis are presented as fact.
One of my biggest frustrations with historical fiction is when authors take real historical figures and project a black-and-white modern morality onto them based on their own opinions. Good or evil. Hero or tyrant. Perfectly kind or irredeemably cruel. This can be fine in other genres, where characters are pure fiction. But in historical fiction, these characters were real people and people are, by definition, nuanced creatures. More often than not, this penchant for simplistic representation leaves another story untold, reduces the depth of the character and reduces our own history to a mere caricature in the eyes of modernity. As much as I love Philippa Gregory’s books, I am endlessly frustrated by her descriptions of ‘tyrants’ when I know there is more to the story, and a more nuanced characterisation has the potential for more interesting plot, motives and relationships between characters. Similarly, depicting historical figures as flawless saints reduces their depth of character and deprives them of the flaws which make them human.
This is only made worse by the frequency with which these judgements fall along racial lines. This was particularly evident in the movie 300, which depicted the historical Persian King, Xerxes, as a nearly-demonic evil force. This erases in the public mind all his more positive achievements as a historical king and instead pits him as the ‘evil Eastern invader’ against the ‘purity of the West’.
However, in books such as In the Shadow of a Queen and much of Alison Weir’s work, this is less common. Instead, these writers rely on the nuance and the complexities of character’s motivations to tell the story. This results in much more real characters and, in my opinion, a more interesting plot.
As such, when assigning moral traits to historical characters, it should be remembered that these were real people with nuanced lives, values and experiences.
This is one of the earliest historical fiction novels, published in the 16th century and recounting events from the 7th century AD. It follows the journeys of the monk Tang Sanzang through China and India in a quest for Buddhist Scriptures. Though a difficult read, it is a great example of early historical fiction.
This is an anonymously published French novel from the late 17th century, which takes place a century earlier in the French Court. Events and characters conform to historical records of that time with great precision, indicating a depth of research. It is also the novel which is said to have sparked the popularity of historical fiction in the Western literary world.
Each book in this six-part series centres one of Henry VIII’s six wives, acting as a fictional biography. Alison Weir is a leading historian in Tudor history, and so these books tend to be incredibly well researched and fairly historically accurate, though some liberties are taken. The characters tend to have some nuance and are almost entirely based on historical figures. For an entertaining and relatively accurate historical fiction series, this is an excellent option.
The Song of Achilles is an Ancient Greek retelling of the Trojan War, which focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. It is a heart-wrenching story that leans into many conventions of historical fiction whilst making it interesting and accessible to modern readers. It does straddle the line between historical fiction and pure fantasy, but this genre fluidity makes it perfect reading for anyone interested in trying out historical fiction, as well as readers already familiar with the genre.
All the Light We Cannot See is a WWII novel that tells two intertwining stories – that of a blind French girl and a German orphan. It uses entirely fictional characters in a very well-researched, real setting, navigating historical events. The depth of research and nuance of characters creates a sense of groundedness and realism which is crucial to the impact of the themes within the novel.
This series, most well known for the novel/movie The Other Boleyn Girl, follows a number of historical characters throughout the Wars of the Roses and Tudor eras. It is an incredibly engaging series but tends to fall into the trap of over-simplifying real figures, and it leans on some historical inaccuracies for plot whilst implying that those events could be true. If you’re reading solely for entertainment purposes, this is a great series, but it should not be trusted to be informative.
This novel is based on the life of Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, and the way ambition and romance are balanced in the life of English royalty. The most notable aspect of this book is its highly nuanced characterisation, with each character given myriad motivations and values, emphasising the reality of their lives and experiences. Check out LitSoc’s full review here.
She Who Became the Sun is a fantastical re-imagining of the 14th Century Ming Dynasty’s rise to power. This book is an interesting exploration of gender, sexuality and identity, which is not often seen in the historical fiction genre, and is balanced well with engaging plot and intriguing characters. For something a little different that still falls within the genre, this is a great option.
The Book Thief is a WWII novel that follows a German orphan who steals books from book-burnings in order to learn how to read. Narrated by Death, this novel is highly emotional and encourages readers to understand the true horrors of war. If you want to understand the impacts of history on the individual, this is a wonderful novel (but be prepared to cry).
If you love historical fiction, check out this playlist on Spotify!