I remember a time, about 6 months ago when I was busily beavering away in my least favourite section (crime and thriller) when one of my colleagues approached:
‘Oi, Victoria! You read those cr***y historical romance-y books don’t you?’
My initial reaction was as follows, ‘How very dare you’ then to launch into a quiet yet passionate lecture about how what I read is A. Not romance, and B. By no means ‘cr***y’ – see my next post where I tell you what excellent taste I have.
Anyway, then we reached the customer my colleague was endeavouring to assist, and I promptly shut up. You see, my outburst came from a place of hard earned adoration for a genre that I demand be taken seriously. I reckon historical fiction gets a bad rap and I’m not going to stand for it any longer!
Is Philippa Gregory a card-carrying, jacket wearing member of the Literatti?
Are her Cousin’s War books the height of sophisticated literature, churning up philosophical debate about the point of man and bound to win the next Man Booker Prize?
But I tell you what does achieve all this and more, Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies. Mantel’s Cromwell series (soon to be a trilogy, thank you oh benevolent and generous book gods) are two of my absolute favourites, and by that I mean, bury me with them when I shuffle off this mortal coil kind of favourite reads, but as an author, she’s a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to celebrated historical fiction.
So why is the genre so often dismissed?
My prevailing theories are twofold,
- Mills and Boon. Most of which goes wrong in life we can probably trace back to Mills and Boon in some way. Seriously, it’s like the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon game (look it up) or even better, think of each M&B as a rat, yeah, you’re never more than 40ft away from one at any given moment.
Ok maybe I’m being a tad extreme, but when you too have to shelve several hundred of ‘The Outlaw-Sheik-Spy-Doctor-Billionaire’s Twin Babies Mountain Rescue’, you’d be kind of over them too. What I’m trying to say is that, when it comes to historical fiction, I believe a lot of people still tend to think the term synonymous with ‘Bodice rippers’ (cringe) from the 80’s, you know the kind, Fabio’s chest is usually out and his hair’s blowing majestically on the cover. These books have been aggressively pushed towards women who, to use my favourite phrase du jour, are here for a good time, not a long time. Yup, these books are quantity over quality for sure and it feels like we have a saturated market of ‘chick-lit’ which screams ‘I am woman! Don’t take me or my artistic endeavours seriously!’
I have to admit that I too am guilty of this stereotyping, after all, when my colleague insinuated I read historical ‘romance’ my hackles shot straight up in offence, but why?
- It’s a problem in literature, we readers tend to be…snobs. There I said it. This assumption that historical fiction titles are inherently feminine implies that they’re also not ‘literature’. Yes these stories are usually somewhat (forgive my parlance) ‘sexed up’ but honestly what isn’t? If we let Trainspotting into the club of serious adult fiction, why isn’t a Philippa Gregory seen the same way? Why can every bloke in his early 20’s have the Trainspotting movie poster (you know the one) plastered all over his beige, Argos-bedecked, single bedroom flat, but I can’t fawn over The Other Boleyn Girl in my spare time without being thought an history-ignorant air-head?
I’m aware I’m ranting now, I just really love the Tudors ok?
What I’m trying to say is, when we read what Historian John Guy has to offer and then what Philippa Gregory has given us, what really is the difference?
Yes ok but if I wanted cold hard fact, I’d go and read a non-fic book (which I do, I love the history section just as much as the adult fiction for your information), what is injected into fiction however is realism, life, personality. We know Henry VIII lived, we know he had 6 wives and had a super gross ulcerated calf, but what about the human emotions involved in his infamous story?
By injecting the author’s (usually well-researched) opinion of a historical figure’s personality into their text, they are breathing life into a thing long dead, or a thing that has been made long dead by hours of dull and dry lectures (again, I love a dull and dry lecture but that’s quite literally irrelevant).
My absolute favourite example of this is the aforementioned Wolf Hall series (Seriously, go and borrow it, it’s in my top 5 greatest novels of all time, and did I mention I have excellent taste?) It’s what made Hilary Mantel win all those blooming prizes after all, she wrote the protagonist Thomas Cromwell as a man with a vivid past, and a heart, and as someone we could relate to which is ultimately an author’s goal right? If a book can make you empathise with its characters, it has come alive for you…and isn’t that the point of reading?! It makes me think of that Dumbledore quote in the HP series (everyone who knows me just rolled their eyes so hard at what a Harry Potter embarrassment I am)
‘Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’ – That Dumbledore, great guy. (J.K. Rowling,
So there you have it, my passionate, garbled assault on all those who scoff in the face of historical fiction. Have I changed your mind? Hopefully. Will my speech be winning any prizes? Definitely not… but did I mention Wolf Hall?
So there we have it. Historical Fiction restored to its rightful place at the front of the shelf. What do you think – are you a fan of this genre? Do you think we now need In Defence of Mills and Boon?