What is historical fiction?

Sunday, April 28, 2013


This past week, I was contacted by a student working on her dissertation on definitions of historical fiction. She very kindly asked for mine since I'm a historical fiction blogger and I wrote back to her with the following definition: 

"For my definition of historical fiction, I've always thought that authors should be writing about events that have passed out of living memory and that have stopped influencing the immediate present. For example, I would consider fiction set in the 1940s (and I suppose the 1950s) to be historical fiction. Someone born in the middle of WWII would already be 70 years old but would not have any memories of that time - so it's safe to say it is passing out of living memory. I also think there's something to be said for a time having noticeably different customs and behavior from our own. The 1940s and 50s are very different in terms of behavior and values than say the mid to late 1960s that bear more resemblance to our own time.

I run into trouble when I start to think about the difference between "genre" historical fiction and "literary" historical fiction. I would say that the biggest difference is character. Take two recent novels (again) about WWII. "Mr. Churchill's Secretary" and "Life to Life" are both set in London during the Blitz. "Mr. Churchill's Secretary" is definitely thought of as historical fiction - I think this has a great deal to do with the fact that the setting is integral to the interest/enjoyment of the novel. You read it because you want to experience what life was like in London during WWII and see the character interact with famous historical figures. "Life after Life" also follows a young woman during the Blitz but she doesn't interact with any famous people and the purpose of the novel is to explore deeper questions about the meaning of life. So in a sense it could be set during any time of war and danger to civilians. 

As for all of those time-slip and split time period novels that have come out lately, I consider them historical fiction since the story line set in the past is integral to the overall plot and usually involves some character attempting to understand the past. Very meta! :)

So to sum up, historical fiction is fiction set in a time that has passed out of living memory and whose purpose is to give some sense of the larger historical undercurrents and/or personalities of the time."

Looking back at my answer, I can see that it's not perfect. For example, under my definition you could write a historical novel that's both "genre" and "literary." 

I would love to hear from other bloggers who were contacted or anyone else who wants to put in their two cents!

Author Event: John Boyne's The House of Special Purpose

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I'm lucky enough to live within walking distance of one of the country's premiere independent bookstores: the Washington, DC area's legendary Politics and Prose. Last night John Boyne appeared at Politics and Prose to speak about his newest novel, partially set during the reign of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia.

I read House a year and a half ago after finding it in another legendary bookstore: the now-closed The Village Voice in Paris. I have fond memories of carrying the book around with me in Paris and reading almost the entire thing on my flight back home. Now the book is finally coming out here in the U.S. 

Boyne was an excellent speaker. He read a passage about the Tsarevich Alexei that had remained with me even though many months have passed since I'd read it. The passage has a beautiful tension and does an excellent job of capturing Tsarina Alexandra's voice and personality.

Boyne said that he first encountered the Romanovs' story at the age of 14 while staying with his grandfather. He dug up a copy of Robert Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra" and was enthralled by their story. "I didn't expect the assassination of the Romanovs," Boyne said, "I didn't see it coming." That early experience stayed with Boyne and he said he knew as a young writer that he would someday end up writing about the Romanovs.

I thought about asking a question about the development of the book's unique structure but worried he would be forced to answer in a way that gives away too much of the story. The novel starts in 1915 and moves forward to 1918. In alternating chapters, we follow the same lead character starting in 1981 and moving backwards through the past 60 years. I don't think it's giving too much away to say that the two story lines eventually meet in 1918.

Boyne did say that it was "a difficult book to write." He wrote it in order - writing straight through the chapters that alternate between the St. Petersburg storyline and the London/Paris storyline. Boyne said that he wanted to see if "an unusual structure like that could work" and I think he succeeded admirably.

I ended up asking Boyne if it was overwhelming - given the amount of material on the Romanovs - to incorporate his research into the novel.

He said that he didn't overload himself with research. According to Boyne, when he first starts on a writing project he doesn't start his research by reading non-fiction, he reads fiction contemporary to the time he's writing about to get a feel for the language and manners of that era. He noted that since his protagonist was fictional, the world was already "corrupted" and that he was already making things up. As a writer, he said "you know the moment when you could get overloaded [with research]." That's when he "plows through the first draft just to get it down and then goes back afterwards to look at the specifics."

It was also fascinating to hear that he traveled to St. Petersburg and wrote the sections of the book set in the city in the Winter Palace itself! I can't imagine what it must have been like to bring a laptop into the palace and sit down to write the Romanovs' story.

I very much enjoyed the event and encourage readers to pick up The House of Special Purpose now that it's available here in the United States. Politics and Prose films author events and posts them on their website. This event is not yet up but you can check back here to watch and listen to my question! 

Review: The Ashford Affair

Sunday, April 21, 2013

As a lawyer in a large Manhattan firm, just shy of making partner, Clementine Evans has finally achieved almost everything she’s been working towards—but now she’s not sure it’s enough. Her long hours have led to a broken engagement and, suddenly single at thirty-four, she feels her messy life crumbling around her. But when the family gathers for her grandmother Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday, a relative lets slip hints about a long-buried family secret, leading Clemmie on a journey into the past that could change everything. 

Growing up at Ashford Park in the early twentieth century, Addie has never quite belonged. When her parents passed away, she was taken into the grand English house by her aristocratic aunt and uncle, and raised side-by-side with her beautiful and outgoing cousin, Bea. Though they are as different as night and day, Addie and Bea are closer than sisters, through relationships and challenges, and a war that changes the face of Europe irrevocably. But what happens when something finally comes along that can’t be shared? When the love of sisterhood is tested by a bond that’s even stronger? (from Amazon)

Like most "alternating timeline/present-day woman investigates secret from the past/family saga with a couple of love stories thrown in for good measure" novels, I both very much enjoyed The Ashford Affair and found it fairly predictable and too neatly tied up at the end. 

Unlike most alternating timeline novels, I enjoyed both lead characters - Addie from the early 20th century and Clemmie from the end of the 20th century. I never found myself racing through one's portion of the book to get to the other. The relationships between characters were well-developed - particularly the crucial centerpiece of the novel, the relationship between Addie and Bea. And while I thought the lead romantic interest in the early 20th century portion was underdeveloped, I did enjoy the nuanced portraits of the women and how Willig managed to show the impact their social circumstances had on the formation of their characters. 

That said, Ashford doesn't have the sweeping, grand feel I was expecting from a novel billed as a Downton Abbey cast of characters meets Out of Africa. In fact, the parts that do take place in Kenya seemed to go by quite quickly and I never had a strong sense of place when the characters were in Africa. The late 20th century story tied up in a way that you can see coming from the very first chapter. 

Oddly enough, none of these quibbles really distracted me from the pleasure of reading the book and I got through it in a matter of a few reading sessions. I think most readers will find a lot to enjoy as The Ashford Affair - it's the kind of guilty-pleasure, "know what you're in for" kind of read that can be a lot of fun. 

Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn

Saturday, April 13, 2013


Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? Was she the flaxen-haired martyr of Romantic paintings or the raven-haired seductress of twenty-first-century portrayals? (Answer: neither.) And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships.

Bordo also shows how generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers imagined and re-imagined Anne: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto “mean girl,” feminist icon, and everything in between. In this lively book, Bordo steps off the well-trodden paths of Tudoriana to expertly tease out the human being behind the competing mythologies. (from Amazon)

I love books that are just as much historiography as history; sometimes it can be just as interesting to dissect the "known" story and how it came to be as telling the story itself. This may seem an odd preference from a blogger of historical fiction but it's actually what a lot of good historical fiction does. It removes the stereotypes, the images from movies and TV and (yes) the bad historical novels. It reminds you that these characters didn't always exist in books - they were real people. This can be surprisingly hard to remember when you've read a dozen novels about Henry VIII.

I've been reading about Anne Boleyn for two decades now and thought that I couldn't possibly come across a book that would make me consider her in a new way. Susan Bordo's Boleyn did the impossible - it made me excited to read about the Tudors again while reminding me to approach history and historical fiction with curiosity and a questioning mind.

Boleyn is divided into three parts: the first part is a kind of mini-biography of Boleyn but with the very clear purpose of examining the known sources on her life and evaluating their veracity. The fascinating final chapter  in the section asks "Henry: How Could He Do It?" This is the first biography of Anne (at least that I can remember) that asks such a question and doesn't treat her death on the scaffold as the inevitable end point of her life.

The second part looks at how Anne's death laid the groundwork for subsequent centuries' making and re-making of her image. It's incredible to see how many different faces the historical Anne acquired in the progression towards the present day. The third part is a treat for historical fiction fans, looking at the last fifty years of portrayals of Anne, from the well-meaning historical inaccuracies of Anne of a Thousand Days to the travesty of The Other Boleyn Girl. Bordo's interview with actress Natalie Dormer actually made me appreciate Showtime's The Tudors in a new way.

I have only one small problem with this book and that's the strange pseudo-computer generated cover. The book deserves much better and I hope it won't dissuade readers from picking it up.

Readers looking for similar books can try out A Magnificent Obsession; Queen of Fashion and The Resurrection of the Romanovs. All three books in varying ways either challenge the history we thought we knew about famous figures such as Queen Victoria, Marie Antionette and Grand Duchess Anastasia or present one aspect of their life in such a new way, it makes us reconsider their entire lives from a new perspective.

Bordo's book has every right to stand amongst these finely written works of history and I hope every historical fiction fan has an opportunity to read her work.

Review: Eighty Days

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever.
The two women were a study in contrasts. Nellie Bly was a scrappy, hard-driving, ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania coal country who sought out the most sensational news stories, often going undercover to expose social injustice. Genteel and elegant, Elizabeth Bisland had been born into an aristocratic Southern family, preferred novels and poetry to newspapers, and was widely referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Both women, though, were talented writers who had carved out successful careers in the hypercompetitive, male-dominated world of big-city newspapers. Eighty Days brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat. (from Amazon)

19th century history. World travel. Female journalists. I knew I couldn't go wrong with this brand-new non-fiction release that combines three of my favorite topics to read about. Eighty Days more than fulfilled my expectations - improbably weaving a fast-paced, in-depth and surprisingly moving story out of what could have been a dry recitation of train and steam ship schedules.

As a kid, I loved re-reading my Abridged Classics version of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. I was seven or eight years old and it was the first time I can recall reading about India and London and a dozen other exotic places. We've lost a lot of that wonder in today's world but in Bly and Bisland's time, Verne's book was an intriguing fantasy. No one had ever circled the world in that short of a time.

Goodman captures that sense of wonder amongst the general populace and shows how the race was conducted at a unique moment in human history, when advances in steams ships and cross-continental railroads made extensive travel possible and completely changed the way people perceived time and distance. In the age of 14-hour non-stop plane flights, it can be hard to wrap around how revolutionary it was for a person to circle the world in less than eighty days. Good man is quite good at showing the excitement and curiosity surrounding the race.

A large part of the success of the book is also due to Goodman's strengths as a writer. He's very good at richly describing the cities and seascapes the two journalists saw on their trip. I could see the fishing town by the bay that was Hong Kong in 1889 and French countryside not yet blighted by two world wars and the endlessness of the Pacific Ocean.

You can hardly make it through journalism school without learning about Nellie Bly - but until now, I had no idea that in the 19th century she was most known for her race around the world. I resisted every urge to look up the result of the race online before reaching the conclusion of the book and found myself rooting instead for Elizabeth Bisland, who seemed to appreciate the opportunity the race gave her to see the world as opposed to the frantic competitiveness of Nellie Bly.

Some reviews have faulted Goodman for his excessive detail and side-tracks into various aspects of 19th century history that relate to the trip. I don't see why this is a problem - I read historical narratives so that I can be carried away by an engaging story while deepening my knowledge of that moment in history. After reading Eighty Days, I know a bit more about Chinese immigrants, the competitive world of New York City newspapers, how coal powered steamships and the origin of the word rickshaw.

I was surprised by the moving epilogue and the way it placed the race in the larger context of Bly and Bisland's lives and the burgeoning celebrity culture in late 19th century America. I would strongly encourage fans of historical fiction to pick up this nonfiction narrative. The vivid personalities, the quality of the writing and the excitement of the race make for a story as exciting as any novel.