The Fictional Past: Historical Novels and Their Uses

Rachel McGlone

Historic Fiction or Fictional History?

David Starkey’s insistence that historical fiction writers should “stay off [his] patch” is traditionally considered the opinion of most academic historians. The historical novel is seen as lesser or lacking, a poor man’s substitute to the academic discipline, often deemed poorly-researched lies or plots of modern sensibilities trussed up in period costume. Yet this is an incredibly narrow brush to tar an entire genre - while yes, there is always a spectrum to how detailed or authentic a novel is, we cannot dismiss the industry outright. Indeed, there are many benefits to historical fiction reading, to both historians and the general public. For one, historical fiction is not a monolith, it is comprised of numerous subgenres. From literary fiction like Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet,’ to historical crime like Susanna Gregory’s ‘A Plague on Both Your Houses,’ to historical romance like Julia Quinn’s ‘Bridgerton’ series. To any reader, bulking these three diverse novels into one category would be baffling - they appeal to vastly different audiences and are incredibly varied in their level of historical detail. Another distinction to be made is the difference between Historic Fiction and Fictional History. Typically, they are both compiled under the umbrella genre of “Historical Fiction” as an accumulation is easier for people to define - anything set in the past, into the same bucket they go. The theory goes that Historic Fiction follows events and people from the past, think ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel, an intricate account of the life of Thomas Cromwell; whereas Fictional History is based solely in the time period, with invented characters such as ‘The Wolf Den’ by Elodie Harper. Neither is more inherently good or bad than the other, but they should be considered as different.
The Fictional Past: Historical Novels and Their Uses
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Humanising the Past

With both ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘The Wolf Den,’ while on the surface wildly different, the goal was to explore the past through the perspective of a single character. Both Amina and Thomas are politically astute and living in a situation where a mistake could lead to destitution or death. They give the reader a personal window into the society of the time - it’s all very well to consume facts and figures about a time period, but it can often still seem unfathomably distant. Historical fiction humanises the past, making it more relatable. The reader empathises with the characters, they seem more real because they have been given thoughts and feelings that are entirely from the author's imagination. That step of getting into the mind of a character from the past can bridge the gap between cold consideration and an empathetic understanding of history. Historical fiction is also an excellent tool to help introduce individuals to the past, especially children. It is through fiction that most first experience the concept of ‘then’ and ‘now,’ the distinction of experiences before they were alive. These abstract thought processes start earlier than one would think, and are an important step in a child’s development. Historical fiction can play an informal part in their learning, introducing them to different time periods, cultures, and perspectives unconsciously. It is even useful to adults, where they can approach a historical novel without needing to know or understand the entire context, and acting as a springboard to further research if it does pique their fancy.
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Beyond the Surface

Fiction can also take the readers to places that documented history cannot, exploring what is called ‘Hidden Histories.’ These imagine the stories and lives of individuals where there is either limited or no evidence at all to their lives. These types of stories are typically about women or the poor, the illiterate and those deemed secondary by society. The people unspoken for, even in the margins of chronicles. There has been a huge surge in output related to hidden histories in fiction, moving away from the nobility and turning the attention to ordinary members of society. ‘The Dance Tree’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is based on a real event, the dancing plague of 1518, but expands beyond the documented sources of the incident. Millwood Hargrave infuses the event with a life and a soul in her fictional history, offering an insight in a way that even an academic historian cannot. The sources are scarce, and even contemporaries had little idea of what caused the plague. Historians don’t stand a chance - and that is where the novelist steps in. Historical fiction does an overwhelming amount of good in raising the profile of history in public consciousness. It is through fiction that many are introduced to the concept of the past as children, and is often a gateway to further historical interests as an adult. All it takes is one good book to then slip into a whole world of books, museums, historic houses, documentaries, even films. All aspects of the heritage industry are interconnected and it would be to the detriment of the whole to ignore any part of it.
The Fictional Past: Historical Novels and Their Uses
Clockwise from top left: Hamnet, Wolf Hall, The Dance Tree, The Wolf Den
The Fictional Past: Historical Novels and Their Uses

Rachel McGlone

Rachel McGlone studied History at the University of York, both at undergraduate level – focusing on Medieval England and Europe – and for an MA in Public History. Her current research focuses on textile history and its ability to tell grassroots stories, as well as its generational links to the past. She has previously contributed to the online magazines “The Historians” and “Periodically Dramatic,” and has written for the University of Cambridge’s “Doing History in Public” project.
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