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Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt and Co., 2009
560 pp., $35.00

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Alan Jacobs


Past Present

What is historical fiction?

Editor's Note: This piece from the archives was published in our May/June 2010 issue.

What counts as historical fiction? The question is more difficult than it might appear. Few people think of War and Peace as a historical novel, even though it concerns events of great importance that occurred half-a-century before Tolstoy wrote. Most readers of the book seem to have the sense that Tolstoy is not nearly as interested in conveying the textures of life in that particular time and place—Russia around the time of Napoleon's invasion in 1812—as he is in exploring, with great sensitivity, how those events impinge on the consciousness of his characters. Much the same could be said of George Eliot's Middlemarch, set during the Reform Bill debates that occupied the English public's attention four decades before Eliot began her story. Though Reform provides a certain political and social context for the story, relatively few of those who have cared deeply about the fortunes of Dorothea Brooke have felt the need to master the intricacies of that moment in English history.

We tend, rather, to use the term "historical fiction" when we feel that a primary goal of the author is to render, with a certain richness of detail, an environment from the past. This is not to imply that such books will not be concerned with, say, character development, but that great pains will be—or should be—taken to situate such development in a socio-cultural context that is clearly different than our own. (Thus the most common accusation made against a historical novel is anachronism: a failure to realize the full otherness of the era in which it is set, or a tendency to enact mere costume drama, in which otherwise perfectly modern people simply wear period clothing and travel on ships instead of airplanes.) If it does not matter much to readers that Dorothea Brooke's story begins around 1830 instead of 1870, it matters very much to readers of ...

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