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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?

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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 Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatterthat its heroine lives in 14th-century Norway. The historical environment is as central to the novel's overall tone and feel as the protagonist. The same can be said for all the landmarks of the genre, from Sir Walter Scott—who virtually invented historical fiction in the early 19th century—to Patrick O'Brian's extraordinary series of novels about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

People tend to enjoy reading about history through the medium of fictional narrative, and as a result the historical novel is often dismissed by high-minded critics as mere "genre fiction" without serious literary merit. This can lead the defenders of certain books to say that they're not really historical fiction at all, but rather fiction that merely happens to be set in the past—see the comments on War and Peaceand Middlemarch above. Such debates are pretty frequent, but occupied as they must be with drawing impossibly precise lines based on extremely vague categories, are also fruitless. (Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon—or Toni Morrison's Beloved—is or is not a historical novel. Discuss.)

Despite the dismissals, a look at the history of candidates for major English-language literary prizes—the Pulitzers and National Book Awards in the United States, the Man Booker prize in the UK—suggests that historical fiction, or work plausibly described as such, has been rising in critical estimation. In fact, the chief controversy surrounding the 2009 Booker shortlist was the dominance of books set in the past: A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book (England in the late Victorian era through World War I), Simon Mawer's The Glass Room (Czechoslovakia in the 1930s), Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger (England in the austerity years after World War II), Adam Foulds' The Quickening Maze (Victorian England, in a story featuring the poets Tennyson and John Clare), and—the eventual winner—Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (England in the time of Henry VIII). The only book on the shortlist that might be exempted from the "historical" moniker is J. M. Coetzee's autobiographical novel, or fictionalized memoir, Summertime, and even that book is set in the 1970s and takes some pains to evoke the ambiance of that era.

A number of critics suggested that this list marked a preference for the accessible and the safe, with the clear—though unexamined—assumptions that accessibility is the enemy of literary excellence and the past is innocuous territory to explore. In fact, neither of these assumptions could survive much scrutiny. In particular, the very striving to understand the past through fiction—taking the risk that the lives of people who breathed long ago, and in societies quite alien to our own in many ways, can be rendered through their own eyes and in their own tongues—is a brave thing to do. And for the author determined to avoid costume drama, an extremely difficult task to set oneself. Let us explore these matters through an investigation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

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