Next week, between 5 and 7 September, I’ll be attending the Historical Novel Society’s conference in London.
So, for this post, I thought I’d take a look at a list of historical fiction books, from Abe Books.
In her introduction to 50 Essential Historical novels, Lily King admits that ‘The books listed below include examples of historical fiction by the strictest of definitions, as well as those that fudge the rules a bit – or a lot.’
Of the list of 50, I’ve only read three:
- ‘I Claudius’ by Robert Graves
- ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco
- ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens
Although I haven’t read the following on the list ‘Waverley’, ‘The Night Watch’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, I have read other historical novels by their respective authors, Sir Walter Scott, Sarah Waters, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel.
Those on the list which do appeal to me, and will be added to my ever expanding ‘to read’ list are:
- ‘The Painted Girls’ by Cathy Marie Buchanan (a fictional account of the life of the model for Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen)
- ‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (story of the decline of a Sicilian aristocratic family during the Risorgimento)
- ‘Romola’ by George Eliot (set in 15th century Florence)
- ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett (about the building of a cathedral in 12th century England).
In the Abe Books piece Lily King also defends the historical novel:
No longer dismissed as bodice-rippers rife with anachronisms or dreary textbooks dressed up in barely discernible plots, historical fiction is gaining the respect of critics and readers alike, regularly appearing on shortlists for major literary awards and on bestseller lists around the world.
Though try telling that to Burial Rites author, whose first novel (set in 1820s Iceland) has won several literary prizes and shortlisted for both The 2013 Guardian First Book Award and The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.
In an interview Hannah Kent stated:
‘I really hate the term “historical novel” – it reminds me of bodice rippers.’
[Interview in Metro 4 September 2013]
I don’t know whether Hannah’s dislike of the term ‘historical novel’ and her equating it with ‘bodice ripper’ is a reflection of the state of the genre in Australia, where she comes from, or not…
Her next novel is set in 1820s Ireland.
I was pleased to discover another interview with Hannah Kent in which her hatred of the term historical fiction is put into a much better context:
Regarding historical accuracy, Kent is particular, preferring the term ‘speculative biography’ rather than historical fiction when describing her work.
[Walking the tightrope by Elizabeth Jane Corbett in Historical Novels Review Issue 69, August 2014 p.12.]