Are Historical Novels Worth Reading?

For about a year now I have been listening to, and enjoying, the Living History Podcast. They are produced by a couple of re-enactors/living historians from the East Coast. The podcasts have been going for a couple of years so there are a few old ones to listen to.

It was during one of these older podcasts when Stephen and Alena were discussing the relative merits of historical fiction that something I have always been struggling with resurfaced: are historical novels really worth reading?

During the podcast Stephen quoted a PBS interview of Bernard Cornwell during which Cornwell discusses the Afterwards that are to be found at the end of his novels and a novelist’s responsibility to history.

I think those afterwords are absolutely necessary, because I am not an historian; I am a storyteller. Whenever the demands of the story clash with the dictate of real history, the story is going to win, because my job is to entertain; it’s not to educate. But I do understand that for many people, as it was for me when I was young, historical novels are a gateway to history; and they will persuade people, I hope, to go on to read the real history. I think that once you finish a book, it’s incumbent upon the historical novelist to tell people where he changed history and maybe why; and also where they can go to discover more about the period. So, yes, I do think that my job is to serve history and to serve historians — but to do it by doing a song and dance.

Firstly, I have to admit that Bernard Cornwell is one of my favourite authors. I have read with great delight every novel that he has written. His Sharpe series got me hooked. Currently I am waiting for the latest novel in his Saxon Stories series to be published.

Secondly, I have to admit that historical fiction is my guilty pleasure; it’s about all that I read. It was for this reason that the podcast resonated with me. I was reminded of a blog post that I had come across in which the author decries historical fiction.

In her post ‘Why I no longer read historic fiction’, Magistra et Mater states that although she had done so in the past, she finds that now she no longer finds pleasure in reading historical fiction. Her reasoning for this is that the anachronisms in dialogue and social attitudes gets in the way of her suspension of disbelief. This is more than likely a common issue with people who, having spent so much time researching a specific topic/area, are too close to or too well versed on the subject matter to enjoy the novel. The former occurred for me when I picked up Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste.

The problem for me was that Captain Alatriste (this is the novel’s main character in case you hadn’t realized) is a Spanish soldier fighting in the Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War. As such he is, at least in my eyes, one of the ‘bad guys’.

Perhaps a little clarification is in order. I have spent the past few years researching the Eighty Years’ War from the Dutch point of view. In light of this I tend to view anything Spanish in the late 16th- and early 17th-century as being ‘bad’. This made reading the novel awkward especially when a character would expound on the Dutch or the Netherlands in a derogatory manner. I was able to get around my bias however, and found the series somewhat enjoyable. The movie was pretty good as well.

As for anachronistic dialogue (i.e. Modern English), I can usually get beyond this by reminding myself that this is what it would sound like in my head if I were to read historically accurate dialogue. Of course this assumes that I can understand Old English or such. What bothers me is when an author tries to make their dialogue sound ‘period’.

Bernard Knight, in the introductions to his Crowner John series of novels, explains that “any attempt to use ‘olde worlde’ dialogue in a historic novel of this period is as inaccurate as it is futile, for in late-twelfth-century Devon most people would be incomprehensible to us today.”

As Cornwell stated above, historical fiction is a gateway to more hardcore historic research for some. Perez-Reverte wrote his Captain Alatriste series because he was dissatisfied with the treatment of the Spanish Golden Age in his daughter’s school textbooks. I’ve even toyed with the idea of Napoleonic Re-enactment simply because I have enjoyed the Sharpe series so much.

In the end it simply comes down to this: read historical fiction to be entertained. If you want 100% accuracy then either pick up a textbook or go out and find a period novel. Tom Jones is as good today as it was in 1749.

What do you think? Is historical fiction worth reading or just too anachronistic for you? Leave a comment below.


Filed under Miscellaneous

2 responses to “Are Historical Novels Worth Reading?

  1. Ted

    After reading what you wrote about Alatriste (2006) with Viggo Mortensen I borrowed the DVD from the library. What a beautiful but boring movie. The sets and costumes were fantastic and I enjoyed playing “spot the painting” with the carefully crafted scenes throughout the film but the story was ridiculous. They clearly cobbled together scenes from multiple books but failed to create a coherent narrative. The good news is you can safely ignore the subtitles and enjoy pleasant music while admiring the pictures. This would make a fantastic coffee table book of early seventeenth century historical reenactment photos. It might also inspire me to seek out the books.

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