Danny Millum: historical fiction opinion piece

OPINION PIECE

Really good historical novels convince you that you’ve gained a genuine insight into the period they’re set in, probably dangerously so. Fascinating detail, gripping plot and vivid characters sell you a version of history which is no more ‘true’ than any other – it’s just more memorable so it sticks in your head. In fact I reckon the more interesting, the less realistic. Much of life for most people through the ages has been sitting around in the mud eating turnips, an unpleasant series of banalities understandably omitted from most successful historical fiction.

That curmudgeonly proviso out of the way, the book of this sort I really enjoyed in the last couple of years was The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. As ever, it doesn’t take long before nearly all the details of a novel completely fade from memory. I can remember some pottery, suffragettes, writers, the odd trip to Germany and some incest I think (unless that’s just come straight out of my own subconscious). I was going to look it up, but then I thought, conveniently in terms of not having to bother doing any research, that that would defeat the point. The reason I’m recommending the book is OBVIOUSLY not all the stuff I’ve forgotten, but the bits that remained. It’s set in late-Victorian / Edwardian England which is portrayed as a period open with possibilities rather than as naïve-golden age that is descending inevitably towards war. The characters are both extraordinarily modern in terms of the many progressive ideas being expressed, and lifestyles led, in the artists’ colony many of the characters inhabit, and yet unknowingly locked into their time and place, governed by restrictions of class and gender that they, trapped inside them, can only begin to dimly countenance. I guess this is what makes it good – regardless of how accurate it is in terms of the history of pre-WW1 England, it makes you look at your own time in this way, and wonder what invisible constraints of convention and thinking will appear risible to those looking back from the 22nd century. If they bother at all, that is….

Danny Millum is Deputy Editor for Reviews in History and IHR Digital/Publications Editorial Assistant (web)

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About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.

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