The end?

All good novels have an end; indeed the ending can make or break a reader’s enjoyment of an entire work. Academic histories however tend to avoid an ending; they see themselves as one point in a long line of books focused on that topic of research. I guess a virtual conference is somewhat similar to the historian’s task, at least more so than the novelist’s.

This tale (we hope) will continue. Although this is the end as far as our part of the story is concerned it is only the beginning of what we hope will become a valuable resource to novelists, historians and scholars of various interests. The Novel Approaches site will remain online for as long as wordpress (our domain host) will provide for it, as will the oppotunity to continue the discussion around these resources.

Those same resources will also appear on our other websites: the book reviews can also be found on Reviews in History; the lectures on History SPOT.  In addition we hope to bring some video highlights from the conference to you in the near future. So stay tuned!

All there remains for us to do then is to say a very big thank you to all of you who have participated in our virtual conference. The IHR Digital team, publications and event management very much hope that you enjoyed (and will continue to enjoy) your time here.

If you have enjoyed our conference then it might be worth noting that there is a Historical Novel Society Conference in the works for 2012.  The conference will take place at the University of Westminster (Regent Street site) on the 29th and 30th September.  As well as booksellers, agents and editors / publishers they are expecting the following authors (among others) – Bernard Cornwell, Elizabeth Chadwick, Sarah Dunant, Barbara Erskine, C.J. Sansom and Sarah Waters – plus the Napoleonic Association in full uniform!

Further details will appear on the Society’s website as the programme is finalized –

In the meantime if you would like to make a suggestion for future events (or to let us know what you thought about our virtual conference) please do so in the Suggestions section of this site or on our end of conference survey. We’d love to hear from you. Also don’t forget to let us know if you like the idea of a workshop on how to use historical research for writing fiction.

Best wishes



A History of historical fiction

Over the last month Dr Matt Phillpott has published on the IHR Digital blog a series of posts describing the results of his investigation into the history of historical fiction.  The idea was to provide a brief overview of the subject.

These have now been collated into a short online article which is now available as a pdf file.

A history of historical fiction PDF Copy

For access to each section as blog posts click the links below.

1. A Brief History of Historical Fiction Introduction

2. Theories of historical fiction

3. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – the first historical novel? Part One

4. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – the first historical novel? Part Two

5. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – the first historical novel? Part Three

6. Early French historical novelists

7. The first phase of Historical Novels: Don Carlos, Montpensier and The Princess of Cleves

8. The Nineteenth Century Historical Novel – An educative genre

9. The Nineteenth Century Historical Novel – Nationalism and Desire

10. Historical Fiction in the twentieth Century

11. The gendering of historical fiction Part One

12. The gendering of historical fiction Part Two

13. Postmodernism and historical fiction Part One

14. Postmodernism and historical fiction Part Two

15. Novel Approaches


Nun’s (not) on the run (Caroline Bowden)


Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy by K. J. P. Lowe
CUP: Cambridge, 2003; ISBN: 9780521621915; 454 pp.; Price: £83.00.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
London : Virago, 2009; ISBN 9781400063826; 432 pp.; Price: £8.99.

Reviewer: Caroline Bowden (Queen Mary, University of London)

The challenge in writing a comparative review of Kate Lowe’s fine study of early modern Italian convents Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture with Sarah Dunant’s gripping novel Sacred Hearts is to find ways of making sense of the experience of reading both beyond stating the obvious. They are both about the religious life ofwomen in a particular time (early modern) and in one country (Italy). They are both well worth reading for entirely different reasons, but I think few people (apart from this reviewer) are likely actively to enjoy reading both: most readers will, I suspect, choose to read one or the other. Having made a brief survey of online discussions of historical fiction, it is clear that there is a huge readership for historical fiction and some well-crafted reviews of historical novels of all periods. At the same time it seems to me that there is a degree of misapprehension among the contributors to these sites about the ways that historians work and write, with repeated emphasis on their opinion that historians research to ascertain the facts which they then write up in narratives. Probably with the recent increasing interest among historians in commenting on historical fiction there will be similar misunderstandings coming from the other direction. We all need to be aware of the debates if we are to appreciate how each contributes to our understanding of the past.

In the case of this pair of books, Sarah Dunant’s novel relies heavily on Lowe’s research: her heroine, the apothecary (who saves the newly arrived Serafina from a life of incarceration) is closely modelled on the family circumstances of the Chronicler from S Cosimato in Rome. Both their fathers had medical qualifications. Perhaps coincidence, but it is part of the novelist’s skill to turn such trifles into significant elements in their story telling. The plot and indeed many of the relationships in the convent are governed by Dunant’s acceptance of Lowe’s argument that in Italian convents of the period a majority of entrants were placed there against their will and negotiating a way out was virtually impossible. Given the number of convents in early modern Italian cities, this suggests that a large proportion of aristocratic women were incarcerated for life. Much of the subtlety of characterisation of the fictional members of Santa Caterina is dependent on acceptance of this argument and the ways that individuals came to terms (or failed to do so) with forced professions. Dunant’s novel effectively recreates the atmosphere of an enclosed space, governed by extraordinarily complex rules and with the added tension created by office holders working out their own strategies for achieving grace. However, I think it is important to point out that the detailed research to support this argument does not form part of Lowe’s study. Certainly young women and even a few small children were placed in the convents for a variety of reasons and remained there for long periods of time with little choice about staying or leaving. Further research is needed to identify individual life experience in the convents to support more definite conclusions about the numbers involved.

I have to confess that I am not a reader of historical fiction by choice, but in this case I found myself drawn into the life of Serafina with her beautiful voice and her travails in the Ferraran convent, where her profession was forced on her because she had fallen in love with her music teacher and the family wished to separate them and focus on her younger sister’s marriage instead. Serafina finds it impossible to accept her enclosure and the story reveals how she gains support from a few nuns in the community in her struggle. Dunant creates a very real sense of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the restricted space, occupied by women governed by regulations affecting every part of their life, many of whom had not chosen to be there. Is it significant that there has been a change in the cover design? For some editions there is a rear view of a cloaked figure moving towards a dark doorway: there is now an attractive young woman with a low(ish) cut dress, eyes modestly cast down. This version gives no clues about the convent setting of the novel. The book does now advertise discussion points: my edition did not so I cannot comment on their value for teaching purposes. Their target audience was more likely to be readers in book groups.

Sarah Dunant brilliantly conjures up the atmosphere in a single convent for a small group of members. She has absorbed the detail provided by Lowe’s meticulous study to take the reader with her behind the walls. By contrast with the novel, Lowe is working on a much larger canvas to present an overview of three significant urban convents in the period as revealed in the chronicles written in the 16th century. Because of her own detailed knowledge of the sources and the period, Lowe is able to move confidently across three very different sources and convents. Such movements present challenges to the reader especially as the cultural context which clarifies some of the early material appears later in the book.

What are we to make of the central themes of these books: that of forced professions and the negative impact of male-instituted reforms? As someone who has spent a number of years studying the experience of female religious life in the early modern period, it is the denial of free will and choice to a substantial proportion of members of convents, who are in reality the inmates of a locked institution, which is shocking. Lowe argues too that Tridentine reforms were almost wholly negative in their impact on the convents. At S Cosimato for instance ‘life after Trent was merely a more severe version of an already very restricted lifestyle…’ The ‘nuns lost their opportunity to take decisions for themselves’ and their independence was repressed.(1) However if we look at the English convents with which I am more familiar, their foundations were made after Trent and neither they nor we as historians are in a position to compare life before and after. They had to accommodate the rules established by Trent and attract candidates in difficult circumstances and they created cultural and religious centres of some importance. In the English convents in exile, care was taken to ensure that women entered convents of their own free will and evidence has survived from many of the convents showing that candidates could, and in fact did, leave if they changed their mind about joining. They attracted patronage, constructed and decorated buildings in much the same way as their Italian counterparts in the earlier period described by Lowe.

The 16th century saw significant changes for women religious, largely as a result of Tridentine decrees which imposed enclosure and which are seen (as I have already suggested) by Lowe as negative in their impact on women. In fact as she shows, the reforms at Le Vergini in Venice pre-dated Trent in ending an unusual version of the religious life which permitted considerable freedom to the Canonesses who lived there. Perhaps it is the contrast between the latitude experienced there before 1519 to the forced professions described elsewhere in the study and in the novel which makes the incarcerations so notable. Reactions to enclosure did vary elsewhere. For instance, some writers in the new English convents founded in exile on the continent from 1598 even embraced enclosure, commenting how they welcomed separation from the secular world and the opportunities it provided to focus on their religious life without distractions. Perhaps it was different for them having experienced religious persecution and having to make a personal commitment to go overseas to join a convent. It was also not so hard as it was in Italy for them to leave if they were unsuited to the religious life. Such differences of female experience serve to demonstrate the importance of working comparatively as historians to take into account variations of circumstances.

It was good to read the bold conclusion by Kate Lowe emphasising the cultural significance of the Italian convents that formed her study and in particular their contribution to history writing. While, as she argues, their works were little known outside the convents at the time, ‘convent histories enter the mainstream of historical debate’.(2) Equally the success of Sarah Dunant’s book and her wide readership introduces a new group of readers to thinking and talking about a hitherto closed world.

1                    Lowe, pp. 393, 394.

2                    Lowe, p. 397.

Competition winners

At the beginning of the week we set up a competition.  We asked you to write a short piece about what your favorite historical novel is (why? and, if applicable, how this has influenced your thoughts on academic history?).

We are now very pleased to announce the winners of this competition:

£25 Amazon book vouchers     Susan Beaumont (click here for the entry)

1 year subscription to the IHR journal Historical Research    Jody Allen (click here for the entry)

We will be in touch with the winners at the beginning of next week regarding their prize.  Well done!

And thank you to everyone who took part.

Restoration: fact and fiction in the stores of history (Alan Marshall)


Restoration by Rose Tremain
London; Vintage Books, London, 1989, 2009 ed.,ISBN 978-0-099-53195-1; 399 pp.; price £7.99

Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660-1685 by Matthew Jenkinson
Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2010, ISBN 9781843835905; 293 pp.; £60.00

Sir Walter Scott, masquerading both as ‘The Author’, as well as his pompous alter-ego, the historian ‘Dr Jonas Dryasdust’, inserted the following dialogue into the beginning of his historical novel of the Restoration period, Perevil of the Peak (1823):

‘Author…you mean to say these learned persons [historians] will have but little toleration for a romance, or a fictious narrative, founded upon history?

Dryasdust: Why sir, I do rather apprehend, that their respect for the foundation will be such, that they may be apt to quarrel with the inconsistent nature of the superstructure; just as every classical traveller pours forth expressions of sorrow and indignation when, in travelling through Greece, he chances to see a Turkish kiosk rising on the ruins of an ancient temple …’ (1)

Comparisons between historical fiction and historical work of fact have become much more frequent since Scott’s day, but the basis of the argument often seems the same. The presence of any number of novelistic ‘Turkish kiosks’ erected in full view of not a few historian’s own grounds and filled with ‘frothy and superficial knowledge’ has been often criticised for at the least foolishly spoiling the historical view, and at worst for looking in completely the wrong historical direction; that is, of course, where they have not been ignored entirely.(2) The two sides seem destined to live, if not at war, then at least in state of mutual antipathy. Nevertheless the historical novel was just as much a development of the 19th century as serious academic history and both of these genres have, arguably, come to their full flowering in the modern era.(3) Yet the Dryasdust distain for the historical novel still lingers on in some quarters. Can historians still afford to ignore the historical novel completely? Can it really tell us anything about our views of a particular period?

If such literary works tend to be treated at all by historians, then it is often as a somewhat smaller, less worthy, over-rowdy, and much more emotional younger brother, over-concerned with mere story and (taken as given by many historians) often containing many an ill-conceived, ahistorical, character creation. Far better, it is thought, to till the historical soil in our primary sources, so as to capture the genuine essence of the factual past and only then display the results in serious academic tomes and in serious academic language. Yet both genres possibly still have much to learn from one another. Indeed if popular and just occasionally academic history has become more novelistic in tone at times, then sometimes historical novels have become more academically serious.(4)

The idea of the Restoration period has been present in the historical novel genre for some time. It has never, of course, been the most popular of periods for the historical novelist to explore -inevitably that palm lies with the all-powerful Tudors, who alongside Romans and Nazis seemingly dominate the popular historical imagination of students of all ages in all forms of the media. Having said this, there are some interesting examples of the genre of Restoration historical novels in existence. Indeed the use of the Restoration period as a vehicle for the novel has something of a history of its own that can still give us some perspective when examining one particular example of the genre in the context of a new and serious academic work on the period.

The ‘founder’ of the historical novel, Sir Walter Scott, actually set the ball rolling on the Restoration novel by setting one of his more unreadable than usual books in the period. This was the aforementioned Peveril of the Peak, wherein Scott crashed about the period with improbable settings and even more improbable characters and their unlikely dialogue, doing unhistorical things in a singularly ponderous manner. Others soon followed his lead.

Rose Tremain’s novel Restoration is not Scott by any means; it is very readable for one thing, has engaging characters and is not that improbable in its story.(5) Nor is it a pot-boiler or bodice-ripper romance a la Kathleen Windsor’s Forever Amber (1944). Instead it is really a novel about ideas, which happens to be set in the past, and it can lead us to ponder and then go on to explore many of these ideas in a genuine historical context, which is perhaps what the really good historical novel should do.(6) Space naturally precludes an examination of all of the ideas in this particular work. The novel covers many historical themes, from Nonconformity in the character of Pearce, through the issue of gender, to ideas of madness and of science. Clearly the suggestion of the very idea of the Restoration as aspirational is crucial to the novel. Robert Merivel, the main protagonist, who has more than a touch of Samuel Pepys about him, aspires, after his Candide-like adventures, to a restoration of his soul. A further theme, the idea of a historical burn-line in 1660, presents the somewhat old-fashioned view that everything changed in May 1660 and nothing was ever the same again.

Tremain’s view on this particular point is made clear through her main character’s statement that: ‘The truth is that when the King restored, it was as if self-discipline and drudgery had exploded in clap of laughter. I became much too excited by and greedy for life to spend much of it at work. Women were cheaper than claret, so I drank women’ (p. 9). This is the idea of the 1660s as the 1960s, or at least as the 1980s when the novel was written: metaphorical and sometimes actual, wealth, sun, licentiousness and sex; but, of course, if the 1960’s and 1980s wasn’t really like the proverbial and mythical 1960s or 1980s, neither was the 1660s like the mythical 1660s.

Intriguingly, though, in this novel, as in other Restoration novels, one of the real centres of gravity in the work lies in the character of a real person: Charles II. The invented characters, interesting though they are, move around a King whose own restoration is the political act in the title. It is also implied that it has botched and unsatisfactory results, even for him. While Charles II is off stage for much of the novel, there is little doubt that it is his character, or Tremain’s view of his character, that really dominates the work. He is the novel’s deus ex machina. Why is there such a fascination with this particular monarch? For it might be said that that one of the main characteristics of most Restoration-period novels is that they always tend to be dominated by Charles II whatever their plot, just as the Tudor historical novel is dominated by Henry VIII or Elizabeth I.

Of course, we know, or believe that we know, where we are with Charles II. He is, so any number of authors have told us, a `personality’.(7) In popular culture Charles II remains a hale fellow well met sort of man, one of us really, sometimes a sort of early Blairite ‘pretty straight sort of guy’, with, for a king, the ‘common touch’. He was naturally a man with faults, but was also a lover of wine, women, dogs, song and pleasure and who could dislike such a man as that? He was also a supporter of the theatre and it might be said that in Restoration comedy is to be found a form of drama which the King’s personal life sometimes resembled. So, if Charles II has been frequently depicted in the modern era as a generally all-round good fellow, as well as occasionally a shrewd reader of men, as in ‘Restoration’, we feel we ought to like him and, we are perhaps meant to feel he would probably like us. It might be said, however, that this image is arguably a hangover of the Charles II of the Arthur Bryant School of history. While the real Charles II actually was some of these things, and even at the time he was portrayed as some of these things, he was also a lot more than this, as historians have tried to explain. He was actually a complex and intelligent man living in a post-revolutionary political and cultural environment and above all a survivor, not merely the caricature Nell Gwyn-chasing ‘merry monarch’. However, for the real Charles and his political space we must always turn to the historian’s view, which is where Matthew Jenkinson’s serious and genuinely weighty work of history can help us.

‘For the King moves like God in our world, like Faith itself. He is a fount of beauty and power, of which we all yearn, in our overheated hearts, to feel some cooling touch’ notes Robert Merivel in the novel (p. 24). Jenkinson takes a similar view of the Caroline Court, its culture and its monarch. The court, a space Merivel continually aspires to, finds a minor place in and then is catastrophically cast out from, is vitally important to Jenkinson’s work too. Merivel finds by the end of the book that the court was not worth that much anyway and fortunately for him he is eventually given his own space to inhabit, but few of those who aspired to the court at the time would have thought like this and they were eager to be there whatever the consequences for themselves. In Jenkinson’s work the Restoration court image matches this significant historical nexus. For Jenkinson’s is a sober view of this important institution, its inhabitants and its culture, and much more penetrating than Merivel’s.

For Jenkinson the central idea is of a court culture that is informed by and influenced by politics and in which politics also influences culture and the nation. It is indeed the presentation of the king and his image within the contemporary multiple voices of culture. The book is located around a Restoration court that was politicized in its many forms including its artefacts. The court contained ideas on kingship, on performance, on faction and on contemporary disagreement, as well as the distrust of philosophies. It was also a problematic space. Following the failed republic, the court was part of a much needed political stabilisation in the period, but it was continually undercut by cultural interests that stressed negativity, advice and challenge. This was significant. For argues Jenkinson the ‘order and health of the nation was reliant on, symptomatic of and a reflection of that of the royal court’ (p. 213) Underneath the pleasurable veneer of the Restoration court therefore stood both severe uncertainty and a ‘lively interrogation’ of the issues of the court: ‘virtue, love, loyalty, reason, authority and … honour’ had to be interrogated (p. 236) The monarch who compromised these political/cultural elements was Charles II. The King, by his indulgence of both himself and his courtiers, was in the end exactly what was not what was needed, for his reported actions only emphasised the fears of disorder in the realm; the same fears, of course, that are primary to understanding the early modern psyche.

Chapter two of the book goes on to explore the features of the court in the early Restoration, the first being a rhetorical commitment to the law as evinced by the executions of the regicides. Jenkinson then examines the role of churchmen at court and the role of the author John Crowne; he discusses the court wits in chapter five and John Dryden in chapter six as a court poet (though not in the sense that Rochester had been), alongside sections on Tory discontent at court, printed propaganda and the ‘empty atmosphere’ of the last days of the court of Charles II after the ‘second Restoration’ of the 1680s. It is a rich and finely detailed mix for the reader to interrogate and gives us a good understanding of the cultural ambience and the cultural ambivalences of the court. If the entire Restoration court experience has, it is argued, implications for the health of the body politic then indeed the ideas of ‘words and meanings’ of the courtiers and their king need to be deconstructed.

In many senses therefore the historical work parallels that of the novel; it too is about ideas. The court however has moved away from prurient interests in disorder and sexual libertinism that we find to some extent in the novel, into something more. The court was the central organisation of the new state in the 1660s, and if it was dysfunctional then so was the state itself. As Jenkinson puts it, the court should be viewed as ‘a political institution to be taken seriously, whose vibrant cultural life could be used to navigate contemporary political complexities’ (p. 7). Here then is the nub of the issue: for while the historical novel can in the end only ever deal with surface and story, the historical work can probe deeply into the heart of the court’s problems. Yet, for all of this there is still arguably room for both versions, for used wisely the one can provoke questions of the other. As Scott the author noted long ago:

‘The stores of history are accessible to everyone; and are no more exhausted or impoverished by the hints thus borrowed from them, than the fountain is drained by the water which we subtract for domestic purposes. And in reply to the sober charge of falsehood, against a narrative announced positively to be fictitious, one can only answer by Prior’s exclamation

‘Odzooks, must one swear to the truth of a song!’.(8)


1 Sir Walter Scott, Perevil of the Peak (2 vols., 1836 ed.), I, p.x–xi.

2 ibid.,I, p.xii.

3 See Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Abingdon, 2010).

4 One example would be Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London, 2009).

5 Having said this, as so often in historical fiction the timescale within this novel jars to the historian’s eye. The novel is set c.1660–7, but these years are telescoped and extended apparently to suit the plot.

6 Of course, in the end the novel is an entertainment and many reading it will be content with this pleasure alone.

7 Modern approaches, both academic and popular, to Charles II can be found in R. Hutton, Charles II: King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford, 1989); R. HuttonDebates in Stuart History(Basingstoke, 2004), pp.132-170; T. Harris, Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (St Ives, 2005); A. Keay, The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power(London, 2008) and Jenny Uglow, A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration (London, 2009).

8 Perevil, I, p.xii.

Debating the Cultural Revolution in China


Brothers by Yu Hua
Picador: London, 2009; ISBN: 9780330452755; 600 pp.; Price: £8.99.

Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MS, 2006; ISBN 9780674027480; 752 pp.; Price: £17.95.

Mao's Last Revolution cover imageBrothers cover image

Reviewer:Julia Lovell (Birkbeck, University of London)

In Western imaginations, the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–76) – in which one of the world’s oldest, most elaborate cultures began destroying itself, in which a successful, disciplined political organisation tore its own heart out, and in which colleagues and classmates turned murderously on each other – stands among the landmarks of the recent Chinese past. In the late 1980s, when Chinese history and culture remained esoteric to all but specialists, it was accounts of the Cultural Revolution – told in English through the personal narratives of those who endured it – that drew general audiences in their millions to read about the country. The success of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans in particular turned the Cultural Revolution memoir into a genre sensation, beloved of publishers and readers alike. By the late 1990s, Wild Swans had been joined by a clutch of cygnets – To the Edge of the Sky, The Vermilion Gate – mostly family sagas, mostly written by women, many of them focusing on the traumas of the Cultural Revolution. (At the close of that decade, it was even rumoured that literary agents had defined ‘Chinese pain’ as a product, because a profit could be made from it.)

In China, the Cultural Revolution – the ‘ten years of madness’ – is also regarded as one of the seminal tragedies of the country’s 20th century. For obvious political reasons, however, there are limits to how the event can be commemorated. The Cultural Revolution, after all, was a civil war (with disastrous consequences for China’s political, economic and cultural development) unleashed by China’s pre-eminent leader, Mao Zedong; a civil war that was made possible by Chinese communism’s culture of violence and one that Mao’s feted successor, Deng Xiaoping – a high-ranking leader in 1966 – signally failed to prevent.[d1]  It is hardly surprising that the regime does not want to encourage free-form, open-ended debate about its causes and consequences. In the interests of drawing a veil over such contention, the Party passed its own, final judgment on the Cultural Revolution and on Mao’s role in the early 1980s, declaring that the Great Helmsman had been 70 per cent right, and 30 per cent wrong, and that no further discussion was required. Nonetheless, memory of the Cultural Revolution has inevitably resonated through Chinese cultural life – not least because so many writers were affected. Literary commemorations of the Cultural Revolution have long outnumbered those of the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward (1958–62). This is perhaps because, although the latter was in absolute terms far more destructive of Chinese life (claiming some 40 million deaths, to the Cultural Revolution’s estimated 1.5 million), those worst affected were (predominantly illiterate) farmers, while the Cultural Revolution particularly targeted intellectuals. And although substantial restrictions still exist on coverage of the Cultural Revolution in China’s public history industry (especially in the mass media), there is greater, if still incomplete, freedom for fictional explorations of these events.

Over the past 20 years, China’s most critically acclaimed novelists – writers such as Mo Yan, Yu Hua and Su Tong, born between the 1950s and early 1960s – have turned the historical novel into the pre-eminent genre in serious contemporary fiction. For the most part, they have concentrated on recounting the 20th century, and particularly the landmark traumas of the Communist decades through which they themselves lived: Land Reform, the Great Leap Forward and, of course, the Cultural Revolution. In Brothers, one of the bestselling Chinese novels of the early 21st century, Yu Hua created a two-volume blockbuster covering China’s last four decades: a portrait of the country’s transformation from Maoist political thuggery to money worship. The first volume is taken up by a startlingly brutal account of the Cultural Revolution.

The novel is set in Liu Town, an east-coast backwater near Shanghai, and tells the lives of two victims of Mao’s China – Baldy Li and his stepbrother Song Gang. Approaching their teens during the Cultural Revolution, the boys witness Song Gang’s father, Song Fanping, tortured then battered to death (ostensibly for being the son of a landlord, in reality for a linguistic slip interpreted as slandering Mao) only 14 months after his marriage to Baldy Li’s mother, Li Lan; within another few years, she dies of kidney failure and sorrow. In Brothers, the Cultural Revolution starts out as burlesque anarchy – a chance for children to skip school and enjoy heaping humiliation on ‘class enemies’: ‘[The boys] only knew that now Liu Town had become as festive and rowdy as if every day were a holiday’. Soon enough, however, the ubiquitous mob violence – daily lynchings leave the town literally smeared with blood – turns against the boys and their family. The killing of the boys’ father – described in horrifying detail across four pages – is the centrepiece act of mindless cruelty. Six local Red Guards beat him steadily to death, shredding his flesh, ripping an ear off, finally bayoneting him with a splintered wooden bat: ‘As the spikes were yanked out blood gushed from his body as though it were a perforated wine skin’. Even after he has died, reinforcements arrive to take over the beating, trampling and pummelling, while the first group of killers breakfast ‘with savage delight’ on ‘soy milk, buns and fritters’. Even in death, Song Fanping has to endure the humiliation of having his kneecaps smashed so that he can be fitted into the only cheap coffin available.

In the interests of achieving a faithful likeness of these extreme times, Yu Hua makes use of a style that is crude in almost every respect: in its freakish protagonists and plot twists; in its fondness for repetitions and expletives (or, ideally, repeated expletives – one paragraph alone is graced by eighteen conjugations of ‘f**k’); in its fountains of body fluids (snot, blood and saliva). Modern China, its author has reasoned, ‘is so sick that a writer can’t pretend to be a doctor. Instead, the best one can do is admit that one is ill and try to describe the symptoms’. And the coarseness of the novel’s literary language seems technically well-matched with the grotesquerie of the violence being described: archival and anecdotal evidence tells us that Yu Hua’s descriptions of hyperbolic sadism are historically accurate.

The highly negative portrayals of the Cultural Revolution in Yu Hua’s Brothers are indeed a sign of the writer’s political bravery (and proof of the greater creative freedom that Chinese novelists enjoy, relative to peers working in film, television or newspapers). In refusing to allow these events to go quietly forgotten, and in commemorating them in such scurrilous, brutish style, Yu Hua flagrantly contradicts the exhortation by the Chinese Writers’ Association (the government’s official literary union) that writers should ‘make positive contributions’ to sounding an ‘elevated main note in literary creation’. And yet Brothers also illuminates the interpretative limits faced by Chinese authors describing the Cultural Revolution. The book ultimately pulls its punches when it comes to seeking the origins of these events. The horrific violence of the Cultural Revolution is portrayed as an irrational explosion of mass thuggery, without any attempt to search for deeper causes (in, say, Communism’s institutionalisation of violence at all levels of government and in its caste-like system of class designations). As a result, the book is often rich in superficial shock value – in its explicit descriptions of violence and sex – but weak in its grasp of the political roots of Maoist cataclysms. Moreover, there is scant introspective attention paid to perhaps the most interesting psychological legacy of the Cultural Revolution: the way in which the great majority of victims and persecutors have had to co-exist quietly with each other since the regime turned its back on class struggle after Mao and his revolution came to an end in 1976. Yu Hua’s sensationalist style seems almost deliberately designed to forestall deeper thought about the causes and outcomes of these events. By militating against careful reflection on the Cultural Revolution, Yu Hua unwittingly furthers the regime’s project to stifle widespread debate about its sources.

The narrative style of Roderick MacFarquhar’s and Michael Schoenhals’ Mao’s Last Revolution could hardly form a greater contrast with the tone of hysterical violence that dominates Brothers. The former – the most authoritative, comprehensive single-volume account of the Cultural Revolution in English – does not in any sense shy away from the physical horror of these events, mind; it is littered with appalling spectacle. We read of an early victim of Mao’s purge hurling himself off a building; his suicide attempt failed but left him crippled, after which his opponents hauled him to mass criticism meetings inside a cabbage basket. Red Guards beat class enemies to death without understanding their alleged counter-revolutionary crimes. Cities up and down the country were – as Yu Hua describes in microcosm – spattered with blood: some 15,000 were killed or wounded in Wuhan alone. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals describe how factions of students murdered each other with sugar sickles intended for Cuba; funeral processions in which Red Guards held aloft the severed body parts of the fallen; how some victims were not only killed but also eaten; how one man with a bad class background bled to death in front of his family after having his ear cut off.

But MacFarquhar and Schoenhals are constantly at pains to explain not only what happened, but also how it could have happened. There is a devastingly effective coolness to their writing, as they explain the course of the Cultural Revolution: not only Mao’s central culpability, but also the complicity of his chief lieutenants (none of whom tried to prevent Mao from launching his political witch-hunt, most of whom were purged in the course of the Cultural Revolution). Jung Chang’s and Jon Halliday’s recent, best-selling biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, turned the Cultural Revolution into melodrama: the villains (Mao, his wife Jiang Qing and his Defence Minister, Lin Biao) lined up on one side; their good-hearted victims (Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Deng Xiaoping) on the other. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals paint a picture in which blame was far more troublingly widespread. Both Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were deeply implicated in the culture of political violence that made the extremism of the Cultural Revolution possible; both mocked early victims of the movement before it turned on them.

Technically, the book is a tour-de-force, a heteroglossic survey of Cultural Revolutionaries at every level of Chinese society, that makes use of both conventional archival material and sources from below: interviews, memoirs, pamphlets, posters, diaries and denunciations, and other flea-market finds. (Michael Schoenhals has been acclaimed elsewhere as the ‘doyen of Chinese garbology’ – presumably for his skill in excavating historical gems from piles of apparently waste paper that have found their way to such markets.) Even traditional archival sources on the Cultural Revolution, it should be remembered, are far from straightforward to access in China today. Much evidence from these years is routinely shut off to foreign researchers without special connections and permits. In MacFarquhar’s and Schoenhals’ narrative, the voices of external observers inject welcome tonal variety into the turgid political formulae of official PRC communiqués. Although in the eye of the storm, British diplomats stationed in China during the Cultural Revolution still kept their upper lips almost miraculously stiff. One Foreign Office functionary evacuated from Beijing laconically observed that as he, his wife and young family fell under attack at the airport from Red Guards, his ‘tie was pulled into so tight a knot that it had later to be forced open with a tea spoon.’ Imprisoned within the British embassy in Beijing on the evening on which it would be sacked, its inhabitants almost burnt to death and its women sexually molested, the ambassador reported back to London that the staff ‘dined together … off a dinner of tinned sausages and peas, claret and biscuits and cheese, prepared by the ladies. After dinner I went to the first-floor … to play bridge, while those of the staff who were not at work watched Peter Sellers in a film entitled not inappropriately, ‘The Wrong Arm of the Law’!’

MacFarquhar’s and Schoehnals’ dispassionate, clear-headed account is therefore more profoundly unsettling than the surface sensationalism generated by a novel like Brothers. We gain a powerful sense of a tragedy unfolding: of a fundamental failure by Mao and his subordinates to predict the consequences of their actions; of the hypocrisy of a revolutionary elite who – themselves enveloped in privilege and learning – wished to deny these things to their countrymen. We are left with greatly enhanced understanding of a disaster – still insufficiently explained and discussed in China today – driven by an over-concentration of power and by a lack of institutional accountability, both issues that remain political hazards in the contemporary People’s Republic.

A Quick Round-Up of Class Opinion


Lucinda Byatt

I asked my history class at the Open Studies department of Edinburgh University, who have been attending a course with the somewhat provocative title ‘Rome Caput Mundi: Curia, Cardinals and Courtesans 1300 to 1590’, to give me their thoughts on historical fiction.  More particularly I wanted to know what they thought about including it on the course reading list.

The answers I received covered the full range of opinion: clearly some were horrified by the idea while others possibly thought my questionnaire a waste of time, or had more pressing engagements at four o’clock in the afternoon.  Presumably those motives, and the fact that I had premised my request by saying I would not be lying in wait for them after class, accounted for the absence of answers from about half the class. However, we had a lively discussion before class ended and some of the written answers were enlightening.

Yes, historical fiction was a useful way of getting into the atmosphere of the time, or ‘setting the scene’, as well as revealing ‘the way of living, perhaps indeed the ways of thinking.’  Many agreed that it offered an excellent quick introduction to the dramatis personae of any given period. Although at least one person felt that a greater danger was posed by television historical series and films: an interesting point because they were content to rely on an author’s written interpretation and their own imagination while reading, but not on the visual, ‘less reliable’ interpretation in films and TV. 

Some gave examples: Dorothy Dunnett, an Edinburgh writer, was a favourite for one student who wrote: ‘irrespective of the “romantic” central characters, she leaves her readers very familiar with the geography of mid-15th century Bruges, the relationships between the traders, even how goods were transported. I learned what a “cog” was from her books!’  Historical crime was also popular: C.J. Sansom was noted by two or three as having enticed them into history.

One person commented on what she termed ‘cross-over’ books that manage to keep a foot in both camps: she cited John Guy’s ‘jolly good’ biography of Mary Queen of Scots which she was prompted to read following a course she took at the university this summer.  ‘Something by Philippa Gregory or Alison Weir’s book on Katherine Swynford are good cross-overs.’  However, she also added (as did two or three others) that Wolf Hall is ‘unreadable’.   (Someone described it as ‘incredibly tedious’ – but then you can’t please everyone).  However, for academic writers, the ‘revival of well-presented narrative history can be a plus – although it can be at the expense of analysis.’

A difference in the focus between academic history and historical fiction was identified by three people, also because we had been talking about it in the discussion. When talking about whether literary authors and academics learn from other, someone commented that ‘each reinforces the other. Academics tend to concentrate on the elites, while fiction [and he was thinking particularly of Sansom] provides more insight into ordinary life.’   Someone else also commented that ‘fiction can use isolated facts as a source of story and then use conjecture to elaborate on them’ – very true.  The crossover between fact and fiction was also debated: ‘some supposedly academic material, presented as fact, is fiction: i.e. theories of authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.’ 

At least one person noted that our understanding of history, or of any one period, is constantly evolving in the light of new research, and that it is also affected by our changing understanding of our own times.  However, the fact that some historians are turning their hands to historical fiction was generally seen as a money-making wheeze (no harm in that!): ‘Historians write fiction for money, which is fine if they can write good fiction!’  The same person underlined the fact that ‘historical fiction is not correlated to academic history’, adding that ‘fiction should be about people … imaginative and exciting’.

In conclusion, on the question of the popularity of historical fiction and whether it threatens academic history, various people stressed the importance of understanding where the boundaries are.  I liked the student’s comment that ‘It may be a problem in schools, but not beyond.  No harm in making history accessible, so long as it is accurate.’   This was reinforced by another who wrote that he would read historical fiction as course reading, ‘if I had confidence in the sources – otherwise it’s pure escapism’. Well, that’s the pot of gold at the end of the historical fiction rainbow, isn’t it?


Lucinda is also Features Editor for Historical Novels Review, the quarterly magazine published by the Historical Novel Society. Find out more and join the society at