Historical fiction: a light on the darkness of the past

Well, I’ve had another crazy fortnight, featuring five cities, two countries, friends, family, customers, my agent and two babies who were supposed to make me broody but actually just made me wonder how anyone finds the time. My novel ‘The Heartland of the Winter’ has been sent to an actual publisher for consideration, but I’m trying not to dwell on that too much, as it’s now out of my hands and in the lap of the editors. I’m still on my break from writing, but I have done some reading – those plane and train journeys were good for something. In fact, freed from the need to produce my own words, I’ve been devouring books at faster rate than I’ve managed for years. My latest reads include intelligent high fantasy (Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy), hilarious feminist polemic (yes it does exist, and she’s called Caitlin Moran), and magic realism (’The Tiger’s Wife’ by Téa Obreht). But it’s the historical fiction I’ve found the most inspiring, in particular ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel, and ‘The Kingmaker’s Daughter’ by Philippa Gregory. Two books very different in style, but alike in lighting up rich strange worlds.

Mantel’s previous book about Thomas Cromwell, ‘Wolf Hall’, I found interesting but a little frustrating – why can’t she use pronouns properly? Whether she has become a more assured writer, or I’ve just got more used to her, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ gave me no such problems – it was nothing but a pleasure from the first page to the last. Her prose has a precisely beautiful luminosity, like pale winter sunlight filtering through diamond-leaded windows. She portrays her real-life people with great sympathy and understanding – even when they’re not behaving very sympathetically – and unfolds the intricacies of court intrigue with consummate skill.

In an attempt to fill the Game of Thrones-shaped hole in my life, I’ve been watching The White Queen on the BBC (incidentally, it’s totally okay to think Richard III is kind of sexy, isn’t it? Asking for a friend), based on The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory. I’ve read the previous three books, and decided to catch up on the latest instalment, which tells the story of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker and queen of Richard III.

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Richard III totally looked like this. Fact.

Gregory shares Mantel’s love of the present tense, although there the resemblance ends: her prose can be clunky, her dialogue stilted, her characterisation basic, and she constantly tells rather than shows. If Mantel is winter sunlight, Gregory is fluorescent strip lighting. But there’s no doubt that she keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next – even if you already know from history class.

This is, of course, the thing about historical fiction – it’s a genre with spoilers built in from the start. It also inevitably violates the one-Steve limit: as Mantel comments, half the world is called Thomas, while Gregory includes a scene in which her characters discuss the fact that their menfolk are all named Richard and Edward. Despite these inherent limitations, both authors manage the essential trick of historical fiction: to illuminate the familiar strangeness of human experience, the things we share with people from the past, even as their lives seem unimaginably different from our own.

I’ve always loved history, and often been tempted to try my hand at historical fiction; but, since finishing my degrees, I’ve not had the time to do the necessary research. And so I’ve turned to fantasy, a genre with the great benefit that you can just make up whatever you feel like. Will I turn to historical fiction in the future? Maybe. But for now, I’m just enjoying the fact that, with my first novel done, I’ve now got the chance to read some more and remind myself why I love books.

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