Today’s Stories of Yesterday: Recent Historical Fiction

Contemporary historical fiction occupies virtually every point on the history–fiction spectrum: fictional stories of real-life people; narratives of real-life events experienced by fictional ...

Contemporary historical fiction occupies virtually every point on the history–fiction spectrum: fictional stories of real-life people; narratives of real-life events experienced by fictional characters; fiction that rewrites novels of the past; and wholly fictional stories that inhabit an otherwise real past. Looking to the entire span of recorded and not-yet-recorded history (think Cloud Atlas), today the genre sets itself an equally broad set of tasks: to entertain and edify, redeem and reveal, plunge us into otherness and remind us of ourselves. With such an agenda, it is no wonder that recent titles succeed magnificently and fail dishearteningly—sometimes even in the same book.

When Public Books tasked me with reviewing a sampling of recent historical fiction, my first challenge was the sample. Like a hound in a field of hares or the kid in the proverbial candy store, I was at once frenzied and paralyzed by the profusion of titles. Here were lesbians in Paris in the 1920s (Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932); there was Zelda Fitzgerald in Paris in the 1920s (Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald). Here, coming out in the same month, were not one but two novels about Freud (Sheila Kohler’s Dreaming for Freud: A Novel and Rebecca Coffey’s Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story). And over here was ice cream (Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street).

The connections multiplied, facilitated by the fevered workings of my historical-novel-obsessed brain. Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train and Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure are both about real trains you’ve never heard of. Love and Treasure and Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things both have secondary characters who are privileged suffragettes. The Museum of Extraordinary Things and Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music both feature French performers (magician, circus acrobat) who emigrate to the United States.

Each time I thought I’d surveyed the field, another historical novel would appear. Lily King’s latest, Euphoria, is based on Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. According to Amazon, people are frequently buying it together with Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.

Was historical fiction taking over the world? Or just my life?

Sarah Johnson, book review editor for Historical Novels Review and proprietor of the historical fiction blog Reading the Past, believes that historical fiction has been published at a fairly steady rate over the last few years (Historical Novels Review covers about 1,200 titles a year), but has recently been receiving more critical attention. This may be in part because several recent winners of the Booker Prize have been historical novels, including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) and Bringing Up the Bodies (2012).

Readers, too, are making their interest known. Christina Baker Kline (an old friend), whose previous novel sold 5,500 copies, found runaway success with her first novel to embrace history, Orphan Train, which has sold more than 1.1 million copies since its publication a year and a half ago. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Kline hypothesized that giving readers some history along with their fiction generated her dramatic rise in sales: “This novel is about a piece of American history that’s pretty important, and has been hidden in plain sight … There’s a whole world of people who read fiction as a way to learn, [and I’ve] never tapped into this before.”1

Each time I thought I’d surveyed the field, another historical novel would appear. Was historical fiction taking over the world? Or just my life?

Kline highlights historical fiction’s existing readership, for certainly the genre’s popularity is longstanding, from the populist Regency romances of Georgette Heyer to the literary metafictions of John Fowles and A. S. Byatt. But one could also argue that contemporary readers and novelists alike are tiring of the well-worn paths of contemporary fiction—take myopic bildungsroman and pretentious postmodernism, please—and turning in relief to the past and its many justifiable routes to satisfying storytelling, which readers still seem to want, regardless of what David Shields and Will Self tell them.2

Causality aside, I had to focus on the past, and to do so I needed to focus myself. I settled on novels set in the 19th century, though that meant leaving out one of my favorites, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Hoffman’s edifyingly beautiful and beautifully edifying critical love song to 1911 New York, a city of freaks, factories, and fish, still rural at its outermost limits, but already facing today’s socioeconomic fractures, where a Coney Island mermaid and a Lower East Side Jewish photographer cross paths and …well, you’ll just have to read it yourself.

Why the 19th century? My scholarly background is in 19th-century literature, so I would know something of which I spoke. Recent novels set in the 19th century exemplify the different modes of historical fiction noted above. And finally, taken together, the novels discussed below illustrate the possibilities and perils of historical fiction today.

 As I turn to the actual books, I must begin with a confession rather than a review. The Luminaries is probably the best book here, and yet I found myself unable to read it. If I were alone in my failure, I would keep this embarrassing fact to myself, but several people I know—all active, engaged readers—had the same experience, so I’m going public. The Luminaries is an original, dazzling piece of fiction—at least for the hundred odd pages I read. Each sentence is a gem. The historical details of place and time—a New Zealand coastal mining town in 1866, at least for the hundred odd pages I read—are wholly integrated into the narrative, with none of the didactic factual disquisitions that too often mar historical fiction. The plot is complex and fine-tuned, in full Victorian-novel form, featuring, in those first hundred odd pages alone, a death, a disappearance, an inheritance, a woman who is not what she seems, and class and racial conflict to boot, all of it somehow related to the Zodiac. And there may be the rub.

Every time I picked up The Luminaries, I loved it. But I could manage only five or six, maybe ten, pages at a time. Then I would put it down and not pick it up for days. Given the stack of historical fiction that faced me, this became a significant impediment. I couldn’t read anything else, because I was reading The Luminaries. And yet I couldn’t seem to read The Luminaries, perhaps because its fictional world was so dense, so perfect, and so complex that it never fully engulfed me, never pulled me past that point where the hard work of reading becomes part of the pleasure.

Am I saying that The Luminaries is too good for its own good? Perhaps. The Luminaries embodies two of historical fiction’s most alluring promises: an entry into otherness and the satisfying experience of reading at once for knowledge and for pleasure. But it also exemplifies one of the genre’s greatest perils: opacity.

 In its foregrounding of race, class, and gender, The Luminaries, like much contemporary literary historical fiction, is determined not only to revisit the past, but to reveal what the past hid, knowingly or not. In Longbourn, her second historical novel (following forays into fantasy and realism), Jo Baker turns to what Jane Austen leaves unsaid. Pride and Prejudice has probably generated more sequels, prequels, variations, and adaptations than any book save the Bible, but Longbourn (the name of the Bennets’ estate) may be the first of its literary offspring to aim its sights at the Bennet servants. Bingley and Darcy appear at most half a dozen times, and the peaks and valleys of their respective romances hardly register. Instead, the book focuses on Sarah the housemaid—who feeds the Bennet pigs, washes the Bennet laundry, and receives the occasional Bennet confidence—and her compatriots behind the green baize door: Mr. Hill, the butler; Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper; the little maid Polly; and James, the manservant.

A novel can only sustain so much laundry, so much rain, and so many sheep.

Baker has read her postcolonial and New Historicist criticism, and she forcefully surfaces the themes Austen occludes. The first chapter introduces the Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, labor, bodies, “hogshit,” “dirty linen,” and the “monthly blood” of the Bennet daughters. Readers soon encounter Mr. Bingley’s African footman, the Triangle trade, slavery, military floggings, masturbation, homosexuality, master-servant sex, and venereal disease. But if Longbourn is (over)determined to reveal the underside of Austen, that underside turns out to be fairly tedious. Baker’s historical knowledge may be impressive and her command of the details of daily household work initially fascinating, but if the focus of your narrative is the servants, your narrative becomes a chronicle of day after day of that self-same work. Baker also describes those other markers of dailiness, weather and landscape, in lovingly wrought detail, but a novel can only sustain so much laundry, so much rain, and so many sheep.

Baker seems to realize this, for eventually she departs from verisimilitude by fashioning Sarah into a literary heroine. This maid may wear drab hand-me-downs and have hands covered with chilblains, but she has the two characteristics a literary heroine requires: she reads, and she wants more than she has. Indeed, she becomes the composite Austen heroine: initially distracted by the wrong man (in this case the African footman, who turns out not to be so bad), she eventually, after much misunderstanding, connects with a seemingly aloof stranger, loses him, and then … but no spoilers. Still, the novelty of servant as romantic lead isn’t quite enough to sustain the novel, especially when the romance itself follows conventions so strictly.

Interestingly, the most powerful section of Longbourn takes place far away from the eponymous estate and has nothing to do with Sarah or the Bennets. Baker’s novel pays respectful homage to the standard 19th-century three-volume “triple-decker” format, and the first four chapters of Volume 3 tell the story of James before his life at Longbourn, including his harrowing stint in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. Like the Great War segment of Byatt’s The Children’s Book (2009) and the Blitz chapters of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), these passages do not rewrite past works; instead, they use the freedom of fiction to bring to life the bleak desolation of war, the pain of casual betrayal, and the meager consolations of kindness.

 If Longbourn rewrites Pride and Prejudice, Rustication reiterates the sensation novel, the popular Victorian genre of domestic scandal and terror made most famous by Wilkie Collins. With a name straight out of Trollope, author Charles Palliser may have had no choice but to make a career out of writing neo-Victorian novels, starting with the best-selling Quincunx (1989). In Rustication, he demonstrates his command of the sensation novel; Austen (a dastardly Willoughby); Dickens (marshes and Chancery); and Elizabeth Gaskell (village gossip à la Cranford). When he is not alluding directly to Keats, Austen, and the Brontës, he is deploying familiar 19th-century fictional devices: narration by diary, Gothic houses, wills, impoverishment by paternal death, opium, and, if we add Victorian pornography to the mash–up, sex.

Rustication is framed as the diary of 17-year-old Richard Shenstone, who has been sent down—or “rusticated”—from Cambridge for misdeeds that are slowly revealed to be much worse than the failed exam he initially reports. But that’s not his only misdeed, or misrepresentation. Rustication
begins with Richard’s arrival at the Gothic pile on the edge of a marsh outside a small village where his mother and sister have retreated after losing almost all their income following the death of his father. Immediately and self-consciously, the novel plunges Richard and the reader into mystery:

Finding mysteries everywhere. I don’t have to manufacture them. They are all around me:

Nr 1.) What were the circumstances of Father’s death and why is Mother so unwilling to talk about it?

Nr 2.) Who is Willy or William and why was Mother expecting him on Saturday evening?

Nr 3.) Why was Effie dressed up and out in the rain last night?

Nr 4.) And why is she so keen to go to the ball given the distance and the expense?

Nr 5.) Why did the Quance woman refuse her a ticket? And the Lloyds pretend not to know us?

Things only get stranger, as Richard battles his opium addiction, lusts after the maidservant, and tries to get to the bottom of a rapidly escalating series of events that include, besides the above-mentioned mysteries, obscene letters and mutilated animals. Events tumble rapidly along, recorded in Richard’s diary as they happen, sometimes to the minute, in tongue-in-cheek homage to the diaries of Marian Halcombe in Collins’s The Woman in White and Helen Huntingdon in Emily Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Unlike Marian and Helen, however, Richard is rapidly revealed to be a less-than-reliable narrator: the reader soon discerns his misinterpretations, perhaps sooner that we’re meant to, and when Richard eventually realizes them himself, his realizations lead only to further misinterpretations.

The problem with reenacting the sensation novel—and the even bigger problem of exposing its underbelly (which in this case includes abortion, addiction, and more master-servant sex and homosexuality)—is that the sensation novel exposed its own underbelly. There’s not much point in revisiting the fictional past unless you have something to add, and Palliser doesn’t. Rustication whips itself into an allusive frenzy of character and plot, but in the end there’s little there that we haven’t seen before. Readers familiar with the genre will spot most plot elements long before the characters do, while readers who aren’t would do better to read the real thing.

 Frog Music also has mysteries and sex, but it takes them from real life, not fiction. While Donoghue’s best-selling previous novel, Room, was based on dramatic contemporary news reports, Frog Music, torn from the headlines of 1876 San Francisco, is a return to the historical fiction that has punctuated her career. The novel begins with a French lullaby and gunshots. Renowned French burlesque dancer and sometime prostitute Blanche Beunon and her new friend, cross-dressing frog catcher Jenny Bonnet, are hiding out in San Miguel Station, a forlorn railroad crossing eight miles south of San Francisco. Jenny is killed by the bullets, and the subsequent story toggles back and forth (often with jarringly little notice) between the month before this fateful evening and the week after. Before, Blanche meets and grows closer to Jenny, quarrels with her domineering lover and sometime pimp, and finds and loses her year-old son. After, she tries to find Jenny’s murderer and put her own shattered life back together.

Historically, Frog Music is engaging and informative. The physical and social geography, social mores, decadence, and racism of 1870s San Francisco come alive, not in lectures, but in Blanche’s daily life. With Blanche, the reader encounters the grotesquerie of the urban baby farm where her lover and boss have conspired to place her son, though they tell her he is happily boarding in the country: “Crib after metal crib … Two small ones in one crib, three in the next … Tear-shaped glass bottles in mouths, or gone crusty on chests, or lost in corners with their black rubber teats dribbling onto the sheets.” There are thieves with their ears cut off and Chinese riots, the challenge of finding ice in the worst heat wave in memory, the “scarlet pustules” and “dimpled red pearls” of smallpox, Blanche’s lurid outfits (“blue plaid and yellow stockings”) and, in every chapter, songs, their historical accuracy verified by “Song Notes” at the book’s end.

Ironically, the book’s most compelling emotional moment appears in the straight historical narrative of the Afterword.

As fiction, the book is less satisfying. The eventual nature of Jenny and Blanche’s relationship is apparent long before it comes to fruition (you can probably already guess it, especially if you’ve read Donoghue pre-Room), while other major plot points, like the identity of Jenny’s murderer, rear up suddenly and inexplicably. Much of the text consists of Blanche’s ruminations as she wanders the Bay Area after Jenny’s death. While her ambivalent but powerful pull toward motherhood and her frankly desiring sexuality, with its simultaneous cravings for physical satisfaction and abasement, are complex, they are also repetitive, and her speculations about Jenny’s past and murder become tedious.

Frog Music is based on a true story, whose details Donoghue meticulously lays out in an Afterword, a feature common to many literary historical novels, whose authors seem compelled to establish their historical and literary bona fides, by foregrounding their research and distinguishing it from their fiction. Ironically, the book’s most compelling emotional moment appears in that straight historical narrative, when Donoghue reveals what happened to the real-life Blanche after the events depicted in the novel. Sometimes, it seems, the facts are enough, and there is no need for fiction.

 If you had told me that of all the historical fiction I read this year, my favorite book would also be Oprah’s favorite, I would have scoffed. Then I would have had to eat my scoffing. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, the fictionalized story of real-life abolitionist Sarah Grimké and her childhood maid, Hetty, about whom only a very few facts are known, is the historical novel of the season that most absorbed, interested, educated, and moved me. Oprah clearly felt the same way, for she chose it as her third selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and acquired the film rights. The Invention of Wings is a novel of women, race, challenge, inspiration, righteousness, suffering, and triumph—Oprahesque leitmotifs all and, in this case, the ingredients of a thoroughly satisfying book.

The novel begins when Sarah, an 11-year-old wealthy white girl in Charleston, South Carolina, receives 10-year-old slave girl Hetty, or Handful, as her mother named her, as a birthday present—to her instinctive disgust. It follows the two women’s stories, in alternating chapters, as they grow up and face the evils of slavery. But The Invention of Wings is hardly simplistic, in literary or moral terms. Kidd skillfully, but not heavy-handedly, develops a set of images (water, birds, wings) and symbols (Handful’s thimble, Sarah’s button, Handful’s mother’s quilts, red thread) that weave together the narrative and bind together the book’s women: Handful and her mother, Handful and Sarah, Sarah and her sister Nina, Sarah and Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott.

Most striking, perhaps, is the finesse with which Kidd negotiates the minefield that is fiction about black and white women. This is not a novel where the black woman’s role in the story is to enable the white woman, nor is it a story that evades that powerful historical and fictional dynamic by relegating one or the other to its margins. Rather, Sarah and Handful each have their own stories, which entwine throughout, but never collapse into each other. Similarly, each has her own mother, and here too, Kidd eschews the easy way out. Sarah’s mother sticks to her white Southern slave-owner guns, impeding Sarah’s iconoclasm at every turn, yet showing the occasional, unpredictable hint of maternal compassion. Handful’s mother, Mauma, is the center of the novel, a stalwart figure of resistance and rebellion, who suffers for it.

The Invention of Wings is also a book about the power of language and texts: Handful’s secret reading lessons, Sarah’s stammer, slave passes, letters, lists of slaves, abolitionist and feminist pamphlets. In this book, words matter, whether they are creating personal opportunities and political movements or bringing down catastrophe. Words are also the stuff of history and fiction, and in its compelling story and language, The Invention of Wings offers one full-fledged realization of the possibilities of historical fiction. It plunges the reader wholly into the past, enlightening and entertaining us, while also making us reflect on our present, in history and in literature. icon

  1. Rachel Deahl, “William Morrow Finds Sleeper Hit in ‘Orphan Train,’Publishers Weekly, March 28, 2014.
  2. See David Shields, Reality Hunger (Knopf, 2010); Will Self, “The Novel Is Dead (This Time It’s For Real),” Guardian, May 2, 2014.