The Canon of Historical Fiction – what’s in it and what’s not
What is a canon? Apart from a camera maker, it’s also a cathedral priest, a church law and, for the purposes of this blog, the measure against which we judge what is good and what is not in literature. The canon is the ultimate best-of list, the books that have survived the centuries to speak along the conversation that is human history. But the canon must also show the breadth and possibilities of a literary genre.
So here I’m going to make a stab at defining and starting the canon of historical fiction. First, though, we need to define what we mean by historical fiction. The most obvious answer is that it’s written about people in the past, so we will begin by defining our first criterion: to qualify as historical fiction the work must be set in a time at least one generation before the time of writing.
Secondly, to give equal weight to both parts of its name, it must be a story grounded in historical fact. So while there will be fictional aspects to the story, it should not contradict history. By that criterion, something like Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which I would otherwise very much like to include, has to be excluded from the canon of historical fiction as Arthur – if he existed – fought very different battles to those depicted in Le Morte.
Following from this, we must also exclude historical fantasy. While it’s true that peoples in the past accepted the supernatural much more readily and therefore, to portray them properly, supernatural and fantastical elements may be introduced into a story, they should not take precedence over history. With that in mind, I think we would have to exclude The Odyssey from the canon, for while it’s quite possible that Odysseus wandered widely in his return from Troy, the mythical elements of the story put it firmly into legend rather than history.
So, with these criteria in mind, what makes up the canon of historical fiction through the centuries. Let’s go!
The Iliad – Homer. The grandaddy of them all. The foundation stone of pretty well all western literature. And, for fans of hard hitting historical fiction, it contains some of the most brutal depictions of battle ever written, and all in dactylic hexameter! My favourite translation is the one by Robert Fagles.
Moving into the early medieval period, Beowulf is disqualified because of its fantastical elements but The Song of Roland, despite the somewhat unlikely casualty figures, makes it both as an account of a real battle and as an unparalleled insight into the beginnings of chivalric culture.
Although they’re plays, Shakespeare’s histories are supreme examples of the writer bringing the historical past to life and interpreting it afresh through the ages. Indeed, Shakespeare’s take on the Wars of the Roses has probably influenced our ideas of what happened then more than those of any historian. As he’s recently resurfaced, try Richard III (although a particular favourite is Henry VI part 3).
But historical fiction as a genre really gets going in the 19th century and the man who set it running was Sir Walter Scott. His Waverley novels introduce characters at the meeting of competing social groups, while Ivanhoe pretty well invents the modern medieval novel.
Most of the 19th century giants of English literature turned their hands to the historical novel, with examples ranging from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (pretty well my least favourite of his works) to Vanity Fair.
But the greatest 19th-century work of historical fiction must be War and Peace. Tolstoy wrote it some 60 years after Napoleon’s disastrous (for him) invasion of Russia, although in the story Tolstoy is as much concerned with his present as the past.
Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed also uses the events of the past – Italy in the early 17th century – as part of an examination of pre-unification Italy. It’s one of the great novels of Italian literature.
Moving to the new world, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper pretty well created the idea of the noble Indian, while tinging it with elegiac wistfulness for a disappearing people.
Coming into the 20th century, Georgette Heyer pretty well single handedly created the Regency romance novel – she can’t be held responsible for its subsequent mutations! Robert Graves might have regarded I, Claudius and Claudius the God as literary hack work but they show less sign of being forgotten than his poetry, while of Mary Renault’s superb novels about ancient Greece my own favourite is The Mask of Apollo, which shows Plato trying, and failing, to put his political philosophy into practice through his teaching of Dionysius the Younger, ruler of Syracuse.
There’s a strong strand of historical fiction written for children and, of these, I’d single out Rosemary Sutcliff and her Eagle of the Ninth as one of the best examples – and certainly worthy of a place in the canon.
While I’ve mainly confined myself to the English-writing world, there is one 20th-century novel from an entirely different cultural milieu that every fan of historical fiction should read: Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Writing as a Japanese Catholic, Endo is both a part of and stands as observer to his culture, a position also endured by the hero of Silence, a Portuguese missionary priest in the 17th century who is forced to abjure his faith in the face of the torture meted out to Christians. Silence is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, so it definitely earns its place in our canon.
I am no great fan of The Name of the Rose, but as an example of a sub-genre of historical fiction, the historical detective story, it deserves a place in the canon. On the other hand, I admit to being a complete fan boy of George Macdonald Fraser and Patrick O’Brian: I will complete this list of the historical fiction canon with Flashman and the Aubrey/Maturin books.
Now, it’s your turn. Tell me what else you think should form part of the canon of historical fiction.