Monday, December 10, 2012

What Is It about Historical Fiction?

Of the books deemed the ten best of 2012 by the New York Times, I find that I have only read one: Hilary Mantel's mesmerizing Bring Up the Bodies. It's the story of Henry VIII and his falling-out with wife #2, Anne Boleyn, told from the point of view of his loyal minister, the commoner Thomas Cromwell. Quite aside from the narrative skill required to make a story suspenseful despite a foregone conclusion, the author is extraordinarily deft. I was well into it before I began to realize that he was not a man I ever intended or expected to like or appreciate.

What is it that makes historical fiction so appealing to those of us who spend our best hours toiling in the vineyards of historical fact? (Or do you avoid it?) Is it a cheap thrill or a good one? I don't doubt that imagination plays a role in both, although in genealogy it's a role pretty much limited to conjuring up hypotheses.

Someone like Mantel takes the records and some of our speculations -- and weaves them into a story that makes sense to us. How much sense would it have made to Cromwell and his contemporaries? That's the maddeningly unanswerable question.

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (New York: Macmillan, 2012).

Harold Henderson, "What Is It about Historical Fiction?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 10 December 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Sonja Hunter said...

When researching my family I often wonder what a typical day was like for my ancestors. Reading both nonfiction and historical fiction help me to better understand the world of my forebears.

Becky said...

That is a great way to put it Sonja. I too love to read about the past and think about ancient civilizations and the lives they led. I have been most fascinated with ancient Egyptian stories- "Shadow of the Sun" by Merrie P. Wycoff is one of my favorite books. It is clear when reading the book that the author has done her research- which makes the historical events that much more real to me.