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Historical: Boyd Tonkin

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Thirty years or so ago, the historical novel had dropped below the horizon of respectable attention. The romantic gestures that thrilled Victorian readers had dwindled into the folderol of swashbucklers and bodice-rippers in pulp fiction, kitsch movies and television serials. Before long, a host of gleeful parodists from Monty Python to Blackadder would deliver the coup de grâce to this risible style. Period romances by the likes of Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, and Jean Plaidy still packed lending-library shelves, and in the classroom historical yarns never lost their cachet. Authors such as Rosemary Sutcliff were still creating children's classics that repaid visits from adult readers. But among literary novelists it was only the relatively recent events of the Second World War that led to the choice of a broad historical canvas. In the early 1960s Olivia Manning and Evelyn Waugh both completed ambitious triptychs about the impact of that war on private and public life: respectively, The Balkan Trilogy (1960–5) and the Sword of Honour (1952–61) sequence. Apart from this recent history, however, history (for serious novelists) was a no-go area.

Yet, by the century's end, historical fiction commanded a prestige and acclaim unknown since its heyday. As I write, Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) by Louis de Bernières, a period romance whose methods and motifs Walter Scott himself could have grasped at a glance, has just sold its millionth copy. Around a quarter of the titles that have appeared on the Booker Prize shortlists since 1975 count as historical novels of one brand or other. And the response to Toni Morrison's harrowing account of American slavery and its aftermath, Beloved (1987), has helped to make her the most popular Nobel literature laureate in decades.

What accounts for this sudden about-turn, and why did the genre fall so far? The form first took wing around 1800, in the wake of the French Revolution. European writers shared a consciousness of revolutionary change, a new fascination with their medieval and Renaissance past and a craving for larger-than-life heroes and villains on the scale of Napoleon himself. These streams converged into a taste for exotic tales of epoch-making conflict set in the near or distant past. On the back of this fashion, Sir Walter Scott, who published twenty-five Waverley novels from 1814 to 1832, became one of the earliest cultural superstars. Because he more or less patented the conventions of historical romance, Scott suffered most from their later exhaustion. But he stands squarely at the source of period fiction, and a novel such as Ivanhoe (1819)—honest Saxons versus haughty Normans, with Robin Hood himself in a cameo role—takes the reader right to the corny, colourful heart of all those later pastiches.

Nourished by an age of revolution, the historical novel tilted towards moments of conflict and transformation. In Victor Hugo's evergreen The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), a character shakes a book at the cathedral towers and shouts ‘This will kill that!’ When Charles Dickens came to tackle the French Revolution itself in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), his scene-painting summed up the Victorian ambivalence towards the gore and glitter of the past: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

Massacres aside, most nineteenth-century novelists still thought that history told a tale of hard-won progress and enlightenment. Nostalgia seldom dominates the form, certainly not in a portrayal of stifling dogma as bleakly realistic as Nathaniel Hawthorne's great account of Puritan bigotry in colonial New England, The Scarlet Letter (1850). As the century wore on, however, a few writers began to inspect the past and see a mess instead of a moral. No historical mess ever looked more thrillingly decadent—or more minutely researched—than the ancient Carthage of Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô (1862), a pioneer in the sensation-sodden treatment of the pre-Christian world that continues to this day. For most of Flaubert's peers, history did lead somewhere and mean something, however murky its message. The novelist who grappled most heroically with the question of how the vast forces of change may make or break an individual fate was Leo Tolstoy. His Napoleonic epic, War and Peace (1863–9), ranks for many critics as simply the greatest nineteenth-century novel: proof of just how central the historicizing impulse was to fiction at this time.

As a new century loomed, scepticism took root. Serious fiction turned towards the conflicts of the present, or the dark places of the soul. The historical novel drifted downmarket as genres past their prime will often do. Only Robert Louis Stevenson, who mastered the tricks of the trade in works such as Kidnapped (1886), pointed a way ahead with his sombrely brilliant, unfinished Weir of Hermiston (1896). A sword-and-breeches romp such as Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) could still enchant a wide public, but the form as a whole had forfeited its place at fiction's top table.

Decades of disdain ensued. As the Victorians became a laughing-stock, so did their favourite story-telling modes. Virginia Woolf's gender-bending, century-hopping fantasia Orlando (1928) is, in part, a sparkling burlesque of the costumed clichés that filled the reading of her girlhood. Yet Robert Graves's gripping chronicles of Imperial intrigue (I, Claudius and Claudius the God, 1934) proved that ancient Rome and Greece remained a rich storehouse of darkly glamorous tales. Good writers such as Mary Renault and Allan Massie would later carry on the toga-and-tunic line.

As a whole, historical novels only regained a place in the critical sun, along with other Victorian styles, in the later 1960s. (In the English-speaking world at least: a one-off masterpiece came out of Sicily in the mid-1950s, with Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, 1958.) In Britain, it was John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) that forged a template for new period fiction as it grafted a knowing modern narrator onto nineteenth-century romance. To the era of high modernism, period fiction looked merely silly. In our own, post-modern age, the past opens up again but only if we keep a self-conscious eye on the way we plunder it. Thus a witty, gently ironic voice steers even such a virtuoso reconstruction as Timothy Mo's novel of the British in Hong Kong, An Insular Possession (1986). Elsewhere, the Fowlesian switch between past and present narratives has served other writers well as in A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990), with its nimble interweaving of Victorian poetic passion and modern academic rivalry.

Once again, fine novelists can focus on epochs of trauma and transformation. The prolonged agony of the slave trade, the carnage of the trenches in the First World War, and of the Holocaust in the Second: these culture-shaping events marked late twentieth-century novelists as deeply as the trail of blood from the Bastille to Waterloo had their forebears. If Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) can stand as a paradigm of the slave-era narrative, Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy (1991–5) shows what becomes of First World War history when a late-century talent—laconic, feminist, irreverent but compassionate—gets to work on it. As for the Second World War, some critics claim that fiction will always make light of its crimes. Certainly, Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark (1982) impresses so much because its account of the high-living entrepreneur who saved Jews from the death camps cleaves so closely to the documentary record. Yet, with time, even some aspects of this war became a vehicle for a more playful art—nowhere better than in the erotic and satirical sidelights of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992).

Now, history and ‘heritage’ have grown into a leisure pursuit for millions. In this climate, the period novel can again entertain as well as edify. No contemporary writer has more devoted fans than Patrick O'Brian, whose vivid sequence of maritime yarns returns to the fountainhead of British historical fiction—the Napoleonic wars. The same epoch sets the stage for Black Ajax (1997), a glorious prize-fighting romance from the finest modern comic writer to scour the past for plots: George MacDonald Fraser.

Knowing humour has become an essential feature of the genre. Today's readers will have watched more Blackadder than they have swallowed Walter Scott. Julian Rathbone's clever Saxons-versus-Normans romp, The Last English King (1997), admits as much in its sly anachronistic gags. So historical fiction must now wear its period drag with an ironic grin. Yet this self-scrutinizing wit has not destroyed the form. On the contrary: it has helped to save it. History is bunk, jeered that arch-modernist, Henry Ford. But Ford is now history, while E. L. Doctorow's spellbinding mosaic of the tycoon and his times, Ragtime (1975), keeps his presence alive, and in better nick than any Model-T. Although the butt of mockery for most of a century, the historical novelist has enjoyed the last, and longest, laugh.

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