Historical Fiction: What’s the continuing fascination with the past?

Filed in The Quirky Lover Posted on December 1, 2010 @ 3:00 pm 11 comments

I’ve been on a historical fiction kick lately. I’ve been watching the Tudors on TV and collecting books that cover this time period. But, I delve into other times also. I’m a total Arthurian geek, I love reading about other cultures and their history, and when you throw things like famous artists/works of art into historial Venice or France, I’m hooked.
But why do readers keep going back to different time periods? What is so attractive to us about eras of oppression, disease, and no indoor plumbing?

Well, in reading Historical Fiction in the context of romance novels, it fulfills every little girls dreams of marrying her Prince/Duke/King. The rogue royalty that seems to never want to settle down into marriage but finally does with the most unlikely woman….the idea alone just makes you want to swoon! The images of the long dresses and all of the accoutrements that people wore in the past is a difficult thing to imagine running around in today, but most people…ok, most women…love to get all fancied up. This just adds another facet to the romance lover’s overall appeal. I don’t usually read this particular type of fiction but have recently become enamored with the writing of Sarah MacLean with her Ralston brothers in Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake and Ten Ways to be Adored When Landing a Lord.

There’s more to history than romance though. Names like Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir do conjure up the English royalty but they also give fantastic (albeit, fictional) glimpses into the roles of women. I recently finished reading The Red Queen which contained enough provable information with a smidge of artistic license on the part of Gregory. Whether the lead character, Lady Margaret Beaufort, actually believed she was the next Joan of Arc or not, was not something I could find referenced but that she was a stern, religious woman is readily noted.
Then there are the mysteries of the past. Was King Arthur real? Was Jack the Ripper related to English royalty? Who murdered the Princes in the Tower or if they weren’t murdered, what happened to them? There are many unanswered question but through letters, books, notations spanning for centuries we get certain clues but never the complete picture. This makes it all the more interesting for us to read when an author comes up with compelling theories as explanations. While we’ll never have that time machine at our beck and call to travel back and see what really happened, more and more evidence is found to give more substantial proof of goings-on.
Speaking of time machines, what about the blending of true history with science fiction or fantasy? I am a huge fan of Guy Gavriel Kay. He is a master of taking different countries, periods, and people, making the characters rich, but also giving them special abilities. His most recent novel Under Heaven had a character that was working to ease the pain of ghosts from a previous war in ancient China. And truly, is not much of the Arthur legends steeped in fantastical elements? There are questions to the existence of King Arthur himself, never mind the Lady of the Lake, and The Sword on the Stone parts of his story. And the quest for the Holy Grail? Ok, that’s sends me way off on a completely separate tangent.

Hist. Fic. isn’t just for adults and geeky history nerds. Writers like Scott Westerfeld, Michelle Zink, Cassandra Clare, among many others have created wonderful worlds from the past and made them approachable for younger readers. I don’t know that it’s the authors’ intention to garner interest in the historical aspects as opposed to the story itself, but as a parent, I would hope that this kind of popular fiction would spark the desire in kids to learn more. There’s nothing like tricking your kids into education that would otherwise be considered boring when presented in the traditional, scholastic way :-p
All in all, I think the main attraction here is that the information is tangible: it is real, however skewed it may become by the author’s imagined versions. Being fictional, there is still that feeling of being transported away from our own lives, but history has been such a weird, wonderful, sometimes tragic place that there is real richness in what we’re reading.
What do you think?

About Jackie

Jackie is a quirky mom, living in Ontario, Canada. She's a bookkeeper by day and a book lover by night. She also blogs at The Novel Nation and writes occasionally for Heroes and Heartbreakers.

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  • Stella (Ex Libris) December 1, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Fantastic post Jackie, you completely decoded why I love reading historicals 😀 Besides the swoonworthy, gentlemenly behaving prince and duke rascals, the fluffy skirts and elegant dresses it is the ultimate adult fairy tale 😀

    And I agree: what I like about Philippa Gregory's novels is how she manages to give us glimpses of historical figures portrayed as ordinary persons and showing us their everyday life. After I read her stories I usually submerge myself in research because I want to know what is fact and what is fiction in the story 🙂

  • Celine December 1, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Great post!

    I have a particular weakness for the Victorian era. I find it fascinating to read about people from other time periods, especially books that deal with everyday life.

    And of course, we all want our duke/prince etcetera.

    Overall historical fiction makes us feel connected to people from different times, while still having our fix of engaging plot.

  • Jackie December 1, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    @Stella – I'm glad I'm not the only one, lol. I have a ton of reference books at home that I buy when I get engrossed in certain lives and/or times 🙂

  • Blodeuedd December 1, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I am a big history buff 😀 I just love it, and there is just something about it. being transported to another time, way back

  • Jackie December 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    @Celine – I'm stuck a bit in Henry VIII's time, thanks to Jonathan Rhys Meyers. I still find it hard to swallow their strict religious beliefs while they were running around committing murders and having affairs left, right and centre! Hypocrite much? LOL. Loved the Victorian feel in Clockwork Angel though 🙂

    @Blodeuedd – Historical fiction is total food for the history buff, but that's the charm of it….you don't necessarily have to be one to enjoy the reading. But if you are, you have more insight already. Thanks for stopping by!

  • LSUReader December 1, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I’ve always loved both history and reading. For years, I read only non-fiction. I enjoy learning about new places, people and times. Now that I read a variety of fiction, I find historical romance fills a particular craving. Learn something new—check; people will be happy—check. It is such a two for one. It’s like eating Raisinettes candy. You’re getting a good source of iron and it’s covered with chocolate. So that’s why I love historical fiction. It’s the Raisinettes of reading! Thanks for a great post.

  • Donna December 1, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    I think that just like with reading any other story, it transports the reader to another world wholly unlike our own, except this world was, at one point, real. It does feed into a romantic aspect of what history was like (I doubt most people would actually enjoy traveling back to King Arthur times (the Dark Ages) where no one, not even royalty, bathed, among other things) but it's fascinating nonetheless.

    I love reading about ancient Rome or Egypt. I don't know why. But I can't get enough of it.

  • Jenny N. December 1, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    Historical is one of my favorite genres and I especially stories set in Victorian England. I started watching historical movies and series especially series from the BBC and gradually moved to reading historical romances though now I dont read too many romance novels anymore. It transports you to the past and you can see how people lived and notice all the details and mannerisms from back then.

  • JenM December 2, 2010 at 1:26 am

    People always comment on how much I know about history, but really, if they only knew, the way I learned it all was through historical fiction and historical romance. It's much more amusing to learn it though fiction rather than those dry history books.

  • SandyG265 December 2, 2010 at 8:19 am

    I like to read historical books (not just romance) because I find reading about different time periods interesting.

  • Jackie December 13, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    @LSU- Weird, I now have a craving for Glossette Raisins, lol (we don't have Raisinettes in Canada but same diff, lol.) And I totally agree 🙂

    @Donna – I haven't read about Rome, though I love the show Spartacus. I'll add it to the "To Do" list.

    @Jenny – I love the BBC stuff. I've pretty much worn out my copy of Pride & Prejudice. I wish we had more access to their documentaries here.

    @Jen – I won't tell your secret 😉

    @Sandy – It is very interesting and helps us appreciate the modern world that much more.

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