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.