Reading Historical Fiction

I will confess that I have not always been a fan of historical fiction. I agreed with Antonia Fraser’s comment, “I can’t read historical fiction because I find the real thing so much more interesting.” Why, I reasoned would anyone want to read fictional stories about people and events, when they could, just as easily, pick-up a non-fiction book and read the real thing? I’m not alone in my former disregard of historical fiction. Many people still hold an almost arrogant contempt for what they view as “history lite.” However, I’ve recently come to an understanding and appreciation of this hugely popular reading genre.

A novel is considered historical fiction when the plot takes place in a setting located in the past, and portrays the manners, social conditions and other details of the period. The story often focuses on a specific event in the period and presents some of the actual events at the time through the presumed voices of actual or invented people. Examples of historical fiction can be found throughout literature – think Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, Umberto Eco,The Name of the Rose, or Hilary Mantel, Wolf-Hall. The genre is so large that there are subgenres – documentary fiction, historical romance, fictional biographies, historical mysteries, alternate history and historical fantasy, such as the popular Diana Gabaldon Outlander series.

Why read historical fiction? Here are a few reasons to consider. Historical fiction helps the reader to re-image history. It illuminates the past and enriches our understanding of people and events. It offers an interpretation of human character within a specific set of circumstances, helping us to experience the social and human motives when led men and women to act as they did. It gives us insight into the mind of past society and helps us to connect the present with the past.

Historical fiction speaks to us, especially in times of political turmoil. Reading historical fiction not only puts our current events into a historical context, but also helps us understand, imagine and empathize with what people lived through in other times and places. Read Dickens’ famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities written in1859 about 18th century France –

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Can we be sure that we are reading about the French Revolution, mid-nineteenth century England, or twenty-first century America?

The library is featuring the historical fiction genre during November and December. If you’re a fan, stop-in and browse the display.

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Posted in Readers

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