It seems a silly question these days, doesn’t it? I mean, why not historical fiction? Despite the quarrels that some writers and readers want to have over “genre” fiction vs. “literary” fiction, most fiction falls into some recognizable subgenre, even so-called “literary” fiction. I read contemporary fiction, crime fiction, horror fiction, and, yes, historical fiction. I write historical fiction and have written many historical poems (please click here or here if you would like to see a couple in their new Kindle editions from Penmore Press!), so why would I even think to question historical fiction?
I’ve recently been engaged in reading Rose Tremain, and in scrolling through her books to find something new to me, I came across her two seventeenth-century novels, Restoration and Merivel: A Man of his Time (see my reviews of these books on Goodreads here and here). These episodic novels follow Robert Merivel, a character very like the historical Samuel Pepys, as he navigates his way through England (and sometimes France and Switzerland) during the reign of Charles II. The writing is wonderful, as is usual with Tremain, and the characters are lively and funny, interesting and infuriating.
As is also often the case with Tremain, however, the plots don’t really add up to much. This happens, then that happens, and then something else happens, and the characters don’t really change or develop all that much. They are pretty much the same people on the last page as they were on the first. In and of itself, a character-centered novel doesn’t trouble me much, because good character is, for me, the center of any really pleasing work of fiction. I sometimes am able to set that aside in favor of plot when there is a crime to be solved or a mystery to be revealed–or a historical event or period to be examined.
In the afterword to Restoration, Tremain reveals that when she wrote the book she was thinking of the Thatcher years in England and meant the excessive spending and greed of her historical period to reflect on that. OK, I thought, that makes sense. I can see how one might extrapolate effectively, but only after having been told what to read into the events of the book.
There is no such afterword to Merivel, and I can only assume that the author meant for the satire to continue. This second book, however, dwells so lovingly on some of the really appalling behavior of the main character (and, to be fair, others in his circle) that I found it difficult to see the satire and just thought, “Let’s get on with it, shall we, and let this finish up.”
And then I began to wonder what the point was of setting this in the seventeenth century. Of course, many works of satire use distance and the sidelong glance to make their points. And historical fiction, as Hilary Mantel has recently so eloquently described it, does take a stand as it centers itself upon a particular character (here is the story, which is very good despite the snarky comments about American dramas–and from the country that brought us Downton Abbey and Poldark! History Extra). But when the when the story itself doesn’t provide the key to the code of extrapolation, then I want the story to do something for me in its historical period.
And, for me, these novels, as much as I loved the detail and the sentence-to-sentence writing, didn’t finally accomplish that task. By the time I was halfway through the second one, I wanted it to end. I didn’t enjoy the character anymore, and his adventures began to feel all of a single, sordid piece. Well written, to be sure, but, in the end, somewhat tiresome. I wished that Tremain had left Merivel in a single novel, explained what she was doing, and moved on.
So that brings me back to the question of historical fiction. Why? Well, for all kinds of reasons, some of them literary, some of them cultural, some of them personal. What I want from all fiction is a well-wrought character in some kind of conflict. Should the focus be on character or on plot or on period or on the writing?