Romance, yes; historical (romance) novels, no?

I am to participate in New Mexico Women Authors’ Book Festival on Oct. 1 in Santa Fe. I proposed a topic—Historical Fiction; an Oxymoron? Of course I am knee-deep in research—not only about the historical and the fiction part, but about the “reading” part which is dear to my heart.

But as I was happy to have my prejudices in favor of “slow reading” confirmed, I came across a recent interview in where A. S. Byatt commented on the Orange Prize for fiction which is designated for women novelists.

Her comments in general about scribbling women (of course not her words), were challenged by other writers, but I liked her statement about Possession for which she won the Booker prize in 1990. Her publishers apparently wanted her to cut a large part of her Victorian poetry from the novel, but she prevailed, noting ‘No one could have been more surprised than me that it did so well. I thought it was a niche book for academics. Which shows that you should always write a romance.’

In order to avoid confusion with sci-fi or some demonic goings on between the covers, I suppose, the title is Possession, a Romance. I loved the book—it covers a lot of territory and it’s long—something to sink your teeth into and not to be page-turned—and it has parts dealing with Mélusine of Lusignan, but I digress.

I also liked the parts about that imaginary New Mexico university housing what’s his name’s papers—I guess New Mexico sounded exotic enough to Ms. Byatt, even though its literary tradition is not exactly deeply rooted. Everyone has heard of Ben Hur, but not even Wiki (!) mentions that Lew Wallace wrote it while he was the governor of New Mexico (and no, I didn’t Wiki Lew Wallace)—but I digress. As a historian, I enjoyed the portions about the search for documents of the elusive Cristabel and Ash. Research of “historical” records seems to fascinate, for some reason, but more on that later. The academic backstabbing was pretty neat, too.

But as I read Possession, I thought, if you strip out all that academic stuff, you have a pretty good historical/Victorian romance as well as a contemporary romance both of which would do well on the “romance” shelves of B & N or any book retailers. Of course there is romance and there is romance, but in the end, it all has a romance.

So there is Ms. Byatt, defending romance (or at least her “romance”), which warms the cockles of my heart– and then she says about her current novel which covers the years from l895 to l9l9, ‘My books are not genre historical novels.’

Oh, ouch! So “romance” is ok, but “genre historical” is to be avoided. Is it the “genre” or the “historical” part? What about all that “historical” research to cobble together the story of Cristabel and Ash?

What is it about “historical novels” that sends staunch-hearted women novelists back peddling? How about “historical romance”? Even a more horrifying designation?

Back to research—

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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