Chick-lit with Wimples

Historical Fiction: an Oxymoron? aka “Chick- lit with Wimples.”

 This is an abreviated version of a presentation I wrote for the NM Women Authors’ Book Festival in Santa Fe, Oct. 2, 2010. I never got to it, but we talked about a lot of other things–but here it is, as promised, food for thought.


Ellen Feldman, the historian and author of Lucy: A President, A Marriage, A Love Affair, a novel about the relationship between Lucy Mercer and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, describes herself as “a historian by training and a novelist by profession.” 

I would describe myself as a historian by profession and lately as novelist-in-training, and confess to being the authoress of  a “genre blending” historical novel-historical romance—which not only gives me the opportunity to offend purists on both sides. 

However, it appears that a number of my fellow historians are rushing to write historical fiction. That’s because nobody read their history books, as my smart and snarky friend put it the other day. 

The twin developments—resurrection of historical fiction as a genre, and the plunge into it by academic historians, as well as some of the current debate around it, has caught my eye. 

The UK Booker Prize for 2009 made something of a splash in some quarters because it was awarded to a historical novel and one written by a woman. That is of course Hilary Mantel’s, Wolf Hall

The choice of Wolf Hall generated a flurry or fury which Mantel herself dismissed as the “time worn debate” about the value of historical fiction. She took on the issues of “truth” and accuracy of history as well as the creative aspects of writing a “historical novel.” 

(My own suspicion is that she’s wrote it because of the Tudor mania, but that’s just my opinion–:-) 

The change in attitude toward the genre of  “historical fiction” (at least what’s called its “literary” version), has been occurring for some time, and on both sides of the Atlantic.

 The Atlantic Monthly had an article in May 2009 “How Historical Fiction Went Highbrow.” The choice of title tells a lot about the change which presumed that “historical fiction” is always “low brow.” The article referred to the Key West Literary Seminar held in January 2009 called “Historical Fiction, the search for Truth.” 

 It sounds more like a Geraldo Rivera affair than a serious gathering, but that’s what it was judging from the participants, on one of whom was the American historian, Eric Foner of Columbia—more on that later. 

Similarly, across the ocean, UK’s Guardian’s book section in Sept. 28, 2009 described  historical fiction as regaining its gravitas.

 The Guardian contrasted that development to the later part of 20th century when historical novels became marginalized and “literary” novelists studiously avoided writing “genre” fiction as something only romance novelists did—read only women novelists did—such as Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer.

 At the same time, of course military historical novels written and read by men—Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, C. S. Forester—did well in the critics’ opinion. 

Why the change of heart by 2009? A comment in The Observer in the UK praised the Booker selection as rejecting the “sometimes unreadable literary fiction” and “the return of the cracking good read,” where “narrative, plot, story, call it what you will, is coming back.”

Others also noted a new trend—“real” historians had been making the news by writing “historical fiction.” The cynically-minded would not call this a new development, but let’s leave that one for the moment.

How did that happen?

 The American historian Richard Slotkin wrote, “Most of the practicing historians I know were first attracted to their subjects by reading historical fiction.” 

Another article in The Independent (Aug. 13, 2010) by historian Saul Davis who is writing a historical novel, pointed out that there is currently a spate of historians–turned-novelists who are selling well. “Many readers of historical fiction like to be entertained and educated, and the only authors they can entirely trust to do both are historians.”

The historian Alison Weir offered a word of wisdom in the same article “…people care that historical fiction is close to the truth.” 

Hmmm… A) don’t we already know that the reading public doesn’t trust historians because they keep re-writing things and besides, all history is bunk?  And B) close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. 

As a historian, to borrow from Shakespeare, I do admit impediments to the true marriage of the minds between historical novelists and historians who write as novelists on this issue of being “close to the truth.” This is not a new debate, especially in the area of “literary” historical fiction. See, for example, M. C. Carnes, Novel History, Historians and Novelists confront America’s Past (and Each Other), Simon & Schuster, 2004. 

The debate is usually one about the nature of “historical truth,” or what someone called “real historical facts.”

 Dr. Foner who delivered an address at the Key West Literary seminar entitled “Who Owns History,” zeroed in on this issue from the perspective of his profession. 

Foner spoke about the democratic nature of history in the United States where non-scientists don’t feel qualified to express opinion about nuclear physics, but everyone has an opinion about history. 

He did point out that fiction and history have more in common than appears at first sight since historical narrative (as practiced by historians) is itself an invention, a process of selection & ordering of  “the facts.”

In the end, however, he said, the objective TRUTH of history is not possible since “real” historical narrative is composed as part of the imagination of the historian. What we are left with is a “reasonable approximation” of the past.

 Foner says the problem with the debate about “the truth” in history is that there is often more than one “legitimate way” of recounting the past, a concept which is difficult for non-historians to understand. In fact, the  process of rewriting history by the profession is its legitimate intellectual pursuit—reinterpretation.

 One of the topics at the Key West Seminar was the question of “What is so compelling about the past that we as readers are so enthralled?”

 Good question: What does attract many readers and writers to historical fiction? Is it escapism to the past from the problems of today? Was the past better, simpler, more orderly or peaceful? Hilary Mantel pointed out in her comments on her work that the more you know about the past the more you want to run toward the future. But an escape is still an escape, isn’t?

 However, as we know, the question about the “truth” of the past is not just an “academic” one: As George Orwell said in l984, “Who controls the past controls the future,” which applies and is relevant to the United States today.

 So the debate about “historical fiction” is being replaced by the on-going debate about who tells “true” history—historians or novelists? It resembles the SNL ‘quien es mas macho?’ debate, only in this case it’s about who can better capture “the human experience,” a debate which will no doubt continue.

 Of course all during this time, there has been “the other” genre historical fiction, written and read predominantly by women.

 It is precisely this sort of historical fiction that, interestingly, Hilary Mantel wishes to disassociate herself from. She defends her novel against those critics who hurl the accusation that “the authors (of historical fiction) are ducking the tough issues in favor of writing about frocks.” 

 She goes on: “There is a certain strand of historical fiction of which this is certainly true; it is chick-lit with wimples. But that is not the kind of historical fiction that is under attack. It’s too soft of a target. The grumbling is aimed at literary fiction set in the past, which is accused of being, by its nature, escapist.”

 I think that for someone of Ms. Mantel’s stature that is a surprising comment and clearly shared by others: one of her defenders against these charges of escapism into historical fiction, has praised Mantel’s work as being “a far more exciting proposition than the usual “ladies-and–lances” epics that the genre turns out.” (Guardian, Oct. 7, 2009).

 Ooo, ouch, ladies!

 This new embracing of the “literary fiction set in the past” and the discomfort about what to do with the other “historical fiction” that hangs around like a skunk at a picnic, I would argue, continues to perpetuate the even more time-worn genre-gender separation. 

 The study of history was long regarded as a male profession because it requires analytical brain power. Men studied history, men wrote history, men read history. History was a male province. Women wrote and read novels—which was of course considered a soft intellectual pursuit.

 This subject was discussed by Jill Lepore in the March 24, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, called “Just the Facts, ma’am,” where she describes, among other things, the development of the novel in the l8th century as a feminine domain and the contemporary warnings about “Novel Reading, a cause of Female depravity.” Her views did not go unchallenged, but the article is worth reading.

 Speaking of female depravity…..

 It seems that while “literary” historical novels even if written by women are finally getting a pass, popular novels written by women continue to be regarded with disdain in most literary quarters.

 I am of course referring to those “ladies-and-lances” of historical fiction. (Invented, by the way, by a man—Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, l819).

 Like their earlier counterparts (some of which are now considered classics), current romances are also written by women and read by women. They continue to get no respect, even though they generated 1.37 billion in sales in 2008, and have the largest share of the market. (The Yale Herald, Katherine Orazem, Feb. 12, 2010–

However, even here things are changing, albeit much more slowly. The study of romance novels is becoming part of scholarly inquiry at some universities, as parts of women’s studies, popular culture, popular literature, or as literary texts. In 2007 was founded The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) dedicated to the study of romance as literature, with its first conference held in Brisbane, Australia.

Writers of such fiction, often multi-faceted, are speaking out eloquently in defense of their genre. Elizabeth Lowell wrote on her website in an essay, “Popular fiction: Why we read it, why we write it,” about romances following the ancient Greek formula for comedy (which is social, feminine and ends in marriage) rather than tragedy (which is political, has a masculine theme, and ends in death).

 “Contrary to what the critics tell us,” she wrote, “popular fiction is not a swamp of barely literate escapism; popular fiction is composed of ancient myth newly reborn, telling and retelling a simple truth: ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

 As with any literary form, Lowell admits, the quality of the writing varies. But at its heart, popular romance fiction speaks to a “transcendent tradition that emphasizes ancient hope rather than modernist despair [?]”

 So let’s give Professor Ellen Feldman who wrote Lucy the penultimate word: She speaks of her novel as depicting a love story in which she was striving to “get at the truth of a great human drama, and for that only fiction will do.” 

 It seems then that there is an affinity between the historians and the writers of fiction set in the past, whether literary or popular. The differences between them appear to be of degrees rather than kind. That “chic lit with wimples” may well turn out to be a gateway drug for a young woman who decides to pursue the study of history, with wimples or not.

 P. S. Interestingly, while Mantel refuses to be associated with those “other” novelists who write historical romances, and considers herself to be a historical novelist, A. S. Byatt won the Booker in 1990 with Possession, A Romance, she has refused to be called “historical novelist.”

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
This entry was posted in history notes, random thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Chick-lit with Wimples

  1. Historical fiction is one of those catch-all titles people frequently use for all sorts of things. My friend once gave me a book to read which she considered historical fiction. It had no interest for me as it was simply romance set in the past. There were no elements of history in it at all. For me historical fiction is a gripping story based on real events but with fictional characters peopling the time period along with the real people. I love to imagine what it might have been like to live in a different time interacting with people from history, accent on history. In other words the historical part must be significant. Sharon Kay Penman’s novels, for example, transport the reader to King Henry VIII’s time or King John’s time or Richard’s (the so-called hunchback king). These are a wonderful way to learn about times past.
    Great to meet you in London, Hana. I’ll be checking back again.


  2. Clarissa Harwood says:

    You’ve raised many interesting issues here, Hana. I blame Henry James for the popular fiction/literary fiction divide, and the modernist writers who came after him. He wanted to raise the status of fiction to high art, which was a worthy goal but has resulted in a divide that I don’t really believe in. If you wait long enough, a novel that was considered popular (even crassly commercial) at the time can become literary or at least considered worthy of study by academics (e.g. Dracula). I don’t think anything beats well-written popular fiction and I don’t care what slot people want to put me or other writers in, as long as the books I love to read and write keep getting written!


    • Clarissa–
      I agree about the artificiality of the split (damn James!), but speaking as a historian :-), it seems that fiction which is considered popular in its time and becomes “literary” or subject to academic study is treated more as an cultural artifact reflecting its contemporary social setting as well as literary aspects. Besides Dracula, Frankenstein comes to my mind. I am guilty of this, I am afraid–sometimes assign Mary Shelley to be profiled in my class when I deal with the beginning of the industrial revolution — and most of my students are surprised that Frank was written by a woman–and even more surprised to find out about her life & those of her contemporaries. Actually, almost none of them have ever read the original Dracula or Frank–but they have seen the movies & they think of those in context of Buffy the Vampire slayer.
      The question whether popular fiction is “well-written” is of course another issue….


  3. Hi Elaine–

    great to hear from you; I agree with your assessment of historical fiction. The split between “historical”romance and “historical” fiction is certainly something that continues to cause debate. Mantel’s dismissal of the historical “romance” genre I think, however is a stab at women who read and write of the stuff. There are historical romances that I like and historical fiction (largely written by men, I noticed 🙂 that I wouldn’t use for a door stop. But that’s just my opinion!


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