My thoughts have turned to this subject of late, for two reasons: I’ve been reading quite a few historical mysteries, and I’m watching Wolf Hall:
I have little to add to the praise that has already been heaped on this production. I adored both books – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – and I’m loving the screen version, although I by no means consider them equivalent in impact. But oh, those costumes, those sets, those tapestries! (what you can see of them in the dark, that is).
(Vanity Fair has posted a very helpful guide to the cast and characters in Wolf Hall.)
Now, on to the meat of the matter. Currently I have two favorite historical mystery series. First, there’s Robin Blake’s novels featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his friend and fellow investigator Luke Fidelis, a physician. These books are set in a very specific time and place: Preston, Lancashire, in the eighteenth century. The first, A Dark Anatomy, takes place in 1740. The next two, Dark Waters followed by The Hidden Man, advance the action exactly one year forward. Thus having recently finished The Hidden Man, I feel firmly rooted in the world that Robin Blake has created. It’s an extremely interesting world and it feels utterly real. I feel as though I actually know Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. Titus is married to the sweet and empathetic Elizabeth; Luke is single. (I am most eager for Elizabeth to become pregnant and for Luke to find a soul mate.)
P.F. Chisholm’s series is set in the late 1500s in the far north of England, near the Anglo-Scottish border In this region, a curious and widespread lawlessness prevails. Queen Elizabeth is apparently too far away to take any meaningful corrective action; one doesn’t get the sense that she’s much interested in this remote domestic Hell raising anyhow. She does send one of her favorite courtiers, a distant cousin named Robert Carey. Would he please try to impose some sort of order on these people? Once arrived, Sir Robert assumes the role of Deputy Warden. Although his immediate superior, the Chief Warden of the region, happens to be his brother-in-law, this does not secure for Sir Robert any special favors. Rather, as he goes about the often dangerous business of pursuing outlaws, he is subject to a more particular scrutiny by that gentleman. Sir Robert’s sister, the wonderfully named Philadelphia, gives him a hand whenever she can.
After reading the first in the series, A Famine of Horses, I went on to read the next three in quick succession. I couldn’t get enough of Sir Robert Carey, his occasionally hapless men, and his seemingly doomed to be hapless love life.These books sparkle with wit, dry humor, and offhand irreverence. They are a joy to read – and there are more!
I’ve written about both Blake and Chisholm elsewhere in this space. It perplexes me that they are not better known and appreciated. Be that as it may, I recommend them to the discerning reader as highly as I possibly can.
What qualities are inherent in good historical fiction? To begin with, the writing has to be first rate. And so important: no anachronisms! Banish them utterly; they break the spell and spoil the illusion. Dialogue can be especially treacherous territory. I’ve read – or begun to read – some historical novels in which one encounters blocks of prose that are passable, even elegantly descriptive. But when the characters open their mouths to speak, they sound like high school kids from some idyllic valley in California. One certainly wishes them well – but do please extract them from Elizabethan England, the sooner the better! One way to skirt this pitfall is to cast the novel in the form of a first person memoir. Although this will limit point of view – the narrator can’t know what’s going on elsewhere except later and at second hand – it’s a technique that offers certain advantages. This is nowhere more apparent than in Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian.
Really good historical fiction is carefully researched so that the era in question can be meticulously recreated. That research must then be subsumed beneath the surface of the story that’s being told. If it obtrudes itself in an ungainly way into the narrative, then the cherished illusion of being transported into a past time is under threat. C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels have been justly praised for their rich depiction of life in Tudor England. I’m currently reading the latest, Lamentation. I’m about third of the way in – it’s quite long – and generally speaking, I’m enjoying it. But I’ve been dismayed to encounter several instances in which one or another aspect of the times is explicated for the benefit of the contemporary reader rather than for the novel’s characters.
Here’s an example: Shardlake, a lawyer, is conversing with his new pupil Nicholas on the subject of the accoutrements that may legally be worn in public. As they head for the street, Shardlake asks if Nicholas is carrying a weapon. The pupil replies in the affirmative, and Shardlake offers this comment:
“Since your father’s being a landowner decrees you are a gentleman and gentlemen wear swords in public, we may as well turn the sumptuary laws to our advantage.”
Granted, sumptuary law will prove an arcane subject for most contemporary readers. (The WordPress visual text editor does not have the word “sumptuary” in its lexicon.) Still, in the context of the novel, this is too much information, methinks. Shardlake and his contemporaries would probably have been well versed in this body of regulations, since violating them could carry serious consequences. For whom then is this information intended? The modern reader, one can but supposed.
Admittedly a small cavil, but what can I say? It sets my teeth on edge and breaks the spell.
If, like me, you love historical fiction, here’s a little book that may drive you crazy in the best possible way:
For me, the chief task of historical fiction is to transport me to another time and place – and keep me there for the duration. Above all, transcendent writing can help make the leap. There are two passages from Wolf Hall that illustrate this phenomenon exceptionally well well. This one:
‘The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields. The huntsmen call in the dogs.
He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.
All our senses are heightened and brought into play. The past is made real once again.