Saturday, March 8, 2014

Why Read Historical Fiction?

Readers are not always conscious of the reasons they are drawn to particular types of books or specific authors. While not receiving the same amount of attention as science fiction, fantasy, mystery or the current “paranormal romance” craze, historical fiction has a steady following, if the number of titles published and sold in this genre is any indication. What is it about stories about past times, places, and historical figures that have such broad appeal?

A reader may have an interest in a time period or event for any number of reasons, or no particular reason at all. They may have had a grandfather who served in World War II, or have ancestors from Czechoslovakia, or have visited the Maya ruins and want to know more. History books abound, but a novel can be a less daunting entrée into learning more about the subject, with facts integrated into the story.

For many readers, historical fiction serves as a form of escape. A time and locale very different from one’s own takes the reader from the noise and pressures of the modern world. At the same time, a well-written historical novel can also show us many ways in which humans have changed very little over time.

In a recent essay in The New Yorker, James Wood, using as an example Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, suggests that novels set in the past try to “rescue from history those private moments which history would never have been able to record.”[1] When we read about historical figures, we want to move beyond a recitation of dates and actions, and into the soul of the person and how they lived.

I have a particular interest in the lives of British royalty, especially (but not limited to) the Tudor period. While certainly the romance of the dramatic political and religious events of these time periods are part of what draws me in, a large part of what I’m looking for in these types of books is a sense of how people experiencing extraordinary events and circumstances lived. How did they dress, what did they eat, how did they feel, what was their motivation for their actions? I want to find something of the sense that this was a real person who lived, and not just a name in a history book or a portrait hanging in a museum.

What is it about historical fiction that appeals to you, and what are some of your favorite periods to read about?

[1] James Wood. “Why?” The New Yorker. December 9, 2013, p. 39.

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