Historic fiction has never been something I have been particularly eager to read. This comes as a surprise to many who know how much history interests me. My main problem is not that huge numbers of historic novels are marketed as historic romance, and romance is not particularly my favourite genre, but instead the concern that when reading fiction about real historic figures my brain will get confused, and after some time I will no longer be able to remember where I read the information, and thus become confused as to what is actual history and what is fiction. Of course, there are many novels set in a period of history but with the characters being entirely fictional, these I am less wary of. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Atonement’ without even thinking of it as a historic novel, however, it later became apparent that this was foolish of me as the historic events taking place are incredibly important to the story’s development.
A few years ago Antony Beevor came to the University I was then studying at and gave a fascinating lecture that included something of a debate about just this topic. Many there argued that it was because of historic novels and films that they had first become interested in the topic, and that they thus have a great value to inspiring people to look further into the subject covered. I am very much of the same disposition, having read a novel set in a period I’m not too familiar with, and then reading history books to find out more about it. Of course, a room full of History and War Studies students would be somewhat biased in this approach. For many, watching the film or reading the novel is as far as it goes. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I’m not entirely sure, it at least gives an opening into the world of history, and one in which it seems interesting, and even fun (I have been told by so many people that history is boring, surely ways which make it seem accessible are no bad thing?). If you are reading this and have an opinion, please do comment, I would be very interested to hear more points of view on such matters.
Having avoided historic fiction for quite some years, I finally decided to try C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. I wasn’t too hopeful, my experience of crime fiction never getting far beyond the odd Agatha Christie novel, and a book in the ‘Knitting Mysteries’ series. (Not that I wish to detract from the entertainment such novels can bring, I merely wish to point out that I am not overly familiar with the genre). It came as something of a shock to find myself so enthralled by ‘Dissolution’. I claim very little knowledge of the period and so could not be sure how much of what I was reading was historically accurate, but the characters and locations certainly came alive on the page, I would definitely recommend these novels to anyone who loves reading fiction, no matter what novels usually take your fancy. I have recently finished reading ‘Dark Fire’ and, again, found it gripping. I knew somewhat more of the history surrounding this novel, having done a certain level of study on crime and punishment, and more specifically Newgate gaol, and was impressed by the level of historic knowledge that had clearly been put into it. I plan to read the rest of C.J. Sansom’s novels at some point, and, indeed, to do some more reading around the period the stories are set in. These novels have certainly proved to me that it is important not to disregard books just because they don’t fit the type of books you usually read, and for all of those bookworms reading this I urge you to spread your reading horizons and try something new, you may be pleasantly surprised.