Historical Fiction – Why We Love It!
by Linda Bennett Pennell
From time to time, literary critics and other publishing industry wags have heralded the demise of historical fiction only to be proven very wrong by the people who really matter, the readers. Though it waxes and wanes like any genre, historical fiction endures, perhaps to the dismay of some academicians, but it gives no indication of leaving us anytime soon. Its popularity has been evident from the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly, considered the first work of modern historical fiction. The first run of Waverly sold out in two days, an achievement to be envied by any author. Scott followed that success with others, most notably Ivanhoe, The Lady of the Lake, Rob Roy, and The Bride of Lammermoor. His works have enjoyed long life across multiple media, including comic books, movies, TV, and Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Although Scott may have been the first, he was certainly not the last. Since the publication of Waverly in 1814, the list of successful works of historical fiction has grown long indeed. So why does historical fiction remain popular while there are so many persons who say they hated studying history in school?
In my opinion, it comes down to the difference between looking at history through the impersonal lens of academia verses having a personal experience through the close point of view writing found in most novels, especially historical romances. By its very definition and due to the rigors of academic investigation, the historian must remain objective and keep his/her subject at arm’s length. As Joe Friday on Dragnet would have said, “Just the facts, ma’am.” While historians do offer personal opinions by drawing conclusions, they do so only after a cold examination and evaluation of the evidence. The novelist, on the other hand, brings history to life by creating interesting characters living in richly described periods. In the hands of an adept novelist, we see what the characters see, we feel what they feel, we taste what they taste. Their experiences become our experiences, and in so doing, we are transported to another time and place. We, the readers, get to time travel without the mess and bother of leaving home.
That brings me to a question I am asked fairly frequently when the subject of studying history in the public schools comes up. In my other life, I am an educational administrator. People want to know if teaching novels in history classrooms is a good idea. My answer is a resounding yes, provided the selected books are well written, well researched, and teach the facts of the historical periods in which the books are set. It should be noted that to qualify as true historical fiction, works of any of the multiple sub-genres must rest upon a foundation of exacting research. That said, I have seen good history teachers turn kids who “hate history and reading” into avid readers and lovers of the past simply by using great novels and short stories to illustrate the historical points and eras they are studying.
Cases in point are Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor . . . the list is a long one.
So, tell us. Why do you enjoy reading historical fiction? Did you like studying history when you were in school? Would you have enjoyed being taught history through the use of novels in the classroom?