Once derided as swashbucklers and bodice-rippers, historical novels have had something of an, erm, renaissance of late. Hilary Mantel won this years Man Booker Prize for Bring Up The Bodies, the second instalment of her Tudor saga featuring Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as its lead protagonists. And the past-plundering work of novelists such as CJ Sansom, Tracy Chevalier and SJ Parris has changed perceptions of the genre. History, it seems, has never been more timely. So what are the agents at Curtis Brown reading?
I love reading historical fiction. There is something about going back to a point in time I’m not familiar with and immersing myself in a good story that brings a period to life in a way that textbooks and even TV shows or documentaries can’t manage. I discovered the work of Diana Norman at a young age and was taken on a journey of nuanced, beautifully written and perfectly researched stories that started in Henry II’s time and took me all the way up to the 18th century. Reading her novel The Vizard Mask, I learnt more about England during Charles II’s time than I did at school. She reinvented herself as Ariana Franklin later in life and I urge you to read Mistress of the Art of Death under that pseudonym. I also recently read David R Gillham’s City of Women, which is to be published later this year in the UK. Set in Berlin during the Second World War, it is a meticulously researched novel that brings the war-torn city to life through the eyes of various women in a tenement building. It is filled with moral ambiguity, intrigue and powerfully drawn characters.
I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall just after watching the complete run of The Wire and found it bizarrely similar: the psychological complexity of the characters; the machinations; the strategising and calculating – Thomas Cromwell spins a web but he’s enmeshed in it himself and has to work so hard all the time to survive and to press on with his plans. I also love the way Mantel has taken characters very familiar to us – Cromwell, of course, but also Thomas More – and reinvents them, reimagines them. She shows us that history (particularly well-trodden history such as the Tudors) is a narrative construct. We generally see More as the good guy and Cromwell as the bad because that’s the story that’s been told over and over. But you can tell an entirely different story with the same facts and characters if you want to – that’s what she’s done so brilliantly.
My favourite historical novel of recent years (by an author not represented by Curtis Brown) is Pure by Andrew Miller. The smells, the colour, the living characters that inhabit this beautifully written novel about the clearing of a famous Parisian cemetery just before the French Revolution are brilliantly described.
This year I have relished Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, and then I immediately followed it up with Wolf Hall. I know… but I just hadn’t had time to read Wolf Hall when it first came out, and it didn’t matter a jot reading in reverse. I greatly enjoy CJ Sansom’s Shardlake novels – I’ve loved them all and I hear there’s another coming soon. Shardlake is a marvellous character and Sansom captures the Tudor period brilliantly. I’ve recently read Rose Tremain’s Merivel: A Man Of His Time, which is a stand-alone sequel to Restoration, published more than 20 years ago, and which I adored. I love Rose’s writing – full stop. Of course I’ve hoovered up Philippa Gregory’s novels and I’m storing up SJ Parris – next on my reading list. I should also mention Philip Kerr, who I think is underrated. His thrillers featuring a detective, Bernie Gunther, are set against a backdrop of post-war Germany and the Cold War, described vividly. Read A Quiet Flame – very good indeed. And if you like that period and setting, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin was a reading high-point for me this year.
Sarah Waters is a terrific writer, but she is also an incredible storytelling architect. She knows exactly what to reveal when, which voice to engage at which moment, how one narrative can support another. The structure of each of her novels, from Tipping The Velvet to The Little Stranger, is thought through to perfection. All historical novels need to be evocative and atmospheric. Sarah Waters books have all the necessary atmosphere of the chosen period, but they are essentially contemporary novels set in the past. They engage modern psychology and focus on themes that writers of the period couldn’t have written about.
My favourite historical novel is actually published as a teen title, but was originally written for adults too. The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson is a wonderful, funny and romantic novel that has never lost its shine. It’s definitely one for the Downton Abbey generation.
I nominate The King Must Die by Mary Renault; not only because I represent Mary Renault’s literary estate but also because it is rare as a tour de force of historical fiction in that feels entirely genuine, with no forced language or sense of inverted commas around things. And it’s all the more astonishing that it feels so real given that it is not only about the ancient classical world, but it is also a story in which humans feel they interact with myth and legend. Even more fascinating is Mary’s motivation for moving her storytelling, after six mid-20th-century contemporary novels, to the world of the Ancient Greeks. It was only within the framework of the classical world’s ethics and mores that she felt human emotion could be truly explored, and she celebrates that world’s deep understanding of sexuality, rites of passage, and love, honour and loyalty.
On the guilty-pleasure front, I’d also nominate Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell: a literally fabulous epic that puts a human face on an extraordinary period in history: the American Civil War. The novel immortalises one of literature’s greatest heroines, is one of the greatest love stories ever told, and a revels in a detailed evocation of a way of life that was swept away and its aftermath – yet never at the expense of the human journey its characters must undertake.
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