Save us from historical fiction done badly

a fine 18thC dentistry scene
a fine 18thC dentistry scene

I began reading a historical novel last week, sent to me for review, and it was too annoying to finish. I poked around for some time in different chapters, looking for enticements to keep reading, and decided that to review it the way I felt would be cruel and meaningless punishment for the author. The publisher was the problem, far more to blame for sending it out into the world than the helpless author, and I emailed them my regrets with reasons. My irritation was compounded when I noted that the profuse praise on the press release came from another author in their stable, who said very similar things about another historical novel on their list.

early 20thC version of an early 19thC scene
early 20thC version of an early 19thC scene

If a publisher takes on a historical novel, then they need to consider: what does the reader want from reading a novel set (as was the case here) in the eighteenth century, in Scotland, in a remote village? They should ask why the eighteenth-century characters are speaking as if they lived in the twenty-first century. ‘Hey sweetheart’ was the phrase that made me throw the book on the floor. If I read a historical novel I expect to be persuaded that those characters live and speak in their setting, not just in the author’s imagination. Yes, there are exceptions: Lindsey Davis has Marcus Didius Falco speak in snappy modern rhythms in his setting of Rome in the time of Vespasian. She uses a Raymond Chandler narrative style which is audaciously successful (over twenty superb novels in the series), but she never mixes in anachronistic vocabulary, slang or idiom. If you’re going to juxtapose style and setting, then give it a good reason. In Davis’s case, detective narrative style from 1940s noir contrasts entertainingly with the setting of two thousand years earlier, and reinforces the idea that Rome’s mean streets were as crime-riddled as those in LA. No such imaginative leap happens in the novel I was trying to read.

The publisher should have asked: if these characters live in a remote, peat-cutting area of Scotland (so, that’s the west and north-west, then), why are they not speaking in Gaelic? It’s easy to suggest this, putting in words to indicate linguistic flavour. If that’s too much of a stretch, why not use the rhythms and syntax of Scots, which is what such people would have been speaking at that period? Why do they sound as if they’re from something vaguely rural off the BBC?

the celebrated and 18thC Fanny Hill
the celebrated 18thC Fanny Hill, in a decorous 19thC version which resisted male nudity

The modern sensibilities behind the characters’ motivations are also a horrible jarring mess. They are motivated by psychological concepts that were invented in the early twentieth century, and would not have known what these were, had they met them in the flesh. The publisher should have asked the author to have look at some works from the eighteenth century, to get a feel for how people behaved to each other, across class and sex, in that time. In this novel, they behave as if they’re on the Archers, wearing fancy-dress.

This was also a mystery novel, to be investigated and resolved. Let’s ignore the fact that detection had not been invented as a literary genre, or even as a form of popular entertainment, in the eighteenth century. Now and then a scrupulous minister or dogged laird might well have investigated a murder in the parish. But treating the investigation and resolution as a modern police procedural, ending in death at the stake, is not plausible, and does nothing for the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

The illustrations were also terribly misleading. On flicking through the pages I assumed that this was going to be a novel set in the seventeenth century, since the woodcuts all date from that period. And yet we hear talk of Jacobites. I threw the book on the bed this time: my goodness I was cross. Why was I so cross? It’s only a book. Why should tinkering with history annoy me so much? Because if it’s meant to be ‘historical’, it should respect the reader’s historical sense, not think we’re ignorant of time and place.

there's a novel in this somewhere
there’s an 18thC novel in this somewhere

My final irritation was caused by a Trades Description Act violation of having the phrase ‘Shortlisted for the [national newspaper book prize]’ on the front cover. The author certainly had been, for their first novel, and all praise to them for that, but this novel certainly was not. Parking such an ingenuous line at the top of the front cover is to wilfully mislead buyers, despite adding a clunking ‘clarification’ on the back cover that contradicts the cover line. It’s a dishonest way to sell a book, and easy enough to avoid by using ‘[national newspaper book prize]-nominated [author name]’ instead. When I challenged the publisher on this point they assured me that no-one had thought this would be a problem. That’s because their lawyer, publicist, etc know the book, and the author. The reader coming to it cold in a bookshop won’t, and will trust what’s advertised. Would they trust the publisher now?

Rant over. Normal service resumes next week.




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