The Romance of Historical Novels

By Poison Ivy,

I just read a copy of Vanora Bennett’s second novel, Figures in Silk, which is about a City of London silkwoman who gets caught up in the turmoil of the last years of the Wars of the Roses, between 1471 and 1485. I’m not giving anything away by saying that the heroine has a long-term love affair with King Richard III and also meets other members of the glamorous royal Plantagenet family.

Those were turbulent and exciting times, but I have sometimes wondered why novelists keep revisiting them. We are currently enjoying a long-overdue revival of the historical novel, which is distinct from an historical romance. An historical novel is chiefly about real historical figures, not about sexy trysts between made-up characters living in dashing prior times. Philippa Gregory’s series about the Tudors arguably started this movement, and now many new historical novels are being published and some solid old ones are being reprinted. I don’t think it is an accident that I, and numerous other readers, continue to be fascinated by the re-imaginings of what is already a very well-explained period of English history.

It’s not as if I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Of course I do. Richard III loses his horse and his life at Bosworth Field. The Princes in the Tower are never seen again. Henry Tudor starts a new dynasty and his son, Henry VIII, can’t sustain it. Because of his desperation, Catherine of Aragon is shamefully divorced against her will, Henry VIII wrenches the entire practice of religion in England into a church of his own making, and Anne Boleyn is queen for a thousand days. Henry VIII’s children by three of his six wives each get to rule England, but only Elizabeth retains the throne for a significant length of time. I know all this. Yet I can read about it over and over and over. Why?

Maybe, because what creating a fictional heroine who gets involved with an enigmatic, real-life historical figure does is bring the reader close to a celebrity. But instead of the banal truths of the real lives of today’s celebrities, or even the shocking truths that we have yet to learn, readers are brought to a world in which the stakes are much higher and clearer, even though the story is intimate. These people made history. A friend of mine insists that Henry VIII was a minor historical figure, and that economic events determine history. I think my friend underestimates the power and influence that one man can wield. The continued fascination over hundreds of years with the personal lives of these historical figures proves their importance.

In one sense, an historical novel is a safe read. We know the outlines of the conflicts in advance, even the details. We know that the princes will end up in the Tower. That no deus ex machina will appear to save Anne Boleyn from being beheaded. That Elizabeth Tudor won’t marry anyone, ever. Deceit, treachery, and raw ambition will rule, and clothing will be costumes. If anything, these stories get more glamorous because of the distance of time. Strangely, these replayings of old stories come across as intensely romantic. So much more was at stake back then. Today’s celebrities’ marital mistakes can soon be mended with divorces, and their career disasters can be overcome with star turns in new productions. Their drug abuse can be apologized for, and they can be rehabilitated. As for other world figures such as politicians, well, there is quite a lot of latitude for their behavior today. And as interesting as the stories of recent martyrs are, we are aware that the full truth hasn’t yet come out—if it ever will—about such relatively modern shockers as JFK’s assassination. Ironically, the tragic real-life modern story of Princess Diana struck such a nerve because it played out as if it had happened a couple of centuries ago. If one ignored all the sordid details that the tabloids were so eager to provide.

By contrast, we know very little about the far past, and yet we know a surprising amount. Many scholars over the intervening centuries have correlated historical accounts and ferreted out facts that were not known at the time. But much of the truth is forever lost. We still don’t know who murdered the Princes in the Tower, for instance, or even if they were murdered. That may be another reason why we can keep reading about these people over and over. We’re still looking for clues.

How can a romance exist in such circumstances? Easily enough. We already know that there are only two outcomes to a romance: a happy ending, or an unhappy ending. Once real historical figures become the major characters, the writers are constrained to tell the truth about the outcome. But it doesn’t really matter to the reader, because, as with any romance, the pleasure is in the journey. We also know that some romances occur between people whose motives are at cross purposes, or who are wrong for each other, or who simply are unlucky. So the idea that an historical novel is going to serve up a tale of an ill-fated romance isn’t necessarily off-putting. The pleasures of being drawn in close to these glamorous characters usually outweigh the sadness of the story’s ending. And again, it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes a romance satisfying.

And by the way, art directors in the US are imitating each other by putting similar covers on these recently-published historical novels. Note how The Other Boleyn Girl does not show the heroine’s face on the cover. Nor does Figures in Silk. The rest of her face is on the spine. Brief Gaudy Hour, written many years ago and now reissued, also follows this new style, as do many other books published recently that may or may not be historical novels.