In a 2012 article, The Guardian attributes to Hilary Mantel the rank of “the woman who made historical fiction respectable again, who had freed it from the (often immensely pleasurable) bodice-ripping romps of Philippa Gregory et al, making a derided genre safe again for those readers who consider themselves properly literary and serious.” Several of my favorite authors easily join Mantel in giving historical fiction a special literary identity, showing she was neither the first nor the last in this tradition.
Take Julian Barnes and Arthur and George, Barnes’s exploration of an early 20th century crime and Arthur Conan Doyle’s role in exonerating the accused (indeed, convicted) George Edalji. We writers can be a bit jealous of Barnes’s ability to take a crime story and turn in into a lyrical tale of identity. Even the prison scenes are sensitive and profound.
David Mitchell goes for more popular appeal in his linear The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a story of a Dutch clerk in turn-of-the-17th-century Nagasaki and the Japanese midwife he falls in love with. We have samurai attacks, a secret monastic society, and a villain of incomprehensible evil, but also a bildungsroman that depicts the age and the psychology of different cultures within the age masterfully.
And finally, Andrew Miller in Pure takes a little-known event—the excavation of a Paris cemetery just before the French Revolution—and follows a young man attempting to complete the one big job that will direct his life. This novel seems strangely modern in that aspect, yet it’s fascinating how the backdrop of pre-Revolution foment surrounds all actions.
I’ve listed just three, and if you include either Wolf Hall or Bringing Up the Bodies, you’ll notice an interesting trend: not one of these novels brings the literary aspect powerfully upon a story revolving around women. Even the midwife in Mitchell’s work, around whom much action revolves, is a minor character compared to all else.
There certainly are excellent novels about female characters with a literary bent to them—Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I and Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter are two obvious examples—but I’d love to see more novels with female protagonists that go deep into literary waters. How can we writers write such works when women of our historical periods lived mostly in domestic worlds? Can a primarily psychological and domestic novel, say, match up with those listed above?
And how much can writers bend what’s called “literary?” I’d love to hear your thoughts.