Why I read Historical Fiction

Why I read Historical Fiction

Scandal of the season, The Winter Sea, Year of wonder, Sophie Gee,Susanna Kearsley, Geraldine Brook
 My teenage years consisted of a steady diet of War and Peace by Tolstoy (school requirement), A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
(school requirement), Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (for pleasure), The Three Musketeers (for extra pleasure) and The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (for the most pleasure of all).  I didn’t call these books historical fiction though.  I called them classics because for me the term “historical fiction” meant silly romance stories set in the past.

In my twenties I came across a definition of historical fiction and discovered that I was reading it all along and enjoying every minute of it.  Of course, if someone asked me to pick just one literary genre to read to the rest of my life, I would still have to go with non-fiction.  That stuff is my oxygen.  But luckily since no part of the library is off limits, I will keep reading historical fiction and this is why.

1. Spotlight
Historical fiction projects a bright beam of light on one of the dark spots in the past.  I don’t know about you, but I never once stood in a history aisle thinking, “The Jacobite upraising!  Can’t wait to learn more about it!” When I picked The Scandal of the Season I wasn’t thinking about King James of Scotland and how much I knew about him (not much), I thought the book sounded interesting.  And it was!  And turned out that this piece of history was so fascinating that I went ahead and ordered 1715: The Great Jacobite Rebellion, a nonfiction book written a history professor, to learn more about it. Unfortunately, this great nonfiction book kept putting me to sleep.  So, instead of finishing it in suffering I went ahead and got another historical fiction on the same subject The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley.  It’s important to balance fiction and facts, and don’t believe every word you read in a fiction book, but it’s also important to remember that nonfiction books are not an exact science either and simply represent one person’s opinion.

2.  Escape

I’m definitely Make-every-minute-count type of person, and if I could learn a new encyclopedia entry every time I had a fifteen minute break I would do it.  But after moving for 16 hours straight with a 3-minute break for lunch on a “good” day, I fall into my bed clutching a book that was chosen not for academic profit, but for relaxation.  I want to put a mental distance between myself and my day.  I love my life, but it’s essential to switch cognitive gears.  Reading historical fiction is when I get to be lazy, while feeling accomplished because I’m learning some bit of history along the way.

3. Time Travel

Historical fiction takes me to fabulous places.  There are some well-written and engaging historical non-fiction books, say Catherine the Great by Robert Massie, that are read for no other reason than personal pleasure.  But for me they lack the power to really transport me to the other times and lives.  I have a good idea about the life in 18th century Russia, but reading Catherine the Great didn’t make me feel like I visited there.  When I was reading Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee that took place in 18th century London, I would walk into my bathroom and stare in disbelieve at a toilet bowl.  “Blow me down!  I forgot we had that,” would flash through my head.   Author did such a great job of immersing the reader into well chosen and splendid details that I really felt swept into that time period.

4. Vividness 

There is nothing like a sampling of speeches and diaries to tell us what historical personages really thought.  Or is there?  How about what they said in everyday life, how other people perceived them during frivolous engagements like eating and walking in a park, and even what was their favorite dessert?  For me historical personages come to life in a more vivid way when they scratch their armpits, scream at their butlers and cut down cherry trees.   It conjures up interesting images that stay.   Once those historical personages become real to me, I want to get to know them better.  I want to dig up more details.  In history texts we can learn a thing or two about what they did and what they said all set in a nice larger frame of a historical period, but it’s just a skeleton for me.  Historical fiction puts flash on that skeleton and breathes life into it. 

Did I help you work up some appetite for historical fiction?  Here are three historical fictions to get you started.  It’s not my most favorite pieces of all times (that would be hard to pick, but seems like an exciting project to consider).  Here are just the last three historical fictions that I read.  I will tell you about the books without giving away anything in the way of a plot, in case you decide to read them.

Jacobite Plot, London in 18th century, Alexander Pope, romantic intrigue
Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee
There is nothing like a bit of historical fiction to increase one’s appreciation for little comforts of life.  Indoor plumbing, hot water, clean streets… Thank you, thank you, and thank you!  This book brings to you a vivid picture of how it was like to live in London in 18th century.  I thought the plot was very exciting.  The dialogues were witty and made me wish for more sophistication in my manner of speech.  Don’t let me forget to mention the romantic intrigue.  There awere some racy love scenes thrown in for good measure too.  I enjoyed learning about life and fame of Alexander Pope, one of the greatest English poets.  I got so interested in his work that I went ahead and bought a book of his Selected Poetry.  “What dire offence from amorous causes springs, // What mighty contests rise from trivial things.”  Really good exercise for the brain to get through this little poetry book!
Jacobite upraising, Scotland in 1708, time travel, castles and passion
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
This is my favorite novel of the three presented here.  The historical fact in the center of the book is the Jacobite plot to bring exiled King James to the Scottish throne in 1708.  There is a lot of factual information, but it’s presented in such a wonderful way that you don’t even notice that you are getting a history lesson.  Susanna Kearsley is a great story-teller.  She evokes sights, sounds, feelings and smells of the era gone by to create a truly captivating story that kept my mind engaged long after the last page was read.   All the characters in the book felt very alive and it seemed a pleasure to get to know them. Even the castle in the book seemed like a real historical personage and it was with a great sense of excitement that I looked at the real pictures of it online.  (I’m now plotting a family trip to see it in real life).  Sophia and Carrie, two female characters, had me rooting for them from the start and it’s with the beating heart that I followed their progress through the numerous and unexpected turns of the plot.  To be honest, I feel compelled to run out and get every book by Susanna Kearsley right now.

17th century England, Bubonic plague, witch hunt, love, struggle, human nature
Year of Wonder by Geraldine Brook
In 1990s an experienced foreign correspondent travelled English countryside on vacation when she discovered intriguing and fascinating information that grew vivid in her mind and eventually became this chilling novel.  This story set in 17th century tells about one year in the life of a small mountain village when the Bubonic plague descended on England.  The inhabitants of this village made a brave decision to put themselves in self-imposed isolation to prevent the spread of the disease to the nearby towns.  Geraldine Brook does a great job of telling their story.  It’s not a boring account of death toll as the plague spreads like wildfire and reaches into every household in the village.  It’s a story of unbelievable hardships, love, struggle, witch hunt, faith, superstition and human nature.  Anna Frith, the story’s voice, is a character that is easy to like.  And all of the characters are vivid and believable. I stayed up past my bedtime on more than one occasion unable to put down the book.
Do you like historical fiction?  What are your favorite historical fiction books?

the winter sea, the scandal of the season, a year of wonder


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