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Children of the Century

For writers of historical fiction, fact fades and feeling persists.

Illustration by Kristina Collantes.

In the summer of 1866, as Leo Tolstoy prepared for his serialized novel War and Peace to be published as a single volume, he wrote to illustrator Mikhail Bashilov, hoping to commission drawings for the new edition of the novel, which he referred to by its original title, 1805. When Bashilov questioned a detail of historical verisimilitude—shouldn’t the turn-of-the-nineteenth century officers be wearing powdered wigs?—Tolstoy responded:

When I first began writing 1805, I discovered somewhere that powder had been done away with at the beginning of [Czar] Alexander’s reign, and I wrote on that basis; I later came across evidence, as you did, that it was still used in 1805. I didn’t know what to do. … Decide for yourself, whatever is most agreeable and convenient for you. In favor of drawing people wearing powder is the reason that if there is positive proof that powder was in use in 1805, I can correct the new edition and allude to powder and uniform. In fact it’s probably necessary to draw people wearing powder and in historically accurate uniform, to which I shall try to be faithful in the new edition.

Tolstoy’s place in history had already been confirmed by Nikolai Strakhov, one of the great literary critics of his day, who called War and Peace, “a complete picture of human life. A complete picture of the Russia of that day. A complete picture of what may be called the history and struggle of peoples.” While Tolstoy had bunted on the question of whether his officers would have worn powdered wigs, he knew his novel was vulnerable to accusations of historical inaccuracy. In his 1868 author’s note to the fourth serialized volume, he compared a few of his characters with their real-life counterparts, still concerned with the question of whether or not his portrayals had been accurate in the way a historian would judge correct.

The divergence between my description of historical events and the accounts of historians … is not accidental but inevitable. A historian and an artist, describing a historical epoch, have two completely different objects. As a historian would be wrong if he should try to present a historical figure in all his entirety, in all the complexity of his relations to all sides of life, so an artist would not fulfill his task by always presenting a figure in his historical significance. Kutuzov did not always ride a white horse, holding a field glass and pointing at enemies. Rastopchin did not always take torch in hand and set fire to his Voronovo house (in fact he never did it at all), and the empress Maria Feodorovna did not always stand in an ermine mantle, her hand resting on the code of law; but that is how they are pictured in the popular imagination.

In the note, Tolstoy also addressed the exclusion from his work of what his critics called “the character of the time,” which he catalogued as “the horrors of serfdom, the immuring of wives, the whipping of adult sons.” His concern: “This character of that time, which lives in our imagination, I do not consider correct and did not wish to express.” Tolstoy instead sought to portray “the greater alienation of the upper circles from the other estates, from the reigning philosophy, from the peculiarities of upbringing, from the habit of using the French language, and so on.” Tolstoy would eventually take out much of the French and then ask his wife to restore it in the version he wanted to see before his death. For all his bravado, he feared it might affect the novel’s relationship to posterity.

Tolstoy would have no greater critic than his former friend, Ivan Turgenev, whose mercurial reactions to War and Peace would become famous. Turgenev was estranged from Tolstoy after falling out with him over literary and personal offenses—Tolstoy had even challenged Turgenev to a duel—but each still saw the other as a great writer worthy of consideration. In letters to his friends, Turgenev called the novel a “puppet show” and a “fraud” with “no trace of a genuine depiction of the period,” full of “an enormous amount of the old psychological hubbub ... that positively constitutes Tolstoy’s monomania.” He elaborated: “A misfortune ensues when a self-educated man, even a Tolstoy, undertakes to philosophize. He inevitably saddles his hobby horse and thinks up some sort of a system, such as, for example, historical fatalism, and then he begins to write.” But in those same letters, Turgenev also wrote “the novel does contain things that in the whole of Europe no one but Tolstoy could have written, and that make me break out in goose pimples and a fire of enthusiasm” and “things are there which will not die as long as the Russian language exists.”

Turgenev’s divided opinion eventually resolved into support, and he became one of the novel’s greatest champions. To the extent we read War and Peace today, we do so in part because of Turgenev’s goose pimples and his advocacy of the novel abroad, especially in Paris, where his French writer friends did not yet read the Russians. When Flaubert read War and Peace, he asked if the novel was Tolstoy’s debut.

By the 1880s, English translations of both the French and the Russian editions were available, and Americans began to read War and Peace. William Dean Howells became Tolstoy’s American evangelist, enlisting him as a realist alongside Henry James and giving the novel much of the respectability it still has in America today. Americans, it seems, have never been concerned with whether the officers during the reign of Czar Alexander wore powdered wigs.

As a result, War and Peace holds a strange place in literary history, participating in the crowning of realism as a substantial and serious literary mode in America, even as the novel also contributed to the argument that historical fiction could be by nature dangerous, illegitimate, and inaccurate. This is the reason historical fiction is sometimes reviewed by historians, who may evaluate the novel for how much it has gotten right, instead of for its literary merit—as if the only thing for a historical novel to do is to authentically replicate the past.

Historical fiction was not—and is not—meant to supplant literature from the period it describes. As a veteran of the Crimea, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace to match his own internal sense of the truth of the Napoleonic wars, to dramatize what he felt literature from that period had failed to describe. The force of his vision, even in translation, may have shifted the benchmark for realism away from authenticity and toward the feeling of it for the reader—a way for the living to argue with history and posterity. Powdered wigs or not, War and Peace is with us still.

When I began what would become my second novel, The Queen of the Night, back in 2000, I did not immediately realize I was writing “historical fiction.” I was also unaware of the appetite publishers had developed for the genre over the previous decade. The contemporary state of the historical novel came out of a phenomenon that began in the 1990s, when the best-selling literary historical novel that was also a prizewinning historical novel became a known quantity in America. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, Middle Passage by Charles R. Johnson, Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, A Widow for One Year by John Irving, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolverall created an atmosphere in which it was easy for publishers to imagine the financial and critical success of a literary historical novel.

I thought of the historical fiction I’d read and loved throughout my life simply as “novels”: Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games, her trilogy of books tracing the life of Alexander the Great and his great love, Hephaestion; Adam Bede, George Eliot’s novel of early evangelical Christian settlers and their sins; and Joy Kogawa’s documentary history novel Obasan, about the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Chief among these was Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, a retelling of the story of the Iliad from the point of view of the doomed seer, a lyrical novel that felt written on the inside of my head, accompanied by four essays Wolf wrote describing her travels in Greece and her research on Cassandra. Wolf made writing historical novels seem like its own adventure.

I discovered few people shared my sense of this. What I knew is that when I would describe the subject of my novel to friends—an opera singer in the court of France’s Second Empire is afraid her voice is cursed, dooming her to repeat the fates of her roles—they would look at me, confused, only to respond, “Oh, you’re writing a historical novel.” The only answer to such a question was yes, and yet I felt somehow misunderstood. Worse still was the trepidation in their eyes, as if I had announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo. 

The literary historical best-sellers of the 1990s were late to the game long owned by historical romance, a game which has confounded literary writers and publishers since at least the mid-nineteenth century. Historical romance novels were selling half a million copies in the 1840s when Nathaniel Hawthorne complained of the “hordes of scribbling women” and George Eliot skewered the type in her 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”

The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond.

A Place of Greater Safety, published in 1992, is known to fans of Hilary Mantel as her fifth novel, but it was in fact her first completed novel manuscript—the writing of it made her into the novelist she is today. In her author’s note, Mantel’s concerns are nearly identical to those of Tolstoy, if at a condensed length. “The events of the book are complicated, so the need to dramatize and the need to explain must be set against each other. Anyone who writes a novel of this type is vulnerable to the complaints of pedants.”

She tried to set those pedants at ease, or at least put them off their game, with a list of ways she simplified her references, concluding, “I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can live and think inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: Anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.”

A 2012 New Yorker profile of Mantel described the chilly initial reception she received from a literary agent for A Place of Greater Safety:

I wrote a letter to an agent saying would you look at my book, it’s about the French Revolution, it’s not a historical romance, and the letter came back saying, we do not take historical romances. … They literally could not read my letter, because of the expectations surrounding the words “French Revolution”—that it was bound to be about ladies with high hair. 

The year was 1979. Mantel was discouraged but did not waver despite being sick with endometriosis; with her marriage falling apart, she instead wrote Every Day Is Mother’s Day, a bleakly funny contemporary novel about a widowed spiritual medium and her daughter. A publisher bought it quickly, and when the novel was well reviewed and sold well, Mantel wrote and published a sequel the next year. She was successful enough to at last revise and publish A Place of Greater Safety in 1992, the start of that decade of the award-winning, best-selling historical novel. Five novels later, the success of her Cromwell trilogy is like the revenge fantasy a young Mantel might have wished upon the literary agent put off by the idea of “high hair.”

If Mantel had been allowed to publish A Place of Greater Safety at the time she wrote it, she would have debuted with a 700-page novel about the French Revolution—the sort of writer Flaubert imagined Tolstoy to be—and if she had tried to debut in 1992, she might have been allowed to be just that.

If I were to face Eliot or Mantel in person, I could only concede to both the presence of high hair in my novel and an amiable duke—with a brother duke—also women in enormous wigs, one headdress covered in crystals, and several tiaras, too. My protagonist is a celebrity and a clotheshorse, a woman who finds beautiful clothes something of a sport. I had always loved these women, but what place did they have in a serious novel?

Once I had accepted I was writing a historical novel, I sought out one of the blockbusters from Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series, 1876. If you’ve read it, you already know my mistake. 1876 interested me because I admired Vidal, and it covered roughly the same time period I was working with. What I found instead was the historical novel I didn’t want to write.

The novel poses as the diary of a journalist returning to America after 30 years away, having married a niece of Napoleon’s, but it doesn’t much pretend to be a diary, and while it is assiduously researched—something Vidal was always quick to defend—the scholarship is, in a sense, the problem. Vidal is a novelist Bashilov the illustrator would have loved—no powder, no coin, no button misses his eye. Vidal was trying to chronicle the soul of the nation in his novels, nothing less, and while Lincoln and Burr are widely held to be the best of them, that leaves five other novels. There may be wisdom in searching for America’s soul by making a massive catalogue of its old buttons and coins, but 1876 labors under a stagy attention paid to each period detail, creating an astringently historically correct novel that is hard to read.

Michael Wood, reviewing 1876 for The New York Review of Books, wrote that “V. talks a good deal better than he writes,” and described having a sense of reading “Vidal holding himself in check.” He also describes my own anxiety about the details: “He has committed himself to a verisimilitude which creaks every time the writer moves.”

Henry James might have been writing of 1876 when he famously warned Sarah Orne Jewett about the problem of verisimilitude. She had sent him her Revolutionary War romance, The Tory Lover, in 1901, a book James says he liked at first, before declaring the form was condemned to “a fatal cheapness.”

You may multiply little facts that can be got from pictures and documents and prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its absence the whole effect is naught; I mean the invention, the representative old consciousness—the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were nonexistent.

All of us writing after James have struggled with how to get at it—the way the “representative old consciousness” gets at the truth better and is so hard to do.

Regarding detail, I found it more useful to study Mantel than Vidal. Of Wolf Hall, James Wood writes, “Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the 1520s and 1530s.” In discussing the question of her accuracy of detail, he asks, “Do you know if Mantel has manufactured or borrowed from the record this information about the fashionable Fugger bag? In some sense, it doesn’t matter, because the writer has made a third category of the reality, the plausibly hypothetical. It’s what Aristotle claimed was the difference between the historian and the poet: The former describes what happened, and the latter what might happen.” The historical novel describes then what might have happened within what happened; the feeling of being free within the machine of one’s fate, dare I even say the old consciousness.

I see now with some shame how I had thought, naïvely, that historical fiction was a way of showing my seriousness and how surprised I was to find it could be seen as the opposite. If I were to write my own author’s note in the manner of either Mantel or Tolstoy, I wouldn’t begin with the weight of history, but rather the pressure to sell. Around the time of the sale of my first novel in 2001, debut authors were asked to become blockbusters in order to have a career. Mega sales or bust. The reason for this, my agent explained, was that chain stores were making orders for subsequent novels from the same author based on the sales for previous ones. My agent and the publishers she spoke to all feared that for me to debut with a novel that could have low numbers would mean low numbers for the second, should I be allowed a second novel, much less a third. Writers were being blacklisted for bad sales, and some had even resorted to aliases, pen names taken to hide old sales records. The old way of slowly building an author had ended. As one editor said to me on the phone, “We don’t do things that way anymore.”

In the opposite pattern to Mantel, my first book, a realist, slim contemporary novel had a difficult time getting publishers’ attention, and my historical fiction novel, just a paragraph of an idea, eclipsed it. That paragraph was the book they wanted from me, but it was not the book I wanted to write at the time. I went ahead, and after two years of submissions found a publisher for my contemporary novel. It was five years later that I was ready to sell a second book, and that little paragraph of a historical novel sold in nine days.

I celebrated the sale, but it was an uncanny victory. I was left with the feeling of having escaped one kind of doom only to find myself in danger of another: the low regard in which historical fiction, tainted by “silly novels,” has been held since the days of Hawthorne and Eliot, such that the successes of the form are always considered exceptions to the rule.

I knew I’d be writing The Queen of the Night in first person; I heard the voice of my narrator, as clear as a haunting, a voice in my head. Everything else I would have to research. I did not begin writing about these times and people because I already knew them or their hair, or their powders, their buttons—I chose them because they called out to my imagination.

But the weight of those buttons and coins, the powdered wigs—the verisimilitude—was hard to bear. Mark Slouka, in his new memoir, Labyrinth of the Heart, says of his writing, “It’s a nest of memories, a tangle of anecdotes, told to me and misheard, misremembered; of regrets and revisions forced by time; of days and words lying dormant, sometimes for decades, until something—some dream, some secret cue—cracked their husk to a small, provisional understanding. In short, it’s complex, non-linear, sometimes contradictory, often inclusive—a bit of a mess. A lot like life, if I get it right.” Slouka wasn’t writing about historical fiction, but he could be—or, in my case, should be.

This was a verisimilitude I could commit to when I began my novel, peering down the rabbit hole to find that secret cue to be cracked and husked for a small, provisional understanding, using it to guide me further, to the next cue, and the next. Looking into the past is like finding yourself with the belongings of some newly dead distant relative, and the haphazard pattern of their life is revealed with each new object put up for auction. One piece reveals the truth of another, and that of another, and a pattern begins to emerge—the novel itself.

With my first novel, I had done what Henry James wanted writers to do—I had written out of my own present, my own consciousness—but that, to me, had never been the only point of fiction. I think what makes one a writer is the willingness to follow your thoughts anywhere, especially if they lead out of the present, in search of what they will say to you about the past. If Tolstoy wrote his novel to understand history, and Mantel wrote hers to understand how to write fiction, I wrote mine to understand how to simply be as a writer.

My women then, the women in the court of the Second Empire, who hid under the guise of being decorous, their power an open secret hidden up in that high, powdered hair. What could represent them better than that tangle? I longed to dissolve into someone else, to put on a powdered wig, a crinoline, and vanish into the past. And that is just what I did.