I have a guest post today over at M K Tod's "A Writer of History" blog, where I examine what makes a historical novel dramatically compelling:
Written in the 1860’s about the Napoleonic Wars sixty years before, War & Peace is one of the grand-daddies of historical fiction. In a novel whose size rivals the country it describes, Tolstoy takes the reader from St. Petersburg and Moscow to Austria and Poland. However, although we get to listen in on the councils of Tsar Alexander, Napoleon, and General Kutuzov and view such epic scenes as the Battle of Austerlitz and the burning of Moscow, it’s not actually these giant historical set pieces which keep us turning the novel’s 1200+ pages.
We read the novel to find out what happens to the characters. Will impulsive young Natalie at last find love and happiness? Will idealistic Pierre manage to act on his good intentions rather than being at the mercy of his impulses and his unscrupulous wife’s family? Will Princess Maria escape the domination of her manipulative father?
Even though the novel delivers on the epic proportions of its title, the most suspenseful and involving moments are small scale. I read far more urgently to discover whether Natalie would run off with the unscrupulous Dolohov, whether Nikolai would ruin himself at the gambling table, or whether Pierre would be executed by the French on suspicion of arson than I did to see the conclusion of any of the major battles portrayed.
This is just as true of popular modern examples of the Historical genre. When Bernard Cornwell brought his initial series of Richard Sharpe novels to a conclusion with Sharpe’s Waterloo, putting his up-from-the-ranks rifleman hero into one of the biggest and most pivotal battles that Europe had seen to date, the key drama does not come from the clash between Wellington’s and Napoleon’s armies on the battlefield, but rather from conflicts closer to the main character: Sharpe’s struggle against the incompetence of his commander, the Prince of Orange, and the deadly rivalry between Sharpe and Lord Rossendale, with whom Sharpe’s wife has run off.
In these examples we see one of the contradictory dynamics of historical fiction: For many readers, seeing historical periods and events come alive is a key attraction. And yet, even the most dramatic historical event is not, in and of itself, sufficient to create a gripping novel. Why?