My first two novels, Mistress of the Revolution and For the King, are historicals. The third one, still in the works, will be as well.
Sarah Johnson, in an article posted in the website of the Historical Novel Society, points out that, in the eyes of some, historical fiction as a genre carries a stigma. Reviewers, she writes, whenever they happen upon a historical novel they love, hasten to shoehorn it into another category: literary fiction, women’s fiction, romance. Anything but historical fiction.
I am afraid Sarah is right. My publicist told me that there was little chance of the major metropolitan newspaper in my area ever reviewing Mistress of the Revolution, though I am a local writer. “It just doesn’t cover historical fiction in its book section,” she explained. Oh! Pardon me for asking.
So being a historical fiction author would be akin to some form of literary leprosy? I did not know that when I began writing Mistress of the Revolution, nor would it have stopped me. I was sure that my first novel had to be a historical. For one thing, I love history. The tremendous amount of research I - rightly – anticipated did not deter me. And indeed the research was half of the fun, and probably more than half of the work involved in writing the novel.
But there was another reason beyond my love for history. Writing historical fiction also helped me exorcise the past, my family’s and my own. My heroine, Gabrielle de Montserrat, is entirely fictional, but she could have been my distant ancestor. It was fascinating to try and imagine the challenges the women of my family faced, or could have faced in the 18th century.
A friend asked me the other day: “So when are you going to write something set in the present? Why do you hide behind history to say the things you want to say?” Well, novelists, unlike memoirists, always hide, even when they tell their own story. They hide behind fictional characters, behind the plot they weave. So what if it pleases them to add yet another layer of distance, a temporal one, to their books?
I would like to point out that, in Europe, a few scholars do write historical fiction. Chantal Thomas, a leading historian, wrote Farewell My Queen, a novel of Marie-Antoinette. Not only was she not disgraced within academia, but she went on to win one of France’s major literary prizes, the Prix Fémina, for that beautiful book. Likewise, Umberto Eco, medievalist, semiotician and philosopher, penned The Name of the Rose. Does it bother me to write in the same genre as these authors? Not a bit.
Find out more about Catherine and her work at her website.