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Classic Historical Fiction

By Megan Powell, Magali Prel and Yagmur Dur

Most often, classic literature can read like an historical fiction novel. With the transportation and exploration of centuries ago, a past long developed, we get a sense of classical escapism. But this genre is not just popular now, it emerged close to the start of canonical literature. Therefore, this feature is going to explore classic examples of historical fiction. This will provide a sense of what readers of the time were interested in and how they matched their ideas of escapism. It is interesting to see how similar the formula of historical fiction is, and why it is no surprise that this genre has stood the test of time and is often reproduced.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a leader in an Igbo village in 1890s Nigeria, during both pre-colonial and British colonialist life. This book narrates Okonkwo struggling with his own sense of identity as well as the effects of British colonialism. Achebe wrote this novel as a response to biased portrayals of Africa by European writers (i.e. Joseph Conrad and his portrayal of Africa in Heart of Darkness). Growing up, Achebe was exposed to literature written by Europeans about Africa, but which constructed a very orientalist view of the continent, as seen in Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson. These novels presented the people of Africa as one-dimensional, brutal savages.

Nigeria was colonised by the British from 1884 to 1960. As the British settled in Nigeria, their wish to convert Nigerian communities to Christianity was prominent. Missionaries were sent over to convert the local population to Christianity, though many refused to convert. However, those who had no current power in their tribal order decided to convert to Christianity. In the novel, the missionaries who come to the village convert only the weaker tribesmen. Missionaries would convince these tribesmen that their tribe worshipped “false gods” who did not have the ability to punish them. Achebe himself was influenced by Western culture, having grown up under British colonisation, but refused to change his Igbo name Chinua to Albert.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

The historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl was written by historical fiction novelist Phillipa Gregory and is loosely based on real life events, but mainly tells the story of the fictionalised life of Mary Boleyn (a 16th century aristocrat, mistress to King Henry VIII as well as the sister of Anne Boleyn). The novel first gives the reader a glimpse of Mary’s affair with the King, and then her life as the “other Boleyn girl” as her sister Anne Boleyn rises to power by becoming King Henry VIII’s wife and the Queen of England.

Throughout the novel, Phillipa Gregory explores many themes such as family, love, sex, sexuality, women’s social role in the 16th century, ambition, social hierarchy and personal freedom. Readers will often find that our protagonist Mary, struggling between her desire to live a quiet life, embraces her new-found role within motherhood and the responsibility she bears to her family and their ambition to establish themselves as one of the most powerful families in England. Through Mary’s struggle and Anne’s relentless pursuit of becoming the Queen, Gregory shows us that the life of a noblewoman in the 16th century was mostly of little freedom. Women were expected to do men’s bidding to strengthen their power and position in society, and perhaps give up and lock away their ambitions and desires in order to achieve this.

Romola by George Eliot

Mary Ann Evans’, a.k.a. George Eliot, historical novel Romola was published in 1862. Set in the city of Florence during the Renaissance, the titular character is married to Tito and daughter of a blind scholar. Her relationship with Tito is tumultuous as he deceives Romola by having a previous marital binding with Tessa, a young girl from Florence. Despite their marriage, Tito treats Tessa as the second wife as he continues his marriage with Romola, but he comes to appreciate Tessa’s company the most. As the historical consequences of the Italian Renaissance continue, Tito becomes embroiled in unscrupulous politics, which makes Romola want to escape both Tito and Florence. She wants to escape as Tito is challenging her values but is convinced to return for her marriage’s sake. The love is gone, and Romola learns about his secret marriage with Tessa.

As the politics increase and supporters of the Medici family are killed, Romola leaves the city and learns of Tito’s murder. By chance her boat drifts to a village where she helps survivors of the plague, which inspires a new purpose for Romola. Back in Florence she finds Tessa and helps raise her two children imparting wisdom onto the son about her experiences.

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