I have rather mixed feelings about historical fiction. On the one hand, it was probably historical fiction that led me to my love of history in the first place, and the type of history that attracts me always has a strong human and imaginative thread to it. When there is a basic fidelity to the setting and the mentalities of the main characters, then I love it. It can be playful with the facts, but not earnestly wrong. I really relished Peter Mew’s Bright Planet set in- surprise, surprise- 1840s Port Phillip, and Patrick White’s historical fiction (e.g. Fringe of Leaves, Voss ) is solidly grounded in research and yet nuanced and sophisticated in its themes.
But I have my reservations too. I agree with Inga Clendinnen (my heroine) with her qualms over Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and the issue of historical fiction attempting to contribute to a historical debate. I am annoyed when something is just plain wrong- the research has been done and exhibited, but it’s WRONG! I dislike the arrogance of projection of modern mentalities onto characters set in the past. I sometimes feel as if the story is suffocated by meticulous research that the author can’t bear to let go of.
Which leads me to Rose Tremain’s Restoration. It is set, as you might guess, in Restoration England, complete with Charles II, the Great Fire and the Plague. There’s a certain predictability about this- of course they are all such write-able events that no author writing a book set at the time could resist them! I thought that Tremain captured the voice of a 17th century male writer well, and my admiration for it increased even more when I returned, as I do from time to time, to www.pepys.diary.com to read Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for the day.
But of course, ventriloquism is not the same as creation, and it added to my sense that I was reading a set piece, with hackneyed settings and events and a reproduction of a 17th century voice. This probably sounds more scathing than I mean it to be: I enjoyed it well enough, happily persisted to the end, but I only rate it as a ‘good enough’ read.