Historical Fiction Turns a Life Into a Story

Our day-to-day doesn’t follow an obvious plot. The arc of the past is visible only in hindsight.

illustration of a king with a book over his face
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

When Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, production temporarily stopped on the sixth season of Netflix’s popular historical drama The Crown, which charts the second Elizabethan age in the United Kingdom. It was done out of respect, a Netflix source said, but it also highlights the strange relationship the real crown has with The Crown. The series depends on actual people and events, but the demands of storytelling mean that the facts must be made to cohere into something beyond a biography: a narrative, as Helen Lewis wrote in 2020.

In life as it’s lived, there is no obvious plot; the arc of the past is visible only in hindsight. But in historical fiction, the aim is to capture a story, so fidelity to literal facts and timelines is not always the goal. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that: “Authenticity is not just what happened,” Min Jin Lee explained in 2017. “It’s about emotional truth too.” That ethos is what sets the genre apart. “Successful historical fiction makes past events come alive in a more inviting or personal way than textbooks can,” Anna Diamond wrote in 2018. This makes it especially useful in classrooms, where it can help students understand different perspectives and imagine themselves in distant situations.

Once maligned as lowbrow, the genre has gained popularity over the past two decades. In 2009, Jay Parini hypothesized one reason for this: “In our high-velocity, high-volume world, the present can seem just too bright, too close. We need the filter of memory to pull reality into focus.” Jennifer Egan and Geraldine Brooks have embraced historical fiction, to varying degrees of success. But some of the best examples—such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, about Thomas Cromwell—reconsider towering figures with sensitivity and self-awareness. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in 2020, the Cromwell of Mantel’s creation begins to “double” Mantel by the end of the series. He spends much of the trilogy’s final book looking at himself “with a novelist’s wonderment at a character who defies understanding.” Mantel’s resurrected version of the man, unlike the real Cromwell, seems to know that he’s a character in a narrative—and the effect is thrilling.

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What We’re Reading

A collage of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Emma Corrin, the actress who plays her in The Crown

Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

The Crown’s majestic untruths

“This season raises two ethical questions. The first is about how much responsibility The Crown has to its subjects. Members of the Royal Family are public figures, but they are humans too. … The second, more difficult question is what responsibility The Crown has to history.”

🎥 The Crown

A young white man reading a book

Toby Melville / Reuters

What makes historical fiction great?

“Historical fiction, [the historian Robert Lacey] said, can take us a step further than the available record: ‘It’s imagination inspired by the past.’ Historians sift through bits and pieces of evidence to build an interpretation; historical fiction fills in the space around those bits and pieces.”

A collage of a child reading a book in front of images of other book covers and historical events

AP / LOC / Getty / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Using historical fiction to connect past and present

“But beyond providing an introduction to troubling issues, historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography—how history is written and studied.”

A book open with a blanket behind it

Carol Yepes / Getty

How historical fiction went highbrow

“History is, of course, a made thing. It does not exist by itself in anything like a recognizable form. Indeed, we might all forget where we have been, if we didn’t have somebody to assemble and arrange the little blocks called facts from which history is constructed, artfully or less so. As [the historian Eric Foner] put it in his keynote address, “Works of history are first and foremost acts of the imagination.” And yet, while history itself has attained the status of social science—though not in the mind of Foner, who has campaigned at Columbia to have his department moved to the humanities—historical fiction has, in the past, been snubbed.”

illustration of Thomas Cromwell

Aaron Marin

Hilary Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell down

“The one-person perspective gives the books their grip, because Cromwell’s charisma is never allowed to dissipate. At the same time, Mantel has plenty of room for invention. The Cromwell record has large holes in it, probably because as soon as he got into trouble, his supporters burned or carted away as many papers as they could. Mantel works hard to root her imagination in the material and psychological realities of the period.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Emma Sarappo. The book she’s reading right now is Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.

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