I haven’t read the novels of Philippa Gregory, a superstar in historical fiction particularly known for her books about the Tudor era, such as The Other Boleyn Girl. But I found my way to Gregory’s Web site after picking up a 1958 edition of Anya Seton’s The Winthrop Woman at library giveaway. The book had blurbs that called it “the famous story of a passionate woman who scandalized her Puritan world” and who “shocked the bigoted colonists by daring to love one man while married to another.” I read a few chapters and found that – those racy lines aside – the book was much better written than many contemporary historical novels. What had happened to Seton? Why was she so little known today?
Gregory seems to have had similar questions. In the past decade she has written introductions for new editions of five of Seton’s books, including The Winthrop Woman. She argues on her Web site that Seton was one of a group of historical novelists who had critical and popular acclaim until literary fashions changed in the late 1950s:
“Quite wrongly, critics came to regard historical fiction and romantic fiction as one and the same genre; and condemned both for being fantastical, escapist vehicles for predictable love stories suitable only for women readers who required entertainment but no intellectual challenge.
“But a good historical novel has characters whose basic humanity engages our empathy and whose convincing circumstances remind us that the past is, indeed, another country. This is the opposite of romance fiction which is drawn to historical settings: not because it aims to explore how people are affected by the society in which they live; but because it depends on the imaginary glamour of the past: the long frocks and big hats, horse drawn transport, and high jeopardy. Romance fiction has no interest in different times and cultures, in the worst examples, its stories are told in a vacuum.
“All but the very best romance fiction tends to deploy a limited number of character types: the heroine: vulnerable, pure, loving, the female villain: manipulative, sexual, heartless, the male villain: aggressive, uncontrolled, cruel, and the hero: loving, but often mistaken. The cardboard characters come ready-made, they are not forged by their particular experiences, by their history or by their society; nothing interrupts them working their way through their story to the happy ending.
“High quality historical fiction is not like this. A good historical novel tells of characters who are entirely congruent with the known conditions of their time, and yet sufficiently independent in thought and action to stand out from the crowd, and for the modern reader to identify with them. They are rounded characters because they exist in a recognizable time and place and these circumstances work on them. A good historical novel is always conscious of the shared humanity that we all inherit …”
Gregory makes these provocative comments in her preface to Seton’s Katherine, posted on her Web site and worth reading if you like Gregory’s novels and are looking for similar authors. I would add that if critics tend to conflate historical and romantic fiction, it’s often because publishers encourage the trend with their packaging. Toni Morrison writes historical novels that have covers that make clear that they aren’t romance novels. Other authors aren’t so lucky.