Historical Musings #31: Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction! This month I thought it would be interesting to look at one of the most basic questions people often ask about historical fiction – and to which there seems to be no right or wrong answer. That is, how long ago does a book need to be set for it to be considered ‘historical fiction’?

There is no definitive set of criteria to say what is historical fiction and what isn’t, although it seems quite obvious to me that for a book to be described as historical it needs to be set not just in our past, but also in the author’s past. I sometimes see books like Pride and Prejudice mentioned on lists of historical fiction and, in my opinion, those books don’t belong on that sort of list as they were contemporary at the time when they were written. Other people must disagree, so there is clearly some confusion over what ‘historical’ means and how it should be defined.

To use Charles Dickens as an example, Oliver Twist was written in the 1830s and set in the 1830s, whereas A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859 and set in the previous century, during the French Revolution. From the perspective of the modern day reader, both of these books may feel historical, but there is a difference: in one Dickens is writing about his own time period, while in the other he is writing about a much earlier period he has not actually experienced for himself. Of the two, only A Tale of Two Cities is historical fiction.

So, back to the question of how far into the past a book has to be set before you can call it historical fiction. If a novel set in the 1990s is published today, would you say it’s historical? I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that, as it feels much too recent…but what if it is set in the 1980s…1970s…1960s? What if the author is younger than I am and is writing about a period within my own lifetime but not theirs? What should we use as the cut-off point?

Here are some definitions from other sources:

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction:

Reflecting the subtitle ‘Sixty Years Since’ of Scott’s most famous work Waverley, the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years ago.

The Historical Novel Society:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

What do you think? How ‘historical’ does historical fiction need to be?


Books added to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker
* Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell
* A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
* The Governor’s Ladies by Deryn Lake
* Munich by Robert Harris

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

17 thoughts on “Historical Musings #31: Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    When I am working on My Big Fat Reading Project, I make note of the different categories the books for any one year fall into. One of my categories is “contemporary.” So, for instance, now I am reading 1963 which is almost 60 years ago. Some of the books that were contemporary fiction then feel like historical fiction now, almost. For the purposes of my project as they relate to my memoir though, the contemporary books of 1963 give me added insight to what was going on in my life when I was 15 and 16. I didn’t mean to write an essay here but I went on a bit long to explain that I feel Historical Novel Society definition seems most accurate to me. However, if I was a 16 year old reader now those books from the 60s would certainly feel historical!

    • Helen says:

      I never used to worry too much about genres and labels, but since I started blogging it has become more useful to know which categories to put books into. You must be building up a good picture of life in each year of your project! It would be interesting to compare contemporary books from 1963 with modern books set in 1963 – both should offer a lot of insights, but probably in very different ways.

  2. Café Society says:

    I agree with Judy that the Historical Novel Society definition seems most useful. This is a question that a number of bloggers raised a few years ago when we grouped together to study a MOOC on historical fiction and that was pretty much the decision we came to without knowing about the Society’s definition. I am musing, though over Linda Grant’s novel ‘The Dark Circle’ which I have just posted about. It’s set in the 1950s and I remember that time – just, so I’m not certain that for me that is an historical novel. But, I don’t know when Linda Grant was born. If it was later than 1950 then according to the definition it would be historical. Perhaps we have to recognise that as definitions go historical fiction is always going to be something of a moving feast.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve checked and Linda Grant was born in 1951, so I think it’s fair to say that she would have had to approach the writing of The Dark Circle as historical fiction. As there will be plenty of readers who remember that decade, though, I suppose it’s up to the individual reader whether or not it feels historical to them. In general, the Historical Novel Society definition seems a good one to me too, but maybe not in all cases.

  3. FictionFan says:

    I totally agree about books that were contemporary when written – it always irritates me when they get classed as historical. Hmm… I don’t know how I’d define historical though. I tend to think of anything set more than twenty years before the time of writing as historical… mainly because it can’t really be classed as contemporary. Thoroughly enjoyed Munich, and I’ve also acquired Fools and Mortals though it might be a while before I get to it. Happy reading!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, that’s a good point – if we use the fifty or sixty year rule for historical fiction, how do we define books that are set more recently, but are not quite contemporary? I have to admit, I tend to categorise anything I’m not sure of just as ‘fiction’ to avoid having to make a decision. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Munich! I’m hoping to start it soon.

  4. piningforthewest says:

    I agree with you that Jane Austen’s books are definitely not historical and I know what you mean about books set in the 1990s not seeming historical, but it will be for those born in the 21st century. I always remember telling my dad that I was ‘doing’ World War 2 in history at school and he said I must have got that wrong as it couldn’t possibly be history as he was there!

    • Helen says:

      It makes me feel very old to see books set in the 1990s described as historical! As FictionFan has said above, though, those books couldn’t really be classed as contemporary either, so I suppose, in a way, they are historical. I’m glad you agree with me on Jane Austen. 🙂

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    Ah this is a tough one! I totally agree about books like Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist not being historical fiction as they were in written in that time period – actually it really annoys me when people call them that! I guess I generally class anything set more than 50 years ago as historical.

    • Helen says:

      It annoys me to see those books described as historical fiction too – in that case, every book that’s ever written will be ‘historical’ after a few years have passed.

  6. whatmeread says:

    We’ve had this discussion before, and I told you that I thought the rule you were following of 60 years was easier to determine than the rule I’d been following of before the author’s memory (I can’t remember where I found that one; I’ll try looking it up in a minute), but I’ve reconsidered. Here’s why. I was born in 1951, so if I wrote a book set in 1956, say, I wouldn’t necessarily consider that historical fiction. I wouldn’t, for example, have to research much, because I could remember it, especially if it was from the point of view of a child. Yet it would count as historical by the 60-year rule and it would count to me if it was being written by, say, a 30- or 40-year-old. And if I was 80, a book I wrote set in 1959 would be within my adult memory, which would basically make it contemporary fiction (contemporary for me, that is). So, I’m still using that rule for my reviews, only now have to figure out where I found it. It is difficult to follow because you have to know both the author’s age and when the novel was set, and sometimes they don’t tell either. Your example is a good one, though. I remember commenting on a library review site, because they had a Dickens book, maybe David Copperfield, reviewed as historical and of course it is not, as it is autobiographical. I was surprised that a library made that mistake. As far as I know, the only historical novel he ever wrote was A Tale of Two Cities.

    • Helen says:

      I think the rule you’re following is a good one, although I can see that it could be difficult sometimes to find out both when the story was set and when the author was born – especially when it depends on the age of the reader too! It’s much easier when a book is set in medieval times. 🙂

  7. whatmeread says:

    I couldn’t find the exact place, but I found one that is close enough. Historical Novel Review says historical fiction is set at least 50 years ago and written from research rather than recollection. So that would definitely cut out books set in the 1990’s, even if the author was 12. I think that sounds like a reasonable definition. Of course, by that definition, if you were a time traveler, you wouldn’t ever be writing historical fiction. 😉

  8. Sandra says:

    Fascinating thread, Helen. I’m not sure there’s a definition that works for me which is time-determined. As I read your post, Colm Toibin’s novels came to mind. Brooklyn, set in the early fifties, and Norah Webster, for example. Are they historical under the definitions discussed because of the era in which they are set? Toibin was born in 1955, so that would seem another reason for classifying them as historical. Yet I can’t see them in that genre, even though they are set before I was born. It’s to do with the feel of a novel for me, and the subject matter. These examples are very much to do with the interiors of the heroines, the focus is on their inner lives. That – and his writing style – make me think of these as contemporary novels: I suppose because they are ‘modern’ in style (as reflected in the years they were written). I’ve just started Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, written in 1957 and again so far, I’m responding to it as contemporary rather than historical.

    It occurs to me that perhaps it’s the skills of these authors which enable me to enter a world which is past so intensely that I feel it’s contemporary.

    Oh dear – what a ramble! But you certainly have me thinking!

    • Helen says:

      I have read Brooklyn (though not Nora Webster) and I know what you mean about it not seeming particularly historical, although it is if you use the guidelines I’ve given above. What is becoming clear through everyone’s comments on this post is that there is no one definition of historical fiction that works for every book or every reader. There are more factors that need to be taken into consideration than I’d realised!

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