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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Not so historical

Jane Austen’s novels make it onto a lot of best-of lists, and I am usually happy when they do. But not last month, when both Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion were included on a Forbes list of “The 25 Top Historical Fiction Books Of All Time.” *

 

Why was I annoyed? Let me count the ways:

1. Because the article places Austen in the sub-category of “The Best Historical Fiction Romance Novels,” and Austen is not, in my view, a romance novelist;

2. Because, as I have written before, the phrase “fiction novel” is redundant and silly;

but most of all

3. Because Austen is not a historical novelist.

 

 A historical novel, as I understand the term, is a long work of prose fiction set in a period of time that predates the life of its author, or at least predates the book’s publication date by a significant number of years. (How many years? Definitions vary.)

 

By this yardstick, Jane Austen’s novels don’t count, because they were set in what were, for Austen, contemporary times. We may quibble about whether P&P is set in 1800-01 or 1811-12, but whichever timeframe you prefer, it’s likely to have been well within the memory of most of the people who read the novel upon its 1813 publication. The more precisely dated main action of Persuasion takes place in 1814-15, barely three years before the novel’s December 1817 publication.

 

Austen wasn’t a historical novelist; she was a contemporary novelist who happened to be writing in an era that—for us, not her--is history. Not the same thing! If you need a term for “contemporary novelist who wrote a long time ago and uses old-timey phrases and has characters who wear bonnets and travel in carriages and don’t own cell phones,” may I suggest “classic novelist”? Or “nineteenth-century novelist”? Or “Regency novelist”?

 

I know, I know: None of this matters to anyone but prune-faced pedants like myself. Except that it kind of does.

 

From historical novelists, we expect world-building—an evocation of the customs, manners, attitudes, dress, and food of periods that we don’t know firsthand. We expect research—ideally, research worn lightly, not parceled into chunks of undigested exposition.

 

Contemporary novelists are freer to take shared experiences and cultural references for granted, or to evoke them via shorthand—ideally, a shorthand more meaningful than a list of song titles and brand names. Misclassify someone like, say, Jane Austen, and you may misunderstand what they’re up to, and why.

 

 

* One of the books on the list, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s 1990 book A Midwife’s Tale, isn’t even fiction: It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of history.

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4 Comments


allison.1775.thompson
Apr 11

Shame on Forbes' fact checkers!

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Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
Apr 11
Replying to

Indeed! Signs point to this having been a rush job completed with little editorial oversight. . .

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