Historical Fiction: Inspired or Recreated?

Historical Fiction: Inspired or Recreated?

Historical fiction, we are told by literary agents, is set to be one of the biggest literary trends of 2018 and Cornwall is being heralded as the new literary capital of the UK.

But what is historical fiction? Is it history written as fiction? Or is it fiction set in a historical setting? Or a bit of both?

A key element of historical fiction, and its TV and film equivalent, the Period Drama, is that the story tells of the mores, manners and social conditions of the time in which it is set, in a more accessible way than a non-fiction account of the time can do.

Historical fiction caters for our love of history without the constraints of a more scholarly work. Aidan Turner – Ros Poldark – is probably more popular than Simon Schama!

But like all fiction it can be very choosy in the aspects of history or society included and often gives us a rather biased account of historical events.

At this year’s LitFest we have two contrasting types of historical fiction.

David Taylor, previously a BBC correspondent, gives us a fictional account of one of west Cornwall’s most colourful characters, Colonel George St Leger Grenfell, son of a wealthy Marazion family, in his book ‘The Man Who Lived Twice’.

The story follows George who, wanted for fraud in France and mosque desecration in Morocco, became a mercenary and fought in most of the foreign wars of the nineteenth century, always with conspicuous gallantry.

He charged with the Light Brigade at Balaclava, defended the bullet-strewn barricades in the Indian Mutiny, hacked his way through the Chinese Opium War and helped Garibaldi to liberate Italy. Like fifty thousand other British citizens, he sailed to America to enrol in their Civil War and was the highest ranked British officer in the Confederate Army.

And that’s only the start of the story.

One the other side of the historical fiction table, Noel O’Reilly’s book ‘Wrecker’ is a purely fictitious tale, set somewhere in West Penwith, just after the Napoleonic Wars.

Noel was inspired to write this after seeing the cover of a book called Lost Cornwall that featured a grainy photograph of a girl carrying pails of water down a steep lane in gritty nineteenth century Newlyn. It caught his imagination, and from this point the life and trials of Mary Blight were born. Many of the events that occur in the book were inspired by real life incidents in Cornish history, but the tale itself is a feat of the imagination.

History is never far away. The past can catch up with us – as with the Jeremy Thorpe scandal that has been in the news recently. David Taylor, for instance, ended up living in the very house in Cornwall that Thorpe used for some of his assignations with Norman Scott. Perhaps he will weave some of this into his tale of Marazion’s mercenary.

Whichever way it is approached, historical fiction – whether based on a true story or inspired by historical events – allows readers a chance to tread the fictional paths of those who walked before us. It’s no wonder really that the popularity of historical fiction is on the rise!