In historical fiction, as in all things, fashions come and go. As we near the end of Hilary Mantel’s glorious Tudor revival, the ancient world is again getting a look in, with writers such as Madeline Miller and Pat Barker refashioning the Homeric epics to glittering effect. But these trends mask more durable patterns, at least from a crudely chronological point of view.
For one thing, the 19th century – the Regency and Victorian eras, in other words – remains vastly overrepresented. In an informal 2013 survey by the Historical Novel Society, it accounted for almost 30% of that year’s titles, second only to the 20th in popularity, and with almost as large a share as all other eras put together. What accounts for this enduring fascination? Proximity plays a part, naturally, and the richness of the documentary record probably doesn’t hurt either. Empires need prodigious bureaucracies, and if there’s one thing the Victorians were spectacularly good at, it was writing things down.
For my part – well, I won’t lie. Some of it comes down to aesthetics. In The House on Vesper Sands, I wanted to dramatise wickedness and secrecy. For that you need darkness, snow and plenty of orphans. More high-mindedly, I wanted to rehabilitate the Victorian sensation novel, in which – long before the modernists thought of it – the author’s own trickery is playfully advertised. In other words – and each of the books I’ve chosen reflects this in one way or another – the Victorians didn’t just perfect the English novel. They made it self-aware.
1. Possession by AS Byatt (1990)
While literary critics have occasionally embraced historical fiction, academic literary theorists have taken a harder line. They take a dim view of representing things generally, but especially of representing the past. This novel isn’t just aware of all this; it gleefully writes it into the plot. Its intricate parallel narratives involve a pair of fusty academics who discover both a secret affair between two Victorian poets and a hesitant passion of their own. The resulting novel (or rather, “romance”, both in the literary sense and the usual one) manages to be both extravagantly learned and utterly charming.
2. Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss (2014)
Since this novel’s appearance in 2014, Moss’s star has rightfully risen. Bodies of Light deserves consideration alongside her finest work, and exhibits her peculiar gift for slipping among disparate settings (from Greenland to the Outer Hebrides) while maintaining unusual strands of continuity. Here again she is preoccupied with motherhood and the fragility of the self, and while her Victorian foray begins with the unearthing of infant bones, she is always digging into the human soul, including – or so it can often seem – the reader’s own.
3. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (2002)
This justly celebrated reinvention of the Dickensian novel is not so much a reboot as a kick in the arse. Unlike Dickens, Faber has no time for the sanctified waif or the virtuous simpleton. As in Bleak House, we are introduced first to the city itself, with a warning that we must start at the very bottom. In Faber’s London, the fog hides nothing and the veils are all drawn back. Here a prostitute squats unceremoniously over her bowl to scour herself, while outside the blood runs among the cobbles “like a winding crimson weed”.
4. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
A landmark of lesbian fiction, this suffered the unusual fate of becoming famous for the wrong reasons. The novel’s central love story should never be whitewashed, but it spawned a cottage industry of softcore Victoriana that overshadowed its author’s virtuosity. With its loveable rogues and dastardly schemes, Fingersmith has all the elements of the worst kind of knockabout pastiche, yet what Waters fashions from them is almost miraculous. From intricate plotting to exquisitely subtle observation, she is that rare prodigy: an author who is good at everything. Like her heroine, Sue, we see as a small child does “what I had never seen before – how the world was made up”.
5. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)
The unlikely love story that begins when Lucinda Leplastrier encounters Oscar Hopkins on a ship bound for Australia has become one of the most cherished of recent times. Yet it is a love story, Carey has confessed, that he ended up writing almost by mistake. Instead, the novel’s glittering and unforgettable central motif, a glass church floating on a river, had struck Carey as crystallising (if you will) Pascal’s notion of religious belief as a grand gamble. Oscar is an inveterate gambler, of course, but if he accepts Lucinda’s bet out of compulsion, agreeing to transport her fragile edifice into the remote outback, his persistence in this harebrained undertaking has given us one of literature’s most monumental acts of love.
6. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996)
Atwood has always given us big ideas, but she hasn’t always shown as much interest in people. Alias Grace is as much a novel of ideas as any she has written, but is centred for once on a transfixing study of character. Grace Marks was a real (and notorious) historical character, an Irish maid convicted in 1843 of a brutal double murder. While brilliantly dramatising the Victorian urge to medicalise femininity, this novel dignifies its central character even as it wrings from the question of her guilt a merciless degree of suspense.
7. The Prestige by Christopher Priest (1995)
Christopher Nolan’s darkly glamorous film version made this the best known of Priest’s books. While it did justice to the novel’s duelling Victorian stage magicians, it jettisoned its contemporary framing and, in doing so, much of its psychological subtlety. In Priest’s original telling, the historical rivals are discovered by a down-on-his-luck writer named Andrew Westley. As the magicians stalk one another, each maddened by the mystery of the other’s “prestige” (or trick), Westley is haunted by a phantom twin, and it is the reader who must discover the true nature of the illusion.
8. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013)
Set in the New Zealand of the 1860s, this novel transports us not to the midst of Victoria’s reign but to the very periphery of her possessions, a disparity that Catton’s immense novel ingeniously exploits. Taking on the guise of a genteel pastiche, its customs seem familiar at first, but we soon find ourselves in unmapped territory. The intricate plot (involving a vanished prospector, a missing fortune and an ailing prostitute) is absorbing but becomes almost incidental, with Catton’s fiendish use of omniscient perspective purporting to show us everything while keeping us artfully in the dark.
9. Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (1998)
Shortlisted for the Booker prize five times, it was not until after her death in 2010 that Bainbridge was finally honoured with a specially created award. Although it was chosen from among her novels by a popular vote, Master Georgie is one of Bainbridge’s most challenging and austere works. Indeed, she herself remarked that most people needed to read it three times before they understood it. She may have been right. With its carefully modulated perspectives and slyly observed details, this refracted Bildungsroman follows a young surgeon’s almost helpless progress towards the muck and depravity of the Crimean war, and it reveals new and brilliant facets no matter how often you come back to it.
10. The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds (2009)
Set in Epping Forest in 1840, The Quickening Maze examines the unlikely circumstances that brought the poets John Clare and Alfred Tennyson into brief conjunction. Clare’s alcoholism and declining artistic fortunes have brought him to High Beach Asylum, while the young and untested Tennyson, a guest of the asylum-keeper, is so self-absorbed that he scarcely notices the amorous attentions of his host’s young daughter. Animating such looming and disparate figures could have made for heavy going, but Foulds gives them human scale and careful shading, illuminating all he touches with his swift and shimmering prose.
• The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £14.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £11.49 including free UK p&p.