Author: Ronni Phillips
The Tudors are very hot right now. So is Ancient Rome, and, with Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic blockbuster, Robin Hood, having just been released, we may see a corresponding resurgence of the popularity of the Angevins. I’m referring, of course, to historical fiction, and the trends that seem to sweep through the genre every ten years or so.
Certain historical periods seem to lend themselves to fictional reworkings better than others. The Tudor era is never out of fashion, and right now there’s something for every Elizabethan enthusiast, from Philippa Gregory’s bodice-ripping, soap operatic tales of Henry VIII, Anne and Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots to Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, which tells the tale of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power.
Novels dealing with the rise and fall of the Roman Empire are also very popular. This trend goes back at least to Robert Graves’ works I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which were published in the 1930s. Cicero seems at present to be a popular subject for novelists. British author Robert Harris is currently two-thirds of the way through a trilogy about the orator and politician, with the first two books, Imperium and Lustrum already published and the final book due to be released in 2011.
Historical fiction set in the medieval era seems for some reason to fall under the heading of crime fiction, such as Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, whose eponymous crime-fighting monk solves mysteries in and around Shrewsbury during the time of the civil war between Empress Maude and King Stephen in the twelfth century. Another example of this sub-genre is Ariana Franklin’s series of books about a Jewish forensics expert (if such a thing could be said to exist in the twelfth century) who solves mysteries at the behest of King Henry II.
Why do these trends in historical fiction exist? They provide an easy way for their authors to meditate on the nature of medieval society. The popularity of Tudor and Roman historical fiction surely owes a lot to recent blockbusters of film and television – the explosion of films set in Ancient Rome following Gladiator, and the Elizabeth films and recent popular television drama The Tudors. However, I think there’s more to it than that.
Authors writing stories set in these periods seem particularly keen to use the past to interrogate the present. Robert Harris’ novels about Cicero are a thinly-veiled allegory of US and British politics during the Bush-Blair years, focusing on the slow slide from democracy into empire and the erosion of civil liberties in return for security. But these historical periods have other contemporary resonances beyond their usefulness as a mirror of contemporary politics.
The Roman and Tudor periods are particularly soap operatic and are, in the popular imagination at least, perfect examples of excess and decadence. They’re inherently dramatic, and the key figures of such periods – Henry VIII and his six wives, Elizabeth I, Caesar, Pompey, Cleopatra and so on – are larger than life and seemingly endlessly fascinating. The cults of the Tudors and Romans show no signs of abating in the near future.
It will be interesting to see which time period pops up as the next big thing in historical fiction. It depends a lot on what happens in the current political arena, as trends in historical fiction do not occur in a vacuum, but rather are reactions to socio-political change.