It has been said that we can learn everything from history, though historical fiction is rarely given such recognition. The bastard sister of historical fact historical fiction is maligned by historians and readers of history for its many perceived faults. Among those perceptions are that historical fiction is poorly researched, is plagued by anachronisms, and is far too concerned with entertaining its readers at the expense of accuracy. And that may be true of bad historical fiction, but not of good historical fiction, as any lover of the genre can tell you.
I remember reading Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils in middle school which spurred my life-long interest in the American Civil War. From Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I learned that a young girl’s coming of age at the turn of the 20th century was not very different from my own during the 1970s. Later I traveled through the American West with a group of colorful characters from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I journeyed across the world to Australia to meet the Cleary family in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds. And from any Jane Austen heroine I discovered that a young woman’s quest for true love knows no country or era.
I could go on, but I doubt that I need to, since I suspect that you too have your own favorites. I also suspect that you know that historical fiction offers more than an escape from reality. It offers a window into the lives of other people in other times and other cultures who are both different and not so different from us.
In other words, from historical fiction we can learn just about anything.
- I am aware that some define historical fiction as fiction written at least fifty years after the events described. In this case, my examples of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the novels of Jane Austen would not qualify as historical fiction, though many readers – myself included – read them as if they were historical fiction.
Holkham Hall was the home of Jane Digby’s grandfather, Thomas Coke. Here Jane spent much of her childhood. The estate is still owned by his descendants and is a popular tourist destination in England. The family and estate also served as the inspiration for the television series, Downton Abbey.
A period sketch of Thomas Coke, Jane’s grandfather.
A period sketch of Elizabeth Coke, Thomas Coke’s daughter and Jane’s mother.
A period sketch of Almack’s of London where high society sees and is seen.
George Cruikshank’s cartoon of slender Countess Lieven, one of the patronesses of Almack’s, dancing with a rotund partner.
Period drawing of Jane’s father, Admiral Henry Digby – her darling Babou.
A period painting of Jane’s first husband, Lord Ellenborough. She remarks in Volume One of Jane Digby’s Diary that he is “really very handsome, a fact of which he is not unaware.”
George Anson, Jane’s cousin and secret passion.
An insatiable traveller, Jane moved from London to Paris to Munich and beyond. She also lived in a time of great cultural and technological change – one such change was the invention of photography.
King Ludwig’s Gallery of Beauties in Munich’s Schloss Nymphenburg includes this portrait of Jane Digby painted by Joseph Stieler. Jane reportedly disliked the portrait, but it remains the most commonly seen rendering of her online. It is also the basis for the cover art for Mary S. Lovell’s excellent biography of Jane called A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby. I recommend the book highly to readers who would like to learn more about the historical Jane’s scandalous life.
Prince Felix Schwarzenberg
King Ludwig I
Count Spirodon Theotky
General Xristos Hadji-Petros
During her travels Jane Digby meets many famous personages from the 19th century, including . . .
A photograph of Honore de Balzac in 1842.
An 1858 painting of Edmond Francois Valentin About by Felix-Henri Giacomotti.
A drawing of the Duchess of Plaisance as a young woman.