n 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.