Hilary Mantel has reconciled me to the idea of historical fiction, if not every expression of it, but I still find myself in sympathy with these cogent objections from Henry James. He was writing in 1901 to his friend Sarah Orne Jewett, who had sent him a copy of her latest work, a historical novel.
The ‘historical novel’ is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness, for the simple reason that the difficulty of the job is inordinate and that a mere escamotage, in the interest of ease, and of the abysmal public naivety, becomes inevitable. You may multiply the little facts that may be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as naught: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose mind half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.
I think the fiction of our own age, historical and otherwise, suffers greatly from just this preoccupation with little facts. Few writers capture the consciousness or mind of our modern world, let alone a past one. Most are content with a proliferation of objects. These are what seem 'real' in our age, whereas to James they were less real than the inner world of which they survived as relics. That's why his writing remains unapproachably rich, and ours seems condemned to cheapness.