It is no use making any large claims for historical fiction. As is the case with science fiction, the historical genre certainly has its masterpieces. Yet with few exceptions— Henry Esmond, perhaps, War and Peace, and one or two others—even these masterpieces are understood to dwell in a realm separate from the main body of literary endeavor. It does not help that the lowest and most popular kind of historical novel is nowadays widely known by a rather demeaning sobriquet, one that escaped from the back rooms of publishing houses into general circulation around 1980: “bodice-ripper.” It is hard to take a novel seriously when, on picking it up, you have that expression in the back of your mind.

Historical fiction is, in fact, in somewhat the same relation to mainstream fiction as opera is to instrumental music. There are some very high-minded music lovers who will not go to see an opera—and even...


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