“Oh, that cover has a woman in a pretty dress on it. I really don’t read that sort of thing.”
If you’ve ever thought this while coming across an unknown title in a book store, chances are the novel you just passed on based on its cover is historical fiction. Before you set it aside, take a moment. First of all, authors rarely have control over what ends up on their covers. Secondly, the image is often irrelevant to the content; that cover of a woman seen from the back, posed against some indistinct landscape, might actually be the façade for the fascinating story of an intrepid female journalist who married Hemingway and reported on the civil war in 1930s Spain.
Historical fiction encompasses a wide variety, from fancy-gown escapism to works that explore the past in ways that illuminate our present. When faced with turmoil in our current age, we should look to history for lessons that may, or may not, have been learned. Historical fiction bridges the void between yesterday and today, offering us a mirror in which we can see ourselves and understand we’re not all that different from those who lived before us.
Here are eight reasons to give that novel with a pretty dress on its cover a try.
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1. Learn something new about someone you thought you knew everything about.
Historical fiction is always evolving, reflecting our re-assessment of history. In novels published 40 years ago, someone like Anne Boleyn, perennial favorite of Tudor fiction aficionados, was the feisty homewrecker who destroyed a long-standing royal marriage. In today’s #MeToo world, as we grapple with the toxicity of gender politics and misogyny, which played crucial roles in Anne Boleyn’s life, we see her in a different light—as an intelligent yet essentially powerless woman, stalked by a predatorial king, who seized power in the very forces seeking to cage her.
2. Discover someone you never knew about.
Historical fiction novelists are expanding their horizons. Today’s historical novels are wide-ranging in subject matter, from the downfall of an imperial dynasty as seen through the eyes of the empress who survived it, to the resolve of anonymous women who spied against the Nazis, to the unsung heroines of the French Revolution; and much more. Take a chance on a novel about a subject you know nothing about. You might be surprised by what you discover.
3. Impress your book club with an historical-based evening.
Historical novels bring the added bonus of portraying details of the era. Rather than the ubiquitous wine-and-cheese for your book club meeting, dress it up in the style of your current selection. Reading about Chanel? Wear pearls and serve French-themed aperitifs. Let your imagination soar and turn your book club meeting into an event. Oh, and don’t forget to invite the author. Many of us will gladly Skype or Facetime with your book group.
4. Escape into the past while learning about the present.
Historical novels can show us that very little is new under the sun, and what we think of as current often has its echo in history. Escaping into a novel about the past is not only enjoyable; it’s elucidating. Once you learn that hey, Hamilton’s daughter had a tough time meeting someone to love, you’ll feel better about your endless swiping on dating sites. Even the most privileged endured challenges when it came to finding a suitable mate. And imagine that first dinner conversation, when you bring up this fact. How can your date not be impressed?
5. Reaffirm the knowledge that women have always been ahead of their time.
Because most fiction is acquired by female readers, it’s no surprise that almost all historical novels feature women in leading roles. And these women don’t mess around; they’re organizing resistance networks, designing revolutionary fashion, ruling empires, breaking rules and breaking hearts. Despite the obstacles that women faced, many found ways around them or shattered them on their way up. Revel in this fact. Real historical women aren’t Austen damsels pining for the lord next door; they roll up their oversized sleeves and get things done.
6. Meet bad girls.
Who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to take a walk on the wild side? Well, look no further. Historical fiction offers you the guilty pleasure of stepping into the shoes of a queen who orchestrates a massacre; an unreliable seductress who might be an enemy collaborator; a ruthless business mogul willing to sacrifice principles for profit. In historical novels, women not only get things done, they sometimes go bad to accomplish it. And while bad is never good, it’s always a lot of fun to read about it.
7. Spice up your reading routine.
Love domestic dramas? Addicted to thrillers? Historical fiction has these, too. Novels set in WWII are rife with suspense. Novels about royal women will satisfy your urge for lavish entertaining and perilous adultery. We all love bagels, but if we must eat one every morning for the rest of our lives, we’ll end up bored. Don’t be bored. You don’t have to stop reading genres you love; just take a risk and slip into an historical novel to spice up your routine.
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