I've recently finished reading an historical novel - set in the early twentieth century - by a very well-known novelist, who will remain nameless for the sake of this little blog entry. It was a good read, and the product of a quite remarkable level of research, in the best sense of that word: here was someone who clearly knew the subject from the inside. The sheer command of details, facts, names, places, dates, geography and language was virtuosic, and took my breath away (I simply don't have the patience for that kind of research). In fact, at times, the level of detail was rather overwhelming for a reader.
So, in all sorts of ways, this was a brilliant piece of historical writing, where the history and the story intertwined in complex ways.
But something bothered me about it all the way through - something niggled about the whole novel. And gradually I realised what it was: the command of history, yes, was incredible, but it rather swamped the story and the characters. And now I think this is one of the dangers of the form: in a historical novel, the novel part (the characters, story, etc.) should still predominate over the history (the facts, details, etc.). It's all too easy to write a historical novel where the history is what is important - but in a novel, it's individuals which matter, not great historical movements, economic forces or mass hysterias.
The danger of the historical novel is that the novelist has an historical thesis first, and a story with characters second. In this case, the characters become merely subservient to the historical thesis, to the historical point the author wants to make. The characters become mere examples of wider historical movements. And then it is no longer a novel, but a historical treatise with fictionalised illustrations.
Novels (I think) are about individuals, and individuals not as examples, but as themselves. The amazing and still-scandalous idea behind the novel form is that individuals matter in the grand scheme of things - that individuals aren't just examples of the masses, but may stand against the masses; that, rather than being mere examples of historical movements, individuals might swim against the tides of history, might try and break out of their particular moments, might try and change their historical moments. Of course, in most novels (especially nineteenth-century novels), the individuals fail, or succeed only partly. But the point is still made: this individual was special, this individual mattered, this individual wasn't just a personification of the wider forces around him or her.
Otherwise, why bother writing novels? Why not just write historical textbooks?