April 9, 2011
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On Histories and Stories

by A. S. Byatt

Revisited after a dimly-remembered reading in 2001, these essays explore the uneasy relationship between history and historical fiction. The work that Byatt reads is not often work with which I am familiar, and on second reading I find that Byatt seldom invites us very urgently to ready them, though her discussion of Terry Pratchett – an unexpected visitor to this company – is lively indeed.

Byatt loves intricate and detailed stories, like her own wonderful Posession. Largely missing from this discussion are less ambitious tales set, for various reasons, in other times. There’s nothing here, for example, of Patrick O’Brian, who seems to be lumped with swashbucklers and thrillers, or of Sarah Waters.

All in all, this is the best discussion of the place of historical fiction today.