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CW913 Historical Fictions, Fictional Histories

Convenor and Tutor: Professor Maureen Freely

When Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, she proved to the readers on our island what many had been arguing for decades: that historical fiction was no longer confined to a narrow commercial genre or a mere marketing category. Today, historical fiction has expanded to a diverse and variant body of work, encompassing testimony, experimental writing, creative non-fiction and postmodern meta-fictions. Writers of historical fiction act at a singular intersection between art, history and storytelling. They navigate this complex intersectional and interdisciplinary space while engaging with questions of public memory, historiography and the nature of historical truth.

This module is interested in the craft and ideological complexities of historical fiction. In the era of ‘alternative facts’, can we justify making up stories about the past? What is historical fiction for? How do its writers balance the need to respect the differences between past and present sensibilities with the need to find common ground? What questions and concerns do we take with us, as writers and as readers, when we seek reconnection with the imagined past?

We shall begin by looking at the interplay of myth, history, and imagination in two very different works set in ancient Asia Minor. We shall move on to look at Cromwell as brought back to life, and understood anew, by Hilary Mantel. With Colson Whitehead, we shall look at the ways in which speculative modes can open up ways of understanding institutionalised racism in the present as well as the past. With Philip Roth and Jenny Erpenbeck we shall explore the value of the impossible and counterfactual when seeking to understand the murderous ‘ism’s of the European twentieth century. With Andrea Levy, we shall look at the Windrush generation, erased and latterly remembered but yet to see justice. With Tim O'Brien and Viet Thanh Nguyen, we shall consider the questions around perspective and imperialism. We shall conclude with three writers – one Spanish, one Colombian, and one French – who seek to explode the genre of historical fiction, and in so doing blur the boundaries between the fiction and memoir, by bringing in the author as actor-catalyst.

The module will be assessed by a portfolio of historical fiction of 10,000 words. You may include one long piece or several shorter stories. If you would like to submit non-fiction, please come and discuss it with me.

Seminars will be comprised of discussions of the set texts, group discussions of writing exercises, and writing workshops.

Seminar List
  1. Myth and history, gender and power in Leach and Barker
  2. Cromwell, Mantel and class
  3. Colson Whitehead and the fictions of emancipation
  4. Nazis, Roth, and Erpenbeck: the value of the hypothetical
  5. Andrea Levy and the Windrush Generation
  6. Us and Them: Tim O'Brien and Viet Thanh Nguyen on the legacy of the Viet Nam War
  7. Fact or Fiction: Javier Cercas and the Spanish Civil War
  8. Truth and Fiction: Juan Gabriel Vasquez in Colombia
  9. Annie Ernaux and her generation in post-war France
  10. You decide
Reading List

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls

Tim Leach, The Last King of Lydia

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad 

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

Andrea Levy, Small Island

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathiser

Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The Shape of the Ruins and The Informers

Annie Ernaux, The Years



Assessed portfolio of 10,000 words (45 CATS) or 6000 words (30 CATS).

MAW students must submit a portfolio of 70% creative work and 30% essay. Students on the MA in English Literature may choose to submit a portfolio of 70% creative work and 30% essay OR 100% essay.