Thursday 31 May 2018

The Best and Worst Tropes in Historical Fiction

As part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series I’ve been reading a fair few novels set in the nineteenth century but written in the twenty-first. And in the process I’ve formed a lot of opinions about the tropes I love and those I don’t love as much when it comes to the historical novel.

Today it’s time to share my highly subjective list:

1. The protagonist ahead of her time 
This one’s a no from me. This character is prone to crying, “why can’t women vote?” She abandons her corset, making sure the reader knows she sees it as a sign of oppression. And she feels the wrongs of the world around her very keenly—is concerned about child labour, slavery, the plight of the poor.

Of course there were suffragettes and abolitionists in the nineteenth-century—many of whom would make wonderful characters in a novel. What I object to, and what makes this character so insufferable, is that she’s always on the right side of history and that her views are always too neatly aligned with contemporary norms. Writers, take note—give us nuance and characters that challenge as well as mirror our current values.

2. The dual narrative
This one’s controversial but I’ve rarely read a novel that switches between a modern and historical storyline where both halves are equally engaging and exciting. All too often the contemporary protagonist serves only to model the desired reader response to the imbed narrative, or as a near constant reminder that the older story is in the past, distancing us emotionally from the novel.

I read historical fiction to be immersed in a time period that’s not my own. If you really want to give some modern context consider a framing device instead.

3. Faceless servants
Servants, with some notable exceptions, get little page time in Victorian novels but that doesn’t mean that twenty-first-century novels need to follow this form. There’s so much drama to be had from the close proximity that servants and masters lived in—it’s a waste to write yet another faceless or stereotyped maid.

4. The marriage plot (with sex)
Now onto the tropes I love. One of the reasons we still read Austen, Gaskell and the Brontes is because of the perennial appeal of the marriage plot. And guess what? In neo-Victorian novels we don’t just have haughty heroes, dramatic proposals, unexpected elopements. We have all that plus sex scenes.

Historical fiction gives us the chance to learn the stories that were never told before—of nineteenth-century lesbian lovers, of the porn industry in the early days of photography. And, since works from the period are out of copyright, we can essentially enjoy steamy fan fiction in published form.

5. Literary cameos
Most writers of historical fiction are in dialogue with writers from the period they’re depicting and sometimes these literary icons turn up in character form.

This one’s a winning formula for me. Who doesn’t want to go back in time and meet Jane Austen? Or get to know Stephen Crane?

6. Genre mash ups
The novel was still young in the nineteenth-century. But today there is a host of developed genres with popular followings and tropes of their own. So bring on the historical novels with fantasy and sci-fi elements—clockwork octopuses, magical circus tents and all.

Do you agree with my list? I’d love to know what tropes you love (and hate to see) in historical novels. Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.


  1. Regarding faceless servants, I recently read Woolf's Flush, an imaginative biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel. He was a Victorian era dog, and faithful companion. Does that qualify as a servant? I really like historical fiction from the perspective of a minor character in the household, or from a classic novel. Seeing the story from the point of view of someone who was marginalized can be so entertaining. Read Passing Bells. It features a maid in a Downton Abbey-like manor house during WWI. Loved it.