From The Literary Hub:
It might sound odd to say it, but there is no such thing as historical fiction. And yet if you write a literary novel set in the past, let’s say before the 1950s—though in truth, it might well be much later than that—it is a label impossible to escape. The agents, book scouts and publishers with a wistful sigh shunt you into the historical trap. The author, as the novel is brought to book, might be surprised to discover the term appearing in the jacket text forewarning the unwary reader. Watch then as the book is published and reviewers rush to box the novel as historical fiction.
The novelist bristles because the term denotes a difference. Whichever way one looks, “historical fiction” in code, category and casual shorthand, is a term that sets it apart from the contemporary novel. It is assumed, generally speaking, that the contemporary novel speaks of the times we live in, and the historical novel does something else. It is not uncommon to read journalists lauding a contemporary novel for showing us how we live now.
. . . .
Let’s suppose you are a novelist writing fiction set in an historical era. Ask yourself this question: What reader from 1817 would recognize themselves in a novel written 200 years later? That reader would collapse in a cold swoon and wake up bereft and bewildered. The novelist can expertly summon a voice. They might evoke with uncanny accuracy the morals and codes of an era. For sure they will step carefully through the minefield of anachronisms—or blow themselves up in the name of revisionism. But any idea of an authentic past in the novel is illusion—the historical novel is an act of prestidigitation.
The novel itself is formed by unspoken rules that govern what a modern reader will recognize, borne by the history of all the novels written before it—(“The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” as Cormac McCarthy once put it). A novelist can summon what the reader believes to be an authentic past but it is an impossibility to write truthfully of any other time than your own.
. . . .
Of course, we read the “historical novel” and marvel at its simulation of the past. But pay attention and you will see the historical novel can speak with cool clarity about what is timeless in the present. The modern novelist through the prism of the past seeks to remove the reader from the noise and rush of the now. A space is made around the reader. The novelist says, let us not be concerned with who we are now, but what we are always. For the historical novel, if it sees clearly, can show us how the modern world is governed by ancient forces: power versus weakness, truth versus falsehood, life versus death. And always there is the problem of living: how can we live well, or how can we survive within a world ranged against such enormous forces?
Link to the rest at The Literary Hub
“It is an inescapable fact that the consciousness of the writer, the deeper meanings of language, and any articulation of a world view, are shaped by the heat and pressure of the times the writer lives in . . . . A novelist can summon what the reader believes to be an authentic past but it is an impossibility to write truthfully of any other time than your own. . . . Historical fiction is contemporary fiction and cannot be anything else.”
PG wonders if this means reading a Jane Austen novel is a completely different experience from reading a novel written by a skilled author of regency romances in 2017.
Does the modern reader misunderstand a great many of the fictional events, circumstances and emotions Jane writes about because her consciousness was shaped by a far different time and society than those in which a modern reader lives?
While Mrs. PG is an expert author of regency romances and PG is not, PG understands the experience of reading a good regency created by a modern author and the experience of reading an Austen novel is similar. Indeed, due to the fixed number of Austen novels and the desires of many readers not to end their experience with the Regency world after they finish the last one, many modern regency romances sell quite well.
As illustrated in the last quoted paragraph PG excerpted, at the end of the OP, the author describes a different view, one with which PG agrees, “Does the historical novel steal a trick from the classical novel? Perhaps it does. If you declutter the novel of the contemporary tumult, it will seek the same unswerving truths that hold us true to the classics.”
PG posits that human nature doesn’t change with the passage of decades and centuries. The surroundings, technologies, manners of speaking and writing, contemporary social expectations, etc., will certainly change, but human nature will not.
We recognize the nature of the characters that Jane describes from our own experiences with 21st century humans. The emotions Jane illustrates are the same emotions we have felt and still feel.
And isn’t that lovely?