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Banishing the scented hankie

How to break the rules of the historical novel

By Hermione Eyre  

Portrait of Venetia, Lady Digby, by Sir Anthony van Dyck ©WM Commons

The historical novel is a supremely elastic genre. It stretches to lowbrow, bodice-ripping efforts, pings back to highbrow—Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, for example, or Eliot’s Romola—while maintaining a solid middlebrow, from I, Claudius to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It can build nations, as Scott’s Waverley novels do, or speak to children, like Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth, or it can tumble sideways, like Woolf’s modernist fantasia Orlando, which can be read as…

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