For my various book groups I found myself reading two historical novels this week end. One is Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks and the other is The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich.
The first is the first person tale of a 17th century woman on Nantucket, growing up Puritan where Native American society is just a stone's throw away. The second takes place about 100 years earlier in Venice where a Jewish midwife has discovered how to use forceps to help in difficult deliveries. Both appear very well researched, and present moving stories of plucky women. Childbirth features prominently in both too.
My friend Ann Charney once said she didn't see the point in historical novels. "Why doesn't one just read history?" I remember her as saying. At the time--and it wasn't too long after I'd strugged with fictionalized biography of the Lower Canadian Patriot Robert Nelson--I was surprised. A fiction about the past seemed to me to be a great way of making an imaginative leap in time.
However, I've become more critical of the genre lately. It is true that sometimes an historical novel can present fascinating facts that would otherwise be accessible only through extensive research. Sometimes, also, the story told can be worth reading. And, frequently, I suspect, a reader may feel less ambivalent about reading a page turner when an otherwise-cliched story is coated with a nourishing coat of fact.
But to find out what really happened during the time evoked in a novel, you really have to read some original documents and good history yourself. If an historical novel is not well written there's just no reason to read it.