A Street Shaken by Light by James Buchan review – a ripping yarn

A young hero’s 18th-century escapades evoke Walter Scott, in the first of a projected six-part series

The way history is told has changed over time, and the same is true of the historical novel. It starts with Walter Scott, for whom “history” was the site of romantic adventures: a young, likable hero goes out into the world and faces a struggle between historical forces – Whigs and Jacobites, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Crusaders and Saracens. He “wavers” between them (that’s why Scott’s first hero is called Waverley) before settling on the side of progress and modernity. The 19th century saw many Scott-influenced historical romanciers (Harrison Ainsworth, Fennimore Cooper), famous in their own day though forgotten now.

This style of historical novel went out of fashion over the 20th century. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books parody it: Fraser’s hero is young and venturous, but also a cad, a coward, a rake. Toni Morrison’s historical novels deconstruct the pieties of the past in more serious mode, revealing worlds striated by hideous racism and sexism. Hilary Mantel writes the past with a fine but modern literary sensibility: her Thomas Cromwell is in effect a 21st-century individual, self-questioning, sensitive and with his creator’s hindsight. Alternate history novels – Hitler wins the second world war in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Africa colonises Europe in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses – figure history as fragile and contingent, enabling us to think through our assumptions about its permanence and inevitability.

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