All Possible Worlds: C.J. Carey and the “What If” of Alternative History


We have at all some point in our lives wondered how the trajectory of our existence may have changed had we decided on a different course of action: had I not decided to apply for that job seen by accident in a discarded newspaper, or not been slightly delayed on the 07.34 train to London that morning in July and missed being on the Piccadilly Line for a terrorist’s device exploding on the underground. History also embraces the “what if” question, and there has been a notable growth in the publication of alternative history titles, both fiction and non-fiction, since the 1990s. The writing of alternative history, or as it is often termed, counterfactual history, is not just a recent trend; Titus Livius (or more, familiarly, Livy) in his History of Rome speculated about Alexander the Great and how the tide of affairs may have turned out differently two thousand years ago. For a long time, though, alternative history was not widely popular, mostly because of an overarching conventional wisdom that history followed the path of the deity’s divine providence; hence the study of other possible pathways was considered essentially heretical. Daniel Snowman1 has written about the strand of more recent thinking which considers that history is not pre-determined, and that there are many options open to historical actors.

The enhanced focus on alternative history has also been prompted by two wider developments – a reaction to the decline in ideological emphasis in Western thought that had dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its central role on certainty and acceptance of a more providentialist history; and a decline in the  instinctive belief in the concept of progress. Hence there has been more uncertainty over the directions that future society would take. In addition, there is the rise of postmodernism as a dominant intellectual concept, where for some historians one narrative is just as valid as another, so that the traditional evidence-based approach to history is argued to be no longer strictly necessary.

Many historians have employed counterfactual approaches to the discipline of history, but it remains a question that divides both academic and non-academic communities. E.H. Carr dismissed alternative history through historians’ speculations as no more than a parlour game. Martin Bunzl argued that “the consequent of a historical counterfactual is always the product of an imagination, unprovable because of the lack of evidence”.2 Once one event has changed, then everything else can and most probably will change too – infinite possibilities branch out from the initial difference. It is very easy for counterfactual writing to wander off into whimsical and frivolous worlds that are more attuned to the fantasy or science fiction genres, where anything could have happened and the only limit is the imagination of the writer. Consequently, alternative history naturally gravitates towards fiction because historians soon run out of material to fuel their speculations. Counterfactual exploration has worked best in the world of fiction, allowing writers to use a range of literary approaches to the vexed question of “what if”.

A recent and notable exponent of alternative history fiction is Jane Thynne, writing as C.J. Carey, who has published two very well-received books in a series – Widowland (Quercus, 2021; Sourcebooks Landmark, 2022) and Queen High (Quercus, 2022; Sourcebooks Landmark, 2023, as Queen Wallis), reviewed in Historical Novels Review 97 and 103, respectively. Their subject is what the United Kingdom might have looked like under Nazi occupation had the country made a peace agreement with Germany in the late 1930s and had not got involved in a military conflict in the Second World War. The novels are set in the 1950s and portray the country impoverished and suffering from the collectivised control of a victorious Germany. The main character is Rose Ransom, a young Englishwoman who works in an official role with a high degree of responsibility for the occupying force while acting as a resistor against the alien presence. We discussed some elements of writing counterfactual fiction.

Speculation over possible alternative outcomes to World War Two and the Nazi state have been very popular for writers, presumably because the German regime represents a condition of ultimate evil. Aviezer Tucker, in commenting on Robert Harris’ 1992 novel Fatherland, argues that the rise of National Socialist Germany shows the “aesthetic fascination with apocalyptic landscapes… like a Bosch painting”.3 Gavriel Rosenfeld has demonstrated how fiction involving alternative Nazi Germany scenarios have been overwhelmingly written by British or US writers.4 This may be because it reinforces the sense that World War Two was worth fighting. And neither country was occupied, whereas for others the trauma of Nazi occupation was all too real and did not need to be elaborated in fiction in countries such as France.

Jane Thynne argues that Nazi Germany remains a particular favourite of British and US writers “because it obliges us to ask questions of ourselves that are still relevant. It’s true that the theme of Britain losing the war is almost a genre in itself, but that’s never a reason to avoid such an endlessly interesting subject. The idea haunts British writers precisely because the contrast between a free Britain and the conquered countries of Europe has been so deeply ingrained in our national mythology. It has profoundly shaped our idea of ourselves. Yet is that justified? To what extent would we have resisted an occupying force any more than the French or the Dutch? I happen to think we may have reacted differently, but that is an open question. Extraordinarily, just as I was thinking about how our population might have behaved under a foreign protectorate, along came a pandemic, which suddenly curtailed civil liberties, made neighbours into spies, and plunged us all into a world of surveillance and bewildering regulation. Immediately, many of my questions were answered. Queen High is very much a lockdown novel.”

Counterfactual history has mostly been the preserve of male writers, and hence Jane’s foray into this genre represents a change. She spoke about the role of gender and her intentions for the books.

“One of the interesting snippets of detail that inspired Widowland came when I was researching rationing in wartime Germany. At the end of the war, the worst and meanest rations were given to women over fifty who had neither husband nor children. These women were called Friedhofsfrauen – cemetery women – because they were utterly useless to society. They might as well die soon. In my novel, these older women are stigmatised and herded into run-down ‘widowlands’, yet they emerge as the most resourceful and literate part of the population. The widows are my heroines.

“Alternative History, like science fiction and fantasy, does tend to be a masculine preserve, and especially when it comes to WW2; the battles, the politics, and the atrocities have always appealed more to male readers. Yet the control of women was central to running a totalitarian society. The Nazi approach was to regulate women at every stage of their lives, ordaining what clothes they wore, banning smoking, and requiring attendance at Bride schools and Mother classes. Now that the topic of male control of women is more mainstream, I hope more female readers might take an interest.”

Drafting counterfactual fiction makes a number of demands upon the writer that are exclusive to the genre. Research for alternative  history not only needs to be accurate with what is known about the people, events and movements of the time commensurate with most historical fiction, but the divergence elements also have to be reasonably plausible, within the loose boundaries of what could be expected to have happened, otherwise it wanders off into the realms of pure fantasy.  As Richard Evans argues, “altering one part of the kaleidoscope of history shakes up all the others in ways that are quite unpredictable”.5

Jane’s view is that “the difference between the two genres was enough to make me change my name! In my earlier period novels – mostly the Clara Vine series set in wartime and pre-war Europe – I strove hard to remain faithful to historical detail. I never changed the date of major events, and I tried to stay true to actual conversations and genuine aspects of people’s lives because I believe historical fiction’s power lies in giving the reader a close-up view of actual events. When I came up with Widowland, the novel before Queen High, which is set in an alternative Britain that never went to war, all that instinctive fidelity to historical accuracy was redundant. So I underlined the distinction by adopting a pen name: C.J. Carey. And once I started writing Alternative History, I found it gloriously liberating. I loved imagining how history might have been, with just a little tilt on the rudder. For example, if Halifax had been Prime Minister instead of Churchill, or, in one of the great ‘what ifs’ of the 20th century, how Britain would have fared in WW2 under Edward VIII. Yet for Alternative History to work well, the story needs to be extremely plausible, so a good deal of accurate historical detail is still required.”

Jane demonstrates that alternative historical fiction is in a very healthy state and confirms that, with the conclusion of Queen High leaving  a possibility for a third volume in the series, there is “certainly” one in the offing. It’s excellent new for the readers who have been fascinated with the adventures of the resistor Rose Ransom in a grim and oppressive Nazi-ruled Britain.

About the contributor: Douglas Kemp is one of the UK team of review editors for the Historical Novels Review.


  1. Daniel Snowman ed., If it Had Been…Ten Historical Fantasies (London 1979).
  2. Martin Bunzl, ‘Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide’. American Historical Review, vol. 109 (2004), pp. 845-68.
  3. Aviezer Tucker, ‘Historiographical Counterfactuals and Historical Contingency’, History and Theory, vol. 38 (1999), pp. 264-276.
  4. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism (Cambridge 2005).
  5. Richard J. Evans, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (London 2007).

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 105 (August 2023)

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