Historical fiction

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Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Historical fiction can be an ambiguous term: frequently it is used as a synonym for describing the historical novel; however, the term can be applied to works in other narrative formats, such as those in the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, television, comics, and graphic novels.

An essential element of historical fiction is a setting from history. In this setting, historical fiction frequently portrays the manners and social conditions of the persons or times presented in the story and pays attention to other precise period details.[1] Authors frequently choose to explore historical figures through these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals would have responded to their environments. Some subgenres of historical fiction, such as alternate history or historical fantasy, deliberately insert speculative or ahistorical elements into the work; however, other works of historical fiction will be criticized for this lack of "authenticity" because of readerly or generic expectations. This tension between historical authenticity, or Historicity, and fiction frequently becomes a point of commentary for readers and popular critics, while scholarly criticism frequently goes beyond this commentary, investigating the genre for it's other thematic and critical interests.

Historical fiction as the genre familiar to readers of contemporary western literature has its foundations in the works of Sir Walter Scott and his contemporaries in other national literatures of the early 19th century, such as Victor Hugo, James Fenimore Cooper and Leo Tolstoy. However, the melding of "historical" and "fiction" in individual works of literature has a long tradition in most cultures; both western traditions, as early as Ancient Greek and Roman literature, as well as eastern, oral, and folk traditions produced epics, novels, plays and other fictional works describing the historical for contemporary audiences.

Historical novel[edit]


Definitions vary greatly. On the one hand The Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works "written at least fifty years after the events described",[2] whilst on the other hand critic Sarah Johnson delineates such novels as "set before the middle of the last [20th] century […] in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience."[3] Then again Lynda Adamson, in her preface to the bibliographic reference work World Historical Fiction, states that while a "generally accepted definition" for the historical novel is a novel "about a time period at least 25 years before it was written", she also suggests that some people read novels written in the past, like those of Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), as if they were historical novels.[4]

History of the genre[edit]

Historical prose fiction has a long tradition in world literature. All of the Four Classics of Chinese literature were set in the past: Shi Nai'an's 14th-century Water Margin concerns 12th-century outlaws; Luo Guanzhong's 14th-century Romance of the Three Kingdoms concerns the 3rd-century wars which ended the Han Dynasty; Wu Cheng'en's 16th-century Journey to the West concerns the 7th-century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang; and Cao Xueqin's 18th-century Dream of the Red Chamber concerns the decline and fall of a great family during the reigns of the recent emperors.[citation needed] Classical Greek novelists were also "very fond of writing novels about people and places of the past".[5] The Iliad has been described as historic fiction, since it treats historic events, although its genre is generally considered epic poetry.[6] The Tale of Genji (ca. 1000 AD) is a fictionalized account of Japanese court life and its author asserted that her work could present a "fuller and therefore 'truer'" version of history.[7]

One of the earliest examples of the historical novel in Europe is La Princesse de Clèves, a French novel which was published anonymously in March 1678. It is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern tradition of the psychological novel, and as a great classic work. Its author is generally held to be Madame de La Fayette. The action takes place between October 1558 and November 1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. The novel recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character – except the heroine – is a historical figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary record. In the United Kingdom the historical novel "appears to have developed" from La Princesse de Clèves, "and then via the Gothic novel".[8] It then rose to prominence in Europe during the early 19th century as part of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, especially through the influence of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, whose works were immensely popular throughout Europe, even though Jane Porter's 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw is one of the earliest examples of the historical novel in English and went through at least 84 editions,[9] including translation into French and German,[10][11][12]

In the 20th-century György Lukács argued that Scott was the first fiction writer who saw history not just as a convenient frame in which to stage a contemporary narrative, but rather as a distinct social and cultural setting.[13] Scott's Scottish novels such as Waverley (1814) and Rob Roy (1817) focused upon a middling character who sits at the intersection of various social groups in order to explore the development of society through conflict.[14] Ivanhoe (1820) gained credit for renewing interest in the Middle Ages. In the United States, James Fenimore Cooper was a prominent author of historical novels who was influenced by Scott.[15] His most famous novel is The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826), the second book of the Leatherstocking Tales pentalogy.[16] The Last of the Mohicans is set in 1757, during the French and Indian War (the Seven Years' War), when France and Great Britain battled for control of North America.

In French literature, the most prominent inheritor of Scott's style of the historical novel was Balzac.[17] Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) furnished another 19th-century example of the romantic-historical novel as does Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Tolstoy incorporated extensive historical research into War and Peace. A veteran of the Crimean War, Tolstoy was quite critical of standard history, especially the standards of military history, in War and Peace. Tolstoy read all the standard histories available in Russian and French about the Napoleonic Wars and combined more traditional historical writing with the novel form. He explains at the start of the novel's third volume his own views on how history ought to be written. His aim was to blur the line between fiction and history, in order to get closer to the truth, as he states in Volume II.[18] The novel is set 60 years earlier than when Tolstoy wrote it, "in the days of our grandfathers," as he puts it. He had spoken with people who had lived through war during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, so the book is also, in part, accurate ethnography fictionalized. He read letters, journals, autobiographical and biographical materials pertaining to Napoleon and the dozens of other historical characters in the novel. There are approximately 160 real persons named or referred to in War and Peace.[19]

Though the genre has evolved since its inception, the historical novel remains popular with authors and readers to this day and bestsellers include Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series, Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, and Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. A development in British and Irish writing in the past 25 years has been the renewed interest in the First World War. Works include William Boyd's An Ice-Cream War; Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong and The Girl at the Lion d'Or (concerned with the War's consequences); Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way.

Connection to nationalism[edit]

Historical fiction sometimes encouraged movements of romantic nationalism. Walter Scott's Waverley novels created interest in Scottish history and still illuminate it.[citation needed] A series of novels by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski on the history of Poland popularized the country's history after it had lost its independence in the Partitions of Poland. Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote several immensely popular novels set in conflicts between the Poles and predatory Teutonic Knights, rebelling Cossacks and invading Swedes. He won the 1905 Nobel Prize in literature. He also wrote the popular novel, Quo Vadis, about Nero's Rome and the early Christians, which has been adapted several times for film, in 1912, 1924, 1951, 2001 to only name the most prominent. Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter fulfilled a similar function for Norwegian history; Undset later won a Nobel Prize for Literature (1928).

The influence of the historical novel on society[edit]

Many early historical novels played an important role in the rise of European popular interest in the history of the Middle Ages. Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame often receives credit for fueling the movement to preserve the Gothic architecture of France, leading to the establishment of the Monuments historiques, the French governmental authority for historic preservation.[20] Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti's historical mystery saga Imprimateur Secretum Veritas Mysterium has rose interest in European history and having famous castrato opera singer Atto Melani as a detective and spy. Although the story itself is fiction, many of the persona and events are not. The book is based on research by Monaldi and Sorti, who researched information from 17th-century manuscripts and published works concerning the siege of Vienna, the plague and papacy of Pope Innocent XI. [21]

The historical novel as a commentator on society[edit]

The genre of the historical novel has also permitted some authors, such as the Polish novelist Bolesław Prus in his sole historical novel, Pharaoh, to distance themselves from their own time and place to gain perspective on society and on the human condition, or to escape the depredations of the censor.[22]

Historical events as a backdrop[edit]

In some historical novels, major historic events take place mostly off-stage, while the fictional characters inhabit the world where those events occur. Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped recounts mostly private adventures set against the backdrop of the Jacobite troubles in Scotland. Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge is set amid the Gordon Riots, and A Tale of Two Cities in the French Revolution.

Historical accuracy[edit]

In some works, the accuracy of the historical elements has been questioned, as in Alexandre Dumas' Queen Margot. Postmodern novelists such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon operate with even more freedom, mixing historical characters and settings with invented history and fantasy, as in the novels The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon respectively. A few writers create historical fiction without fictional characters. One example is the historical mystery series Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough.

Theory and criticism[edit]

The Marxist literary critic, essayist, and social theorist György Lukács wrote extensively on the aesthetic and political significance of the historical novel. In 1937's Der historische Roman, published originally in Russian, Lukács developed critical readings of several historical novels by various authors, including Gottfried Keller, Charles Dickens, and Gustave Flaubert. He interprets the advent of the "genuinely" historical novel at the beginning of the 19th century in terms of two developments, or processes. The first is the development of a specific genre in a specific medium—the historical novel's unique stylistic and narrative elements. The second is the development of a representative, organic artwork that can capture the fractures, contradictions, and problems of the particular productive mode of its time (i.e., developing, early, entrenched capitalism).

Subgenres of the historical novel[edit]

Fictional biographies[edit]

Margaret George has written fictional biographies about historical persons in The Memoirs of Cleopatra (1997) and Mary, called Magdalene (2002). An earlier example is Peter I (1929–34) by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, and I, Claudius (1934) and King Jesus (1946) by Robert Graves. Other recent biographical novel series, include Conqueror and Emperor by Conn Iggulden and Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris.

Historical mysteries[edit]

Main article: historical mystery

Historical mysteries or "historical whodunits" are set by their authors in the distant past, with a plot that which involves the solving of a mystery or crime (usually murder). Though works combining these genres have existed since at least the early 1900s, many credit Ellis Peters's Cadfael Chronicles (1977-1994) with popularizing them. These are set between 1137 and 1145 A.D. [23][24] The increasing popularity of this type of fiction in subsequent decades has created a distinct subgenre recognized by both publishers and libraries.[24][25][26][27]

Historical romance and family sagas[edit]

Main articles: historical romance and family saga

Romantic themes have also been portrayed, such as Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. One of the first popular historical romances appeared in 1921, when Georgette Heyer published The Black Moth, which is set in 1751. It was not until 1935 that she wrote the first of her signature Regency novels, set around the English Regency period (1811–1820), when the Prince Regent ruled England in place of his ill father, George III. Heyer's Regency novels were inspired by Jane Austen's novels of the late 18th and early 19th century. Because Heyer's writing was set in the midst of events that had occurred over 100 years previously, she included authentic period detail in order for her readers to understand.[28] Where Heyer referred to historical events, it was as background detail to set the period, and did not usually play a key role in the narrative. Heyer's characters often contained more modern-day sensibilities, and more conventional characters in the novels would point out the heroine's eccentricities, such as wanting to marry for love.[29]

Sea stories and pirate fiction[edit]

Some historical novels explore life at sea, including C.S. Forester's Hornblower series, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, Alexander Kent's The Bolitho Novels, Dudley Pope's Lord Ramage's series, all of which all deal with the Napoleonic Wars. There are also adventure novels with pirate characters like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) and Captain Blood (1922) by Rafael Sabatini. Recent examples of historical novels about pirates are The Adventures of Hector Lynch by Tim Severin, The White Devil (Белият Дявол) by Hristo Kalchev and The Pirate Devlin novels by Mark Keating.

Alternate history and historical fantasy[edit]

The Plot Against America is a novel by Philip Roth published in 2004. It is an alternative history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh and a fascist, anti-semitic government is established. There are other examples, such as Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna, in which the Roman Empire survives to the present day and time travel to the past, such as the "Company" stories of Kage Baker. There are authors who write in both sub-genres, like Harry Turtledove in his Timeline 191 series and "The Guns of the South" novel, respectively. Isaac Asimov's short story What If-- is about a couple who can explore alternate realities by means of a television-like device. This idea can also be found in Asimov's 1955 novel The End of Eternity. In that novel, the "Eternals" can change the realities of the world, without people being aware of it.

There is also an historical fantasy subgenre. Poul Anderson has a number of historical fantasy novels set in Viking times including The Broken Sword and Hrolf Kraki's Saga. Otherwise space opera author C. J. Cherryh has a whole historical fantasy series The Russian Stories set in Medieval Kievan Rus times. Guy Gavriel Kay has number of historical fantasy novels as "The Lions of Al-Rassan" set in Renaissance Spain and "The Sarantine Mosaic" in Ancient Greece. David Gemmel has only two historical fantasy series. The first is the Greek series, which are about Parmenion, a general of Alexander the Great. The story is loosely based on historic events, but adds fantasy elements such as supernatural creatures and sorcery. His posthumous Troy Series features a fictional version of the Trojan War. The Sevenwaters Trilogy (later expanded) by Juliet Marillier is set in 9th century Ireland.

Children's historical fiction[edit]

A prominent subgenre within historical fiction is the Children's historical novel. Often following a pedagogical bent, children's historical fiction may follow the conventions of many of the other subgenres of historical fiction. A number of such works include elements of historical fantasy or time travel to facilitate the transition between the contemporary world and the past in the tradition of children's portal fiction. Sometimes publishers will commission series of historical novels that explore different periods and times. Among the most popular contemporary series include the American Girl novels and the Magic Tree House series. A prominent award within Children's historical fiction is the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Historical fiction in performing and visual arts[edit]

Historical period drama films and television series[edit]

Historical drama film stories are based upon historical events and famous people. Some historical dramas are docudramas, which attempt an accurate portrayal of a historical event or biography, to the degree that the available historical research will allow. Other historical dramas are fictionalized tales that are based on an actual person and their deeds, such as Braveheart, which is loosely based on the 13th-century knight William Wallace's fight for Scotland's independence. For films pertaining to the history of East Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia, there are Asian historical period drama films, also known as Jidaigeki in Japan. Many wuxia and samurai films also fall under historical drama umbrella.

Many historical narratives have been expanded into television series. Notable ancient history inspired TV series include: Rome, Spartacus, Egypt and I Claudius. Tudor England is also very prominent subject in television series like The Tudors, The Virgin Queen and Elizabeth I. Programs about the Napoleonic Wars have also been produced, like Sharpe and Hornblower. Historical soap operas have also been popular, including the Turkish TV series The Magnificent Century and Once Upon A Time In The Ottoman Empire: Rebellion. Chinese studios have also produced television series like The Legend and the Hero, its sequel series, Legend of Chu and Han and The Qin Empire.

History plays and grand opera[edit]

History is one of the three main genres in Western theatre alongside tragedy and comedy, although it originated, in its modern form, thousands of years later than the other primary genres.[30] For this reason, it is often treated as a subset of tragedy.[31] A play in this genre is known as a history play and is based on a historical narrative, often set in the medieval or early modern past. History emerged as a distinct genre from tragedy in Renaissance England.[32] The best known examples of the genre are the history plays written by William Shakespeare, whose plays still serve to define the genre. History plays also appear elsewhere in British and Western literature, such as Thomas Heywood's Edward IV, Schiller's Mary Stuart or the Dutch genre Gijsbrecht van Aemstel.

In the First Folio, the plays of William Shakespeare were grouped into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. The histories might be more accurately called the "English history plays" and include the outliers King John and Henry VIII as well as a continuous sequence of eight plays covering the Wars of the Roses. These last are considered to have been composed in two cycles. The so-called first tetralogy, apparently written in the early 1590s, deals with the later part of the struggle and includes Henry VI, parts one, two & three and Richard III. The second tetralogy, finished in 1599 and including Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V, is frequently called the Henriad after its protagonist Prince Hal, the future Henry V.

The folio's classifications are not unproblematic. Besides proposing other categories such as romances and problem plays, many modern studies treat the histories together with those tragedies that feature historical characters. These include Macbeth, set in the mid-11th century during the reigns of Duncan I of Scotland and Edward the Confessor, and also the Roman plays Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and the legendary King Lear.

Main article: Grand opera

Historical grand operas are very popular. Usually with 4 or 5 acts, they are large-scale casts and orchestras, and spectacular staging, often based on historical themes. They are particularly associated with the Paris Opéra (1820s to c. 1850), but similar works were created in other countries. Several operas by Gaspare Spontini, Luigi Cherubini, and Gioachino Rossini can be regarded as precursors to French grand opera. These include Spontini's La vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809, revised 1817), Cherubini's Les Abencérages (1813), and Rossini's Le siège de Corinthe (1827) and Moïse et Pharaon (1828). All of these have some of the characteristics of size and spectacle that are normally associated with French grand opera. Another important forerunner was Il crociato in Egitto by Meyerbeer, who eventually became the acknowledged king of the grand opera genre. Amongst the most important composers of grand opera are Giuseppe Verdi, Gioachino Rossini and Richard Wagner.

Historical reenactment[edit]

Historical reenactment is an educational or entertainment activity in which people follow a plan to recreate aspects of a historical event or period. This may be as narrow as a specific moment from a battle, such as the reenactment of Pickett's Charge presented during the Great Reunion of 1913, or as broad as an entire period, such as Regency reenactment or The 1920s Berlin Project.

Historically-based comics and graphic novels[edit]

Historical narratives have find their way also in comics and graphic novels. There are Prehistorical elements in jungle comics like Akim and Rahan. Ancient Greece inspired graphic novels are 300 created by Frank Miller, centered around Battle of Thermopylae, and Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower, that retells Trojan War. Historical subjects can also be found in manhua comics like Three Kingdoms and Sun Zi's Tactics by Lee Chi Ching, Weapons of the Gods by Wong Yuk Long as well as The Ravages of Time by Chan Mou. There are also straight Samurai manga series like Path of the Assassin, Vagabond, Rurouni Kenshin and Azumi. Several comics and graphic novels have been produced into anime series or a movie adaptations like Azumi and 300.

List of historical fiction by time period[edit]


This list is designed to provide examples of notable historical novels. For a more exhaustive list, see the larger List of historical novels or the Wikipedia category containing Wikipedia articles about historical novels Category:Historical novels.

Set in Prehistory (c.30,000 B.C.-3000 B.C.)[edit]

Set in Classical Greece, Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, etc. (c.2000 B.C. - 500 A.D.)[edit]

Set in the Middle Ages (c.500 A.D.-1500 A.D.)[edit]

Set in the Early Modern Period (c.1500 A.D.-1760 A.D.)[edit]

Set during the Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic Era (c.1760 A.D.-1840 A.D.)[edit]


Set 2000 B.C.-600 A.D.[edit]

Set 600 A.D.-1550 A.D.[edit]

Set after 1550[edit]


Set 3000 B.C.-600 A.D.[edit]

Set 600 A.D.-1800 A.D.[edit]






Samurai manga[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Search - Encyclopedia Britannica". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2013-10-12. 
  2. ^ Richard Lee. "Defining the Genre".
  3. ^ Sarah L. Johnson. Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2005, p. 1.
  4. ^ Adamson, Lynda G. (1999). World Historical Fiction. Phoenix, AZ: Orxy Press. p. xi. ISBN 9781573560665. 
  5. ^ Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996, p. 27.
  6. ^ Celia Brayfield; Duncan Sprott (5 December 2013). Writing Historical Fiction: A Writers' and Artists' Companion. A&C Black. p. 63. ISBN 978-1-78093-838-7. 
  7. ^ Roy Starrs (23 October 2013). Asian Nationalism in an Age of Globalization. Taylor & Francis. p. 646. ISBN 978-1-134-27869-5. 
  8. ^ J. A. Cuddon The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Penguin Books: London, 1999, p.383.
  9. ^ Looser, Devoney. Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850, pp. 157 ff. JHU Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4214-0022-8. Accessed 30 September 2013.
  10. ^ Laskowski, Maciej. "Jane Porter's Thaddeus of Warsaw as evidence of Polish–British relationships". Instytucie Filologii Angielskiej (Poznan), 2012. Accessed 26 September 2013.
  11. ^ McLean, Thomas. "Nobody's Argument: Jane Porter and the Historical Novel". Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall–Winter, 2007), pp. 88–103. University of Pennsylvania Press. Accessed 26 September 2013.
  12. ^ Anessi, Thomas. "England's Future/Poland's Past: History and National Identity In Thaddeus of Warsaw". Accessed 26 September 2013.
  13. ^ Lukacs 15-29
  14. ^ Lukacs 31-38
  15. ^ Lukacs 69-72
  16. ^ Last of the Mohicans, The. In: Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam-Webster, 1995, ISBN 0877790426, p.661
  17. ^ Lukacs 92-96
  18. ^ Pevear, Richard. "Introduction". War and Peace. Trans. Pevear; Volokhonsky, Larissa. New York City, New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
  19. ^ Pevear, Richard. "Introduction". War and Peace.
  20. ^ Mapping Gothic France: Victor Hugo
  21. ^ ’’Imprimatur’’, p.532
  22. ^ Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature, pp. 299–302.
  23. ^ Picker, Lenny (3 March 2010). "Mysteries of History". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 13 November 2013. 
  24. ^ a b Rivkin Jr., David B. (27 February 2010). "Five Best Historical Mystery Novels". WSJ.com. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 17 November 2013. 
  25. ^ Magar, Guy. "The Mystery Defined". WritersStore.com. Retrieved 17 November 2013. 
  26. ^ "A Guide for Historical Fiction Lovers". ProvLib.org. Providence Public Library. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  27. ^ "Popular Culture: Mysteries". ASCPLpop.AkronLibrary.org. Akron-Summit County Public Library. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  28. ^ Regis (2003), pp. 125-126.
  29. ^ Regis (2003), p. 127.
  30. ^ Ostovich, Helen; Silcox, Mary V; Roebuck, Graham (1999). Other Voices, Other Views: Expanding the Canon in English Renaissance Studies. ISBN 9780874136807. Retrieved 2014-08-07. 
  31. ^ Ribner, Irving (Dec 1955). "Marlowe's Edward II and the Tudor History Play". ELH (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 22 (4): 243–253. JSTOR 2871887. 
  32. ^ Irving Ribner (1965). The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. ISBN 9780415353144. Retrieved 2014-08-07. 

Works cited[edit]

  • Lukacs, Georg (1969). The Historical Novel. Penguin Books. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Shaw, Harry E. The Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

External links[edit]