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Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the action takes place in the past. It is an ambiguous term, because while it is used as a synonym for the historical novel, it is also applied to performing and visual arts like theatre, cinema, television, comics, and graphic novels.
The settings are drawn from history, and often contains historical persons. Works in this genre often portray the manners and social conditions of the persons or times presented in the story, with attention paid to period detail.
- 1 Historical novels
- 2 Performing and visual arts
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 Further reading
- 6 External links
The Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works "written at least fifty years after the events described". Sarah Johnson further 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." 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". Adamson also suggests that some people view a novel as historical if it is about a past time period, even if the author was writing about his or her own time. She gives Jane Austen as an example of this.
Historical prose fiction has a long tradition. 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. Classical Greek novelists were also "very fond of writing novels about people and places of the past".
The historical novel rose to again to prominence in Europe in the early 19th century as part of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment. Critics have tended to see Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, whose works were immensely popular throughout Europe, as the creator of the genre in English, even though Jane Porter's 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw is one of the earliest examples of the historical novel and went through at least 84 editions, including translation into French and German,
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. 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. Ivanhoe (1820) gained credit for renewing interest in the Middle Ages. 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. In the United States, James Fenimore Cooper was a prominent author of historical novels. In French literature, the most prominent inheritor of Scott's style of the historical novel was Balzac.
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.
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Historical novels are set in a wide range of time periods.
Both C.S. Forester's Hornblower series and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, for example, which explore of life in the navy, are set during the Napoleonic Wars, while Mark Keating's novel The Pirate Devlin, Tim Severin's The Adventures of Hector Lynch, and the Sandokan series by Emilio Salgari explore the era of piracy.
In the 20th century, historical novels started branching into different sub-genres.
historical mystery or historical whodunit is a subgenre of historical fiction and mystery fiction. These works are set in a time period considered historical from the author's perspective, and the central plot 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) for popularizing what would become known as the historical mystery. The increasing popularity and prevalence of this type of fiction in subsequent decades has spawned a distinct subgenre recognized by the publishing industry and libraries.
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. 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.
Some historical novels explore life at sea, including C.S. Forester's Hornblower series, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, and Dudley Pope's Lord Ramage's series which all deal with the Napoleonic Wars. One subset can be intwined with historical pirate novels with the earlier exemple Captain Blood (1922) by Rafael Sabatini. Others most recent exemples are The Adventures of Hector Lynch by Tim Severin and The Pirate Devlin novels by Mark Keating.
The science fiction genre also contains a couple of historical representatives, such as alternate history in as Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna, and time travel with historical settings, 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.
History crosses with fantasy to form the 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. C. J. Cherryh has a 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's only two historical fantasy series are 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.
Style and themes
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.
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.
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.
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 I, Claudius, by 20th-century writer Robert Graves; another is the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough.
Connection to nationalism
Historical prose fiction sometimes encouraged movements of romantic nationalism. Walter Scott's Waverley novels ignited interest in Scottish history and still illuminate it. 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).
Theory and criticism against its significance
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).
Performing and visual arts
Historical drama films
Historical drama films' 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.
Many historical narratives have been expanded into television series, or historical reenactment programs. 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 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. For this reason, it is often treated as a subset of tragedy. 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. 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.
Comics and graphic novels
Historical narratives have find their way also in comics and graphic novels, such as the Ancient Greece inspired graphic novel 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 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.
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|Look up historical fiction in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Historical Fiction recommended reading
- Historical Fiction database, divided by time period.
- Audio Archives from "Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth"- 2009 Key West Literary Seminar
- Historical Fiction Festival Annual event in Summerhall, Edinburgh, for writers and audiences to discuss historical fiction.
- Audio Archives from Historical Fiction and the Search for Truth: 2009 Key West Literary Seminar (accessed 08-2010)
- A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales by Jonathan Nield (1902). Project Gutenberg etext (accessed 05-2014)
- A selection of historical novels set by epoch and author. (accessed 08-2010)
- Annotated list of historical novels for children and teens Anchorage Public Library
- Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction? from the Historical Novel Society
- When Fictionalized Facts Matter - Chronicle of Higher Education article on the fictionalization of history