Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the action takes place in the past. It is an ambiguous term, because while it is frequently used as a synonym for the historical novel, the term is often used to describe other narrative formats, such as those in the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, 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 Historical fiction subgenres
- 3 List of literary examples by time period
- 4 Historical fiction in performing and visual arts
- 5 Connection to nationalism
- 6 Theory and criticism against its significance
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 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 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. Classical Greek novelists were also "very fond of writing novels about people and places of the past". The Iliad has been described as historic fiction, since it treats historic events, although its genre is generally considered epic poetry. 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.
The historical novel rose to prominence in Europe during 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 in English 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.
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.
Historical fiction subgenres
Historical mystery novels
Historical mysteries or "historical whodunits" 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. These are set between 1137 and 1145 A.D.  The increasing popularity of this type of fiction in subsequent decades has created a distinct subgenre recognized by both publishers and libraries.
Historical romance and family sagas
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.
Nautical fiction and pirate novels
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 and The Pirate Devlin novels by Mark Keating.
Alternate history and historical fantasy
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.
List of literary examples by time period
- Earth's Children by Jean Auel
- Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell
- Pillar of the Sky by Cecelia Holland
- Mammoth Trilogy by Stephen Baxter
- The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
- Song of the Axe and Song of the Earth by John R. Dann
- Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver
- First North Americans by W. Michael Gear & Kathleen O'Neal Gear
- The temporary Zare (На заре времен) series by Semyon Karatov et al.
- The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault
- I, Claudius, King Jesus, Homer's Daughter and Count Belisarius by Robert Graves
- Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games by Mary Renault
- Emperor series by Conn Iggulden
- A Struggle for Rome by Felix Dahn
- The Scourge of God by William Dietrich
- The Sword of Atilla by Petar Bobev
- The Death of Atilla by Cecelia Holland
- Uard, Homo sum, Die Schwester, Der Kaiser by Georg Ebers
- Carthage Trilogy by Ross Leckie
- The Empress of Silk (L'impératrice de la soie) by José Frèches
- Marcus Corvinus series by David Wishart
- Roma Sub Rosa by Steven Saylor
- The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
- Vespassian by Robert Fabbri
- Imperium/Lustrum/Dictator by Robert Harris
- The Egyptian and The Secret of the Kingdom by Mika Waltari
- The Alexander Trilogy (Trilogia di Aléxandros) by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
- Eagle Series by Simon Scarrow
- Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz
- Lion of Sparta (Леонид. Спартанский лев) and Darius (Дарий) by Viktor Porotnikov
- Troy Series by David Gemmel
- The Walled Orchard and Alexander: At World's End by Tom Holt
- Judge Dee by Robert Van Gulik
- "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Luo Guanzhong and retold by Eiji Yoshikawa
- "Gates of Fire" and "Tides of War" by Stephen Pressfield
- Les Rois Maudits by Maurice Druon
- The Saxon Stories and The Grail Quest by Bernard Cornwell
- Conqueror series by Conn Iggulden
- Oathsworn Series by Robert Low
- Matthew Bartholomew series by Susanna Gregory
- Brethren Trilogy and The Insurrection Trilogy by Robyn Young
- Camulod Chronicles by Jack Whyte
- Kings of Albion and The Last English King by Julian Rathbone
- King Raven Trilogy by Stephen Lawhead
- "The Knights of the Cross" by Henryk Sienkiewicz
- "New Tale of the Heike" by Eiji Yoshikawa
- The Viking Series and Saxon by Tim Severin
- "Nama miko monogatari (A Tale of False Fortunes)" by Fumiko Enchi
- The Plantagenet Series, The Welsh Princes Series, "The Sunne in Splendour" by Sharon Kay Penman
- The Cadfael Chronicles and A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter
- The Corban Loosestrife series and Great Maria by Cecelia Holland
- Sano Ichiro by Laura Joh Rowland
- Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolò by Dorothy Dunnett
- The Secrets of the Tudor Court and Face Down Mysteries by Kate Emerson
- Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
- Peter I by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy
- The Waverley Novels by Walter Scott
- The Cem Case by Vera Mutafchieva
- My Name is Red and The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk
- Mathias Tannhauser trilogy by Tim Willocks
- d'Artagnan Romances and Valois Romances by Alexandre Dumas
- Miyamoto Musashi and "Taiko ki" by Eiji Yoshikawa
- Imprimatur Secretum Veritas… by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti
- Leo Africanus, Samarkand, Balthasar's Odyssey by Amin Maalouf
- "Shōgun" by James Clavell
- Sharpe by Bernard Cornwell
- Aubrey-Maturin by Patrick O'Brian
- Hornblower by C.S. Forester
- Lord Ramage by Dudley Pope
- Saint Hermine Series by Alexandre Dumas
- The Trilogy by Henryk Sienkiewicz
- "The Mutiny" by Julian Rathbone
Historical fiction in performing and visual arts
Historical drama films and television series
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 drama films. Many wuxia and samurai films also fall under historical drama umbrella.
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 play and grand opera
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.
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.
Historically-based comics and graphic novels
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 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 are produced into anime series or a movie adaptations like Azumi and 300.
Connection to nationalism
Historical fiction sometimes encouraged movements of romantic nationalism. Walter Scott's Waverley novels created 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).
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- 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