Historical novel

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A historical novel is a novel set in the past and intended to evoke the conditions of a past period. Many historical novels include historical figures as major or minor characters[1]

See also Historical fiction, Historical romance, Historical drama films, and History play.


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".[2]

The historical novel rose to again to prominence in Europe in the early 19th century as part of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment. Despite the fact that 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,[3] including translation into French and German,[4] critics in the later Victorian period saw Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, whose works were immensely popular throughout Europe, as the creator of the genre in English.[5][6] However, one writer on the history of the novel argues that "the historical novel (with us since antiquity) was reinvented" in the early 19th century.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] In French literature, the most prominent inheritor of Scott's style of the historical novel was Balzac.[11]

Though the genre has evolved since its inception, the historical novel remains popular with authors and readers to this day: bestsellers include Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series, Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, and Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. A striking 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[edit]

Many early historical novels played an important role in the rise of European popular interest in the history of the Middle Ages. Hugo's Hunchback 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.

Time period[edit]

Time scales in historical novels vary widely. While many focus on a particular event or series of events, writers like James A. Michener, John Jakes and Edward Rutherfurd employ generations of fictional characters to tell tales that stretch for hundreds or thousands of years. Others, such as McCullough, compose a chronological series of linked novels.

Some writers postulate an alternative to accepted historical presumptions. In I, Claudius, by 20th-century writer Robert Graves, the Roman Emperor Claudius, until then commonly regarded as inept by historians, is presented in a more sympathetic light. Mary Renault's novels of ancient Greece, such as The Last of the Wine, implied suggestions of tolerance for homosexuality. Historical fiction can also serve satirical purposes. An example is George MacDonald Fraser's tales of the dashing cad, poltroon, and bounder Sir Harry Paget Flashman.


In the 20th century, historical novels started branching into different sub-genres.

Arthur Conan Doyle greatly influenced historical mysteries with his Sherlock Holmes series. Numerous authors have written historical mysteries, such as Iain Pears, Paul C. Doherty and David Liss.

Romantic themes have also been portrayed, such as Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and others in the 20th century, including Eleanor Hibbert and Philippa Gregory.

Some historical novels are set in the eras of shipping: Sandokan by Emilio Salgari, C.S. Forester's Hornblower series, and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, set in the back-drop of the Napoleonic Wars.

The science fiction genre also contains a couple of historical sub-genres; alternate history such as Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna, and time travel with historical settings, such as the "Company" stories of Kage Baker. There are also authors who write in both sub-genres, such as Harry Turtledove in his Timeline 191 series and The Guns of the South novel, respectively.

Connection to nationalism[edit]

Historical fiction sometimes encouraged movements of romantic nationalism. 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[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 authors including Keller, Dickens, and 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).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica s.v. historical novel. Retrieved 07-2013
  2. ^ Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996, p. 27.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Laskowski, Maciej. "Jane Porter's Thaddeus of Warsaw as evidence of Polish–British relationships". Instytucie Filologii Angielskiej (Poznan), 2012. Accessed 26 September 2013.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Anessi, Thomas. "England's Future/Poland's Past: History and National Identity In Thaddeus of Warsaw". Accessed 26 September 2013.
  7. ^ Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel, p.295.
  8. ^ Lukacs 15-29
  9. ^ Lukacs 31-38
  10. ^ Lukacs 69-72
  11. ^ Lukacs 92-96

Works cited[edit]

  • de Groot, Jerome (2010). The Historical Novel. The New Critical Idiom. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-42661-9. 
  • Lukacs, Georg (1969). The Historical Novel. Penguin Books. 

External links[edit]