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Historical prose fiction has a long tradition in East Asia. 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.
The historical novel rose 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, including translation into French and German, critics in the later Victorian period saw Sir Walter Scott, whose works were immensely popular throughout Europe, as the creator of the genre in English. 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: 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
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 scales in historical novels vary widely. While many focus on a particular event or series of events, writers like James A. Michener and Edward Rutherfurd employ generations of fictional characters to tell tales that stretch for hundreds or thousands of years. Others, like McCullough and Gore Vidal, 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. Gore Vidal's novels about American history, including Burr and 1876, included iconoclastic and cynical insights about the nature of political processes and American history. 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.
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.
Connection to nationalism
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.) Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter fulfilled a similar function for Norwegian history; Undset later won a Nobel Prize for Literature (1928).
Authors of the past
- Harrison Ainsworth
- Benito Pérez Galdós
- Stephen Crane
- Alfred Döblin
- Gustave Flaubert
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
- G. A. Henty
- Alexandre Herculano
- Heinrich Mann
- James A. Michener
- Ferdinando Petruccelli della Gattina
- John Cowper Powys
- Walter Scott
- Adalbert Stifter
- Rosemary Sutcliff
- Mika Waltari
- General Lew Wallace
- Luther Blissett wrote Q (1999), set in 16th-century Europe during the Protestant reformation and German Peasants' War
- T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville (1993), set in 1907, tells the story of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes, and his Battle Creek Sanitarium.
- Gillian Bradshaw, a classical scholar, writes historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Duchy of Brittany, the Byzantine Empire, Saka and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Imperial Rome, Sub-Roman Britain and Roman Britain.
- Bernard Cornwell is one of today's best-known historical novelists, with his Sharpe and The Warlord Chronicles.
- Blanche d'Alpuget: The Young Lion about the relationship between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England.
- Umberto Eco's novels, including his most well-known, The Name of the Rose, are historical novels, taking place in medieval or early modern Europe.
- Michael Cawood Green wrote about the Trappist mission at Mariannhill in For the Sake of Silence.
- Philippa Gregory wrote more than ten historical novels set in England, including The Other Boleyn Girl
- Robert Harris has written four historical novels: Enigma, set during World War II, and Pompeii, Imperium and Lustrum, which are set in Ancient Rome.
- Cecelia Holland has written over 20 novels set in many periods in various parts of Europe, Asia and the United States.
- Conn Iggulden is the author of the Emperor series, the Conqueror series and the Dangerous Book for Boys.
- Neamat Imam's The Black Coat is about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's rule in Bangladesh from 1972 to 1975.
- John Jakes has written the best-selling North and South trilogy on the life and times of members of two families during the American Civil War and The Kent Family Chronicles.
- Amita Kanekar's A Spoke in the Wheel is a novel about the Buddha and his disciples, that alternates between the time of the Buddha, about 566 BCE, and the time of Ashoka the Great, about 250 BCE.
- Anurag Kumar's Recalcitrance is set in the Great Uprising or Indian Mutiny of 1857.
- David Lassman & Terence James have created The Regency Detective series of novels, revolving around Jack Swann and set in early 19th Century Bath.
- George Leonardos, author of historical novels such the trilogy for the Byzantine The Palaeologian Dynasty. The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, Mara, The Christian Sultana, about the stepmother of Mehmed II the Conqueror, Barbarossa the Pirate, and The Sleeping Beauty of Mystras.
- Bevis Longstreth wrote two novels set in the Ancient Middle East, Spindle and Bow (2005), and Return of the Shade (2009), which tell the story of Queen Parysatis (444BC to 384BC) who ruled Ancient Persia.
- Colleen McCullough has written the well-known Masters of Rome series, which deals with the end of the Roman Republic and personalities such as Julius Caesar, Gaius Marius and Sulla.
- Julie Myerson's novel Laura Blundy (2000) is set in Victorian London.
- Iain Pears is the author of several historical novels, including An Instance of the Fingerpost and Stone's Fall.
- Borislav Pekic's novels take place in medieval and early modern Europe, as well as during WWII, most notably in his acclaimed, How to Quiet a Vampire. His seven-volume work, The Golden Fleece, is a family saga through which European history is described from Homeric Greece to Hitler's Third Reich.
- Arturo Pérez-Reverte is the Spanish author of the Captain Alatriste novels and other historical novels.
- Tim Powers's novels are historical novels that slip supernatural elements into aspects of the history.
- Linda Proud's works recreate Renaissance Florence, particularly the philosophical currents that informed the work of Botticelli, in A Tabernacle for the Sun, Pallas and the Centaur and The Rebirth of Venus. 
- Thomas Pynchon's three novels Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day are historical, and they contrast personal, subjective, hallucinogenic or supernatural events with events from the past.
- The James Reasoner Civil War Series is a 10-volume set of historical novels set in Culpeper, Virginia.
- Ann Rinaldi, writing YA historical fiction (Time Enough For Drums, A Break with Charity). She writes usually with female protagonists in the first person, set in Colonial - Civil War era America or World War I era. Critically acclaimed and admired.
- Neal Stephenson's series The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) deals with the rise of the scientific world view and the beginnings of modern capitalism in late 17th- and early 18th-century Europe. Cryptonomicon is set in World War II.
- Julian Stockwin wrote a series tracing one man's journey from pressed man to Admiral in the age of fighting sail.
Gerald Lane Summers's "Mobley's Law, A Mobley Meadows Novel" and "Curses" A Mobley Meadows Novel, feature a federal judge in Texas, circa 1872.
- The bulk of Gore Vidal's novels have historical settings, including Burr, about the life of Aaron Burr.
- Jack Whyte wrote A Dream of Eagles about the rise of Camelot after the Roman departure from Britain in the late 4th/early 5th century. Whyte also wrote The Templar Trilogy, a set of novels about the foundation, rise, and fall of the Knights Templar
- Cornell Woolrich, writing as "William Irish", published Waltz into Darkness (1947), set in 1880 New Orleans.
- Richard Zimler has an award-winning series of novels about different generations of a Portuguese-Jewish family of manuscript illuminators and kabbalists: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (16th-century Lisbon), Hunting Midnight (19th-century Porto and Charleston, South Carolina), Guardian of the Dawn (17th-century Goa) and The Seventh Gate (Berlin in the 1930s).
- Cassandra Clare wrote "The Infernal Devices", set in Victorian England.
Theory and criticism
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].
- Historical fiction
- List of historical novelists
- List of historical novels
- Historical whodunnit
- Historical romance
- Family saga
- Middle Ages in history
- Alternate history
- Historical fantasy
- Walter Scott Prize
- Encyclopædia Britannica s.v. historical novel . Retrieved 07-2013
- 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.
- Laskowski, Maciej. "Jane Porter's Thaddeus of Warsaw as evidence of Polish–British relationships". Instytucie Filologii Angielskiej (Poznan), 2012. Accessed 26 September 2013.
- 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.
- Anessi, Thomas. "England's Future/Poland's Past: History and National Identity In Thaddeus of Warsaw". Accessed 26 September 2013.
- Lukacs 15-29
- Lukacs 31-38
- Lukacs 69-72
- Lukacs 92-96
- Linda Proud's website
- 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.
- Audio Archives from Historical Fiction and the Search for Truth: 2009 Key West Literary Seminar (accessed 08-2010)
- The Historical Novel Society (accessed 08-2010) - Historical Novel Society an international organization for historical fiction writers and readers
- A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales (1902). Project Gutenberg etext (accessed 08-2010)
- A selection of historical novels set by epoch and author. (accessed 08-2010)
- An annotated list of historical novels for children and teens Anchorage Public Library (accessed 08-2010)[dead link]