Historical fiction

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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[edit]


The Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works "written at least fifty years after the events described".[2] 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."[3] 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.[4]


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.[citation needed] Classical Greek novelists were also "very fond of writing novels about people and places of the past".[5]

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,[6] including translation into French and German,[7][8][9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] In French literature, the most prominent inheritor of Scott's style of the historical novel was Balzac.[13]

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.

Time period[edit]

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 recent years authors like Simon Scarrow, Steven Saylor, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Viktor Porotnikov and Steven Pressfield have focussed mostly on ancient history, while Lindsay Clarke's makes use of pure myth. Others, like Bernard Cornwell, Maurice Druon, Robyn Young, Stephen Lawhead and Jack Whyte, are more concerned with individual bravery and manliness in their Medieval series, while also presenting mythology in a realistic manners. A writer like Conn Iggulden, on the other hand, mixes the Medieval period and Classical Antiquity in his novels. Then the Renaissance period is represented in the family sagas of Eleanor Hibbert, Colleen McCullough, and Christopher Nicole.


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

Arthur Conan Doyle greatly influenced historical mysteries with his Sherlock Holmes series. Many authors have written historical mysteries, including 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, like Eleanor Hibbert and Philippa Gregory.

Some historical novels explore life at sea, including Sandokan by Emilio Salgari, set in the South China Sea, and C.S. Forester's Hornblower series, and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, which both deal with the Napoleonic Wars.

The science fiction genre also contains a couple of historical sub-genres, 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.

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[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.[14]

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.[15]

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[edit]

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[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).

Performing and visual arts[edit]

Historical drama films[edit]

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.

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.

Historical television[edit]

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[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.[16] For this reason, it is often treated as a subset of tragedy.[17] 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.[18] 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[edit]

Main articles: comics and graphic novel

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.

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. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Laskowski, Maciej. "Jane Porter's Thaddeus of Warsaw as evidence of Polish–British relationships". Instytucie Filologii Angielskiej (Poznan), 2012. Accessed 26 September 2013.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Anessi, Thomas. "England's Future/Poland's Past: History and National Identity In Thaddeus of Warsaw". Accessed 26 September 2013.
  10. ^ Lukacs 15-29
  11. ^ Lukacs 31-38
  12. ^ Lukacs 69-72
  13. ^ Lukacs 92-96
  14. ^ Mapping Gothic France: Victor Hugo
  15. ^ Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature, pp. 299–302.
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ Irving Ribner (1965). The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. ISBN 9780415353144. Retrieved 2014-08-07. 

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]