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A historical novel is a novel in which the story is set among historical events, or more generally, where the time the action takes place in predates the time of the first publication -- distinguish and contrast the genre of alternate history. Artists classified as Romantics popularized the genre of the historical novel in the 19th century. Many regard Sir Walter Scott as the first to have used this technique, in his novels of Scottish history such as his novels Waverley (1814) and Rob Roy (1818). His Ivanhoe (1820) gains credit for renewing interest in the middle ages. Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) furnishes another early example of the historical novel.
Historical fiction may center on historical or fictional characters, but normally represents an honest attempt based on considerable research (or at least serious reading) to tell a story set in the historical past as understood by the author's contemporaries. Those historical settings may not stand up to the increased knowledge of later historians.
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 save Gothic architecture in France, leading to the establishment of the Monuments historiques, the French governmental authority for historical preservation .
Historical fiction has also served to encourage movements of romantic nationalism. The Polish winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, wrote several novels set in conflicts between the Poles and predatory Teutonic Knights, rebellious Cossacks and invading Swedes. (He also penned a once wildly popular novel about Nero's Rome and the early Christians, Quo Vadis, since filmed several times.) Scott's Waverley novels ignited interest in Scottish history and still illuminate it. Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter fulfilled a similar function for Norwegian history and won a Nobel Prize for Literature as well (1928).
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 in order to gain perspective on society and on the human condition, or to escape the depredations of the censor.
In some historical novels, the main history takes place mostly off-stage while the characters live in the world in which those events take place. Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, tells mostly private adventures set against a background of the Jacobite troubles between England and Scotland. Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge takes place in the midst of the Gordon Riots and A Tale of Two Cities is set in the French Revolution.
In other examples, authors give historical characters a fictional setting, as in Alexander Dumas's Queen Margot or in Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.
Historical fiction can serve many purposes, including satire. George MacDonald Fraser's tales of the dashing Harry Paget Flashman exemplify satirical historical fiction.
Contrary to popular belief, the historical novel as defined above is neither dead nor dying. Understandably, some contemporary authors often prefer more recent historical periods as settings for their novels.
- Under the name William Irish , Cornell Woolrich published Waltz into Darkness (1947), set in New Orleans in 1880. Interestingly, in both filmed versions -- François Truffaut's La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969) and Michael Cristofer 's Original Sin (2001) -- the action takes place at a later point in time (and also somewhere else, for that matter).
T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville (1993) narrates the story of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of the cornflake, and his Battle Creek Sanitarium. It is set in 1907.
Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day (1989) is set in 1956. Flashbacks explain to the reader the dubious history of (fictitious) Darlington Hall in the 1930s and its association with Nazi Germany.
- Patrick Redmond 's The Wishing Game (1999) provides a thrilling depiction of life in a strict and uncanny boarding school in rural Norfolk in the 1950s.
Julie Myerson's novel Laura Blundy (2000) is set in Victorian London.
Jonathan Coe's novel The Rotters' Club (2001) evokes 1970s Britain.
Cecelia Holland has written more than twenty novels set in various parts of Europe, Asia, and the United States, and in many different time periods.
- The bulk of the novels of Gore Vidal have historical settings, including his book Burr, which has certainly gained a wider readership than any biography of Aaron Burr.