The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Historical novel

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 the medieval conflicts between Poles and the Teutonic Knights. Scott's Waverley novels ignited interest in Scottish history and still illuminate it. Sigrid Unset 's Kristin Lavransdatter fulfilled a similar function for Norwegian history and won a Nobel Prize for Literature as well (1928).

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.

As opposed 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.

Some examples:

See also

List of historical novels, historical whodunnit, family saga, research rapture.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 13:34:11
Last updated: 05-06-2005 01:27:49