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Historical fiction

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Historical fiction

Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the action takes place in the past. It is an ambiguous term, because while it is frequently used as a synonym for the historical novel, the term is often used to describe other narrative formats, such as those in the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, television, comics, and graphic novels.

The settings are drawn from history, and often contain historical figures, such as Elie Wiesel and his book, Night, which was about what he experienced during the Holocaust and World War II. 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


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 in world literature. 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".[5] The Iliad has been described as historic fiction, since it treats historic events, although its genre is generally considered epic poetry.[6] The Tale of Genji (ca. 1000 AD) is a fictionalized account of Japanese court life and its author asserted that her work could present a "fuller and therefore 'truer'" version of history.[7]

The historical novel rose to prominence in Europe during 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 in English and went through at least 84 editions,[8] including translation into French and German,[9][10][11]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] In French literature, the most prominent inheritor of Scott's style of the historical novel was Balzac.[15]

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.

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. 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.[16]

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.[17]

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.

Historical fiction subgenres

Historical mystery novels

Historical mysteries or "historical whodunits" are set in a time period considered historical from the author's perspective, and the central plot involves the solving of a mystery or crime (usually murder). Though works combining these genres have existed since at least the early 1900s, many credit Ellis Peters's Cadfael Chronicles (1977-1994) for popularizing what would become known as the historical mystery. These are set between 1137 and 1145 A.D. [18][19] The increasing popularity of this type of fiction in subsequent decades has created a distinct subgenre recognized by both publishers and libraries.[19][20][21][22]

Historical romance and family sagas

Jane Austen's novels of the late 18th and early 19th century. Because Heyer's writing was set in the midst of events that had occurred over 100 years previously, she included authentic period detail in order for her readers to understand.[23] Where Heyer referred to historical events, it was as background detail to set the period, and did not usually play a key role in the narrative. Heyer's characters often contained more modern-day sensibilities, and more conventional characters in the novels would point out the heroine's eccentricities, such as wanting to marry for love.[24]

Nautical fiction and pirate novels

Some historical novels explore life at sea, including C.S. Forester's Hornblower series, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, Alexander Kent's The Bolitho Novels, Dudley Pope's Lord Ramage's series, all of which all deal with the Napoleonic Wars. There are also adventure novels with pirate characters like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) and Captain Blood (1922) by Rafael Sabatini. Recent examples of historical novels about pirates are The Adventures of Hector Lynch by Tim Severin, The White Devil (Белият Дявол) by Hristo Kalchev and The Pirate Devlin novels by Mark Keating.

Alternate history and historical fantasy

The Plot Against America is a novel by Philip Roth published in 2004. It is an alternative history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh and a fascist, anti-semitic government is established. There are other examples, such as Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna, in which the Roman Empire survives to the present day and time travel to the past, 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. Isaac Asimov's short story What If-- is about a couple who can explore alternate realities by means of a television-like device. This idea can also be found in Asimov's 1955 novel The End of Eternity. In that novel, the "Eternals" can change the realities of the world, without people being aware of it.

There is also an 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. Otherwise space opera author C. J. Cherryh has a whole historical 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 has only two historical fantasy series. The first is the 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.

List of literary examples by time period

See also: List of UK historical novelists by time period

Fiction set in Prehistory (c.30,000 B.C.-3000 B.C.)
Fiction set in Classical Greece,Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, etc. (c.2000 B.C. - 500 A.D.)
Fiction set in Middle Ages (c.500 A.D.-1500 A.D.)
Fiction set in Early Modern Period (c.1500 A.D.-1760 A.D.)
Fiction set during Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic Era (c.1760 A.D.-1840 A.D.)

Historical fiction in performing and visual arts

Historical drama films and television series

Historical drama film 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, also known as Jidaigeki in Japan. Many wuxia and samurai films also fall under historical drama umbrella.

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 and grand opera

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.[25] For this reason, it is often treated as a subset of tragedy.[26] 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.[27] 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.

Historical grand operas are very popular. Usually with 4 or 5 acts, they are large-scale casts and orchestras, and spectacular staging, often based on historical themes. They are particularly associated with the Paris Opéra (1820s to c. 1850), but similar works were created in other countries. Several operas by Gaspare Spontini, Luigi Cherubini, and Gioachino Rossini can be regarded as precursors to French grand opera. These include Spontini's La vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809, revised 1817), Cherubini's Les Abencérages (1813), and Rossini's Le siège de Corinthe (1827) and Moïse et Pharaon (1828). All of these have some of the characteristics of size and spectacle that are normally associated with French grand opera. Another important forerunner was Il crociato in Egitto by Meyerbeer, who eventually became the acknowledged king of the grand opera genre. Amongst the most important composers of grand opera are Giuseppe Verdi, Gioachino Rossini and Richard Wagner.

Historically-based comics and graphic novels

Historical narratives have find their way also in comics and graphic novels. There are Prehistorical elements in jungle comics like Akim and Rahan. Ancient Greece inspired graphic novels are 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. Several comics and graphic novels are produced into anime series or a movie adaptations like Azumi and 300.

Connection to nationalism

Historical fiction sometimes encouraged movements of romantic nationalism. Walter Scott's Waverley novels created 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

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See also


  1. ^ "Search - Encyclopedia Britannica". 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.  
  5. ^ Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996, p. 27.
  6. ^ Celia Brayfield; Duncan Sprott (5 December 2013). Writing Historical Fiction: A Writers' and Artists' Companion. A&C Black. p. 63.  
  7. ^ Roy Starrs (23 October 2013). Asian Nationalism in an Age of Globalization. Taylor & Francis. p. 646.  
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Laskowski, Maciej. " as evidence of Polish–British relationshipsThaddeus of WarsawJane Porter's ". Instytucie Filologii Angielskiej (Poznan), 2012. Accessed 26 September 2013.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Anessi, Thomas. "Thaddeus of WarsawEngland's Future/Poland's Past: History and National Identity In ". Accessed 26 September 2013.
  12. ^ Lukacs 15-29
  13. ^ Lukacs 31-38
  14. ^ Lukacs 69-72
  15. ^ Lukacs 92-96
  16. ^ Mapping Gothic France: Victor Hugo
  17. ^ Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature, pp. 299–302.
  18. ^ Picker, Lenny (3 March 2010). "Mysteries of History".  
  19. ^ a b Rivkin Jr., David B. (27 February 2010). "Five Best Historical Mystery Novels".  
  20. ^ Magar, Guy. "The Mystery Defined". Retrieved 17 November 2013. 
  21. ^ "A Guide for Historical Fiction Lovers". Providence Public Library. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  22. ^ "Popular Culture: Mysteries". Akron-Summit County Public Library. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  23. ^ Regis (2003), pp. 125-126.
  24. ^ Regis (2003), p. 127.
  25. ^ Ostovich, Helen; Silcox, Mary V; Roebuck, Graham (1999). Other Voices, Other Views: Expanding the Canon in English Renaissance Studies.  
  26. ^ Ribner, Irving (Dec 1955). "Marlowe's Edward II and the Tudor History Play". ELH (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 22 (4): 243–253.  
  27. ^ Irving Ribner (1965). The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare.  

Further reading

  • Shaw, Harry E. The Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

External links

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