At one of my talks I was recently asked about historical novels. A woman’s nephew, a student at high school, had been asked to choose an historical novel and he didn’t really know what the term meant. So how do you define an historical novel and what are some good ones?
Historical novels must take place in the past of the author. They must pay attention to the manners, social conditions, political situation and ways of life of that past era. Some writers plonk their plots back in the past without any real knowledge of dress, speech and manners of that era (Barbara Cartland is a prime example of this), but better authors do their research and try to ensure that vocabulary, conversation, furniture and other aspects are all correctly described.
It was Maria Edgeworth who got the historical novel up and running in Ireland with her 1800 novel Castle Rackrent. Then Sir Walter Scott learned from her and made the genre popular in Britain (and, as his books were widely translated, around much of Europe as well). His Ivanhoe, set in the Middle Ages, and Kenilworth set in the Elizabethan era, are prime examples of the genre. In France, it was Balzac who got the genre going, in America it was James Fenimore Cooper and in Russia, it was Tolstoy with War and Peace.
But how far back does an author have to go before his or her books can be defined as ‘historical’? The Historical Novel Society says it has to be a minimum of 50 years back into the past. The author should be writing from research rather than from personal experience. So Jane Austen did NOT write historical novels, but Emily Brontë did with Wuthering Heights, and so did Thackeray with Vanity Fair. Dickens wrote historical novels with Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, but David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend are set in his own era and are not therefore historical novels. George Eliot’s Middlemarch was set in her own era so is not historical, but her rather poor book Romola, set in 15th C Florence, is an historical novel. Robert Graves’s I, Claudius is a more modern example, there are the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Pat Barker’s excellent Regeneration trilogy.
Of course there are now historical sub-genres – detective novels set in the past (including my beloved C.J. Sansom’s books), historical romance fiction, historical adventure novels including Stevenson’s brilliant Kidnapped and C.S Forester’s Hornblower books, historical fantasy (including some Philip Roth books), and even historical comic and manga books.
I have noticed a tendency amongst some readers to dismiss ‘historical novels’ as an inferior genre, and I find this extremely puzzling. Shakespeare set plays in the past so wrote historical drama, Tolstoy contributed to the genre, as did so many other great novelists. Surely it takes an added skill to not only write a good novel, but to set it convincingly in another era and to make your readers believe in those manners and times. Someone recently made a blanket statement to me that he wasn’t interested in historical novels and I have been trying, without success, to persuade him otherwise, but I am very puzzled as to this ‘shutting off’ of novels written in the past of the author.
The woman who asked me about the genre at my talk was clearly puzzled by how one should define it, so I do hope that this helps any of you slightly confused (or dismissive) of a truly fabulous genre. After all, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, Lorna Doone, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, Eugénie Grandet, The Leopard, the Flashman novels, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Winthrop Woman, The Moonstone and many other favourites of mine all come into the category of historical fiction. And that’s not to even begin on all the historical crime I enjoy.
Do you have some favourite historical novels? Have you ever stopped to think carefully about whether those books were written about 50 years before the time of writing, and what a difference that might make? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Romola by George Eliot
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Mr Midshipman Hornblower by C. S. Forester
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Eugénie Grandet by Honore de Balzac
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton
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