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Historical fiction is a genre in which the plot is set amidst historical events, or more generally, in which the author uses real events but adds a fictional character.


Historical fiction may center on historical or on fictional characters, but usually 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 enhanced knowledge of later historians.

An early example is Luó Guànzhōng's 14th-century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which covers one of the most important periods of Chinese history.

The historical novel was popularized in the 19th century by artists classified as Romantics. Many regard Sir Walter Scott as the first to have used this technique, in his novels of Scottish history such as 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 as does Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

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 Francemarker, leading to the establishment of the Monuments historiques, the French governmental authority for historic preservation.

Historical fiction has also served to encourage movements of romantic nationalism. 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. Subsequently the Polishmarker winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, wrote several immensely popular novels set in conflicts between the Poles and predatory Teutonic Knights, rebelling Cossacks and invading Swedesmarker. (He also penned a once wildly popular novel about Nero's Rome and the early Christians, Quo Vadis, which has been filmed several times.)

Scott's Waverley novels ignited interest in Scottishmarker history and still illuminate it. Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter fulfilled a similar function for Norwegian historymarker; Undset later won a Nobel Prize for Literature (1928).

The genre of the historical novel has also permitted some authors, such as the Polishmarker 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 historic events take place mostly off-stage, while the characters inhabit the world in which those events are occurring. Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped recounts mostly private adventures set against the backdrop of the Jacobite troubles in Scotlandmarker. Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge is set amid the Gordon Riots, and A Tale of Two Cities in the French Revolution.

Other authors give historic characters a fictional setting, as in Alexandre Dumas' Queen Margot and Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.

Historical fiction can serve satirical purposes. An example is George MacDonald Fraser's tales of the dashing cad, poltroon, and bounder Sir Harry Paget Flashman.

The historical novel has continued to remain popular with authors to this day as with the wildly popular Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series. The most striking development in British/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' The Girl at the Lion d'Or (concerned with the War's consequences) and Birdsong; Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way.

Authors of the past

Living authors

Theory and Criticism

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 authors including Keller, Dickens, and Flaubert. For him, the advent of the "genuinely" historical novel at the beginning of the 19th century is to be read in terms of two developments, or processes. First, the development of a specific genre in a specific medium: the development of the historical novel's unique stylistic and narrative elements. Secondly, the development of a representative, organic artwork capable of capturing the fractures, contradictions, and problems of the particular productive mode of its time [i.e. developing, early, entrenched capitalism].

See also

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