Historical Romance

views updated


The finest historical romances seamlessly blend history and novelistic fiction, satisfying both one's educated interest in reconstructions of past events and ways of life and one's fascination with fictional adventures in regions of place and mind rarely represented in the historical record. In The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) the Puritan New England context is registered accurately and vividly and shown to be a shaping force that—after one child-and story-engendering act of passion—largely determines how the fictional characters think, feel, and behave even when most alienated and rebellious. Hawthorne's masterpiece also exhibits the characteristics that Richard Chase finds in the romance novels that, so he argues, form America's great novel tradition: narrow but deep moral and metaphysical vision, complex narrative artistry, focus on the individual's rather than society's problems, moments of gothic melodrama, and the obliquities of irony, myth, symbol, and allegory.

Chase contrasts the American novel tradition with its parent, the British novel tradition, which is more centrally concerned with the problems of society, approaches them more directly and prosaically, and achieves more harmonious resolutions. Debatable though this sharp contrast between the two novel traditions is, the broad distinction that Chase draws between two kinds of novel—the one sometimes called a "romance," the other nearly always a "novel"—is one that had many distinguished earlier adherents. Hawthorne insisted on this sometimes confusing terminological distinction because he sought to achieve something different generically in The Scarlet Letter than would, say, Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace (1865–1872), arguably the greatest nineteenth-century historical novel. Both works are profoundly historical, but Tolstoy's masses realistic detail and portrays the life of society with a plenitude that characterizes the novel at its most novelistic.


The generic profile traced in Chase's still-controversial The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957) only begins to comprehend the richness and variety of voices that constitute much of the greatness of the American novel tradition. His canonical texts include none by a woman or ethnic minority author. Neither is his résumé of the romance elements in American fiction at all adequate. Still, the works he chooses would appear on most critics' touchstone list of classic American novels. Some, like William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), are "historical" only in the important sense that they register how the past goes on shaping or misshaping the present. But others have main actions firmly placed in periods before the time of writing: James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1828), Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor (1891), Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), and Faulkner's The Bear (1942). Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (1911) and Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918) are examples of other historical romances that, although ignored by Chase, are assured classics of American literature. More recent contenders would be Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men (1980) and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), which promise to be read long after most other best-sellers are forgotten.


Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur (1880)

Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona (1884)

Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

Amelia Barr, The Bow of Orange Ribbon (1886)

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

Lew Wallace, The Prince of India (1893)

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

James Lane Allen, The Choir Invisible (1897)

F. Marion Crawford, Via Crucis (1898)

Charles Major, When Knighthood Was in Flower (1898)

S. Weir Mitchell, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1897)

Winston Churchill, Richard Carvel (1899)

Paul Leicester Ford, Janice Meredith (1899)

Irving Bacheller, Eben Holden: A Tale of the North Country (1900)

Winston Churchill, The Crisis (1900)

F. Marion Crawford, In the Palace of the King (1900)

Mary Johnston, To Have and to Hold (1900)

Maurice Thompson, Alice of Old Vincennes (1900)

Gertrude Atherton, The Conqueror (1902)

Charles Major, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1902)

Owen Wister, The Virginian (1902)

John Fox Jr., The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903)

Winston Churchill, The Crossing (1904)

John Fox Jr., The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908)

The combination of critical esteem and popularity that greeted China Men and Beloved might seem unusual. But most works mentioned above sold well when first published. For the American reading public has never been able to get enough of historical romances—long or short, crudely or finely wrought, imported or domestic. In the early 1800s it was wild about Sir Walter Scott's romances. At century's end, a high point in the popularity of historical romances, Polish Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis (1896) outsold its American competitors. But so huge was the market that many American historical romancers also shared the wealth. While some were literary artists with an elevated sense of vocation and achievement, others saw themselves as primarily "public amusers." In The Novel: What It Is (1893), the historical romancer F. Marion Crawford speaks for many of his fellows when he says that novels are "commodities and subject to the same laws . . . as other articles of manufacture" (p. 12). He likewise speaks prophetically for the Hollywood producers whose movie versions have engineered a second coming, even more lucrative than the first, of such spellbinders as Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans: A Tale of 1757 (1826), Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur (1880), and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936).

If these all-time best-sellers answer more closely to Crawford's than to Chase's idea of the American romance novel, they are still impressively crafted narratives. And both Wallace and Mitchell made good-faith efforts to create historically accurate pictures of, respectively, Judea under Roman rule around the time of the Crucifixion and Atlanta, Georgia, shortly before, during, and after the Civil War. The specificity of Cooper's subtitle suggests equal care about such basics as the identity of the Native American tribes allied with the British or with their French antagonists in 1757. But his account of them is as inaccurate as his stark oppositions between "bad" and "good" Indians, "light" and "dark" heroines, are stereotypical. Apparently the romancer got the better of the historian.

In America, then, historical romances have yielded a prolific harvest both of best-sellers and classics. To begin to understand why, one needs to know more about the romance form and the circumstances and events in the story of America that have favored this hybrid narrative genre.


To say that the romancer got the better of the historian in The Last of the Mohicans is to recognize that history and romance sometimes tug in different directions. Regarded solely as a romance, Cooper's novel is brilliantly successful, blending features that Chase mentions—especially gothic melodrama—with others that are the stock-in-trade of prenovelistic forms of romance ranging from first-to third-century a.d. Greek tales of love and adventure to medieval chivalric romances and Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Deriving miscellaneously from yet earlier oral and written sources such as ancient epic and drama, these well-proven devices include disguises, mysterious origins, secret crimes, hidden marks of identity, abductions and captivities, flight-and-pursuit actions, demonic villains and noble heroes, incredible courage and strength and prowess, brotherly bonding, journeys of initiation, love at first sight, faithful and resourceful heroines, true prophecies, supernatural interventions, combat between men or between men and wild beasts, and occasionally interludes of self-mocking farce.

Although no narrative could combine all of these romance modules in a coherent whole, some incorporate remarkably many. When they do, or depend heavily on a few of these ploys, they may fairly be called romances. The arsenal of options available enables romances to vary widely in tone and texture, form and style. But whether they employ features associated at one end of the romance spectrum with epic (as in many American frontier and war novels) or, at the other end, with tales of courtly love (as in Harlequin romances), their common denominator is this: some of the incidents and personalities they represent are regularly, even ritualistically, met in fiction but rarely—and almost never in clusters—in everyday life.

The old romances' formulaic and probability defying features made them a target of ridicule by eighteenth-century English novelists, whose own fiction portrayed contemporary society in accordance with Enlightenment criteria of probability and "nature." These novelists' close representation of motivation and thought processes was a major advance, but many readers felt that something valuable ("wonder," "nobility," "fine fabling") had been lost. Writing in reaction, the Englishman Horace Walpole fashioned an ersatz chivalric romance, The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story (1764), set in medieval Italy and chock-full of incredible events. Aiming to combine the romance's emphasis on situations and events remote from contemporary life with the novel's psychological realism, Walpole created the first gothic novel—which was also the first romance novel. Although his "period" trappings were mainly atmospheric, Walpole demonstrated a modern awareness of cultural difference by contending that events his own contemporaries regarded as incredible would have been believed in "an age of superstition."

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) took the process of novelistic innovation to the next stage. His historical romances are organized around interchanges between cultures that have radically different worldviews. InWaverley (1814) and Rob Roy (1817), an imaginative young Englishman—who resembles Scott's readers—journeys into the untamed early eighteenth-century Scottish Highlands, where the inhabitants still speak Gaelic and belong to a feudal warrior culture. Opportunities for misunderstanding, conflict, and adventure are almost limitless. Although the costumes differ, the protagonist's encounters with "wild" Highland people and nature reenact—as will so many similar ones in American frontier romances—the encounters between the heroes and dragons or "savages" of ancient romance. But Scott maintains realism by grounding his characters' thoughts and actions in a carefully constructed context of historical events, social practices, and beliefs. The subjective dimension contributes as much to the romance as do the disguises, captivities, and battles: for what seems routine to a Highlander often appears extraordinary or even magical to the uninitiated protagonist—and of course to Scott's readers.

James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) The Spy (1821), based on an incident in the War of Independence, is the first American novel to follow Scott's example, but in The Pioneers (1823), Cooper breaks truly new, distinctively American ground by depicting an agricultural frontier community and introducing the aged hunter Leatherstocking, former Indian scout and spokesman for a way of life and land use opposed to that of the settlers. Based on childhood memories and family records of early Cooperstown, New York, Cooper's reconstruction of the historical context is even richer than Scott's. His romance plot includes disguises, mysterious origins, brotherly bonding, love triumphant, and moments of farce. Sometimes the romance components integrate well with the dominant story of cultural conflict, as when Leatherstocking rescues the heroine from a panther or demonstrates his astonishing skill with a rifle. Often, however, they seem to be present mainly because readers expected a novel to include mystery and a love story.

Later in his career Cooper moved the Leather-stocking novels to the wilderness, where social-historical detail counted for less and the contest between the retreating natives and the advance guard of white "civilization" more plausibly fit the templates of chivalric romance. But the Leatherstocking romances were not to everybody's taste. Hawthorne loathed physical violence and explicitly rejected the model of epic conflict that underwrote the "Indian romances" of Cooper and the South Carolinian William Gilmore Simms, author of The Yemassee (1835). In The Scarlet Letter moral rather than physical strength, psychological rather than bodily torture, dominate the action. Yet the shift inward allows for traditional romance elements: Chillingworth's demonism and disguise, the hidden "identifying" mark on Dimmesdale's breast, the mystery of Pearl's origin, the monstrous parody of brotherly bonding between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, the appearance in the sky that the guilt-ridden beholders construe as the letter "A" and a supernatural sign.

Heirs of a long sequence of innovation in fictional representation, Cooper and Hawthorne between them anticipated most features of style and form in the historical romances written since. Moreover, by the time of their maturity, national development itself had proceeded sufficiently for them to recognize and suggest ways of dealing with its main issues, trends, and "matters."


In an 1822 review of The Spy, W. H. Gardiner, a lawyer and frequent contributor to the North American Review, identified "three great epochs in American history" especially suitable for historical romances: the colonies' early settlement days, the ongoing era of the "Indian wars," and the Revolutionary War period. These approximated the ancient "matters" of epic poetry, such as the story of Troy, whose cultural significance and interest were so inexhaustible that writers could return to them repeatedly. Bearing in mind future developments, Gardiner's "three epochs" can be reformulated as the matters of (1) the frontier, (2) imperial conquest, (3) black chattel slavery and its aftermath, and (4) fratricidal war. Although these categories ignore American-authored romances such as Ben-Hur and Twain's The Prince and the Pauper (1881) that have nothing directly to do with American history, most important American historical romances fall into one or two of them. And they accommodate works like Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1855) and Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) that deal analogically with American regional conflict and slavery.

From The Pioneers onward the frontier has attracted fictionalists with epic aspirations and regional loyalties. The Boston of The Scarlet Letter is "a little town, on the edge of the Western wilderness," and despite Hawthorne's reservations about Simms's and Cooper's practice, he too occasionally sounds the epic note—as when he says that the Puritan founders "had fortitude and self-reliance, and, in time of difficulty or peril, stood up for the welfare of the state like a line of cliffs against a tempestuous tide" (p. 238). Hawthorne was only the best writer and historian among many who described life in early New England. Indeed, love of patria, a profitable market for "local color," and readily adaptable fictional models ensured that each main region would handsomely memorialize its pioneers and certain charismatic individuals—historical or invented—whose stories are associated with them.

Perhaps the most "storied" of these archetypal frontier figures is Daniel Boone, forever associated with the Wilderness Road and the dangerous early phase of Kentucky's settlement. Historical figures of this stature usually make only cameo appearances in the fictional action, as is the case with Boone in The Prairie; in James Lane Allen's lyrical pageant of Kentucky's transition from settlement to civilization, The Choir Invisible (1897); and in Elizabeth Madox Roberts's powerful narrative of the earlier Revolutionary War era of "the Dark and Bloody Ground," The Great Meadow (1930).

Not every state or region was blessed with a founding figure bearing such a mythic aura. Mississippi's Faulkner invented his own in Thomas Sutpen, the flawed hero of Absalom, Absalom! (1936), who is driven by the Old South myth of the dynasty-building patriarch. Other mythic figures invoked in Faulkner's historical romance of the rise, decline, and fall of empire include the biblical Absalom and the fabulous gunslinger of the American "western"—himself an ambiguous regional hero who reluctantly employs violence to bring peace to a frontier community. The western's archetypal hero and plot, first crystallized in Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), themselves owed much to the Leatherstocking Tales and (as Cooper's saga itself did) to the Boone legend. More firmly anchored in social history but likewise indebted to earlier romance treatments of frontier experience is Cather's My Ántonia, whose heroine epitomizes the immigrants who, overcoming both social prejudice and wild nature, made a garden of Nebraska and reconstituted "the American People."

But one person's hero of the westward movement was another's rapacious invader, and some frontier romances, while conceding that the spread of "civilization" was paid for in Native American blood, contributed to the process by portraying "bad Indians" as satanic and, bad or good, all of them doomed—the "lastness" of the Mohicans extended to the entire race. But others have been better historians as well as better friends of the victims of Manifest Destiny. Based on a Michigan family's actual letters and journals, Janet Lewis's The Invasion (1930) is a moving narrative of racial intermarriage, broken treaties, and gradual extinction of the Algonquin people. Helen Hunt Jackson's best-seller, Ramona (1884), likewise a novel of interracial love and marriage, is concerned nearly as much with Anglo-American dispossession of Mexican landholders in post–Civil War California as with the plight of the native Californians. Author as well of A Century of Dishonor (1881), a history of the U.S. government's bad faith in its dealings with Native Americans, Jackson hoped that Ramona would do for them what Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) had done for black slaves in the nineteenth century's best-selling novel.

Stowe's moral and political message in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852) would have been lost if slavery's evils had been presented as other than virulently active and contemporaneous; likewise the African American William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853). But whether they wrote about slavery before or after emancipation, novelists could draw incidents and situations from a group of fugitive slave narratives in which history often seemed to imitate romance. With little stretching of fact, Stowe and Brown and later Twain in Huckleberry Finn and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) could fashion riveting narratives out of captivity, flight and pursuit, improbable rescues, mysterious origins, and especially disguise. Inevitably these features reappear in portrayals of slavery and its consequences by later African American writers such as Morrison in Beloved and Alex Haley in Roots (1976). Their perspective and prevailingly somber tone naturally differ from those of Twain who, as a late-nineteenth-century white ironist, was less interested in the sufferings of slaves than in the psychology of social prejudice. How important it has been to expose its mechanisms is shown by Thomas Dixon's racist The Clansman (1905), a eulogy of the Ku Klux Klan that was further popularized in D. W. Griffith's film adaptation, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Some searching readings of the effects of slavery on southern society, such as Absalom, Absalom! and Allen Tate's The Fathers (1938), depict these in relation to the Civil War. Their central theme is fratricidal conflict: between soldiers in gray and blue but also between "white" and unacknowledged "black" half brothers. The violence latent in a society rife with miscegenation and denied blood relationships is likewise revealed in George Washington Cable's novel of early-nineteenth-century New Orleans, The Grandissimes (1880), but the later, crisis-period settings of Tate's and Faulkner's books give the family conflicts an extra dimension.

Although most Civil War romances written from a southern perspective pay some attention to the masterslave relationship, they often sentimentalize it and perpetuate stereotypes not only of African Americans but also of southern belles and gallant cavaliers. Ellen Glasgow's The Battle-Ground (1902), among the most accomplished of many popular Civil War romances written by southern women, challenges these stereo-types, but its treatment of racial and family divisions lacks the depth achieved by Tate and Faulkner.

In Civil War romances written by northerners, race and slavery are usually justifying abstractions that do not figure seriously in the physical or psychological action. Neither do they in The Red Badge of Courage, which adheres so closely to the point of view of Crane's self-preoccupied young protagonist that only here and now exist; there is no historical context. Yet veterans of the war testified that it was the first novel to capture the ordinary soldier's experience of battle, and in that special sense it is a truly historical romance. Ernest Hemingway praised Crane's art and surpassed his model in A Farewell to Arms (1929), the only historical romance of World War I written by an American that has achieved classic status.

A great struggle of causes and cultures that was continental in scope and touched nearly every American in some way, the Civil War has probably offered more to the historical romancer's imagination than the American Revolution—itself a civil war with fratricidal consequences that were recognized at the outset in The Spy. Following Scott's practice, Cooper also set an irresistible precedent for his successors by introducing a major historical figure, George Washington, briefly but tellingly in the fictional action. The public loved this intrusion of history into fiction, fiction into history, which is why Benjamin Franklin and other Revolutionary War notables are (ironically) portrayed in Melville's Israel Potter (1854–1855), Washington and John Paul Jones figure in the American novelist Winston Churchill's Richard Carvel (1899), George Rogers Clark appears in Maurice Thompson's Revolutionary War romance of the Indiana frontier Alice of Old Vincennes (1900), and Boone makes the fleeting bows mentioned earlier.

According to Mark Twain, historical romances have not just been borne on the tide of history but have sometimes altered its course. Referring in Life on the Mississippi (1883) to the Civil War and Scott's popular "sham" representations of chivalry in Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825), Twain ventured that "Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war" (p. 266). Twain provocatively overstates how much life imitated art, but his "wild proposition" points to the important cultural work that historical romancers—great writers and public amusers alike—have performed by awakening an interest in the past, by memorializing or even inventing heroes, by bringing to book the villains (who might have been heroes in earlier treatments), and by exposing and sometimes helping to reconcile the lingering differences of a heterogeneous nation.

see alsoBest-Sellers; Frontier; History; New South


Primary Works

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. Edited by William Charvat et al. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962.

Twain, Mark [Samuel Clemens]. Life on the Mississippi. 1883. New York: New American Library, 1961.

Secondary Works

Bell, Michael Davitt. Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Budick, Emily Miller. Engendering Romance: Women Writers and the Hawthorne Tradition 1850–1990. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.

Crawford, F. Marion. The Novel: What It Is. 1893. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.

Dekker, George. The American Historical Romance. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Leisy, Ernest. The American Historical Novel. Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1950.

Miller, Perry. "The Romance and the Novel." In Nature's Nation, pp. 241–278. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1947.

Porte, Joel. The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969.

Thompson, G. R., and Eric Carl Link. Neutral Ground: New Traditionalism and the American Romance Controversy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

George Dekker

About this article

Historical Romance

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Historical Romance