historical novels

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historical novels. Most novels are set in the past, however recent. Fielding habitually described himself as a historian, and Tom Jones (1749) covers the same period as Waverley (1814), but Scott can claim to be the first historical novelist because his characters are caught up in history, defined as much by historical forces as by the whim of the author. The emerging nationalism of the Romantic period brought a new interest in history, seen first in the 18th-cent. taste for the Gothic and the Picturesque, but deepening to a more profound awareness of social change. The French historian Thierry praised Ivanhoe (1819) not for the romantic plot but for the study of ‘two peoples, two languages; customs that contrasted and struggled against each other’. Socialist realism learnt from the genre, and the Marxist critic Georg Lukács saluted Scott's understanding of historical necessity.

The form has been seen as fundamentally unstable, the fiction detracting from the history and vice versa. This is what Manzoni came to feel, though his I promessi sposi (1825) is one of many 19th-cent. novels to acknowledge Scott's example. Bulwer-Lytton's painstakingly researched forays into the past are out of fashion now, but he brought a new seriousness to the problem of ‘how to produce the greatest amount of dramatic effect at the least expense of historical truth’. Dickens was less punctilious, but Barnaby Rudge (1842) perhaps deepened the social concerns of the fiction he wrote when he returned to his own century, and A Tale of Two Cities (1859) has given generations of readers their first picture of the French Revolution. The title of Thackeray's ‘novel without a hero’ suggests his basically moralistic approach, though Vanity Fair (1848) has a sharper and tarter flavour than Lytton manages, while the Victorian taste for religious polemic prompted Charles Kingsley's Hypatia (1853). George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thomas Hardy continued the tradition, and even a proto-modernist like Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939) based his trilogy The Fifth Queen (1908) on the Tudor period. In our own day the ‘non-fiction novel’ and ‘drama-documentary’ testify to an enduring appetite for the mingling of fact and fiction.

John Saunders

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historical novels