Historical Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Historical Novel

Richard Maxwell

China offers the earliest substantial tradition of that problematic hybrid form, the historical novel. During the Ming dynasty (1368—1664), compilers and editors created fictionalized presentations of historical events. Some of these books, like the narrative of dynastic dissolution and revival Three Kingdoms (first known edition 1522), attributed to Luo Guanzhong, followed well-known historical sources with substantial faithfulness. Others, like the equally renowned Water Margin (various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century editions), attributed to Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong, featured episodic tales of adventurous bandits in rebellion against the state and drew more copiously on oral sources. In both cases, raw materials were substantially reworked to produce books of celebrated formal complexity.

Three Kingdoms reveals what it means to make history into fiction. A conflicted historiographical tradition surrounded Liu Xuande and Cao Cao, two contenders for empire-wide power after the fall of the Han dynasty (206 BCE—220 CE). The Mao edition of Three Kingdoms (1660s), taken as canonical, accentuates Xuande's virtues, the strategic intelligence of his advisor Kongming, and Cao Cao's amoral trickiness. This treatment harks back to well-known legendary treatments. Three Kingdoms encourages fine, indeed casuistical, analyses of a long power struggle that mimes, in miniature, the cyclical unification and disintegration of China. Moral and political evaluations of figures like Xuande or Cao Cao grow out of an elaborate narrative context, partly adapted from chronicles, partly invented. The commentary to the Mao edition, almost as widely read as the novel, shows how to wrest judgments from this dense circumstantiality.

Military and political leaders claim to have learned from Three Kingdoms, but at times the book was considered dangerous or dubious. An eighteenth-century critic, Zhang Xuecheng, comments: “Three Kingdoms is seven-parts fact and three-parts fiction; this causes readers constant confusion over the peach garden oath ... Even scholars and eminent men take such events as [real] precedents. ... Fact and fiction should not be scrambled as they are in Three Kingdoms” (Moss Roberts, trans., 1991, Three Kingdoms, 980n5). The peach garden oath is a chivalric pledge of loyalty between Xuande and two “brothers”—a figment of romance interpolated into a historical account. In Zhang Xuecheng's argument, the more accomplished and the more fluent a historical novel is, the more it corrupts unwary readers.

Historical Fiction in France

French writers during the seventeenth century found elaborate, slippery ways to combine history with prose fiction. Madeleine de Scudéry's Artamène, ou Le Grand Cyrus (1649—53, Artamène, or the Great Cyrus) was prominent among the many “heroic romances” of its time (see ROMANCE). It follows the career of the ancient Persian king Cyrus as he searches the Middle East for his elusive beloved, Mandana. Scudéry's prefaces to Cyrus and to Ibrahim ou l'illustre bassa (1642, Ibrahim, or the Illustrious Bassa) highlight her historical research. Her account of Cyrus's siege of Sardis proves to be adapted from the Roman historian Sallust (86 BCE—35/34 BCE). In a second layer of reference, Scudéry's Cyrus evokes Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (1621—86), known as the Great Condé, the leading military hero of the mid-seventeenth century. On a third level, this huge serial novel anticipates the absolutist military machine constructed by Louis XIV (1643—1715).

A few years later, Scudéry's compendious romances gave way to the nouvelles and nouvelles historiques of Madame de Lafayette and her many admirers and competitors. In Lafayette's La princesse de Clèves (1678, The Princess of Cleves), history and fiction run on parallel courses. The sixteenth-century French court is miniaturized. The psyche of the Princess of Cleves, a naïve beginner in the game of love who suffers from amour fou, is enlarged and elaborated. Even if readers know what happened in history, Lafayette creates suspense on a formal level. The question is not whether the princess belongs at court—she does not—but how her tale and that of the foundering French polity will intersect or illuminate each other. The book is full of odd, disorienting shocks, as when the duke of Nemours turns his attention from Elizabeth I of England (1558—1603) to Lafayette's fictional heroine. Erotic love is the medium that binds history and fiction together, though the same unpredictable emotion eventually drives them apart.

The heroic romance is vast in size, extravagant in narrative elaborations, chivalric in ethos, and inclined to emphasize ancient rather than modern history. The nouvelle historique is concise, tragic, stoic, and inclined to emphasize more recent historical periods. Scudéry's heroes are idealizations of famous kings. Lafayette's heroines are idealized fictional figures. These two modes of mixing history with fiction could not be more different, yet eighteenth-century French novels often draw on both. A key instance is the extraordinary Le Philosophe anglois, ou Histoire de Monsieur Cleveland (1731—39, The English Philosopher or the History of Mr. Cleveland) by Antoine François Prévost, the memoirs of a supposed bastard son of Oliver Cromwell (1599—1658), who hides from his father during the period of the Commonwealth (1649—53) and becomes a supporter of Charles II (1630—85) while becoming involved in various Stuart intrigues. Prévost adapts the romance aesthetic of Scudéry, telling a story notable for its interminable, often fantastical variations on themes adapted from history, but the tragic bias of his tale, as well as the way he lets his fictional hero sidle in and out of the historical limelight, recalls Lafayette. Later eighteenth-century novelists on both sides of the Channel, such as François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d'Arnaud, Madame de Genlis, Sophie Cottin, William Godwin, and Sophia Lee, exploit the possibilities of Prévostian romance while offering, especially in Genlis's case, an occasional tribute to the classical aesthetic of Lafayette. This French-dominated line of historical fiction persisted through the Napoleonic Wars (1793—1815).

Like the Ming historical novel, the French historical novel invites principled dissent. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Huguenot intellectual Pierre Bayle (1647—1706) formulated an ambitious program to demystify legends that had passed for history. Bayle proposed, only half-ironically, that historical and fictional sections in nouvelles historiques be demarcated so that the reader would never be confused about which was which. Throughout the eighteenth century, his cautionary remarks were amplified by other critics, giving the historical novel a bad reputation among the high-minded, the rigorous, and the respectable. Partly due to the lasting power of this controversy, the proportion of history to fiction in the French historical novel remains much lower than in Three Kingdoms.

Walter Scott

Bayle's close critique eventually lost some of its sting. It was Walter Scott's Waverley novels, beginning with Waverley (1814), that did most to bring about this transformation. “You can't see yourself in history, but that's where you are,” notes a character in Martin Amis's House of Meetings (2008, 34). From Scott onwards, the historical novel became a vehicle for this unsettling idea. A fictional and obscure protagonist blunders into a political or military crisis, encountering, before he is finished, at least one “world-historical figure,” to use Georg lukÁcs's Hegelian phrase. Having experienced and survived the crisis, the “Waverley hero,” as he is often called, comes into his patrimony and retires from the scene of conflict. Throughout the adventure, however, history is experienced as a drama that unfolds as if in the reader's own moment, creating an engulfing illusion of proximity. Though based in regional or national lore, the illusion extends over continents (see NATIONAL, REGIONAL).

Scott's great subject is modernization. Borrowing from eighteenth-century “conjectural history,” he used large-scale fictional narratives to argue that certain stages of civilization must in due course give way to others. This process is slow by nature but can, conveniently for the novelist, be represented as a sudden, traumatic event. The Waverley novels identify modernization with uncharismatic rulers and the rise of a capitalist economy. The modern world is less exciting, but it is more humane and certainly more practical than the cultures and the loyalties it replaces. Scott repeats this kind of story, but his narratives are less schematic than they look. His tales are full of local surprises. Moreover, even though most of Scott's books dramatize various forms of demystification—by which honor, kingship, and chivalry lose their glamour—much of his popularity hinged on a regret for all that is relinquished when modernity finally triumphs. The key case is the Stuart dynasty (1603—1714), whose romance, follies, and falls dominate Scott's fiction. Some of his Victorian readers supposed that he was sad about the decline of the Stuarts and absolutism and longed for their return. However, these readers were wrong.

The Waverley novels learn from Shakespeare's history plays; French historical fiction, including Scudéry, Prévost, and Cottin; Icelandic sagas, the closest thing in medieval literature to historical fiction; the Romantic genre of the National Tale; a tradition of antiquarian inquiry; and much else. One wonders what Scott would have made of Three Kingdoms. He would probably have found its preoccupation with the conflicted logic of dynastic succession more engaging than its insistence on cyclical movements in history or the heroic role it allocates to courtly advisors. As Lukács shrewdly argued, Scott's “world-historical figures” gain their importance more as expressions of popular will than for any intrinsic significance.

Scott's novels found ardent imitators. It became a standard rhetorical ploy for a nascent national literature to claim its own Walter Scott. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was thought during his early career to be “the Walter Scott of India.” Scott's global influence was typically exerted through French intermediaries like the prolific translator Auguste Defauconpret. Scott's French admirers, above all Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas, took their cue from his work (see TRANSLATION). Over the course of the nineteenth century writers around the world often chose to think of the historical novel as a form identified with Scotland and France.

The broadest, perhaps most significant after-effect of the Waverley novels was to legitimate symbiotic relationships between history and prose fiction. Scott's cumulative impact is felt in the magisterial ease with which Leo Tolstoy's Voyná i mir (1865—69, War and Peace) narrates the experience and effects of Napoleon's Russian invasion (1812). Symptomatically, Voyná i mir has its own Waverley hero, Pierre. Like Scott, Tolstoy implies that history is best communicated through fiction. Still, even he seems to admit limits to this principle, since his novel also features an analytical, historiographical appendix where pretensions to storytelling drop away. Alessandro Manzoni's I promessi sposi (1827, The Betrothed) is one of the few nineteenth-century historical novels to match Voyná i mir in ambition and accomplishment. I promessi sposi absorbs huge masses of archival research into its fictional plot, but then, at the end of the 1842 edition, fiction is abandoned altogether in a remarkable historical and historiographical supplement, Storia della colonna infame (The Column of Infamy). Manzoni's treatise Del romanzo storico (On the Historical Novel), published in 1850 after the author had worked on it intermittently for a quarter-century, gives systematic expression to Manzoni's worries about fiction—history relationships. Having expected the historical novel to do everything, to embody truth, the author now begins to wonder if it has any validity at all.

By the end of the nineteenth century this loss of faith had become more general. Scott and the genre of historical fiction had lost much of their old prestige, especially in Anglophone countries. But the form soon attracted new adherents. In England, The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1948 masterpiece, dispensed altogether with historical figures in favor of an unsparingly savage narrative about the workings of a medieval nunnery. John Cowper Powys's Porius (1951, in full 1994) managed to combine the aesthetic of the Waverley novels with Joycean techniques. In contrast, two left-wing German writers, Lion Feuchtwanger and Heinrich Mann, recast the historical novel biographically.

The Recent Past

Even where indirectly concerned with the present, these twentieth-century novels put their energy into evoking a rather distant past. The alternate possibility, presenting a past that was only yesterday, produced its own, somewhat smaller share of outstanding books. Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate—confiscated when finished in 1960 and first published in the West in 1980—benefited from its Russian author's experiences as a war correspondent at the siege of Stalingrad. In Senegal, Ousmane Sembène's Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (1960, God's Bits of Wood) narrates a railway strike of the late 1940s. In Kenya, NgImagegImage wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat (1967) deals with the Mau Mau uprising (1952—60). Both these African novelists offer sharp, comprehensive analyses of collective action. Both explore a past whose immediate consequences are unfolding as they write.

Another development, especially noticeable during the last few decades, are the drastic claims made by theoreticians and philosophers about the ways history is permeated by fictional devices and rhetoric. Their claims have been fiercely resisted. In this often bitter intellectual atmosphere, historical fiction seems once more as daring and transgressive as it did to Bayle in the eighteenth century rather than an inescapable norm. In the decades after WWII (1939—45), the international fashion of magical realism, exemplified by Alejo Carpentier, Günter Grass, Gabriel García Marquez, and Salman Rushdie offered one way to create a fresh, startling kind of historical novel. Moreover, some experimental works by historians, such as Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre (1984), offer their own sort of history—fiction mix, somewhere on the border between educated guesswork and free narrative invention.

For all the success of the modernist, journalistic, and magical historical novel, as well as transgressive works by actual historians, not everyone has broken with the older traditions of the GENRE. One recent Asian development embraces the model of the Romantic historical novel with particular enthusiasm. The most popular historical novelist in postwar Chinese literature is the Hong Kong newspaper magnate Louis Cha. Cha's latest, perhaps best-known, fictional work is The Deer and the Cauldron, first published in his newspaper, Ming Pao (1969—72). As with most of his earlier books, Deer is set during the mid-seventeenth century after the fall of the Ming dynasty and before the firm establishment of Manchu rule (1644—1912). Deer draws on the great Ming novels, as well as their Qing successors. Yet the book's relation to Western conventions of historical fiction is also strong. Cha synthesizes the strengths developed by nineteenth-century French and Scottish historical novelists, yet manages to do so without neglecting a formidable Chinese heritage. His is a comprehensive, imaginative version of a genre that has long aspired to global meaning and global currency.

SEE ALSO: Modernism, Serialization.


1. Duncan, I. (2007), Scott's Shadow.

2. Fleishman, A. (1971), English Historical Novel.

3. Hamm, J.C. (2005), Paper Swordsmen.

4. Lukács, G. (1983), Historical Novel, trans. H. and S. Mitchell.

5. Maxwell, R. (2009), Historical Novel in Europe, 1650—1950.

6. Moretti, F. (1998), Atlas of the European Novel, 1800—1900.

7. Sanders, A. (1979), Victorian Historical Novel 1840—1880.

8. Trumpener, K. (1997), Bardic Nationalism.

9. Welsh, A. (1992), Hero of the Waverley Novels.

10. Yu, A. (1988), “ History, Fiction, and the Reading of Chinese Narrative,” Chinese Literature 10:1—19.