Historical novel: A novel that makes use of historical events or figures in a fictitious narrative. Although Sir Walter Scott is often credited with inaugurating the historical novel in England, Maria Edgeworth, an Ango-Irish writer living in Ireland, pioneered the genre in Castle Rackrent (1800), a satire on Anglo-Irish landlords that is also frequently considered to be the first regional novel; Scott, who corresponded with Edgeworth for years, acknowledged her work in an 1829 preface to his Waverley Novels (1814—32). Significant influences on the historical novel include Madame de Lafayette’s La princesse de Clèves (1678) — sometimes itself called the first historical novel — and Gothic literature.
Historical novels reflect varying degrees of research, including into details such as the customs, dress, localities, and speech patterns of the time. True-to-life elements may be added to lend a sense of authenticity to the novel, but in serious examples of this genre, historical matter is central to the story line rather than peripheral or decorative. Historical novels are often vehicles for authorial insights into historical figures or into the causes and consequences of historical events.
EXAMPLES: Luó Guànzhōng’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms (c. fourteenth century); William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond (1852); Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (1895); Baroness Emma Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905); Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 (1971); Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1984). Novelist Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (1970—2004) features British naval history during the Napoleonic wars and also incorporates Incan history; writer and jazz musician James McBride’s Miracle at St. Anna (2002), set in Italy during World War II and inspired by the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” of the Ninety-Second Division, addresses a Nazi massacre that occurred in the Tuscan village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema. Lily King’s novel Euphoria (2014), set in New Guinea in the 1920s, is based on the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead.