Generally, regardless of their intent, writers of historical novels have followed one of two approaches toward historical events and characters. By far the larger group has written works in which their major characters are fictional personages who live during periods in which great events occur: the glorious years of the Roman Empire; the age of the Crusades; the time of the English, American, French, or Russian revolutions; the Hundred Years’ War; the Napoleonic wars; the American Civil War; or the two world wars. More often than not, the historical novel is set in a time of crisis. The fictional characters often, though not always, interact with real personages in some way. This technique of placing fictional characters on the fringe of great events, used by Scott in his novels and adopted by many others, can provide an effective sense of the period without violating (except, perhaps, for the purist) the sense of history that the reader brings to the work.
In novels that attempt to retain a high degree of verisimilitude, the contact between real and fictional characters generally remains slight; in works better termed “historical romances,” such contact is often magnified, sometimes to the point of suggesting that the fictional character has had an impact on real-life events. Examples of this approach can be found in the World War II novels of Herman Wouk, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978). Wouk’s fictional hero, Victor “Pug” Henry, a U.S. Navy captain, becomes the confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his emissary to various foreign capitals, where he meets with world leaders Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin. Henry’s influence in shaping Roosevelt’s opinion about the war and his other exploits with foreign leaders is purely fictional and accounts in part for Wouk’s own admission in the preface to War and Remembrance that he is writing a “historical romance.”
Linking history to the narrative tradition of the romance has been a common practice for many writers who have chosen to focus on fictional characters living during a period of crisis. Among the more famous practitioners of this method is the French novelist Alexandre Dumas, père, who, through his loose weaving of historical fact and fancy, provided the worldwide reading public with figures and stories now part of the cultural heritage of the West: Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, the Three Musketeers, and idealistic young D’Artagnan, the real hero of several of Dumas’s novels of the reign of Louis XIV. Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846) is only one of many, however, that Dumas wrote about that period and about other episodes in French history, including explorations of the age of Henry IV, the Franco-Spanish War of the sixteenth century, the reign of Louis XV, and the French Revolution.
The methodology employed by artists who focus on fictional characters in real-life times of crisis can be seen most vividly in Alexandre Dumas, père’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859). This chilling look at the impact of the French Revolution has given many generations of readers a feeling for that event that even Thomas Carlyle’s history of the revolution fails to evoke. In this novel, Dickens re-creates the horrors of the revolution by detailing the effects of the Reign of Terror on the lives of fictional characters whose destinies take them between Paris and London. Few major figures of history appear in Dickens’s book, and those who do are given subordinate roles. The historicity of the novel lies in Dickens’s graphic portrayal of the masses and of the individuals affected by the actions of the “citizens” of the revolution. The fictional Madame DeFarge, whose insatiable appetite for the blood of aristocrats is motivated as much by a desire for personal vengeance as by any desire for liberty and equality, reinforces the notion that the exploits of the real-life Robespierre and his henchmen were neither anomalous nor necessarily high-minded.
Similarly, the frustrations of the Manette family, as well as the heroism of both Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay, become representative of thousands whose stories are unnoted by the historian, whose personal tragedies and triumphs have been reduced to mere statistics. Thus, history is not violated but rather is vivified by the presentation of characters and incidents that, though unrecorded in chronicles of the period, might have easily occurred. In the best historical novels, the reader senses that, had these events occurred, they would have done so with the same consequences that the novelist has presented.
A second, less common approach to historical fiction is that of choosing as a main character a person who really did live and whose history is recorded in some form. Such an approach is in many ways more difficult; those who choose this method are limited to a great degree by the facts of history in structuring plot, delineating character, providing motivation, and even in developing themes. Usually, the greater the figure chosen, the more restricted the novelist is in exploring the subject through the medium of fiction. Some have done so and been fairly successful. Howard Fast achieved popular acclaim for his portraits of George Washington (The Unvanquished, 1942) and Thomas Paine (Citizen Tom Paine, 1943). Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934) is a daring attempt to present the decadent life of the emperor’s court in post-Augustan Rome through the eyes of one of the major figures of that period.
Another highly successful examination of historical forces seen through the eyes of a major historical figure is found in Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo (1971; August 1914, 1972). In the novel,...