Nineteenth-Century Historical Fiction
Nineteenth-Century Historical Fiction
The genre of nineteenth-century historical fiction includes novels and romances written about the distant past, about the recent past, or about the time period contemporary with an author's experience. Although they agree about the general characteristics of the genre, critics debate the degree to which historical accuracy or realistic representation should be present in a work of historical fiction. Depending on the novelist's motives, historical fiction may emphasize realistic depiction of historical facts throughout the novel, truthful portrayal of the spirit of an age, or correctness in the representation of specific historical movements or themes. Nineteenth-century novelists, including Sir Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Benito Pérez Galdós, wrote historical fiction in order to demonstrate similarities between the past and the present, to initiate social reform, to change readers' views about historical persons or events, and to supplement and encourage the formal study of history.
Most critics agree that Sir Walter Scott became "the father of the historical novel" in 1814 when he wrote Waverly, a novel about life in the Scottish borderlands. Waverly achieved enormous popular and critical success and sparked the public's interest in history, and many commentators hold it as the standard by which historical fiction ought to be judged. Scott followed Waverly with several more historical romances, including Ivanhoe (1819). As the popularity of the genre increased, so did the critics' and the public's desire for historical accuracy. Scott and his numerous imitators were criticized by essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle and others who frowned on novels written solely for the sake of readers' amusement. Many commentators held that authors had a responsibility to ensure factual accuracy within their work. In 1846, George Henry Lewes praised Scott's achievement in Waverly, stating that "no grave historian ever succeeded better in painting the character of the epoch." Throughout the 1830s and 1840s readers and critics alike began to look to historical fiction as a necessary complement to historical studies. Novels produced at this time include Bulwer-Lytton's extensively researched Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes (1835) and Harriet Martineau's The Hour and the Man (1841), both of which provided detailed evaluations of historical figures and eras. However, there was growing concern among scholars that with so many historical novels being written, readers would start to view historical fiction as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, the formal study of history. Concurrent with these developments was the trend among some authors to write novels about contemporary social issues, with the aim of realistically representing the problems in Victorian England. Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), for example, examines the cruelty experienced by children in workhouses. During the 1850s and 1860s, the public's interest in the genre dwindled, partly in response to the high volume of historical novels being published. Similarly, critical sentiment toward historical fiction ranged from skepticism to hostility, although highly esteemed historical novels such as Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Eliot's Romola (1862) were still being published. By the 1860s, as James Simmons has written, "the vogue for historical fiction had expended itself."
Many scholars have noted that in nineteenth-century America historical novelists often romanticized aspects of the past to some degree in order to accomplish their aims. Some American novelists wrote about colonial America in an attempt, some critics have argued, to redefine or to reemphasize nineteenth-century national values. According to Beverly Seaton, many novels about the colonial period assured white readers of their racial superiority. William Gilmore Simms's The Yemassee (1835), for example, centered around conflicts with Native Americans in which white settlers are depicted as virtuous while Native Americans are rendered as cruel and dishonest. Novels such as Paul Leicester Ford's Janice Meredith (1899) and S. Weir Mitchell's Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1897) incorporate analyses of religious fanaticism in colonial times in order to remind nineteenth-century readers of the importance of supporting liberalism in organized religion. Pauline Hopkins, in Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1899), uses the motifs of traditional nineteenth-century romances—such as ending the novel with the heroine's happy marriage—in order to interest both African American and white readers. After capturing the attention of this larger audience, Hopkins then focuses on the realities of African American history. Still other novelists, rather than detailing specific movements, events, or themes, chose to characterize a time and place, as Hawthorne does with his depiction of seventeenth-century Puritan New England in The Scarlet Letter (1850).
Critics continue to debate the definition and attributes of historical fiction. Harry E. Shaw has maintained that a "minimal" definition of the genre is necessary to accommodate the variety of views on history. Brander Matthews has claimed that novelists who wrote about their own time period produced the most "trustworthy" historical fiction. Joseph Turner has admitted that defining the genre is problematic, and has categorized historical fiction in terms of the novelist's treatment of past. Modern scholars have also studied nineteenth-century historical fiction with a view to understanding how each novelist addressed the social issues of his or her day through his or her treatment of the past.
Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes 1835
The Last of the Barons 1843
James Fenimore Cooper
Oliver Twist 1838
A Tale of Two Cities 1859
Scenes of Clerical Life 1858
Paul Leicester Ford
Janice Meredith 1899
Benito Pérez Galdós
Episodios nacionales, Series I and II 1873-79
The Scarlet Letter 1850
Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South 1899
Westward Hol 1855
The Hour and the Man 1841
S. Weir Mitchell
Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker 1897
The Cloister and the Hearth 1861
Sir Walter Scott
William Gilmore Simms
The Yemassee 1835
Daniel Pierce Thompson
The Green Mountain Boys 1839
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Definitions And Characteristics
George Henry Lewes
SOURCE: A review of "The Foster Brother: A Tale of the War of Chiozza," in The Westminster Review, Vol. XLV, No. 1, March, 1846, pp. 34-54.
[Lewes was one of the most versatile men of letters in the Victorian era. A prominent English journalist, he was the founder, with Leigh Hunt, of The Leader, a radical political journal that he edited from 1851 to 1854. He served as the first editor of the Fortnightly Review from 1865 to 1866, a journal which he also helped to establish. Critics often cite Lewes's influence on the novelist George Eliot, to whom he was companion and mentor, as his principal contribution to English letters, but they also credit him with critical acumen in his literary commentary, most notably in his dramatic criticism. In the following excerpt, Lewes harshly criticizes authors of some historical romances for their inclusion of "useless" information and for their failure to capture the spirit of the time period about which they were writing.]
To judge from the number yearly published, one may presume that there is a great demand for historical romances; and to judge from the quality of those published, one may suppose the readers very good-natured, or very ignorant; or both. We believe they are both.
To write a good historical romance is no easy task; to write such as are published (with an exception here and...
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Victorian Historical Fiction
Sir John Marriott
SOURCE: "The Victorian Era: Social Reform in Fact and Fiction," in English History in English Fiction, 1940. Reprint by Kennikat Press, 1970, pp. 251-69.
[In the following excerpt, Marriott presents an overview of nineteenth-century historical fiction, noting that its authors were concerned with portraying the Victorian way of life and discussing the social issues of that time.]
At each stage of our journey the way becomes more arduous, the impedimenta heavier, the problems more baffling. That is pre-eminently true of the Victorian era. The embarrassment is, however, to some extent relieved by the fact that not all the great Victorian novelists dealt with contemporary affairs. Thackeray's (1811-63) history, for instance, belongs to the eighteenth century. The best-beloved characters of Charles Dickens (1812-70) are very early if not prae-Victorian. Even George Eliot (1819-80), though she herself had more of the Zeit-geist than any of her contemporaries, drew inspiration for her best work from her reminiscences of childhood and early life. Yet, in fact, her recollections were tinged as much by the scientific spirit of Darwinism as by the moral problems which never ceased to haunt a mind permeated by the evangelical teaching imbibed in youth. Of the Anglican Establishment in mid-Victorian days, Anthony Trollope is among novelists the most faithful analyst;...
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American Historical Fiction
Ernest E. Leisy
SOURCE: "Colonial America," in The American Historical Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1950, pp. 21-67.
[In the excerpt that follows, Leisy describes a number of historical novels written about the American colonies, maintaining that a majority of them focus on themes such as Puritanism, conflicts with Native Americans, and witchcraft.]
The Southern Colonies
In the colonial South there was an abundance of incidents to invite romantic treatment by novelists. The arrival of the first white settlers in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Maryland; the Smith-Pocahontas romance; the Virginia Massacre of 1622; life in Jamestown under Governor Berkeley at the time of Bacon's Rebellion; events at the capital of Williamsburg; the Yemassee wars in Carolina—these, as well as the romantic careers of Virginia's Governor Spotswood and young Washington, were each the subject of historical fiction at one time or another.
The primacy of the Old Dominion made her a natural favorite among writers of the historical novel. The Virginia depicted in American fiction was a highly romantic land, a land of cavaliers, in contrast to the haven of criminals depicted by Defoe and the Elizabethan dramatists.…
The episode which appealed to novelists more than any other in the early history of Virginia was the rescue of Captain...
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Realism In Historical Fiction
D. A. Williams
SOURCE: "The Practice of Realism," in The Monster in the Mirror: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Realism, edited by D. A. Williams, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, pp. 257-79.
[In the following excerpt, Williams briefly discusses the handling of time period and the role of historical accuracy in several Realist novels.]
The Realist pays close attention to the physical and historical setting as well as to the social context.… Balzac may claim that the physical environment has a determinative influence on behaviour but, most typically the physical setting can be read as effect rather than cause, an indication of rather than an influence upon character. There is a widespread tendency … to exploit the symbolic potential of the physical setting, although this need not necessarily detract from its authenticity. Attentiveness to the physical setting grows, too, out of an 'archaeological' interest in the shape of things in the past. Although it is commonly assumed that the Realist deals with the present,… [many] novelists… set the action on average between ten and twenty years in the past. [Ivan] Turgenev, in setting the action only two years earlier and [George] Eliot and [Giovanni] Verga in making the action begin over forty years in the past, represent two extremes. The existence of a temporal gap allows the distinction between now and then, hoc...
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Butterfield, H. The Historical Novel: An Essay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924, 113 p.
Analyzes the relationship between the writing of historical novels and the study of history.
Cahalan, James M. Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1983, 240 P.
Traces the development of the genre in Ireland and provides analysis of Sir Walter Scott's influence on Irish historical fiction.
Chapman, Raymond. The Sense of the Past in Victorian Literature. Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1986, 212 p.
Discusses the depiction of English history in Victorian literature.
Dekker, George. The American Historical Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 376 p.
Provides an in-depth study of the American historical romance including discussion on regionalism, the role of the hero and heroine, and historical romances of the South.
Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971, 262 p.
Analyzes the history and criticism of English historical fiction from the birth of the genre through the twentieth century.
Henderson, Harry. Versions of the Past: the Historical Imagination in American Fiction. New York: Oxford University...
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