Popular legend records that the historical novel was born out of frustration—specifically out of Sir Walter Scott’s frustration at having been displaced by Lord Byron as the most popular poetic romancer of his day. Scott’s early narrative poems, such as Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808) and The Lady of the Lake (1810), had established him as the premier storyteller in verse in the first decade of the nineteenth century, but when Byron began publishing his Eastern tales (The Giaour, 1813; The Bride of Abydos, 1813; and so on), Scott saw his public turning away. Not one to acquiesce easily, Scott resurrected the manuscript of a prose work he had begun almost ten years earlier. In it Scott told of the climactic struggles of the Scottish barons to restore the House of Stuart to the throne, culminating in their final defeat in 1745, some fifty years before Scott had originally written the tale. Since an additional decade had now passed, Scott altered his subtitle and sent off to his publishers the manuscript of Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), thus creating what was to become one of the most popular forms of fiction.
The first edition of Waverley was published anonymously, presumably so that Scott would not suffer embarrassment if this experiment in prose were a failure. It was not; the reading public made Waverley a best seller, and a similar reception awaited the novels that followed its prolific author. Before he died in 1832, the father of the historical novel had brought to life the stories of Scotland, England, and, to a lesser extent, France during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the eighteenth century. Historians may well claim that Scott’s history is faulty, or that it is told from a slanted point of view; and literary critics may fault him for letting his penchant for adventure override concerns for character development, coherence of plot, and thematic exposition. Whatever faults scholars may find, though, none can deny the immediate success these novels had nor belittle the impact of this new literary venture on the development of fiction. The popularity of the historical novel has never abated, and it has consistently ranked with the detective story and the thriller as one of the forms of literature with the widest audience appeal.
The educated reader may well wonder, however, why certain novels have been singled out under the appellation “historical.” The fact that all novels are set in some period links them to history; even novels set in the future share that link, however tenuously. What makes a particular novel “historical”? This problem of definition plagues critics, and virtually everyone who has written of the historical novel has evolved...
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