Historical Novel – Definition & Meaning

The historical novel was a development of romance, just as the work of Jane Austen is a culmination of the tendency which had been growing in the writings of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth. Leslie Stephen in his remarks on Romola describes the historical novel as “literary hybrid”. It is neither proper history, nor proper fiction. If the fiction element dominates, it ceases to be history; on the other hand if the history element is too strong, it suffers as fiction.

Historical Novel before Scott: Scott and Dumas are the great masters of the historical novel. Scott may be called the father of historical fiction. The English novel, however, inherited a tradition of historical romances. There were complex bodies of myth and legend, more fiction than history. Malory’s Morte D’ Arthur and later on Grand Cyrus may be cited as illustrations of this statement. Nevertheless these works embodied a love of history, though they made no pretense of being serious history. In these works history was often distorted. They represented the romance of history rather than the reality of it.

Horace and Mrs. Radcliffe had aimed at the illusion of antiquity with fair success, but had avoided explicit historical allusions and refrained from introducing well-known historical personages or, in fact, any personages known to history at all. Some others who did so, violated all sense of history. To take some instances. Miss Sophia Lee’s Recess and Harriet and Sophia Lee’s Canterbury Tales outraged history by introducing fantastic concoctions in the garb of true historical events. In the first named novel, for example, there is celebrated a secret marriage-altogether unknown to and unsuspected by historians-between Mary Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk. In the same novel, for example, there is celebrated a secret marriage altogether unknown to and unsuspected by historians-between Mary Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk. Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs cannot be indicted in a like manner, as it was genuine historical fiction in several respects. Yet it was without the genuine spirit of Scott.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832): Scott is the father of the historical novel in the English language. He is the real creator as well as the master artist of historical fiction. He blended into a unity of fact and fantasy, history and romance. It is true that Scott alters the facts of history and changes the sequence of events in the interest of his art, yet it is also true that he viewed history as centrifugal and the novel as centripetal.

During a period of seventeen years, 1814-31, Scott wrote over thirty novels. His work divides itself into two groups. In the first, (1814-19) we have Waverley Gay Morning, Rob Ray. The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor and Ivanhoe. In this group of novels we have a marked spontaneity, a wonderful joy of creation. In the second group, (1820-31) we have Kenilworth. The Fortunes of Nigel, Quentin Durward, Red Gauntlet, The Talisman and Woody-stock.

Scott writes on historical themes. He made history living and real. In his novels we find picturesque colours, a constantly varying scene, wonderful characters and situations, nobility of theme and manner. He vivified history more than all the history books put together. Among his best novels are Quentin Durward, Ivanhoe, The Bride of Lammermoor and Kenilworth. Scott’s work combines humanity with humour, amusement with sympathy, and irony with kindness. His canvas is wide, his scope is large, and his imagination is colourful. His novels are a symphony of cosmopolitan and sovereign breadth. He gave life to historical movements, personages and events, and raised the historical novel to a permanent place in fiction. He wanted to do for England what Maria Edgeworth had done for Ireland. He told wonderful stories, painted manners and society, created noble and living characters, imported colour. Life and movement into historical phenomena. There is a convincing quality about his creations, a sweep, range and variety which we find only in the great masters. He extended immensely the gamut of the novel and did full justice to the stirring and heroic aspects of past life.

Scott presented the past history of France and England and Scotland in a life-like and realistic manner. His favourite period was the stretch of Scottish history from the Covenanters to the Jacobites. He could best interpret and reconstruct the near past. His favourite periods were those which were not very remote-from the Reformation to the last civil struggles of the eighteenth century. “He organised his subjects round the great religious or political conflicts which during these two hundred years most seriously impaired the moral unity of the Scottish people”. In the Monastery, The Abbot, Kenilworth, Scott revives sixteenth century life in England. In The Legend of Montrose and The Fortunes of Nigel, he takes us to the seventeenth century and places his novel during the times of James First. In Guy Mannering, Old Morality, Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian, we have the recreation of the eighteenth century. In Quentin Durward we are taken to the reign of Louis XI in France. In Ivanhoe we are further transported to the early middle-ages and the day of Crusades. We meet with Richard Coeur De Lion, the black-hearted John and the glamorous figure of Robin Hood in Ivanhoe.

Scott gave a new turn to the historical novel. He chose a definite period of history for the background of his narration, and the period so chosen was not a period of hoary antiquity as done by Kinglake in Hypatia, but a period of recent history going back to the seventeenth century. Before Scott there was a kind of historical romance cultivated with great assiduity by Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve and Mrs. Radcliffe. These novelists were interested in romanticising history of a remote past and had little sense for historical realism. But Scott surpassed them all; he had a greater sense of historicality and realism than any of his predecessors. He introduced real historical characters who had played a part in the history of the times.

Scott’s novels suffer from the evil of diffusiveness and prolixity. The story moves through labyrinthine masses marching ahead to its culminating point through diversified roads on which all his characters hardly traverse. Scott also failed in dealing with romantic love. His characters lack human passion (Aklen). He cannot give us, as Bagehot said, the delineation of a soul. He is inordinately long winded. Many of his novels could be usefully pruned, trimmed and even abridged. There are anachronisms and hurdled endings. He is indifferent to the laws of good construction. His heroes are stiff-kneed. He constantly espoused bad causes. His history suffers from Tory limitations.

Historical Novel after Scott: Since Scott the historical novel has flourished greatly in England. Almost every great English novelist has written one or two historical novels. These successors of Scott make a serious appraisal of history and seldom mislead the reader. In their hands the treatment of history is sober and scientific rather than romantic. They concern themselves with the life of common people, the whole of society rather than an outstanding individual.

Dickens writes of revolutionary France in A Tale of Two Cities and of a preceding page of English history in Barnaby Rudge. A Tale of Two Cities must be one of the finest historical novels ever written. Here we have all the colour and pageantry of the French Revolution together with many memorable characters. Thackeray paints the life of the Eighteenth Century in Henry Esmond, the kings and generals, as well as the commoners, the writers and the coffee-houses. He brings history down from the skies to the common earth George Eliot in Romola is less successful. The story moves stiffly and there is a musty odour of yellowed paper, libraries and museums about it. She would not be untrue to history, though she might fail to bring it to life. This is the other extreme from Shakespeare’s free renderings of history.

Also Read : 


In Bulwer Lytton (1803-73) we have another luminary of the historical novel. His famous novels are Rienzi and The Last Days of Pompeii. In the opinion of Cross no historical novel has had so many readers as The Last Days of Pompeii. Kingsley’s Westward Ho! And Hypatia, Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth and Hereward the Wake are a few of the other great triumphs of the historical novel after Scott. We have stirring visions of the middle ages, Roman times and the Elizabethan age in these bustling and colourful pages. “Scott and Dumas made history the handmaiden of romance. Bulwer made historical investigation the companion of romance: Thackeray made history the master of romance. These are the stages of the evolution of the historical novel” (Bliss Perry).

The historical novel has remained an attractive ideal before the modern writer. In all lands and climes we find novelists tantalised by the bait of history. Perhaps the greatest historical novel of all time was Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In Fuechtwanger’s Jew Suss, Sienckiwiz’s Quo Vadis. Robert Graves’s Claudius and Claudius the God and in Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine, Spartacus and Freedom Road we have the names of a few most brilliant venturers in this line. The social novel of today, The Forsyte Saga, for instance, portrays the social history of today which has perhaps become already the social history of yesterday. The novel of contemporary social life may thus be considered to be almost a later development of the historical novel, though it deals with more recent history, very often contemporary history. Among the twentieth century historical novelists may be mentioned Sir Arthur Quiller Couch (Hetty Wesley and The Splendid Spur), Jacob Wassermann (The Triumph of Youth), Ford Madox Hueffer (The Fifth Queen). Miss Phoebe Gay (Vivandiere), and quite a few others.

There is a certain common meeting ground after all between history and fiction, because we seldom know history truly, we only try to interpret it according to our own lights. On the other hand the novel tries to paint life and history, either of the past or of present times.



Leave a Comment