aim of this paper is to study and analyse various aspects of the historical novel, i.e., need for fiction in a historical narrative, the defining features of historical fiction and the rise of the historical novel etc.
Term Paper for the course, Literary Genres.
Prof. Sukumari P.
Kommu Venkata Ravishankar
Historical fiction as a genre is important and relevant to our times for many
reasons. It has also been one of the more popular genres of the twentieth
century world literature. There have been many novels and short stories
belonging to this genre written in the past 200 years which have achieved cult
status. Their fame and presence in literature is a matter of curiosity. Some of
the most famous novels of this genre are, The Sea of Poppies, A Spoke in the
wheel, Ivanhoe, Waverly, etc. The aim of this paper is to study and analyse
various aspects of the historical novel, i.e., need for fiction in a historical
narrative, the defining features of historical fiction and the rise of the historical
But before we go on to define historical fiction as a genre, it is necessary to
understand the term ‘genre’ itself and to understand those parameters which
would enable a set of texts to be termed similar. It is also possible that a
particular text belongs to multiple genres, a historical tragedy for instance,
which borrows or recombines from more than one previously existing work of
What is a genre?
One could define genre as any category of discourse which is generally
recurring and is recognisable by way of its similarity in style and/or format. We
say discourse because; genre is something which encompasses all forms of
communication although studied only in the case of literary or artistic
components of discourse. It is interesting to observe the process of formation
of a genre, from the work to those works written purposefully to fit in the
genre. To take a deconstructionist approach, it is very similar to the formation
of language, a process in which all similar things are given a word to represent.
Just like a person would chose a particular set of words to express oneself,
sometimes in structures commonly understood by everybody and sometimes
with structures of his own. Similarly, an author choses to come up with a
structure of his own or an already existing, to be able to fully express himself,
whichever helps him the most.
The case of historiography.
Irrespective of the literariness, human beings have always found a need to
relook at their history every now and then. Not only has history been revisited
again and again, but also, it has been reinterpreted and sometimes even been
rewritten. One of the major driving forces behind this urge to know the past
has been, to know what formed our identity at large, along with a curiosity to
understand what it felt like to be in those defining moments or periods of
history. In both cases, deeper understanding of history led to a more personal
relationship with it, for one could only leave a large part of it to the
imagination of the individual. And at the same time, it also varied as to how a
person perceived life in a particular period of the past to be, based on the
information given to him and based on how he interpreted it. Hence, while the
accuracy of a given history is always debatable, history always has given ample
scope for poets, novelists, and writers to simulate the emotions of people of
the past, to cater to the curiosity and the need of the people of the present. At
the same time in some cases the distinction between an author and a historian
is blurring, with authors themselves providing other arguments or evidences
supporting or opposing something and critically analysing various events in
history from points of view generally alien to academic literature in history.
Thus, literary works pertaining to history have come to making a
historiography of their own, much similar to political historiography, or social
historiography, and merging a lot of other historiographies. Perhaps, what it
‘felt’ like to be in a period, consisted of all these components, and only if one
considered various historiographies of a period was one able to understand a
period from a more personal standpoint.
Coming to the ways in which history is dealt with by litterateurs, there have
been many, such as in the form of epics, ballads, poems, folklores and most
recently in the form of a novel.
It is important to understand the various factors which brought the novel itself
into prominence before delving into the sub-genre of historic novel. The novel
by definition itself is very narrowly different from history (as a genre).
Fictionality and the presentation in a narrative are the two features most
commonly invoked to distinguish novels from histories. Most importantly
novels are supposed to show literature and art, instead of mere facts. Although
the evolution of this genre is by distinguishing itself from history, over a period
of time, it started acquiring qualities of its very own, and evolved too much for
it to go back to its roots. For example, novels started addressing issues which
were far and wide, and a novel became a very generic term to describe a
particular text. The availability of novels of different kinds, led to them being
categorized into various sub-genres, such as romantic novels, horror novels
etc. Historic novel is a sub-genre which was defined at the very beginning of its
birth. It is not possible to discuss historic novel as a genre without invoking Sir
Walter Scott, the pioneer of this sub-genre. We will be discussing him over the
course of this paper.
Without much digression, it is important to note that for historical fiction to be
qualified as literature, it has to have a certain level of literariness, a specific
narrative, plot, and most importantly ‘fictionality’. This fictionality in a realistic
historical context can only achieved by introducing fictional characters and
their lives in the times.
A Historic Novel
Thus, a historic novel is defined as
“a novel that has as its setting a period of history and that attempts to convey
the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and
fidelity (which is in some cases only apparent fidelity) to historical fact. The
work may deal with actual historical personages...or it may contain a mixture
of fictional and historical characters”(Encyclopedia Britannica)
While, historical fiction in English literature was first seen only in works such as
Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe, which used historical settings, it
became quite common in literatures of other languages such a mandarin,
French and Italian by 14th
century. But historical fiction as a sub-genre was
primarily taken up by Sir Walter Scott, who borrowed the method from
German author Benedikte Naubert. In his novels of Scottish history, such as
Waverley, Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, he extensively used the method used by Ms.
Benedikte Naubert to produce some of the first works of historical fiction. Leo
Tolstoy’ War and Peace is also considered to be one of the first texts in this
sub-genre. Sir Walter Scott’s novels not only brought the new technique to
English literature but were also profound enough to reinvent public interest in
Scottish history and still are considered some of the best works about Scottish
history. This illustrates another important aspect of historical novels, which is
to rekindle interest in the events of the past, not necessarily relevant to the
To give the most current example, the movie Rakta Charitra based on the life
of factionist leader Paritala Ravi and his subsequent murder in 2005, is keenly
being watched by people all over Andhra Pradesh, especially since, it had a lot
to do with the inter-caste politics of the time and the arrival of N.T.Rama Rao
onto the political scene. It is interesting to observe the reactions coming from
various quarters, but most importantly there has not been a single instance
reported, wherein there was an attempt to stop the movie from being
screened. The movie was in fact, eagerly awaited.
While historic novel was mostly looking at events as far back as 400 years ago,
the decline of the British Empire gave birth to literature coming from all the
once colonized and now free countries. And this was not just any literature,
but was specifically about the most significant event in the immediate history
of these countries which was, colonization. Thus, the historical novel, which
wasn’t serving any immediate purpose like most literature, started addressing
issues such as trauma, partition etc, in the context of colonization, contributing
to the discourse on the after effects of colonization at the world stage.
Also, literature in the post-colonial era, was not just about colonization but a
challenge against western historiographies, which tried to view history from a
sole western point of view. An interesting aspect of this trend was that a
majority of this new school of literature was being written in the language of
the colonizer, thus, causing a much direct attack on the colonizing nations. But
at the same time, novels in native languages started attempting to release
native histories from the clutches of the colonizer’s point of view. For example,
Vishwantha Satyanarayana, who was awarded the jnanpith in 1970 wrote a
series of novels, based on ancient historical texts available in India, which were
discarded by the British historians for their own convenience.
Historical Novel continues to be a popular genre among readers and authors
alike. It is a genre, which is gaining more popularity with newer experiments by
authors such as mixing it with other genres like science fiction, horror, mystery
etc. A case in point is Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which is almost bordering on
alternative history. But more and more serious and important works are being
published in this genre, compelling one to say that it is a genre which is going
to stay for sometime. And this fast paced, low-attention-span age, it is
historical novel which is likely to hold its fort without compromising on
1. Law of Genre by Jacques Derrida
2. The Historic Roman by Georgy Lukacs.