Historical novel: Study of the genre


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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.

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Historical novel: Study of the genre

  1. 1. HISTORICAL NOVEL A sub-genre. Term Paper for the course, Literary Genres. Course Instructor Prof. Sukumari P. Kommu Venkata Ravishankar HS07H013
  2. 2. INTRODUCTION 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 novel etc. 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 literature.
  3. 3. 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.
  4. 4. 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.
  5. 5. 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.
  6. 6. 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.
  7. 7. 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 present. 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
  8. 8. 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. Post-colonialism. 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.
  9. 9. Conclusion 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 profundity.
  10. 10. References 1. Law of Genre by Jacques Derrida 2. The Historic Roman by Georgy Lukacs. 3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_novel 4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel 5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Scott