An historical novel
is a novel
in which the story is set among historical events, or more generally, in which the time of the action predates the lifetime of the author
. As such, the historical novel is distinguished from the alternate history
Historical fiction may center on historical or on fictional characters, but usually represents an honest attempt based on considerable research (or at least serious reading) to tell a story set in the historical past as understood by the author's contemporaries. Those historical settings may not stand up to the enhanced knowledge of later historians.
An early example is Luó Guànzhōng's 14th-century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which covers one of the most important periods of Chinese history. The historical novel was popularized in the 19th century by artists classified as Romantics. Many regard Sir Walter Scott as the first to have used this technique, in his novels of Scottish history such as Waverley (1814) and Rob Roy (1818). His Ivanhoe (1820) gains credit for renewing interest in the Middle Ages. Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) furnishes another early example of the historical novel as does Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.
Many early historical novels played an important role in the rise of European popular interest in the history of the Middle Ages. Hugo's Hunchback often receives credit for fueling the movement to save Gothic architecture in France, leading to the establishment of the Monuments historiques, the French governmental authority for historic preservation.
Historical fiction has also served to encourage movements of romantic nationalism. A series of novels by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski on the history of Poland popularized the country's history after it had lost its independence in the Partitions of Poland. Subsequently the Polish winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, wrote several immensely popular novels set in conflicts between the Poles and predatory Teutonic Knights, rebelling Cossacks and invading Swedes. (He also penned a once wildly popular novel about Nero's Rome and the early Christians, Quo Vadis, which has been filmed several times.)
Scott's Waverley novels ignited interest in Scottish history and still illuminate it. Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter fulfilled a similar function for Norwegian history; Undset later won a Nobel Prize for Literature (1928).
The genre of the historical novel has also permitted some authors, such as the Polish novelist Bolesław Prus in his sole historical novel, Pharaoh, to distance themselves from their own time and place in order to gain perspective on society and on the human condition, or to escape the depredations of the censor.
In some historical novels the main historic events take place mostly off-stage, while the characters inhabit the world in which those events are occurring. Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped recounts mostly private adventures set against the backdrop of the Jacobite troubles in Scotland. Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge is set amid the Gordon Riots, and A Tale of Two Cities in the French Revolution.
Other authors give historic characters a fictional setting, as in Alexandre Dumas' Queen Margot and Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.
Historical fiction can serve satirical purposes. An example is George MacDonald Fraser's tales of the dashing cad, poltroon, and bounder Sir Harry Paget Flashman.
The historical novel has continued to remain popular with authors to this day as with the wildly popular Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series. The most striking development in British/Irish writing in the past 25 years has been the renewed interest in the First World War. Works include William Boyd's An Ice-Cream War; Sebastian Faulks' The Girl at the Lion d'Or (concerned with the War's consequences) and Birdsong; Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way.
- Ann Rinaldi, writing YA historical fiction; (Time Enough For Drums, A Break with Charity. She writes usually with female protagonists in the first person, set in Colonial - Civil War era America or WW1 era. Critically acclaimed and admired.
- Writing as "William Irish," Cornell Woolrich published Waltz into Darkness (1947), set in 1880 New Orleans. Interestingly, both film versions — François Truffaut's La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969) and Michael Cristofer's Original Sin (2001) — place the action at a later time (and elsewhere).
- George Leonardos Author of historical Novels, such the trilogy for the Byzantine Palaeologian Dynasty, "Mara, The Christian Sultana", the stepmother of Mehmed II the Conqueror, "Barbarossa the Pirate", "The Sleeping Beauty of Mystras etc.
- Linda Proud has been acclaimed for the depth of her research in recreating Renaissance Florence, particularly the philosophical currents that informed the work of Botticelli, in A Tabernacle for the Sun, Pallas and the Centaur and The Rebirth of Venus. http://www.lindaproud.com/
- Albert A. Bell, Jr. writes mysteries set in the Roman Empire with Pliny the younger as sleuth and Tacitus as sidekick. See All Roads Lead to Murder.http://www.albertbell.com/
- T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville (1993), set in 1907, tells the story of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of cornflakes, and his Battle Creek Sanitarium.
- Colleen McCullough has written the famous Masters of Rome series which deals with the end of the great Roman Republic and great personalities like Caesar, Gaius Marius and Sulla.
- John Jakes has written the best-selling North and South Trilogy on the life and times of members of two families during the American Civil war and also The Kent Family Chronicles.
- Gillian Bradshaw, a classical scholar, writes historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Duchy of Brittany, the Byzantine Empire, Saka & the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Imperial Rome, Sub-Roman Britain and Roman Britain. Married to a Mathematical physics professor, she also writes contemporary novels with a strong scientific background.
- Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day (1989), set in 1956, explains in flashbacks the dubious history of (fictitious) 1930s Darlington Hall and its association with Nazi Germany.
- Patrick Redmond's The Wishing Game (1999) provides a thrilling depiction of life in a strict and uncanny boarding school in 1950s rural Norfolk, England.
- Julie Myerson's novel Laura Blundy (2000) is set in Victorian London.
- Bernard Cornwell is one of today's best-known historical novelists, with his Sharpe and The Warlord Chronicles.
- Conn Iggulden is also a well known historical-fiction author of the widely acclaimed Emperor series, The Conqueror series and the Dangerous Book for Boys.
- Jonathan Coe's novel The Rotters' Club (2001) evokes 1970s Britain.
- Cecelia Holland has written over twenty novels set in various parts of Europe, Asia and the United States in many periods.
- The bulk of Gore Vidal's novels have historical settings, including Burr, which has gained a wider readership than any biography of Aaron Burr.
- Neal Stephenson's series The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), published in 2003 and 2004, deals with the rise of the scientific worldview and the beginnings of modern capitalism in late 17th and early 18th century Europe.
- The James Reasoner Civil War Series is a 10-volume set of historical novels set in Culpeper, Virginia.
- Amita Kanekar's A Spoke in the Wheel is a novel about the Buddha and his disciples, that alternates between the time of the Buddha, i.e. about 566 BCE, and the time of Ashoka the Great, i.e. about 250 BCE.
- Marianne Curley. Her books Old Magic and the Guardians of Time Trilogy all take place partially in the past.
- Umberto Eco's novels, most notably his most famous, The Name of the Rose, are historical novels, taking place in Medieval or Early Modern Europe.
- Marie-Elena John is a Caribbean writer whose debut novel Unburnable gives a slice of social history of the Caribbean, focusing on the African origins of Caribbean culture.
- Arturo Pérez-Reverte is the Spanish author of the Captain Alatriste novels and other historical novels.
- Robert Harris has written three historical novels so far: Enigma, set in World War II, and Pompeii and Imperium, both set in Ancient Rome.
- Courtney Thomas' Walls of Phantoms accurately documents the daily news events of 1989 - including providing the historical framework of what lead to these events - in this meticulously wrought epic.
- Anurag kumar's Recalcitrance set in the Great Uprising or 'mutiny' of 1857
- Michael Goodspeed"s Three to a Loaf a carefully researched and highly readable Canadian spy novel illustrates the societies as well as the lives and attitudes of Allied and German soldiers locked in the cauldron of the Wester Front.
- Thomas Pynchon's three most major novels are all historical, and they variously contrast outrageous personal, subjective, hallucinogenic or even supernatural events with very real, well-researched accuracies from the past: Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day.
- Tim Powers's novels, or many of them, for example Declare, are meticulously researched historical novels which slip supernatural factors into the aspects of the history which are un-documented or little known.
Theory and Criticism
literary critic, essayist, and social theorist György Lukács
wrote extensively on the aesthetic and political significance of the historical novel. In 1937's der historische Roman
, published originally in Russian, Lukács developed critical readings of several historical novels by authors including Keller, Dickens, and Flaubert. For him, the advent of the "genuinely" historical novel at the beginning of the 19th century is to be read in terms of two developments, or processes. First, the development of a specific genre in a specific medium: the development of the historical novel's unique stylistic and narrative elements. Secondly, the development of a representative, organic artwork capable of capturing the fractures, contradictions, and problems of the particular productive mode of its time [i.e. developing, early, entrenched capitalism].