Historical fiction  

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"In the eighteenth century, there lived a man in France who was among the most brilliant and heinous personalities, in an epoch not short of brilliant and heinous personalities."--Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) by Patrick Süskind


"If the gods, instead of making me the youngest son of his holiness, had made me a pharaoh, like Ramses the Great, I would conquer nine nations, of which people in Egypt have never heard mention; I would build a temple larger than all Thebes, and rear for myself a pyramid near which the tomb of Cheops would be like a rosebush at the side of a full-grown palm-tree."--Ramses, born of Queen Nikotris, daughter of the priest Amenhotep cited in Pharaoh (1897 ) by Bolesław Prus


"Near the ancient Porta Capena stands to this day a little chapel with the inscription, somewhat worn: Quo Vadis, Domine?"--Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (1896) by Henryk Sienkiewicz


"I flew me over to Munster in Germany, which an Anabaptistical brother named John Leyden kept at that instant against the Emperor and the Duke of Saxony. Here I was in good hope to set up my staff for some reasonable time, deeming that no city would drive it to a siege except they were able to hold out, and prettily well had these Munsterians held out, for they kept the Emperor and the Duke of Saxony play for the space of a year, and longer would have done but that Dame Famine came amongst them, whereupon they were forced by messengers to agree upon a day of fight when, according to their Anabaptistical error they might all be new christened in their own blood." --The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) by Thomas Nashe


"As for me, Madam," said the Duke to the Queen, "I am under no uncertainty in this matter; but as the Princess of Cleves has not the same reasons to lead her to guess who I am, as I have to direct me to know her, I should be glad if your Majesty would be pleased to let her know my name." --La Princesse de Clèves (1678) by Madame de La Fayette


"The German invasion of England took place in July 1940 after the British retreat from Dunkirk. Strongly resisted at first, the German army took many months to restore order. But the resistance movement, lacking outside support, was finally crushed. For three years it lay dormant. Collaboration increased as the population became adjusted to the tedium of occupation... Then, in 1944, the resistance movement reappeared ..."--It Happened Here (1964) by Brownlow and Mollo


"No one ever reads history without thinking with wonder how small are the contingencies on which its most important events turn."--Edward Everett Hale reviewing The Apocryphal Napoleon (1836) by Louis Geoffroy

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Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting related to the past events, but is fictional. Although the term is commonly used as a synonym for the historical romance, it can also be applied to other types of narrative, including theatre, opera, cinema, and television, as well as video games and graphic novels.

An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the depicted period. Authors also frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments. Some subgenres such as alternate history and historical fantasy insert speculative or ahistorical elements into a novel.

Works of historical fiction are sometimes criticized for lack of authenticity because of readerly criticism or genre expectations for accurate period details. This tension between historical authenticity, or historicity, and fiction frequently becomes a point of comment for readers and popular critics, while scholarly criticism frequently goes beyond this commentary, investigating the genre for its other thematic and critical interests.

Historical fiction as a contemporary Western literary genre has its foundations in the early-19th-century works of Sir Walter Scott and his contemporaries in other national literatures such as the Frenchman Honoré de Balzac, the American James Fenimore Cooper, and later the Russian Leo Tolstoy. However, the melding of "historical" and "fiction" in individual works of literature has a long tradition in most cultures; both western traditions (as early as Ancient Greek and Latin literature) as well as Eastern, in the form of oral and folk traditions (see mythology and folklore), which produced epics, novels, plays and other fictional works describing history for contemporary audiences.

Contents

Introduction

Historical fiction sometimes encouraged movements of romantic nationalism. Walter Scott's Waverley novels created interest in Scottish history and still illuminate it. 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. Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote several immensely popular novels set in conflicts between the Poles and predatory Teutonic Knights, rebelling Cossacks and invading Swedes. He won the 1905 Nobel Prize in literature. He also wrote the popular novel, Quo Vadis, about Nero's Rome and the early Christians, which has been adapted several times for film. Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter fulfilled a similar function for Norwegian history; Undset later won a Nobel Prize for Literature (1928).

Many early historical novels played an important role in the rise of European popular interest in the history of the Middle Ages. Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame often receives credit for fueling the movement to preserve the Gothic architecture of France, leading to the establishment of the Monuments historiques, the French governmental authority for historic preservation. Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti's historical mystery saga Imprimateur Secretum Veritas Mysterium has increased interest in European history and features famous castrato opera singer Atto Melani as a detective and spy. Although the story itself is fiction, many of the persona and events are not. The book is based on research by Monaldi and Sorti, who researched information from 17th-century manuscripts and published works concerning the siege of Vienna, the plague and papacy of Pope Innocent XI.

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 to gain perspective on society and on the human condition, or to escape the depredations of the censor.

In some historical novels, major historic events take place mostly off-stage, while the fictional characters inhabit the world where those events occur. Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped recounts mostly private adventures set against the backdrop of the Jacobite troubles in Scotland. Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge is set amid the Gordon Riots, and A Tale of Two Cities in the French Revolution.

In some works, the accuracy of the historical elements has been questioned, as in Alexandre Dumas' Queen Margot. Postmodern novelists such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon operate with even more freedom, mixing historical characters and settings with invented history and fantasy, as in the novels The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon respectively. A few writers create historical fiction without fictional characters. One example is the series Masters of Rome by Colleen McCullough.

History

History up to 18th century

Historical prose fiction has a long tradition in world literature.

In Ancient Greek literature The Iliad has been described as historical fiction, since it treats historic events, although its genre is generally considered epic poetry. Pierre Vidal-Naquet has suggested that Plato laid the foundations for the historical novel through the myth of Atlantis contained in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias.

One of the earliest examples of the historical novel in Europe is La Princesse de Clèves, a French novel which was published anonymously in March 1678. It is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern tradition of the psychological novel, and as a great classic work. Its author is generally held to be Madame de La Fayette. The action takes place between October 1558 and November 1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. The novel recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character – except the heroine – is a historical figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary records. In the United Kingdom, the historical novel "appears to have developed" from La Princesse de Clèves, "and then via the Gothic novel". Another early example is The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe, published in 1594 and set during the reign of King Henry VIII.

19th century

Historical fiction rose to prominence in Europe during the early 19th century as part of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, especially through the influence of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, whose works were immensely popular throughout Europe. Among his early European followers we can find Willibald Alexis, Theodor Fontane, Bernhard Severin Ingemann, Miklós Jósika, Mór Jókai, Jakob van Lennep, Demetrius Bikelos, Enrique Gil y Carrasco, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, Victor Rydberg, Andreas Munch, Alessandro Manzoni, Alfred de Vigny, Honoré de Balzac or Prosper Mérimée. Jane Porter's 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw is one of the earliest examples of the historical novel in English and went through at least 84 editions. including translation into French and German, The first true historical novel in English was in fact Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800).

In the 20th century György Lukács argued that Scott was the first fiction writer who saw history not just as a convenient frame in which to stage a contemporary narrative, but rather as a distinct social and cultural setting. Scott's Scottish novels such as Waverley (1814) and Rob Roy (1817) focused upon a middling character who sits at the intersection of various social groups in order to explore the development of society through conflict. Ivanhoe (1820) gained credit for renewing interest in the Middle Ages.

Many well-known writers from the United Kingdom published historical novels in the mid 19th century, the most notable include Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, George Eliot's Romola, and Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! and Hereward the Wake. The Trumpet-Major (1880) is Thomas Hardy's only historical novel, and is set in Weymouth during the Napoleonic wars, ,when the town was then anxious about the possibility of invasion by Napoleon.

In the United States, James Fenimore Cooper was a prominent author of historical novels who was influenced by Scott. His most famous novel is The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826), the second book of the Leatherstocking Tales pentalogy. The Last of the Mohicans is set in 1757, during the French and Indian War (the Seven Years' War), when France and Great Britain battled for control of North America. Cooper's chief rival, John Neal, wrote Rachel Dyer (1828), the first bound novel about the 17th-century Salem witch trials. Rachel Dyer also influenced future American fiction set in this period, like The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne which is one of the most famous 19th-century American historical novels. Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, Massachusetts during the years 1642 to 1649, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. In French literature, the most prominent inheritor of Scott's style of the historical novel was Balzac. In 1829 Balzac published Les Chouans, a historical work in the manner of Sir Walter Scott. This was subsequently incorporated into La Comédie Humaine. The bulk La Comédie Humaine, however, takes place during the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, though there are several novels which take place during the French Revolution and others which take place of in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, including About Catherine de Medici and The Elixir of Long Life.

Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) furnishes another 19th-century example of the romantic-historical novel. Victor Hugo began writing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1829, largely to make his contemporaries more aware of the value of the Gothic architecture, which was neglected and often destroyed to be replaced by new buildings, or defaced by replacement of parts of buildings in a newer style. The action takes place in 1482 and the title refers to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, on which the story is centered. Alexandre Dumas also wrote several popular historical fiction novels, including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. George Saintsbury stated: "Monte Cristo is said to have been at its first appearance, and for some time subsequently, the most popular book in Europe." This popularity has extended into modern times as well. The book was "translated into virtually all modern languages and has never been out of print in most of them. There have been at least twenty-nine motion pictures based on it ... as well as several television series, and many movies [have] worked the name 'Monte Cristo' into their titles."

Tolstoy's War and Peace offers an example of 19th-century historical fiction used to critique contemporary history. Tolstoy read the standard histories available in Russian and French about the Napoleonic Wars, and used the novel to challenge those historical approaches. At the start of the novel's third volume, he describes his work as blurring the line between fiction and history, in order to get closer to the truth. The novel is set 60 years before it was composed, and alongside researching the war through primary and secondary sources, he spoke with people who had lived through war during the French invasion of Russia in 1812; thus, the book is also, in part, ethnography fictionalized.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal) is an epic retelling of the story of an Italian nobleman who lives through the Napoleonic period in Italian history. It includes a description of the Battle of Waterloo by the principal character. Stendhal fought with Napoleon and participated in the French invasion of Russia.

The Betrothed (1827) by Alessandro Manzoni has been called the most famous and widely read novel of the Italian language. The Betrothed was inspired by Walter Scott's Ivanhoe but, compared to its model, shows some innovations (two members of the lower class as principal characters, the past described without romantic idealization, an explicitly Christian message), somehow forerunning the realistic novel of the following decades. Set in northern Italy in 1628, during the oppressive years under Spanish rule, it is sometimes seen as a veiled attack on Austria, which controlled the region at the time the novel was written.

The critical and popular success of The Betrothed gave rise to a crowd of imitations and, in the age of unification, almost every Italian writer tried his hand at the genre; novels now almost forgotten, like Marco Visconti by Tommaso Grossi (Manzoni's best friend) or Ettore Fieramosca by Massimo D'Azeglio (Manzoni's son-in-law), were the best-sellers of their time. Many of these authors (like Niccolò Tommaseo, Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi and D'Azeglio himself) were patriots and politicians too, and in their novels, the veiled politic message of Manzoni became explicit (the hero of Ettore Fieramosca fights to defend the honor of the Italian soldiers, mocked by some arrogant Frenchmen). Unfortunately, in them, the narrative talent not equaled the patriotic passion, and their novels, full of rhetoric and melodramatic excesses, are today barely readable as historical documents. A significant exception is The Confessions of an Italian by Ippolito Nievo, an epic about the Venetian republic's fall and the Napoleonic age, told with satiric irony and youthful brio (Nievo wrote it when he was 26 years old).

In Arabic literature, the Lebanese writer Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914) was the most prolific novelist of this genre. He wrote 23 historical novels between 1889–1914. His novels played an important in shaping the collective consciousness of modern Arabs during the Nahda period and educated them about their history. The Fleeing Mamluk (1891), The Captive of the Mahdi Pretender (1892), and Virgin of Quraish (1899) are some of his nineteenth-century historical novels.

See also




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