What is Historical Novel? Definition & Example

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      The historical Novel is a popular type of Novel and it aims to combine the dramatic interest of plot and character with a more or less detailed picture (varied feature of the life) of a particular age. The historical Novel is definitely not history, it is primary a work of art, in which historical materials or matters are used sometime as a background. These Novel as a particular specimen of literature transmutes historical facts events and characters through the channel of its creative art. It takes the bare facts or situations or the dry bones of history, animates them with the flesh of imagination, and the pulse of sensitiveness, telling a story in a manner that captivates and impresses the readers.

      The Historical novel has been established, as a literary form and the practice of Walter Scott and his imitators has made this form an important adjunct to the study of history. There is an intimate connection between historical novel and history in spite of their fundamental differences, in their approaches to the past. History is made on the past, novel on the imagination. History, according to Aristotle, deals with the particular, fiction with the universal. Historical novel also deals with the particular, but his particular becomes the universal on account of human truth.

      The need of historical novel arises from the inadequacy of history itself. History is the result of investigation, research, documentation, and statistics and by its very nature. It does not come near the human heart. It lacks human touch and fails to attract the average reader. It is like photocopying the past. The historical novel gives an artist’s view of a thing and not a mere photograph. Many critics have attempted to define historical novel in multiple ways. According to Jonathan Wield, “A novel is rendered historical by the introduction of the dates, personages, or events to which identification can be readily given.” Stoddard views, “It is a record of individual life, of individual emotion in circumstances and lives of historical interest.” Owen Wister opines, historical novel is a “narrative which presents faithfully a day or generation”.

      Historical novel refers to the historical period as its setting or environment. This type of novel attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity to historical fact. The work may deal with actual historical personages, as does Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (1934), or it may contain a mixture of fictional and historical characters. In the 20th century, distinguished historical novels such as Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators (1939), Zoe Oldenbourg’s Destiny of Fire (1960), and Mary Renault’s The King Must Die (1958) exemplify an important function of the fictional imagination to interpret remote events in human and particular terms, to transform documentary fact with the assistance of imaginative conjecture into immediate sensuous and emotional experience. It may focus on a single historic event, as does Franz Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1934), which dramatizes the defense of an Armenian stronghold. More often it attempts to portray a broader view of a past society in which great events are reflected by their impact on the private lives of fictional individuals. Since the appearance of the first historical novel, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) has remained popular.

      Though some historical novels, such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-69) and Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma (1839), are of the highest artistic quality, many of them are written to mediocre standards. There is a kind of historical novel, which frequently has a popular appeal because of a common belief that the past is richer, bloodier, and more erotic than the present, such as the novels of Georgette Heyer, or Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel stories in England in the early 20th century, and Forever Amber (1944) by Kathleen Winsor in the United States. On the other hand, the American novelist John Barth showed in The Sot-weed Factor (1960) that mock historical could constitute a viable and not necessarily farcical approach to the past. Barth’s history is cheerfully suspected, but his sense of historical perspective is genuine.

      However, a historical novel is not primarily history, though its main plot may be based on events narrated in history, and its character may have played a part in history. But its chief interest lies in the extent to which it enables us to view the part in all its vividness and reality even as we see the present. It requires historical knowledge, imaginative power and narrative ability. Scott possessed this virtue in great abundance. The method of an historical novelist is to choose some period of history with which he is familiar, and combine a set of incidents known to be historical with the careers; adventures and incidents of a set of fictitious characters who are so described as seem to belong to the period chosen for the main portrayal. The historical novelist has to be familiar with the manners of a by-gone age to succeed in his business of making it live again. This is the peculiar excellence of Scott’s works. In this context a reference can be made to the lines of John Donne which reveal the basic urge of the historical novelist:

“Goe, and catche a falling starre,
Get with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the Divels foot.”

      Among the greatest figures in historical novel the chief name includes Walter Scott famous for 'Ivanhoe', 'Robroy' etc. The next important name Leo Tolstoy who wrote 'War and Peace'. Along with them Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas are also noted name in the historical genre.

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