The Historical Novel

Isobel Hurst

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:
The Historical Novel

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No student of the Victorian historical novel can fail to observe the divergence between the genre’s critical acclaim and popularity in its own time and its relative obscurity now. Charles Reade, author of the acclaimed 1861 best seller The Cloister and the Hearth, is far from the only historical novelist whose reputation with critics and readers is far below that accorded by his peers. William Harrison Ainsworth, R. D. Blackmore, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, G. A. Henty, and Charles Kingsley are among the small number of writers whose work has attracted some scholarly notice, while best sellers such as G. P. R. James, G. J. Whyte-Melville, Emma Marshall, A. J. Church, and the prolific E. Everett Green remain largely unexamined. Even critically favored historical novels by canonical authors, such as Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852), Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and George Eliot’s Romola (1862–1863), have frequently been considered less compelling than the authors’ other novels. The importance and diversity of the genre in its own time is clearly indicated by the variety of authors who attempted at least one historical novel: Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charlotte M. Yonge, Walter Pater, George Gissing, Wilkie Collins, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle. From Antiquity to the French Revolution, novelists attempted to fictionalize almost every century. Narratives cluster particularly in ancient Rome, at the Norman Conquest, in mediaeval and Renaissance Britain and Europe, and around the Jacobite rebellions and other 18th-century uprisings. Against all of these backgrounds appear characters who encounter historical celebrities or stumble across major events. It is less for the portrayal of the past than for the remedies prescribed for contemporary problems that critics have chosen to explore these fictions. Arguments about freedom and democracy are traced back to the Anglo-Saxons or the Wars of the Roses, helping to reinforce the sense of national identity, or to underline Britain’s imperial destiny. Writers such as Eliza Lynn and George Eliot drew attention to the constraints and judgments Victorian women were subject to, attacking hypocrisies thinly disguised in historical costume. The redoubtable clerics Kingsley, Newman, and Wiseman conducted their public struggle over Protestant and Catholic ideologies through novels set in ancient Egypt and Rome. Such weighty themes, and the extensive research displayed in these narratives, may be responsible for the decline of the realist and didactic historical novel in the 1860s. This was followed by the resurgence of popular historical romance in the 1880s, focusing on adventures and heroic masculinity and providing a conservative counterbalance to fin-de-siècle decadence.

Article.  13388 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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