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historical fiction


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The origins of the British historical novel are congenital with those of the Gothic novel, in the larger‐than‐life conceptions of Elizabethan and ‘heroic’ Restoration drama. Deeper roots can be traced in medieval romances of chivalry. A convenient generic starting point is Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). As W. Scott noted, this was ‘the first attempt to found a tale of amusing fiction upon the ancient romances of chivalry’. Otranto patented many of the conventional devices of the Gothic‐historical tale—the ruined but menacing castle with its labyrinthine passageways, secret compartments, hideous dungeons, haunted suites, trapdoors, oratories, and chambers of horrors. Clara Reeve frankly proclaimed her The Old English Baron (1778) to be a ‘literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto’. Following Walpole, the Gothic pile became the main element of the emergent historical novel (Scott's Kenilworth, 1821; Woodstock, 1826), but precise generic description was slow in emerging. In the mid‐18th cent., ‘romance’ tended to denote a specific corpus of sagas of chivalry (such as Amadis of Gaul). Charlotte Lennox's anti‐romance The Female Quixote (1752) satirizes the heroine's infatuation with these ‘old tales’ (as does the opening chapter of Scott's Waverley, 1814). With Clara Reeve's authoritative distinction (in The Progress of Romance, 1785), ‘romance’ was identified as a narrative set in the past, as opposed to the ‘novel’ which is set in the present.

‘Historical romance’ is thus a term with something of the tautology about it. A distinctive turn to the embryo historical novel was given by the ‘national tale’. In the late 18th and early 19th cents fiction was used to advance nationalist causes and sentiment. A useful starting point for the English national tale is Thomas Leland's Longsword, Earl of Salisbury: An Historical Romance (1762), set in the 13th cent. and chauvinistically ‘English’. Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron (1778) was the most influential work in this vein, and anticipates in some respects Scott's Ivanhoe (1819). These ‘national tales’ celebrate the peculiar virtues of English (more specifically, much‐romanticized ‘Saxon’) democracy, as founded and defended by English knights and barons. The Scottish national tale was popularized by Jane Porter's The Scottish Chiefs (1810), a precursor of Scott's efforts in the sub‐genre. After Scotland and England, Ireland furnished the richest crop of national tales. The Wild Irish Girl (1806, subtitled A National Tale) by Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan), has, at its centre, a long disquisition on the aboriginal culture of the pre‐colonial Irish civilization. The greatest and earliest of the Irish national tales is Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800); this powerful depiction of mid‐18th cent. Irish life was an influence which Scott acknowledged in his afterword to Waverley. Whether Edgeworth's or Scott's novel should be regarded as the first ‘historical novel’ in English is a moot point, but there is no dispute that Scott's 25 Waverley novels (1814–32) established the historical novel as the dominant style of fiction in the first half of the 19th cent. Scott's range of historical setting is remarkable: from the early ‘Scottish novels’ (e.g. The Heart of Midlothian, 1818; Rob Roy, 1817), through the English Middle Ages (Ivanhoe, 1819), Jacobethan England (The Fortunes of Nigel, 1822; Kenilworth), medieval France (Quentin Durward, 1823), the Middle East of the Crusades (The Talisman, 1825), and the Roman Empire (Count Robert of Paris, 1831).

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Subjects: Literature.


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