historical Novel

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A novel in which the action takes place during a specific historical period well before the time of writing (often one or two generations before, sometimes several centuries), and in which some attempt is made to depict accurately the customs and mentality of the period. The central character—real or imagined—is usually subject to divided loyalties within a larger historic conflict of which readers know the outcome. The pioneers of this genre were Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper; Scott's historical novels, starting with Waverley (1814), set the pattern for hundreds of others: outstanding 19th-century examples include Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (1831), Dumas père's Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844), Flaubert's Salammbô (1862), and Tolstoy's War and Peace (1863–9). While the historical novel attempts a serious study of the relationship between personal fortunes and social conflicts, the popular form known as the historical or ‘costume’ romance tends to employ the period setting only as a decorative background to the leading characters. For a fuller account, consult Avrom Fleishman, The English Historical Novel (1971).

Subjects: Literature.

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