Historical Novel in English Literature
History, as Aristotle says, deals with the particular, fiction with the universal. Fact is the underlying basis of history: fiction is the underlying basis of the novel. Leslie Stephen in his remark on Romola describes the historical novel as a literary hybrid. It is neither proper history, nor proper fiction. The historical novel is an imaginative reconstruction of the past. To summon up a past epoch, to show men and women alive in it and behaving as they must have behaved in the circumstances is the labour and joy of the genuine historical novelist.
A historical novel is a record of individual life, of individual emotion in circumstances and lives of historical interest. A historical novel is a blend of facts and fiction, of history and imagination. It, however, seeks to avoid the irresponsibilities of romance and attempts at the seriousness of fiction. In a historical novel, we are able to see how far actual history is faithfully depicted and on the other hand, we enjoy the novelist’s power of creating purely imaginary characters and endowing them with the ideas manners and customs of the age to which they are made to belong.
The historical novel has to be differentiated from the historical romance Scott realized the difference between the two varieties and stated that the historical novel is
“a fictitious narrative differing from the romance because the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of humorous events and the modern state of society”.
The historical romance is a fictitious story or narrative full of strange adventures happening in remote and distant lands having nothing of historical association with it. In the historical novel, the historical background is real: in the historical romance, the background is that of a remote land with very little bearing on human life. In the historical romance, the emphasis is on incidents, and not on characters. But with the historical novelists, depiction of characters constitutes the main interest.
The historical novelist should be endowed with imagination to recreate the past and make the dry bones of history instinct with life. The historical novel is an attempt to reconstruct the atmosphere, the habits of thought, the prevailing psychology of a generation with which has had no intimate contact. For this, the novelist requires a strong historical imagination and a close study of the history of the past.
It is, however, proper that a historical novelist should try to present the life of an age with which he is familiar by minute study of its ways and manners. In presenting historical characters and incidents, the prejudices of the writer must be kept away and fidelity to historical characters and facts should be observed as far as it is possible under the conditions of artistic representation. Imagination should not distort historical facts, but should be used only for the artistic presentation of the characters through the evolution of the story. So it is suggested that real historical characters should be assigned minor roles in the story and characters of fiction invented by the imagination of the novelist should be given prominent roles.
“The danger of introducing important historical personages lies in the fact that existing records or traditional conceptions would hamper the creation of a truly living or a transcendentally imagined character”. (Saintsbury).
Sir Walter Scott is the father of the historical novel. With his historical novels, he made a fresh departure in fiction. One has only to compare the Waverly novels with the historical fictions preceding these to realize originality of his formula. Strictly considered, every historical novel is a romantic conception. We can reconstruct a picture of the past, but we do not have the adequate data for knowing exactly how the various classes of society spoke and acted in these periods of history. The earlier historical story-teller had tried to surmount the difficulty by disconnecting the past from the present and by enclosing his tale in a strange and remote setting to create the necessary illusion.
Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve and Mrs. Radcliffe in Gothic romances dealt with periods sufficiently remote to offer scope for the imaginative treatment of history. But none of these writers possessed any feeling for historical realism and they made no attempt to induce in the readers a willing suspension of disbelief. Scott possessed exceptional knowledge of the past but his success did not lie in this. He succeeded because he boldly projected the present into the past, using his knowledge of contemporary life to humanize his historical characters. Scott’s success as a historical novelist lay in his sturdy realism. He made the men of Robin Hood’s day and Shakespeare’s day alive and actual by virtue of his acquaintance with the men that lived in his own time. In his historical novels, he did not concentrate his interest around the historical figures of the past, but around his own fictitious characters, for his own characters after all, were real- they were drawn from personal observation; his historical sketches were clever guess work. He envelops his characters with the broad strands of real historical events. Scott used historical characters for atmosphere, colour and background: the plot action is assigned to imaginary personages whom he might manipulate as he would.
The range of Scott’s novel is fairly wide and covers three centuries of English, Scottish and European history. In The Monastery, The Abbott, Kenilworth, Scott revives sixteenth century life in England. In The Legend of Montrose and The Fortune of Nigel, he takes us to the seventeenth century. In Guy Mannering, Old Mortality, Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian, we have the recreation of the eightieth century. In Ivanhoe, we are transported to the early middle ages and the days of the crusades. Scott used the facts of history for the purpose of romance. He did not care for strict historical truth. He introduced Shakespeare in Kenilworth though the events narrated in the novel take place in the 18th year of Queen Elizabeth‘s reign when the dramatist was only 11 years old. In The Abbot, historical truth is violated in making all the senators the devoted followers of Mary Queen of Scots. Yet he did not disregard the sanctity of historical truth. He presented historical personages like Richard, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, James I with great gusto.
The main interest in Scott’s historical novels is often not historical, and the historical interest is at least always divided with a purely fictitious interest. In Waverly, the hero and the heroine are not historical and the same is true of Old Mortality. Ivanhoe, The Fortune of Nigel. In Kenilworth, Amy Robsart bears a historical name, but she is really the typical tragic heroine, and Leicester is the conventional villain with some facts taken from the Earl of Leiceter’s life for a historical semblance. In adopting this method of dealing with history. Scott was able to give within the vaguely defined boundaries of fact and legend a free play to his imagination.
Scott used the language of his own time in his historical novels. He felt that pedantic fidelity to the period and precisely archaic language, however, satisfying to the student resulted in unreadable fiction. He favoured a language approximating to common speech, but heightened with poetry and with just enough of archaism to create an illusion of the past.
Scott’s example inspired many a novelist to write historical novels in France, Germany and Italy. In England, Mrs. Anna Eliza Bray wrote The Protestants on the subject of the persecution of the protestants under Queen Mary Tudor. Horace Smith wrote Brambletye House (1826), Reuben Apsley, Oliver Cromwell and A Tale of the English Revolution of 1688. James and Ainsworth wrote historical novels. Ainsworth’s Note de Paris, The Tower of London, Windsor Castle deserve mention, though they are not successful as historical novels.
In the eighteen thirties, Scott’s mantle fell on Edward Bulwer Lytton. His most popular historical novel is The Last Days of Pompeii. His other historical novels include Devereus (1829), Rienzi (1835), Harold (1848). He tried to reconstruct the history of the time and present that history in relation to individual life. In The Last Days of Pompeii, Lytton is concerned not with a version of history but with an elaborate, baroque depiction of Pompeii, the pity of pleasure on the eve of destruction. The sinfulness of the pagan Pompeians is contrasted with the simple piety of the Christians, and the city’s obliteration is righteous retribution on the wicked. Seeking tragic sublimity, Lytton achieves horrific sensationalism. The Last of the Barons is actually Lytton’s best novel. In breaking the Scott formula, Lytton anticipates the 20th century historical novel. Lytton uses fiction not to distort or alter historical facts but to provide motivation and dialogue illuminating actual events,
Charles Kingsley achieved success in his two historical novels- Hypatia (1853), and Westward Ho (1855). Hypatia is a novel set in Alexandria in the time of the Goths, and in Westward Ho, his subject is the Elizabethan age of the seadogs-Drake and Hawkins. Cross writes about Hypatia: it is “the sublimest subject that historical fiction has appropriated to its use, the death struggle between Greek and Christian civilization in the fifth century.” Hypatia is a criticism of Greek and pagan life. Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth and Hereward Wake are historical.
Both Thackeray and Dickens wrote historical novels. Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852) is a historical novel which evokes the age of Queen Anne- the world of Swift, Steele, Horley Bolingbroke, the world of the dastardly Mohocks, the notorious Lord Mohun and his most distinguished victim, the Duke of Hamilton. The story, concerned with an eccentric catholic family, loyal to the Stuarts is presented against a contemporary background of political and religious bigotry. In the Virginians (1859), Thackeray relates the fortunes of the descendants of Colonel Henry Esmond, and in particular of his daughter Rachel, who married a Warrington and survived him as owner of an estate in Virginia. The book contains a vivid account of the rakish and unprincipled society of the day.
In A Tale of Two Cities and Barnaby Rudge, Dickens returned to the historical novel. The first novel is the story of London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution. The second novel is a story of the Gordon Riots. His limitations as a historical novelist are soon disclosed when he strays outside the magic London circle in which he conjured up his fantastic rout. Dickens feared physical violence although he held radical views.
George Eliot’s Romola is another historical novel of the Victorian age which claims attention. The background of the novel is Florence at the end of the fifteenth century, the troubled period following the expulsion of Medici, of the expedition of Charles VIII, of distracted counsels in the city of the excitement caused by the preaching of the fanatic monk Savonarola, and the acute division between the popular party and the Medici. Romola is the work of a lucid intelligence. But George Eliot failed to recreate the atmosphere of Renaissance Florence.
In the modern period, there is a decline in the production of historical novels. The modern realism and intellectualism account for this decline. The writers and the readers do not evince any interest in the remote periods of history and in the characters of romantic antiquity. They are more interested in the depiction of contemporary life. The historical novel provides a kind of escape from reality and deludes the readers into a false sense of romantic glamour. Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger Trilogy are period novels representing the contemporary history. These novels have taken the place of the historical novels. These novels are again different from the chronicle novel like Tolstoy’s War and Peace which gives a comprehensive picture of a historical epoch both in time and space. These period novels are content with representing society at a particular stage of transition and characters which are true in so far as they are representative of that society.