What is the historical novel?
With the term historical novel we refer to one of the subgenres of fiction, and also, immersed in the narrative genre of literature. It is a format that emerged around the 19th century and that bases its development and setting in a specific historical moment, where historical events that took place in real life also take place.
In other words, they are works of fiction that recreate a historical process, particularly from a distant era, thus uniting literature and history as a way of bringing the past back to life. In this way, we speak of a type of literature that is based on plots that are set in a historical context with real characters but whose stories may be fictitious. In its beginnings, it was a format that sought to complete the documentary spaces left by history.
Origin of the historical novel
The emergence of this subgenre took place in the 19th century, particularly during the Romantic period, when a series of novels were published that had been set in England’s Middle Ages and included both characters and moments of that period. Walter Scott was the one who was interested in the publication of these works, including the works Waverley and Ivanhoe, the most important of this time set in the twelfth century.
With the passage of time and this publication, the historical novel began to gain great popularity in the world of literature, since it also responded effectively to the desires of the time such as the exaltation of the historical past and nurtured the sense of nationalism, elements that characterize this artistic moment, in particular. Thus, a great number of authors began to explore the bases of the historical novel, not only in Europe, but also in America, where authors such as Victor Hugo, Theodor Fontane, Lev Tolstoy, James Fenimore Cooper, among others, emerged.
Since then and throughout time, the historical novel has been one of the formats that has had a great diffusion, to a lesser or greater extent in a relative way at some times. However, it is at this moment where those who will become the -classics- of the historical novel are born, because later it will acquire other elements and novelties that will take place, mainly in the genre of the novel from which it comes.
Thus, at present it is possible to observe a large production of historical novels in the world of literature, which have arisen in various contexts by authors from different areas of the world, continuing to strengthen the foundations of the world of fiction combined with the history of mankind.
Literary development of the historical novel
As for the modalities of this subgenre, Kurt Spang, a German-born Hispanist, has distinguished two types of historical novel. On the one hand, the illusionist historical novel and, on the other, the anti-illusionist historical novel, which are defined by the following features:
It is closer to romanticism and in its development it creates the illusion of authenticity as its main objective, using resources such as manuscripts and autobiographies in order to transmit to the reader the veracity of what he reads. On the other hand, its ending is usually closed and in it the conflicts of the protagonists are solved in a coherent way and it has very detailed descriptions of the scenery, landscapes and also of the characters.
In this modality, the author seeks to determine a direct relationship between fiction and history, thus, the narrator invents a fictional world in which the story is expressed. One of its main peculiarities is that in it the characters are no longer the heroes, nor do they participate in great battles. It includes endings that are often left unfinished, also known as open endings.
Characteristics of the historical novel
It is time to review the most important characteristics of this modality, in which we find a series of essential features to identify it, as well as for its development. Thus, we find the following:
As is well known, the development of a historical novel implies that the author carries out research and documentation of the facts on which he plans to place his work. In this sense, he must master not only his narrative skills, but also the historical information he has gathered for its construction. However, he is not a historian, but a novelist.
Although it is a format that is part of fiction, its root in its modality belongs to the narrative genre. That is why the historical novel acquires the most important elements and resources of this literary genre, as well as the most important within the novel.
It is important to identify where is the historical within this format, and is that we find it in many cases not only in historical universe, but also has other elements such as historical recreation or historical character protagonists belonging to a particular period.
For a work to be a historical novel, it is essential that there be a generation gap, that is, a considerable distance between the period in which the story is recreated and the author himself. Although this period can vary, some experts say that, if possible, it should be at least 30 years, which allows for a more distant observation of the context.
Distortion of history
With its relation to fiction, this type of works count on the distortion of history in a conscious way by their authors. This process can be modified through the introduction of omissions, but also through the use of hyperbole or anachronism.
One of the most important characteristics of the historical novel, but also one of the most important factors that favored its diffusion in an important way, is related to its popular character. This is due to the fact that the historical novel is understood as a portrait of social reality, as well as of the human groups that constitute it. In this sense, the use of characters that reflect popular or well-known attitudes is fundamental for its development.
Core of the novel
Another feature of this subgenre of fiction has to do with the way in which the core of the historical novel is presented from the period, which is shown without mystery to the reader. In this way, it is either the setting or the historical events that impose themselves on the development of its own plot.
Experimentation with language
Since the 1970s, the historical novel has left aside the totalizing intention of language and has begun a process of experimentation with it, but also with the way in which it is structured. This is often sponsored by the intention of recreating it in different ways from realism.
Finally we present the most important authors of this subgenre, among which we find: Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni, Theodor Fontane, Aleksandr Pushkin, Lev Tolstoï, James Fenimore Cooper, Hernyk Sienkiewicz, Gustave Flaubert, Mariano José de Larra, José de Espronceda, Enrique Gil y Carrasco, Benito Pérez Galdós, among others throughout history.
In addition to this, we have also gathered some of the most representative works of this type of fiction, among which we find the following: on the one hand, some that are inspired by Classical Antiquity, such as I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, Memoirs of Hadrian and Marguerite Yourcenar, and others set in the Middle Ages, such as the great work The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, one of the most important.
It is also possible to identify other works such as República, la Guerra Civil, Soldados de Salamina, by Javier Cercas, El capitán Alatriste by Arturo Pérez Reverte, El Clan del Oso Cavernario, by Jean Marie Auel, El puente de Alcántara, by Frank Baer, El rey del invierno, by Bernard Cornwell, Sinuhé el Egipcio, by Mika Waltari, The War at the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa, Eagles and Crows by Pauline Gedge, The Assyrian by Nicholas Guild, National Episodes by Galdós or El ruedo ibérico by Valle-Inclán, Talos of Sparta by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Chronicles of the Warlord by Bernard Cornwell, among others.
In this way we end our journey through the historical novel and we give way to other areas of literature that you can consult in our Literature section, within Types of art. There you will find a great deal of information where you can learn more about the literary world and its evolution.