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What is a Historical Novel?

In this article, we will discuss the concept of the historical novel in the literary context, its origins, and its most important characteristics.

In addition, we will take a walk through the lives of some of the most representative authors of the subgenre.

Knowing history has always brought us closer to the past to understand our present.

The importance of studying this discipline lies in the possibility of understanding the changes in society in multiple aspects of life.

Historical novels are works of fiction that seek to show the reality of the world in different periods of our history.

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What is a historical novel?

The historical novel is a work of fiction and a literary subgenre whose objective is to recreate a distant (preferably) era or period based on characters and situations that occurred in real life.

It is important to differentiate the historical novel from historical setting fiction, which depicts fictional events and characters set in the past.

This type of narration tries to evoke and transmit the customs, spirit, and social situation of a specific period of history. How? Through the construction of realistic details that are faithful to historical facts.

In some cases, the historical novel may mix historical characters with fictional characters.

The authors behind the novels of this genre usually portray society from a broader point of view. This is to reflect the impact that each episode has on the individual lives of the characters.

Origin of the historical novel

After a great number of precursor works of the genre, the historical novel established itself definitively in the literary panorama during the 19th century.

The Scotsman Sir Walter Scott was the author who officially inaugurated the genre with his novels that tell the story of life in the Middle Ages in England. Waverley, published in 1814, was the first of them.

The origins of the historical novel as a genre occurred during the period of Romanticism in Europe. Thus, historical fiction became an artistic expression of the nationalist romantics.

The authors of the genre were opposed to the novelties and changes that the bourgeoisie brought to the world, and the historical novel was catharsis.

In this way, each writer sought a kind of refuge in historical narrative, but at the same time made a critique of the present through the events of the past.

By the early 20th century, the subgenre had already established itself in the United States through a focus on the civil war and other internal armed conflicts.

Later, the authors would use the two world wars as a source of inspiration. Proof of this is the novel The English Patient (1992), where four characters try to survive in an abandoned place during the Second World War.

Or Sarah’s Key (2006), a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay that recounts the life of a Jewish woman harassed by the Nazis.If you are interested in this topic, you may also want to read: Literary Realism: Characteristics, Authors and Works.

Main characteristics of the historical novel

Some of the characteristics that distinguish the historical novel from the other subgenres of the novel are:

Uses accurate historical events

Historical accuracy is one of the strongholds of this type of novel. It can be a precise event or transcendent period that is always easy to identify by its customs and norms. 

Some precise scenarios used in these works of literature are the Great Depression and World War II.

Creativity in the plot

One of the aspects that differentiates the historical novel from other genres is the use of literary resources to add fantasy to the work. The plot must be creative and combine fiction with history.

For example, in the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the plot is set in 1920, when jazz gained popularity on Long Island.

Traditions and customs

The behavior patterns, language and customs of the characters must be consistent with the traditions of the historical period in question.

This is evident in simple details such as the slang of the characters. To write historical fiction, the authors must go back to the past and bring it back to the pages of their work.

Thorough investigation

To write historical fiction, the authors must go back to the past and bring it back into the pages of their work.

To achieve this, authors must properly document and research the facts they plan to contextualize in their books. This way they can include fictitious elements that allow them to develop a credible story.

Reflection on the present and the future

In most novels of the genre, the authors intend to show an old reality that can serve as a learning experience for a current event.Anachronism and hyperbole are two effective resources when it comes to distorting the story and inviting the reader to reflect on the current state of society.

Representative authors of the historical novel

Arturo Perez Reverte

Arturo Pérez Reverte (Cartagena, 1951) is a Spanish writer and journalist, considered one of the leading Spanish-language writers of historical novels.

His experience as a war correspondent has allowed him to tell great Spanish stories, such as the adventures of the mythical Captain Alatriste.

Algunas de sus obras de ficción histórica más notables son El capitán Alatriste (1996), Limpieza de sangre (1997), El oro del rey (2000) y El francotirador paciente (2015). Some of his most notable works of historical fiction are Captain Alatriste (1996), Purity of Blood (1997), The King ‘s Gold (2000), and The Sniper Bids His Time (2015). 

Robert Graves

Robert Graves (1895 – 1985) was a British writer, who gained popularity in the genre of the historical novel for his works brought to television, including I Claudius (1934).

Other important works were Claudius, the god and his wife Messalina (1943) and Count Belisarius (1938). He also wrote a series of short stories on Greek mythology (1960).

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016) was an Italian writer and philosopher, author of a large number of essays on linguistics, aesthetics and semiotics, as well as several novels.

The most popular in the historical novel genre is The Name of the Rose, set in northern Italy, where a series of mysterious crimes occurred.

Ken Follet

Ken Follet (1949) is a Welsh-born author of historical and suspense novels. He is the author of the largest number of historical novels in existence today.

Some of the most important are The Pillars of the Earth (1989), World Without End (2007), and The Century (2010-2014).

Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell (1944) is a London-born novelist and journalist. He is best known for his novels about Richard Sharpe, a rifleman in the Napoleonic era.

Another of his landmark works is The Saxon Stories, a series of historical novels about the birth of England during the Viking invasion of the ninth and tenth centuries.

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