Historical Fiction Brings the Past to Life

Oct 17 09:19 2012 John Kirshon Print This Article

The historical novel is "set in a period of history and attempts to convey the spirit, manners and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity to historical fact," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

"The work may deal with actual historical personages,Guest Posting or it may contain a mixture of fictional and historical characters. It may focus on a single historic event. More often, it attempts to portray a broader view of a past society in which great events are reflected by their impact on the private lives of fictional individuals."

In the last two centuries, historical novels have become so popular that, after studying the basic facts of history in school, most people claim they learn more about the past by seeing and feeling it come to life in historical fiction--in books, plays and movies--than any other way due to its power to persuade through the vitality of its dramatic narrative.

Birth of the Historical Novel

One of the earliest examples of historical fiction is China's 800,000-word Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Written in the 14th century and packed with a thousand characters in 120 chapters, the novel is seventy percent historical fact, with accurate descriptions of social conditions, and thirty percent fiction, encompassing legend, folklore and myth.

The first historical novel in the West was Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814), the first of some 30 books--including Rob Roy (1817) and Ivanhoe (1819)--that romanticized and popularized Scottish and English history. He is considered the first historical novelist, the first to view history as a distinct cultural setting with characters locked in social conflict.

Following the French Revolution and Napoleon, when ordinary people entered history and became a vast literate public whose lives provided the subject matter for literature, historical novels reached a peak of popularity throughout Europe in the 19th century.

Honore de Balzac's La Comédie Humaine (1837), Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities (1859), Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1865), and Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) and The Three Musketeers (1884) are all classics of high literary quality.

Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales

Inspired by Scott, James Fenimore Cooper was the father of historical fiction in America. His Leatherstocking Tales comprised five historical novels--The Pioneers (1823), Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841)--that dramatized the conflict between the frontier and advancing civilization.

The Pioneers, the first bestseller in the United States, introduced Nathaniel "Natty" Bumppo, a frontiersman known as Leatherstocking, the Pathfinder, the Trapper, Deerslayer, or La Longue Carabine. In The Last of the Mohicans, Natty becomes Hawkeye, who is befriended by Chingachgook and Uncas, idealized, noble Indians.

"Chingachgook, Uncas and Leatherstocking are Cooper's supreme achievement, one of the glories of American literature," wrote historian Allan Nevins. "Leatherstocking is... one of the great prize men of world fiction... The cumulative effect of the Leatherstocking Tales is tremendous,... the nearest approach yet to an American epic."

Cooper, who restrained his fertile imagination with history as a body of facts and yet was no slave to facts, was hailed by Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick (1851), a renowned historical novel based on two real events, as "our national novelist," and Balzac stated that the character of Leatherstocking will live "as long as literature lasts."

Balzac's La Comédie Humaine

Honore de Balzac, the "French Dickens," was the inheritor of Scott's style of the historical novel in France. His magnum opus, La Comédie Humaine (1829-48), was an interlinked chain of 100 novels and stories unveiling a panorama of life from 1815-1848, after the fall of Napoleon, who once famously said: "History is a set of lies agreed upon."

Balzac's vision of society--in which class, money and ambition are the major factors--was embraced by Hugo, Tolstoy and Dumas, and liberals and conservatives alike. Friedrich Engels, a founder of Marxist theory, wrote that he learned more from Balzac "than all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together."

However, Henry James, the father of the realistic psychological novel, complained: "The artist of the Comédie Humaine is half-smothered by the historian." In fact, this American considered historical novels "fatally cheap." But he also admitted that the "novel, far from being make-believe, competes with life since it records the stuff of history."

The Triumph of Historical Fiction

Notable modern historical novels include Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (1924), Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (1931), James Clavell's Asian Saga (1962-93), Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime (1975). Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle (1978) and other books exceed 100 million in worldwide sales.

The Broadway production of the lavish musical Ragtime, based on the bestselling novel, ran for two years, closing in 2000 after 834 performances and a dozen Tony Award nominations. Focusing on a suburban family, a Harlem musician and Eastern European immigrants, the show also included such American historical figures as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford.

And since 1985, Hugo's Les Misérables--which follows the lives of thirty fictional characters, from prostitutes to workers to student revolutionaries, as they struggle for redemption through revolution--has achieved global acclaim as the world's second-longest-running musical seen by 60 million people in 21 languages in 43 nations.

Synthesizing Fact and Fiction

Historical novels aim to transport readers back in time to experience characters and events--sometimes ordinary folks in extraordinary times or famous figures at any time. But their authors always confront similar problems in the writing, such as determining how much fact and how much fiction to include, and how to synthesize fact and fiction.
Tolstoy said that War and Peace, one of the great works of world literature, was more than a novel, but "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle."

Mario Vargas Llosa explained that when writing his first historical novel, The War of the End of the World (1981), he felt "free to change, deform and invent situations, using the historical background only as a point of departure to create fiction, that is, literary invention." A character in one of his stories adds, "I wonder if we ever know what you call History with a capital H. Or if there's as much make-believe in history as in novels."

When creating The Feast of the Goat (2000), which portrays the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic from two angles a generation apart, in 1961 and 1996, the Peruvian writer said he "respected the basic facts. I have not exaggerated," but also conceded: "It's a novel, not a history book, so I took many, many liberties."

Historical Fiction and History

One difference between fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and reporting is that the novelist has his characters act out the story, helping readers imagine how they felt, while the historian just relates what happened. An author must also decide whether a story is character-driven, which may retard its pace, or plot-driven, as history may hasten time.

The distinguishing feature between novels and history is that in fiction the reader can venture inside the hearts and minds of the characters. In history, this can only be done if the characters tell the reader in writing (letters, journals, diaries) what they are thinking. Also, fictional characters in novels normally don't intervene in major historical events.

Fiction offers an account of the romantic life of the characters, while history usually does not. And like movies, novels make sense of the world by tying up a story with an ending, or denouement, in a way the real world does not. The outcome of the story in historical fiction is uncertain until this climax, creating drama only rarely found in history books.

Research and Historical Fiction

Writers of historical fiction must undertake a comprehensive study of the history of the era they portray. Without thorough research, historical novels become escapist romances, which make no pretense of historical accuracy, using a setting in an imagined past only to present improbable adventures and implausible characters found mostly in pure fantasy.

In more than a few novels, such as Alexandre Dumas's Queen Margot (1845), the accuracy of the historical research has been questioned. "I have raped history," the author confessed, "but this has produced some beautiful offspring." And postmodern novelists like Thomas Pynchon, author of Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and Mason & Dixon (1997), deliberately mix fictional characters not only with actual history--but invented history.

Some historical novels are without fictional characters, like Robert Graves's I, Claudius (1934) and Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome (1990-2007) series. And some have even had a major impact on history itself: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the bestselling novel of the 19th century, helped bring on the Civil War.

Off-Stage History

In many novels, historical events often take place off-stage. In Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1984), the Civil War remains in the background, without any battle scenes or references to the terrible carnage, while the first family and the cabinet spring to life. Vidal also portrays "Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator" as a common man, and not a saint.

It is part of his Narratives of Empire series of seven historical novels--Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1997), Washington, D.C. (1967) and The Golden Age (2000)--interweaving the private lives of fictional families with the public actions of the famous, chronicling the course of the American Empire from dawn to doom.

Time scales vary in historical novels. While many writers focus on a major event or series of events, James Michener, who had a large research staff, wrote more than 40 books--Hawaii (1959), The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), The Covenant (1982), Poland (1983), Texas (1985), Alaska (1988) and Caribbean (1989) --featuring generations of characters in tales spanning hundreds or thousands of years.

The Family Saga

A subgenre of historical fiction that examines the exploits of a family or several allied families over a period of time is the family saga, which may also render historical events, social changes, and the ebb and flow of family fortunes from multiple perspectives. The typical saga may record generations of family history in a series of novels as well.

Successful examples of popular family sagas of literary note include: The Sagas of Icelanders (930-1030), Dream of the Red Chamber (1868), Buddenbrooks (1901) by Thomas Mann, The Forsyte Saga (1906-21) by John Galsworthy, Brideshead Revisited (1945) by Evelyn Waugh, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) by James Baldwin,...

The Kent Family Chronicles (1974-79), the North and South trilogy (1982-87) and Crown Family Saga (1993-98) by John Jakes, Roots (1976) by Alex Haley, The Immigrants (1977) by Howard Fast, The Thorn Birds (1977) by Colleen McCullough, The House of the Spirits (1982) by Isabelle Allende and One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the universally praised tour de force by Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia.

Epic Historical Films

Many historical novels have been produced as extravagant epic or biographical movies, which are expensive to make because they entail authentic antique costumes, elaborate musical scores, panoramic settings, long action sequences on a grand scale, huge casts of characters, and filming on location. Such spectacles are often called costume dramas.

Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Leopard (1963), Dr. Zhivago (1965), Reds (1981), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Last Emperor (1987), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Scarlet Letter (1995), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Gladiator (2000), Alexander (2004), King Arthur (2004) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) are all epic films that humanize history and bring the past to life.

They leave audiences feeling they have learned the "lessons of history," but want to learn more. However, in Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon (1999), an historical thriller in which a detective aims to solve a brutal murder, one character fatalistically concludes: "It's easily forgotten that history is not what you read in books. It's a personal thing, and people are vengeful creatures, which is why history will never teach us anything."

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About Article Author

John Kirshon
John Kirshon

John W. Kirshon is a journalist, writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience at The New York Times, the Associated Press and CBS News. He was the executive editor of Chronicle of the 20th Century and the editor-in-chief of Chronicle of America, both bestselling, illustrated history books. He grew up in Larchmont and Mamaroneck in Westchester County, New York, and was motivated to write An American Century to answer the question: How did we get from where we were then to where we are now? He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

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