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A Novel Approaches prelude: A Brief History of Historical Fiction

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In late November the IHR will be hosting two interlinked events on the topic of academic history and historical fiction. The conference (17-18 November) and virtual conference (21-25 November) is entitled Novel approaches: from academic history to historical fiction. As a lead in to these two events I thought I would do a little digging into the history of the historical novel which is currently one of the main formats for historical fiction. My plan is to talk about my findings over the course of the next three weeks. So here goes post one!

The history of historical novels – so where should I begin? Or perhaps where should I not begin. Most historians I expect would start well with a definition. What is historical fiction? At its simplest it is a fictional account about the past. A story or stories told about an event perhaps fictional or real, and about people also fictional or real. Last year Jerome de Groot wrote that ‘the intergeneric hybridity and flexibility of historical fiction have long been one of its defining characteristics’ (Groot, p.2). Indeed Groot lists thirteen genres which historical fiction can be moulded into: romance, detective, thriller, counter-factual, horror, literary, gothic, postmodern, epic, fantasy, mystery, western, and children’s books.
What else might it be? Well ‘historical fiction is also an introduction to history’. This statement was written by David D. McGarry and Sarah Harriman White in their 1963 guide to historical fiction. It describes something about the ‘profit’ of reading historical fiction – of how it entertains but also instructs. We learn something true about the past even if most of what we read is fiction. For the more curious of us it leads us to historical sources so that we may learn the true facts about the events or people that we have just read about. In essence the historical novel adds flesh to the bare bones that historians are able to uncover and by doing so provides an account that whilst not necessarily true provides a clearer indication of past events, circumstances and cultures.
These definitions of historical fiction are a starting point and an interesting one at that but they are not where I will begin (at least not in any depth). I will leave that to the speakers at our conference who I am sure are more well equipped to discuss such matters. My beginning point will instead focus on the theoretical analysis of historical fiction as laid out in 1955 by the Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukács. Such a focus at once limits my remit to the novel form of historical fiction which is very much my intention. An investigation into historical fiction in all its forms would probably take forever!
More tomorrow!
Bibliography

David D. McGarry and Sarah Harriman White, Historical Fiction Guide: annotated Chronological, Geographical and topical List of Five Thousand Selected Historical Novels (The Scarecrow Press, Inc: New York, 1963).


Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Routledge: Oxon, 2010).

Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1962)


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