TEXT review

The history and worth of the historical novel

review by Emily Sutherland


Jerome de Groot
The Historical Novel
The New Critical Idiom Series
Routledge Taylor& Francis Group, London and New York, 2010
ISBN10: 0-415-42661-8 (hbk)
ISBN10: 0-415-42662-6 (pbk)
ISBN10: 0-203-86896-x (ebk)
ISBN 9780415426626 (Australian pbk)
208 + viii pp. AUD42, USD95 and USD22.95


In 2009 Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall, an historical novel, won the Man Booker prize. Winning this prestigious prize confirms what writers and lovers of historical fiction felt to be true, that historical fiction has regained its place in the main stream of literature. The idea that the historical novel, in all its manifestations, be considered alongside other fiction, rather than as a category set slightly apart, is endorsed by the historian and academic, Jerome de Groot, in his most recent book, The Historical Novel.

Novels set in earlier periods were popular even before the time of Sir Walter Scott. Literary theorists, for example Georg Lukács, however, deemed that Scott instigated a new approach because the historical setting and people were intrinsic to the themes of his novels, rather than just an exotic background. The historical novel was thus developed and established. In Victorian times readers justified their reading of historical novels because they were educational. Historians pointed out that the historical facts were often inaccurate and gave a distorted impression; this debate continues to this day. We no longer need, however, to claim we only read historical fiction to learn about history, and writers of fiction may argue that while they respect the spirit of an historical period they are permitted to rearrange events for dramatic effect. The genre encompasses a wide range of sub-genres. There are medieval detective stories set in monasteries and castles, feminist and lesbian literature, court stories, and naval and military history. Nor should we ignore the outrageous and courageous exploits of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman, each volume set in a different era and arena of war.

In The Historical Novel Jerome de Groot provides an extensive overview of the historical novel. He outlines the history of the genre; briefly touching on the writers before Scott and then discusses the influence that Scott had on writers such Manzoni, Dickens, Balzac, Pushkin and Tolstoy. There were changes in the relationship between history and literature after the 1820s when, under the influence of the historian Leopold von Ranke (The Secret World of World History: Selected Writings on the Art and Science of History 1981), historians cultivated an emphasis on a scientific approach to their discipline. The close narrative connection between historical writing and literature was, if not severed, stretched so far that they no longer appeared to be compatible. Historical fiction became more difficult to define, not because 'it was too narrow to deserve its own section in libraries and bookstores, but … too broad, and that it overlap[ed] with other genres' (50). History had become the exclusive domain of the professional historian, and writers of historical novels were relegated to amateur status. This in turn gave writers freedom to explore new approaches and to look at the margins of societies rather than the main events.

The Historical Novel takes a systematic approach to the changes in historical fiction from the beginning up to the present. In each chapter de Groot delineates the areas he is going to cover, and the heuristic questions he intends to explore. This approach is helpful to those who wish to make a study of the historical novel in its numerous ramifications and historical development. The contents are clearly set out in six main chapters, with a bibliography, glossary and index. This ensures that the book is a valuable resource for those who are either embarking on the writing of an historical novel, those who wish to study it as a genre, or those who wish to include historical fiction in a study of literary theory.

De Groot's historical fiction is a broad church. As Diane Wallace had already pointed out in The Women's Historical Novel (2005) there is an abundance of historical novels by women writers, such Georgette Heyer, enjoyed by millions of readers, but which are not taken seriously, either as literature or as history. Perhaps to include Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon in an academic treatment of the historical novel, as de Groot does, is to create too broad a church, but should we exclude them from such a study, given their popular appeal and impressive sales figures? De Groot makes the point that historical romances, while written to a formula, present a strong female protagonist, and he quotes Wallace as stating that such novels have shifted the focus of society from masculine to feminine (55). Mainstream historical romances, such as those by Catherine Cookson, indeed highlight the privations and restrictions suffered by women in the past and therefore de Groot argues they warrant careful reading and study. There is a revealing examination of a number of interpretations of the life of Anne Boleyn by various writers. 'For every work in which she [Anne Boleyn] is independent and articulate there is a book such as Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl which suggests that she was in fact guilty of incest and attempting witchcraft' (75). Given that Wolf Hall covers the same events, it seems that the fascination with this period never palls.

In a similar way the key genres of which male historical fiction is hybrid have their grounding in adventure narratives, military and naval history, and epics. De Groot contrasts the popular Hornblower series, where the focus is on the character of Hornblower, to the work of Bernard Cornwall who wrote a number of series based on wars and military events, ranging from Roman Britain to the Napoleonic wars.

For all those concerned with creative writing, either as teachers or students, the chapter on literary fiction and history may be the most relevant. This chapter 'considers the ways in which the contemporary literary historical novel has folded various tropes of formal, historiographical and theoretical radicalism into a newly popular, relatively sanitised blend' (94). De Groot reassures us that 'writing historical novels is no longer something to be considered vulgar, the preserve of the romance writers, or guaranteed to tie one to a particular type of genre' (98). The writers discussed in this chapter include Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, and Ian McEwan, whose novel Atonement 'fractures the fragility of the historical novel by demonstrating its authentic fallacy' (106).

Later chapters look at postmodernism, metanarrative and pastiche, and the works of John Fowles, Umberto Eco, Gabriel García Márquez and Salmon Rushdie. The concluding chapter describes ways in which historical novels may challenge mainstream history. This includes colonial history, gay and lesbian historical fiction including Sarah Waters' trilogy of Victorian novels, docuhistory (Truman Capote) and historical conspiracy novels.

I would have liked a concluding section to suggest the defining criteria of the historical novel today. This would have balanced the excellent introduction but, given the vast scope of the book, a concluding chapter may have proved to be either superficial or unwieldy. The strength of this book is its combination of a survey of a wide range of texts with insightful and detailed examination of a selection of key texts. It is part of a series, The New Critical Idiom, which aims 'to provide clear, well-illustrated accounts of the full range of terminology currently in use and evolve histories of its changing usage'. There is a strong emphasis on clarity, lively debate and the widest breadth of examples. Judged by these criteria The Historical Novel is a worthy member of this series. It should be in the library of every institution where creative writing is studied and practised. Those who are researching historical fiction should find much that is helpful and enlightening in its pages.


Emily Sutherland is a Visiting Scholar at Flinders University. Her doctoral thesis was concerned with historical fiction. At present she is co-editing a book, which looks at the concept of using historical research with integrity in fiction and film.


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Vol 14 No 1 April 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb