The Historical Novel

The Historical Novel

It was on July 7, 1814 in Edinburgh: the birth of no other literary form can be dated as precisely as that of the historical novel. On that day, a Scottish lawyer, Walter Scott, already well known as a poet and student of folklore, published Waverley, a fictional story that appeared without the author being named, in a modest print run of one thousand copies. Although published in the summer, that is in the off-season and anonymously, to the surprise of all, the first edition sold out in five weeks; in late August, it was reprinted (more than two thousand copies), in October there was a third edition, in November the fourth, and it soon became an unexpected best-seller everywhere.

Its title, Waverley or ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, indicates a desire to romanticize a past period, the eighteenth century, which in Scotland was a time of turmoil and disasters; and although the idea of setting novels in the past had frequently been resorted to, such a technique had been employed as a simple narrative convention that provided the prestige of antiquity and seemed to allow greater licence. Thus, when Amadis of Gaul began by stating nothing less than ‘a few years after the Passion of our Redeemer and Saviour Jesus Christ’, this chronological reference, vague and far-off, had nothing to do with the content of the novel.

Instead, as from Waverley the past has been evoked by means of very specific historical factors, with a remarkable knowledge of the time and the country in which the action occurs, while respecting and extolling their peculiarities; and such descriptions also have a very clear purpose, to speak about the present through the past, something that has continued to form an integral element of this subgenre down to the present day: if one looks back to yesterday, it is to illuminate the present, to better understand and draw practical conclusions. In addition, Walter Scott revealed himself to be a very human writer, witty, skilful in intrigue, full of liveliness and colour, a superb novelist, which not even he himself realised he could be.

The first chapters of the book dated from nine years previously, but it was only in 1813 that he took the manuscript out of his drawers and finished his novel in a few months. It is not insignificant that this was the moment when, following Napoleon’s first fall, a new Europe was in the throes of being born, and knowledge and interpretation of the past appeared to be essential to shape the future. The Revolution and the Empire had turned the world upside down, and now it was a matter of rebuilding it, learning from what had taken place. It would seem as if the nineteenth century was just waiting for Scott, and no other, a Scotsman of those times, born in the south in the borderlands with England, an urban man who had received higher education, in love with the traditions of Scotland but also very attentive to developments abroad, as evidenced by his youthful translations of Goethe and Burger, who were all the literary rage.

He was an individual that was in the middle, heir to a very English evolutionary tradition, which had had a revolution ahead of its times in the seventeenth century, and which had calmly weathered the storm that had just ravaged Europe, providing him with a most dispassionate observation post. He was someone that felt nostalgia for the old Scotland of the clans, but understood the need for progress that was to make it disappear. And that runs through his novels, the harmony of apparently contrary elements, which had caused countless bloody wars, destruction, abuse, injuries and death. In a short time, this educated, conciliatory, humble, kind man, old-fashioned in many ways even in his own time, became one of the most extraordinary and influential innovators in the history of literature.

Waverley is set, as Rob Roy (1818) was later to be, in the context of the risings in favour of Scottish national peculiarities, a cause which flew the banner of the Jacobites, heirs to and supporters of the Stuart monarchy. The clash between the archaic, decaying indigenous culture and the more civilized foreign one imposed by brute force is a conflict between two ways of life: a barbaric, heroic one rooted in its traditions, pretending to be timeless, and another more advanced one, with a new mentality that was gradually being irresistibly imposed. Scott understood both of them, and he concluded that they needed each other and were destined to merge in a way that sought to be harmonious.

The same situation is exemplified in Ivanhoe (1819), although in this case a medieval setting was chosen: the struggle between two peoples and two cultures that coexisted, the Saxons, the country’s original inhabitants, now oppressed and despised, and the Normans, foreign invaders (to the extent that their language was French), masters of the situation, stronger, better educated and organized. With centuries’ hindsight, we know that this opposition was not final, since the two groups would eventually fuse, giving rise to modern England, in the same way that their languages are also mixed to form modern English (the language question is the most obvious record of this amalgam, and it is no coincidence that Ivanhoe starts by addressing this issue).

And with sympathetic historical relativism, neither did Scott fail to emphasize that positions can be reversed; so, in The Pirate (1821), we are told how in the northern islands of Scotland, the Shetlands, the Scots were foreign intruders providing progress, while destroying the peaceful patriarchal life of the natives of Norwegian origin. History, with its lessons dressed in picturesque local colour, of which he was the great discoverer, is embodied in this way in a series of epoch-making novels that began a fashion that has proved so lasting that it is still the rage in the early twenty-first century.

In 1815 –the year of Waterloo– three thousand copies of Guy Mannering were sold in twenty-four hours, and five thousand more in three months; of The Antiquary (1816) six thousand copies in its first week. The success was overwhelming, and Scott quickly became a model for many novelists around the world. There was soon a multitude of historical novels in the most diverse languages: the Italian Manzoni with The Betrothed (1825), concerning Lombardy in the time of Spanish domination; the Frenchman Vigny with The Fifth of March (1826) –the France of Louis XIII–; the American Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), within the context of the Indian wars; the French author Victor Hugo wrote his famous Notre Dame of Paris (1831), with its medieval setting; the Englishman Bulwer Lytton evoked The Last Days of Pompeii (1834); the Russian Gogol in Taras Bulba (1835) spoke of the former Ukrainian Cossacks, and Pushkin, also Russian, published The Captain’s Daughter (1836) –the eighteenth-century Pugachev uprising– and many more.

To stress the importance of the phenomenon, it should not be forgotten that two of the century’s best novelists also dealt with this form: the original title of the Balzac’s Human Comedy was The Chouans (1829), on the civil wars of the French Revolution, a work, thus, narrating events that took place shortly beforehand, very much in the line of Walter Scott’s own works: the struggle between savage Breton guerrillas defending the cause of absolute monarchy (in a way similar to the Jacobites) and the soldiers of the Republic, a symbol of progress comparable with the troops of English King George II. An episode of terror (1841), in which Napoleon himself appears, is another of Balzac’s sorties into historical narrative, in this case mixed with a detective story. Similarly, Dickens also bequeathed us a splendid historical novel, Barnaby Rudge (1841), which was set at the time of the anti-Catholic riots of 1780.

In the case of Spain, there were thirty-odd novels of this genre, generally speaking long forgotten and of poor quality. Literary handbooks recommend The Lord of Bembibre (1844), by Gil y Carrasco, with a theme, that of the Templars, which has recently given rise to so many cheap attention-seeking novels. However, the initiator of this trend was the Catalan Lopez Soler, an imitator of Scott, with Los bandos de Castilla (The Factions of Castile, 1830). Even Larra, with El doncel de Don Enrique el Doliente (Prince Henry the Sufferer’s Squire)and Espronceda in Sancho Saldaña, both of which date from 1834, were tempted by the historical novel, but with very little success.

However, among all Romantic works, one has to highlight a masterpiece to which readers have been loyal for a century and a half, not so much for its literary virtues, but out of sympathy for its characters and the tremendous interest of the plot: The Three Musketeers (1844). Set in the turbulent France of Louis XIII, it is the peak example of this narrative category, which took many liberties with history (according to Dumas, ‘nothing more than a nail on which I hang my novels’), but which attained a success without possible comparison. Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne prolonged the adventures of D’Artagnan and his friends the Musketeers, who are still part of popular mythology.

Enthusiasm for the historical novel is a characteristic of romantics; they all ask: what were we like?, and why?, what have we inherited? And the answers have much to do with explanations relating to the situation of their time. They are often unscrupulous, rather superficial stories, and both then and now what counts is the fictional value; the reconstruction of a bygone age can be more or less faithful, be more or less successful, but the essential aspect, what makes this or that novel lasting is that it transcends the historical setting in the service of literature. We easily forgive Dumas for misrepresenting the facts and figures at his convenience; what does it matter if the result is that his books are still read enthusiastically? Those who want to learn history should turn to historians (also often victims of prejudice); novels either really are novels or they are doomed to oblivion.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Romanticism lost impetus, the genre became less impulsive and passionate, more responsible; novels were obsessively documented, sought archaeological fidelity and also polished their prose for the purpose of art. The Carthage of Salammbô (1862), by the Frenchman Flaubert, is a good example of both concerns, yet, as always, it dissimulates some anachronistic intentions: any description of the past inevitably refers to the concerns of the contemporary world for which the work is written. The Englishman Thackeray, in Vanity Fair (1847), whose action takes place at the time of Waterloo, and Henry Esmond (1852), a century earlier, are also good examples of intelligent, careful stories.

To the theme of ancient times belongs The Romance of a Mummy (1858), by the Frenchman Gautier, although the favourite subjects were stories about the Romans, sometimes tinged with religious exemplariness; such was the case of Fabiola or the Church of the Catacombs (1854), by the English Cardinal Wiseman (although he was born in Seville), or Ben Hur (1880), by the American Lewis Wallace. However, these were all surpassed by the best-seller Quo Vadis? (1895), by the Polish Sienkiewicz, which, in the twentieth century, like the abovementioned novels, was to benefit from visually striking film adaptations that would magnify them. Moreover, swashbuckling adventures such as The Hunchback (1858), by the Frenchman Feval, still had a large following, and Balzac’s theme of the Chouans inspired Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Chevalier Destouches (1864), perhaps not a great novel, but very evocative of the period.

Novels of broader scope included, for example, The Scarlet Letter (1850), by the American Hawthorne, an intense drama in a seventeenth-century New England Puritan context; Ninety-Three (1874), by Victor Hugo, on the French Revolution; Romola (1863), by the English female author George Eliot, which takes us to fifteenth-century Florence. Or, in Spain, the long series of National Episodes (as from 1873), by means of which Pérez Galdós aimed to tell all his readers the whole history of his country in the course of the century. In The Red Badge of Courage (1895) the American Crane took the risk of dealing with a still sensitive topic, the Civil War, while the Italian Nievo wrote his Confessions of an Octogenarian (1858), and the German poet Mörike gave us his delicious Mozart’s Journey to Prague (1856).

Above all we must mention more specifically War and Peace (1864-1869), by Tolstoy, undoubtedly one of the best novels of all time, which admirably fuses the Napoleonic wars and the invasion of Russia, with family chronicles, intimate dramas and eternal problems. A unique novel that uses a historical framework to give us a narrative of enduring value. The individual and the group had never been harmonized in so deep and intense a way.

The twentieth century opens with Buddenbrooks (1901), by the German Thomas Mann, the story of a bourgeois dynasty in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck; Mann himself was later to explore other matters concerning the past in Lotte in Weimar (1939), on a sentimental episode in the life of Goethe. But, for the wider audience –inevitably with the invaluable help of the cinema– the genre is identified with novels of incidents and adventures, usually of only relative literary merit. Nobody will forget Gone With the Wind (1936), by the American Margaret Mitchell, the Civil War seen from the defeated South, The Four Feathers (1902), by the Englishman Mason, on the Sudan campaign, or The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), by Baroness Orczy, with its backdrop of the French Revolution. As for the Finn Waltari, with Sinuhe the Egyptian (1945), he also contributed to the rise of the historical novel.

Two of the most read books of our own time had greater ambitions: Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), by the Belgian Marguerite Yourcenar, focuses on the personality of the Roman emperor, and The Leopard (1958), by the Italian –although perhaps better called Sicilian– Tomasi di Lampedusa, is set in Italy in the early stages of reunification. Doctor Zhivago (1957), by the Russian Pasternak, on the Russian revolution, was also one of the most read stories of the twentieth century. Other not so famous works should also be mentioned; in Spain, for example, the twenty-two volumes of Memorias de un hombre de acción (Memoirs of a Man of Action, from 1913), by Baroja, on the country’s chequered history in the nineteenth century, or Las tragedias grotescas (The Grotesque Tragedies,1907), by the same author, which is set in Paris during the Commune. Valle-Inclan, with his characteristic stylistic exercises, also contributed two trilogies: Las guerras carlistas (The Carlist Wars)and El ruedo ibérico (The Iberian Circle).

The enormous number of contemporary historical novels makes it inevitable that any list omits works for purely subjective reasons; every reader will want to cite their favourite books, yet we lack sufficient perspective. The so-called chronicles by the Frenchman Giono, such as The Horseman on the Roof (1951), deserve to be remembered, as does Explosion in a Cathedral (1962), by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier –echoes of the French Revolution in the Caribbean–; others might be inclined to include a novel of the same year, Bomarzo, by the Argentinian Mujica Lainez, who paints a glowing picture of the Italian Renaissance. I, Claudius (1934), by the Englishman Graves, belongs to the inexhaustible theme of the Romans, like The Ides of March (1948), by the American Wilder. The Austrian Werfel converted the apparitions of Lourdes into a novel –The Song of Bernardette (1941)–, and religious themes also appear in The Song at the Scaffold (1931), by the German Gerturd von Le Fort, about Carmelite nuns guillotined during the French Revolution, and Barabbas (1950), by the Swede Lagerkvist.

The Spanish Civil War and World War II, in which, in the course of time, literary recreation has replaced personal testimony, deserve a separate chapter. These constitute two large groups of novels, offering a form of literature that is both passionate and irregular in quality, usually based on personal experience. In the case of the Spanish Civil War, Man’s Hope (1937), by French Malraux, or Madrid, de Corte a checa (Madrid, from Court to Jail, 1938), by the Spanish Foxá, cannot be regarded as historical novels, but as from the 1950s (with Uncertain Glory (1956) by Joan Sales) it is more appropriate to describe them as such. And the same could be said about World War II. Kapputt (1944), by the Italian Malaparte, is a literary report. Stalingrad (1946), by the German Pliever, or The Naked and the Dead (1948), by the American Mailer, on the war in the Pacific, and From Here to Eternity (1951), by his compatriot James Jones –Pearl Harbor in the days of bombing– are still very close to the events they narrate. La Place de l’Etoile (1968), by the Frenchman Modiano, on Paris under the occupation, is, however, an imaginary story.

However, the passage of time makes all novels seem historical because of their distance. Jane Austen has come to seem as historical to us as Dumas’ reconstructions; the past is by definition something remote, and for today’s readers the distance that can separate the writer from his subject tends to blur details. The impossible dream of living in past times, rubbing shoulders with Nero or the Man in the Iron Mask, works like a magic spell that does not pay attention to details that are more or less plausible, and for two centuries it has wielded real fascination.

With respect to recent decades, the descendants of Walter Scott have degenerated into a novelistic avalanche of industrial proportions; every year thousands of historical novels (on the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Cathars, Templars, Inquisitors, etc. ending at the Nazi concentration camps), of very doubtful quality and craving to become best-sellers on the basis of their scandalous contents, are published. The genre is, therefore, in good health, even if its procedures are not particularly sophisticated. Whatever the case, this is a clear sign that in our rapid, disconcerting and often threatening times, people fear the present, and the past is seen as a comfortable refuge that can be easily adapted to whatever may suit us.


By Carlos Pujol Jaumandreu (1936-2012), writer, literary critic, and translator.

An Academic Text on Historical Novel (to Download)