In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Historical Novel

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Texts
  • Anglo-Saxons and the Norman Conquest
  • Medieval
  • Civil War to Restoration
  • Children’s Literature

Victorian Literature The Historical Novel
Isobel Hurst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0098


No student of the Victorian historical novel can fail to observe the divergence between the genre’s critical acclaim and popularity in its own time and its relative obscurity now. Charles Reade, author of the acclaimed 1861 best seller The Cloister and the Hearth, is far from the only historical novelist whose reputation with critics and readers is far below that accorded by his peers. William Harrison Ainsworth, R. D. Blackmore, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, G. A. Henty, and Charles Kingsley are among the small number of writers whose work has attracted some scholarly notice, while best sellers such as G. P. R. James, G. J. Whyte-Melville, Emma Marshall, A. J. Church, and the prolific E. Everett Green remain largely unexamined. Even critically favored historical novels by canonical authors, such as Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852), Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and George Eliot’s Romola (1862–1863), have frequently been considered less compelling than the authors’ other novels. The importance and diversity of the genre in its own time is clearly indicated by the variety of authors who attempted at least one historical novel: Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charlotte M. Yonge, Walter Pater, George Gissing, Wilkie Collins, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle. From Antiquity to the French Revolution, novelists attempted to fictionalize almost every century. Narratives cluster particularly in ancient Rome, at the Norman Conquest, in mediaeval and Renaissance Britain and Europe, and around the Jacobite rebellions and other 18th-century uprisings. Against all of these backgrounds appear characters who encounter historical celebrities or stumble across major events. It is less for the portrayal of the past than for the remedies prescribed for contemporary problems that critics have chosen to explore these fictions. Arguments about freedom and democracy are traced back to the Anglo-Saxons or the Wars of the Roses, helping to reinforce the sense of national identity, or to underline Britain’s imperial destiny. Writers such as Eliza Lynn and George Eliot drew attention to the constraints and judgments Victorian women were subject to, attacking hypocrisies thinly disguised in historical costume. The redoubtable clerics Kingsley, Newman, and Wiseman conducted their public struggle over Protestant and Catholic ideologies through novels set in ancient Egypt and Rome. Such weighty themes, and the extensive research displayed in these narratives, may be responsible for the decline of the realist and didactic historical novel in the 1860s. This was followed by the resurgence of popular historical romance in the 1880s, focusing on adventures and heroic masculinity and providing a conservative counterbalance to fin-de-siècle decadence.

General Overviews

The success of Scott’s Waverley novels is a crucial factor in the outpouring of Victorian historical fiction, as authors such as Dickens, Yonge, and Eliot were influenced by Scott. Lukács 1962, Duncan 1992, Maxwell 2009, and Bragg 2016 consider Scott as a key figure in the development of the genre. Duncan focuses on the relationship between the historical novel and the invention of a British national culture. Bragg argues that the historical novel evolved away from realism and toward other modes such as the Gothic through the representation of landscape. Maxwell sees English historical fiction as a minor genre and argues that Scott’s influence is more potent in Europe, particularly in France. Hamnett 2011 also places English historical fiction in the context of European developments in the genre. Cassidy 2023 examines the representation of history in Victorian fiction set in the recent past. Although scholars have criticized Lukács for privileging Marxist theories of class struggle over the recognition of a distinct historical context for the novels he reads, his study remains essential reading. Informed by Lukács and more recent theorists, Hughes 1993 provides analyses of political, class, and gender ideologies in popular fiction. De Groot 2010 is an introductory work for students and a general survey of historical fiction.

  • Bragg, Tom. Space and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century British Historical Novel. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315610092

    Argues that Scott influenced the historical novel through the imaginative excess of his representation of space, particularly natural landscapes. Includes chapters on Ainsworth and Bulwer-Lytton.

  • Cassidy, Camilla. Twilight Histories: Nostalgia and the Victorian Historical Novel. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2023.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004526532

    An illuminating study of mid-Victorian novels of the recent past—the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Examines the nostalgia caused by geographical and historical displacement and the readability of the past in novels by Gaskell, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, and Hardy.

  • De Groot, Jerome. The Historical Novel. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2010.

    Succinct introduction to the genre from Routledge’s New Critical Idiom series. Surveys primary and secondary literature from the early nineteenth century to the present. De Groot pays more attention to the Victorian period as a setting for recent historical fiction than to Victorian novels.

  • Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511627514

    Engaging analysis of the relationship between Romanticism and the literary genre of romance as the art form for identifying a British national culture, a middle-class appropriation of the popular oral tradition. Examines the parallel development of nation-state and individual hero in the Waverley novels and Victorian successors.

  • Hamnett, Brian. The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Representations in History and Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199695041.001.0001

    Investigates the “European phenomenon” of the historical novel as a genre in relation to historiography and the rise of history as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century. Explores works from several countries and focuses on novels that highlight the difficulties of combining history and fiction, including George Eliot’s Romola.

  • Hughes, Helen. The Historical Romance. London: Routledge, 1993.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203168028

    Traces a shift in the preoccupations of the popular historical romance from late Victorian adventure to 20th-century love stories. Offers detailed consideration of lower-middle-class readership of periodicals and cheap editions. Identifies important motifs of the genre and the techniques used by novelists to create a sense of historical authenticity.

  • Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Translated by Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell. London: Merlin, 1962.

    Influential Marxist account of writers who represent the 19th-century development of the genre. Argues that awareness of historical change was stimulated by the French Revolution and its aftermath and that the new historical consciousness reflected in Scott’s novels began to weaken around mid-century as the bourgeoisie became increasingly reactionary.

  • Maxwell, Richard. The Historical Novel in Europe, 1650–1950. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Wide-ranging comparative study that traces the historical novel to an origin considerably before Scott. Argues that the 19th-century English historical novel is isolated and less successful than the “Franco-Scottish” tradition and is at its best when written for or about children.

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