Origins of the Historical Novel

The IliadHomer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (eighth century BC) were the first written narratives in Western culture and marked the transition from the oral epic to literary forms from which would ultimately stem the novel. In these works, fact and fiction blend in a marriage of history and myth passed on down through the ages. From these common beginnings factual and fictional writing emerged into separate forms before eventually coming together again in the novel.

Factual and fictional writing began going their separate ways in the fifth century BC with Herodotus’s account of the Greco-Persian wars in The Histories. The separation is complete with the empirical writings of Thucydides whose rationalism was not to be equalled until the seventeenth century. The fourth century BC was critical in the development of the historical novel. In his Cyropedia, historian Xenophon mixes fact and fiction in his depiction of a historical figure.

Some scholars argue that Roman literary theory put a deliberate end to the development of the historical narrative as a form of literature. Empiricists insisted on facts and objectivity to the detriment of a narrative based in reality; as a result historical writing became a dry affair with little attraction for the lay person. However, fiction continued to develop in the form of the Greek romance. Marked by a highly stylised plot and little attention to history, the romance became popular throughout the Mediterranean region, and later had a significant influence on the development of the novel.

The dominant literary texts throughout the Middle Ages were religious while secular writers concentrated on poetry, drama and especially allegory. It suffices here to mention such important works as the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the French classic La Chanson de Roland and the Icelandic family sagas among many others. The thirteenth century Icelandic sagas are important because they are a marriage of history and romance and therefore a precursor to the novel.

d_quixoteA work that did have a significant impact on the later development of the historical novel in Europe was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605). The story is about a deluded landowner who sets out as a knight on a quest to rescue a maiden in distress. In his insanity, Don Quixote sees windmills as attacking knights and a donkey as a warhorse. Perhaps most importantly, Don Quixote popularised prose writing from which the novel subsequently evolved.

The first English novels, for example Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe(1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), differed from the allegory or romance by accentuating realism and the development of character in a social context. The latter half of the eighteenth century saw the emergence of the Gothic novel which is often set in the Middle Ages and deals with horror, mystery and terror in a dark form of historical fiction. One example is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, often considered to be the first of the genre; the novel is presented as a translation of ancient texts, a real archival document in its own right. The aim of the Gothic novel is to use our preconceptions of what was supposedly a terrifying era as the stage on which indescribable horrors can manifest to terrorise our modern sensitivities.

waverley scottThe historical novel had its origins in ancient times and continued to develop through the ages, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that it became established as a popular genre. Most critics regard Scott’s Waverley (published anonymously in 1814) as the earliest example of the historical novel, to a large part due to its widespread popularity and ensuing influence on the novel form. This work of fiction was based on in-depth research that Scott included as notes covering ballads, poetry, culture, politics, historical events and more.

Andrew Hook, in the introduction to the 1972 edition of Waverley, claims the book and later works by Scott played a crucial role in establishing the novel as the predominant form of Western narrative literature for the last 200 years. Scott’s novels had an unprecedented influence on Western readers that has not been seen since. Driven by a renewed interest in the customs, characters and cultures of the past and new technology in printing, the public consumed Scott’s historical fiction with a fervour hard to imagine in today’s society. Hook argues that Scott’s work saw the birth of the historical novel as a new literary genre which rapidly claimed a place as one of the most popular forms of the novel.

Waverley’s perceived authenticity and writing style revolutionised the novel’s image, gaining it much authority and reputation. Waverley also had a significant influence on the way the world saw Scotland. Scott’s depiction of Scotland’s history, its culture and people, inflamed the imagination of his readers to the point that it became increasingly recognised as a land of romance and adventure.

To sum up, both historical and fictional writing share common origins in Homer’s epics. Over the years, their paths separated with the first historical writing appearing in the fifth century BC. Once seen as an art, history stagnated in Roman times while fiction continued to develop, culminating in the novel form in the eighteenth century. Although there were precedents as early as the fourth century BC, the historical novel came into its own with the appearance of Waverley in 1814. The unprecedented popularity of Scott’s historical novels established the novel as the predominant form of narrative literature in the West.


Tales of the South Pacific

 Tales of the S PMy partner Rose and I will soon be on our way to the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu for a short stay accompanied by a group of Francophiles. One interesting fact about Santo – as it is known by the locals – is that James A. Michener was stationed there during World War Two and the island is the locale depicted, albeit fictitiously, in his Pulitzer Prize (1948) winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, which later became a musical hit on Broadway for many years.

Michener was born in New York City on the third of February 1907. As a teenager, he hitched lifts and rode boxcars across America on a voyage of discovery and learning through his many experiences taking odd-jobs such as working in carnival shows. In later life he also travelled widely for the research of his novels.

In 1929, Michener graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania with degrees in English and Psychology. He then travelled and studied in Europe for two years before teaching high school English in Pennsylvania. He earned a Master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado where he then taught for several years. During World War Two he was a naval historian in the South Pacific Ocean and held the rank of Lieutenant. His notes and experiences in the Pacific formed the basis for his first novel Tales of the South Pacific published in 1947. The following is the blurb from the back of the book:

Enter the exotic world of the South Pacific, with its endless ocean, the tiny specks of coral we call islands, the coconut palms, the waves breaking into spray against the reefs, and the full moon rising behind the volcanoes.

Meet the men and women caught up in the drama of a big war. The young Marine who falls madly in love with a beautiful Tonkinese girl. Nurse Nellie and her French planter, Emile De Becque. The soldiers, sailors, and nurses playing at war and waiting for love in a tropic paradise.

Most of Michener’s works are historical novels renowned for the thorough research that is the foundation for his epic stories which sweep through the generations to the background of world history. He has published over four dozen books including: The Source, Hawaii¸ Centennial, Sayonara, Poland, Texas, The Covenant­ , The Drifters . . .

Espiritu SantoMap_OC-Melanesia_Revised_by_Tom_Emphasizing_Vanuatu

Santo is the largest of Vanuatu’s 83 islands which are inhabited by the Melanesian Ni Van people. Pottery dated to 1400 BC and brought to the islands by the Lapita has been found on Malo Island off the southern end of Santo. Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quires was searching for the southern continent of Terra Australis when he sailed into Big Bay in 1606 and named the land Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo. Captain James Cook was on his second voyage in 1774 when he called the archipelago the New Hebrides, which was changed to Vanuatu on the country gaining its independence in 1980. From 1906, Vanuatu was governed by a French/English Condominium which meant two of everything: laws, including road rules; police forces and prisons; currencies; languages; health and education. During the Blackbirding period from the 1870s until it was outlawed in 1904, thousands of islanders were coerced into labouring on the Queensland sugar cane plantations. Under the threat of Japanese invasion in 1942 the Americans stationed 50,000 men in Luganville on Santo to support three bomber airports and the navy port. Some 500,000 Allied servicemen passed through the islands during the war.

CHAMP BEACHChampagne Beach, Santo

A Man of Conviction: John Dunmore Lang

What follows is a short section that I deleted from Turrwan in a bid to push the story along and not be distracted by too much historical detail. The passage is recounted by Tom Petrie.


“There are sixty licensed hotels and over a hundred illicit grog sellers in Sydney town, it’s outrageous!” Lang had once preached to my father. “It is our moral duty to stem the tide of debauchery that plagues the colonies,” he proclaimed. I met him JDLangoften when I was older and I can imagine the stiff back, the chest puffed out, head held high, hands grasping the lapels of his vest. He had a strong yet gentle face, the slightly pointed nose adorned with steel-rimmed spectacles that seemed to magnify his implacable gaze. His brown hair had receded from the expanse of his forehead, and though short, was surprisingly unruly for such a dapper man. Frail-looking sideburns dived behind the stiff white collar of his shirt, framing cherubic lips and a stubborn chin.

Lang had ensured that conditions on board the Stirling Castle were of a much higher standard than was generally the case for the long journey to the antipodes. Hygiene was important, so was instruction. Throughout the five months of the voyage, Lang’s four assistants, all clergymen, organised the men into classes that covered mathematics, economy and self-improvement, while assuring religious instruction and prayer on the Sabbath. As a measure of the men’s commitment to Lang’s strict moral principles, many of them, father included, signed a pledge of temperance.

The other guests were Lang, Wilhelmina, who was a devout Presbyterian missionary and would marry Lang when they later stopped over at the Cape; at this stage, the Reverend was still wooing her. Beside Lang sat his master builder George Ferguson and his wife Margaret.

The Reverend Lang had arrived in Sydney in 1824 and built the Scots Church in the notorious Rocks area, whose narrow, dusty, ill-lit streets were infested with the worst kind of characters who would slit your throat for a penny. Lang certainly didn’t lack courage or conviction and would need these qualities to face the controversy he stirred with the construction of his college.

Before that though, in October 1831 when the Stirling Castle docked in Sydney Harbour, the emigrants were greeted with enthusiasm by the press, with the Sydney Gazette claiming it was “the most important importation the colony has ever received.”

Lang’s project came under criticism from emancipists, mostly of Irish and English descent; they had little in common with the skilled Scottish craftsmen who were much better educated than the majority of Sydney’s citizens and regarded themselves somewhat further up the social ladder than the ex-convicts and their descendants. The emancipists wanted to build their own college but couldn’t get funds or labour from the government and were therefore jealous of Lang. Groups of surly locals often sneered and even spat at the men from the Stirling Castle as they walked from their homes to work on the college. Father remembered one day when one loud-mouth had shouted: “There go those bloody emigrants who have come out to take the country from us.” It could not have been easy for my father whose humanitarian instincts would have perhaps sympathised with the plight of those who had lost their jobs to the Scottish contingent.

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