The Historical Novel: A Definition

What exactly is a historical novel? Much has been said about the subject: some say it has to be at least 50 years in the past, others that it must happen before the author’s lifetime, and others again say that any story set in the past, no matter how long ago, is historical fiction. From my own research I have developed the following definition:North_PineA historical novel should be set in a time beyond the direct experience of the author and the majority of readers. It is only through a distant perspective of the past and the consequent objectivity, or awareness of difference that this allows, that a work can be called a historical novel. The historical novel’s retrospective nature, that bridges two separate periods in time, and the difficulty found in consulting archives, set it apart from contemporary novels written from personal imagination, experience or memory. Critics are united in their view that to be authentic, historical fiction must also be based on genuine research and accurately depict the period it is set in, within the confines of the known historical record. Stories that do not engage a definite historical content/context are not historical novels. The historical novel is a hybrid with the tension between fact and fiction creating historical awareness in the reader through actively engaging with unfamiliar themes, ideas and settings in an ongoing process. Historical fiction educates us about people and places of the past, their lives, their struggles and their customs. What we learn through reading about the past can lead to a reassessment of our present values and our place in society because they are cast in light of a different social context.

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