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“A "hybrid" of fiction and history”

Since historical qualities were widespread in their novels, Englishmen of the early and mid-Victorian decades defined the historical novel proper in terms of a few prominent, readily identifiable historical characteristics. Like most recent critics, Victorian reviewers rooted their conception of this genre in their ideas about the qualities that made the Waverley novels new and unique in literary history. In the first place, like modern analysts of the genre, many Victorian readers associated "historical novels" with settings in a fairly remote past. But for most Victorian novelists and their readers, an even more important quality distinguishing novels in the Scott tradition from other fictions was the inclusion of actual "history" — the public persons, events, and situations that constituted the subject natter of the professional historian.

These two characteristics figure, for instance, in one reviewer’s explanation of the fictional form taken by Thackeray's The Virginians (1859):

The scene, as the title states, is laid in the last century, during the later years of George II, and the earlier years of George III. The manners, incidents, and costumes are of course those of the period in which the scene is laid, and some of the most eminent personages of the time, social, political, military and literary, are introduced, and blended in the action and dialogue with the fictitious characters. [Smith]

On the basis of these attributes, the reviewer—the Edinburgh’s Goldwin Smith—concluded: "’The Virginians' thus takes its place beside 'Esmond' as one of Mr. Thackeray’s historical novels, which stand contrasted with his novels in the proper sense somewhat as Shakespeare's 'histories' do with his other dramas." That Smith considers the portrayal of historical matters — "manners" and "customs," "incidents" and "eminent personages" — even more essential than the choice of a "bygone time" is suggested both by his allusion to Shakespeare (most of whose "other dramas” are also set in "bygone times") and by a later statement that "the name 'historical novel' is most strictly applicable" to works in which "the main actions and the principal characters are historical." The Virginians, which does not meet this strict definition of the genre, nevertheless fits the reviewer's own looser conception of historical fiction as "a hybrid sort of composition, between fiction and history."

Although such explicit definitions are rare in Victorian criticism, a considerable amount of indirect evidence — ranging from subtitles and passing remarks to novels and novelists introduced as illustrations — indicates that most English writers and readers of the period between 1830 and 1870 defined the "historical novel" proper in terms of the two characteristics Smith relies on — distance in time and the interweaving of history — but like him, gave sufficient precedence to the latter criterion to allow the inclusion of some novels with contemporary settings. The Victorians' view that the genre pioneered by Scott was above all a "hybrid" of fiction and history shaped not only their perception of individual historical novels but also their expectations of and responses to this special fictional form.

The Novel and the Romance

The inclination in Victorian criticism to think of prose fiction as a single, uniform genre, ignoring earlier distinctions between the realistic novel and the imaginative romance, produced a fairly consistent definition of the historical novel. True, Victorian critics tended to favor the term "historical romance” — a phrase coined by some of Scott's reviewers—when describing novels written in the tradition of Waverley. For instance, most of the of historical fiction that appeared before 1870 have the word "romance," rather than the word "novel," in their titles. In addition, there seems to have been some tendency to prefer the term "historical novel" for works with fairly recent settings, and to use the term "historical romance" for works in which the setting was quite distant in time or place, or in which the historical situation predominated over the fictional plot. Nonetheless, Victorian readers rarely distinguished among the various terms by which they referred to truly "historical” fictions, "historical novel," "historical romance," "romance,' "historical tales" and "historical fiction." Generally these were used interchangeably — often within the same review — to refer to works that represented the "historical" subspecies of the "novel" genre. Since this fictional form does not appear to have been further subdivided by roost Victorian writers, we can find evidence for the period's definition of historical fiction in statements involving any of these terms.


[Smith, Goldwin]. “The Virginians.” Edinburgh Review. 110 (October 1859): 43S, 439-41, 452.

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Last modified 15 December 2017