Narrative is the Essence of History: The History of the Historical Novel
The historical novel has had a very interesting history itself. During the 19th century the historical novels of Scott, Hugo, Thackeray, Dickens, Tolstoy and a host of other writers enjoyed both popular success and critical admiration. Success has never really died out, but admiration has been another matter. During the 20th century, historical fiction began to be disparaged by critics who looked down on the genre and its elements of romance, adventure and swashbuckling. This disparagement reached such a pitch that Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius and Claudius the God, felt compelled to say that he only wrote these novels because of pressing financial needs. As the century wore on the genre began to move into a variety of interesting ways and reached even larger audiences.
Some critics have continued to look down on the genre, but a growing number of historical novels have begun to receive wide critical praise. For example, the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize was Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, a historical novel depicting the life of Thomas Cromwell. This roundtable will explore the historical novel through a variety of different perspectives, including but not restricted to: the reception of historical fiction; historical fiction and the role of historical context; historiographic theory and historical fiction; literary theory and historical fiction; the line between fact and fiction; calls for reappraisal of historical novelists who have not received their critical due; "serious" historical fiction and "popular" historical fiction; recent subgenres within historical fiction, such as historical whodunits, alternative history, historical fantasy, etc.
The Roman historian Ronald Syme once wrote that narrative is the essence of history. What is the essence of historical fiction? Why does it continue to be such a popular and resilient genre? What is the history of historical fiction? What is its future?
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