literature assignments





Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. An

essential element of historical fiction is that it pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other

details of the period depicted. Authors also frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in

these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their

environments. Works of historical fiction are sometimes criticized for lack of authenticity because of the

expectation for accurate period details. This tension between historical authenticity or historicity and

fiction frequently becomes a point of contention for readers and popular critics.

A Very Brief History

Historical fiction as a contemporary western literary genre has its foundations in the early 19th century.

Notable historical novels include the works of Sir Walter Scott and his contemporaries in other national

literatures such as the Frenchman Honore de Balzac, the American, James Fenimore Cooper and the

Russian, Leo Tolstoy. However, the melding of “historical” and “fiction” in individual works of literature

has a long tradition in most cultures - both Western traditions (as early as Ancient Greek and Roman

literature) as well as Eastern, in the form of oral and folk traditions which provided epics, novels, plays

and other fictional works describing history for contemporary audiences.

Before the 18th Century

Historical prose fiction has a long tradition in world literature.

• For example, three of the four classics of Chinese literature were set in the distant past: “Water

Margin” by Shi Nai’an; “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by Luo Guanzhong;, and “Journey to

the West” by Wu Cheng’en.

• Classical Greek literature examples include “The Illiad” by Homer.

• One of the earliest examples of the historical novel in Europe is ‘The Princess of Cleves” (1678), a

French novel thought to be written by Madame de Lafayette. This novel is considered by many

to be the first psychological novel.

19th Century

Historical fiction rose to prominence in Europe during the early 19th century as part of the Romantic

reaction to the Enlightenment, especially through the influence of Sir Walter Scott, whose works were

immensely popular throughout Europe. Scott is said to be the first fiction writer who saw history not just

as a convenient frame in which to stage a contemporary narrative, but rather as a distant social and

cultural setting. A few popular historical fiction writers and works of the period:

• In Scotland: Sir Walter Scott: “Waverly (1814); “Rob Roy” (1817)

• In England: Charles Dickens: “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859)

Nathaniel Hawthorne: “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)

• In France: Victor Hugo: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1831)

Alexandre Dumas: “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1844)

• In Italy: Alessandro Manzini: “The Betrothed” (1827)

• In America: James Fenimore Cooper: “The Last of the Mohicans” (1820)

• In Russia: Leo Tolstoy: “War & Peace” (1865)

20th Century

• In Germany: Thomas Mann: “Buddenbrooks” (1901)

• In Britain: Robert Graves: ‘I, Claudius” (1934)

• In Italy: Umberto Eco: “The Name of the Rose” (1980)

• In the U.S.: William Faulkner: “Absalom, Absalom” (1930)

A prominent subgenre within historical fiction is the children’s historical novel, often following a

pedagogical bent. A number of such works include elements of historical fantasy or time travel to facilitate

the transition between the contemporary world and the past. A couple of popular contemporary

historical fiction series would be: “American Girl Series” and “Magic Treehouse Series.” A prominent

award within children’s historical fiction is the “Scot O’Dell award for Historical Fiction.”

Characteristics of Historical Fiction

• Takes place in the present or in the recent past

• Characters are involved in events that could happen

• Characters live in places that could be or are real

• The characters seem like real people with real issues that are solved in a realistic way

• Class is closely studied – especially middle- class life

• The dialogue is believable

Popular Children’s Historical Fiction Novels from the Last 150 Years

• Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Bank (1935)

• Johnny Tremaine by Esther Haskins Forbes (1958)

• The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (1958))

• Sarah, Plain & Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (1985)

• Number The Stars by Lois Lowry (1989)

• The Watsons go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995)

• Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (1997)