Scholars note many factors that complicate our definitions of historical fiction, creating an “inevitable friction between artistic composition and historical verisimilitude” that must be reconciled with (Hatavara). As historical fiction is somewhat of a hybrid genre, it is difficult to define. The best way to approach the issue is to discuss all possible definitions in context of the difficulties inherent in the effort of defining historical fiction. Essentially, historical fiction blends fact and fictional narrative while referencing history.
Origins of Historical Fiction as a Genre
Historical fiction as a genre has its origins in late 17th-century France as an effort to distinguish fiction from factual history. This produced the “historical novel.” In some ways, this genre was a means of justifying historical records whose conventions might read as inappropriate to a contemporary audience. Revisions of these histories in novel forms often accompanied rhetorical proof of their historical foundations such as manifestos, bibliographies, or prefaces (Maxwell).
Some of the first historical novels to emerge were French accounts of rebellions against the monarchy from 1648-53. These presented a romanticized narrative of the historical events (Maxwell). Sir Walter Scott may be credited as the first author of historical fiction in English literature with his depiction of the legendary Robin Hood in the historical context of conflict between King Richard I and John of England (Baker 1). These early historical novels present a strong sense of place, emphasizing geography. Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, for example, feature travel narratives of Scotland (Maxwell).
Historical Fiction and Past Contemporary Fiction
A good starting point in defining historical fiction is to clarify what it is not. The genre does not include classics dealing with contemporary settings of the author’s time, such as Oliver Twist, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Baker 1). However, some of the classic authors of the previously mentioned works did write novels that would have qualified as historical fiction in their time, including A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, and War and Peace (2).
However, in a contemporary setting, each of these titles would now fall under the category of “classics,” all written long ago, each time period barely distinguishable from another in the eyes of a modern audience. If we are to examine the function of historical fiction, it may be that historical fiction as we know it can only serve its purpose when the work of historical fiction was written very recently. For example, we distinguish S.E. Hiinton’s The Outsiders as contemporary fiction because the setting is intended as contemporary with its publication in 1967. Deborah Wiles’s Countdown, meanwhile, is a clear work of historical fiction because its setting in 1962 represents a culture and way of life much different than the time of its publication in 2010.
Often, explanations of historical fiction begin with a working definition that does not claim any authoritative, all-encompassing definition. For example, Jennifer Baker establishes a working definition as follows in her reader’s guide to the genre: “For our purposes, historical fiction is defined as novels (and sometimes short stories) with settings from a historical period at least fifty years prior to the work’s publication or occurring before the author’s memory” (1). Baker’s definition acknowledges its limitations by specifying that the definition is “for our purposes,” which would be to find a simple, universal definition of the genre while acknowledging that this definition is problematic.
And we see the difficulties inherent in Baker’s definition. This assumption equates all historical fiction with the author’s age instead of the text itself. In recent years, it is not uncommon for contemporary titles set in the 1980s and 90s to make reviewers’ “historical fiction” lists, particularly in the Young Adult genre. Some of these titles include Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park (published 2013, set in 1986-87) and Jessie Ann Foley’s The Carnival at Bray (published 2014, set in 1993). In these titles, the chronological setting is chosen for specific purposes. Jessie Ann Foley explains that she wrote the novel and chose a setting in the past in order to create a particular plot function, particularly a sense of isolation only possible in “the absence of social media.” Other titles, such as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, further challenge reviewers’ classifications. While the novel is set in the 1950s and published was in 2015, it was written in its time period as a contemporary work and never published because of an editor’s suggestion to rewrite the manuscript as what became the 1960 publication To Kill a Mockingbird (Bruinius). Ultimately, there is no fool-proof, authoritative definition to classify these outliers as historical fiction or not.
Contemporary Views on Historical Fiction
“ One characteristic that differentiates current historical fiction from that of the twentieth century is a modern perspective on history” (Baker 5). The 1998 ALAN Review cites the growing prominence of multiculturalism and its invitation to “reexamine our interpretations of history… addressing previously neglected past events or offering revised perspectives of them” (Brown). Hence historical fiction serves a purpose that contemporary literature of the era cannot, that of reexamining history. It calls into question the validity of previously accepted views and the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.
Conventions of historical fiction, formed from audience pressures, are especially prominent in young-adult literature. Historical or fictional characters must be carefully balanced between modern sensibilities and historical accuracy in order to elicit audience appeal. For example, writers of young adult historical fiction cannot adhere to accuracy in such a way as to use archaic vocabulary that would deter readers. Gender roles are another issue in young-adult historical fiction where historical “accuracy” must often be compromised by audience appeal and a characters capacity for likability (Brown).
Historical fiction performs its function by reexamining history through the lens of modernity, according to the era in which the author writes. For example, historical interpretations of the Revolutionary War written during the Vietnam War differed greatly from past portrayals of the American Revolution. The historicized fictional accounts lack definition of good or evil characters and present challenges to parental authority that was assumed in previous renditions of the Revolutionary War (Brown). Hence, historical fiction becomes more a means of understanding the present era than the past.
Baker, Jennifer S. The Readers’ Advisory Guide To Historical Fiction. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2015. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 May 2016.
Brown, Joanne, Ricki Ginsberg, and Danielle King. “Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults.” Ed. Wendy Glenn. The ALAN Review. 26 (1998): n. pag. Digital Library and Archives. Virginia Tech, 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 May 2016.
Bruinius, Harry. “The mystery around Harper Lee’s new old novel.” Christian Science Monitor 5 July 2015.Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 30 May 2016.
Hatavara, Mari. “Historical Fiction: Experiencing the Past, Reflecting History.” True Lies Worldwide Fictionality in Global Contexts (n.d.): n. pag.Stockholm University Library. University of Stockholm. Web. 16 May 2016.
Maxwell, Richard. “Historical Novel.” Encyclopedia of the Novel. Ed. Paul E. Schellinger, Christopher Hudson, and Marijke Rijsberman. Vol. 1. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998. N. pag. ProQuestLLC. Web. 30 May 2016.
Nünning, Ansgar. “Historical Writing.”Encyclopedia of the Novel. Ed. Paul E. Schellinger, Christopher Hudson, and Marijke Rijsberman. Vol. 1. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998. N. pag. ProQuestLLC. Web. 30 May 2016.