Disputing the Past: Historical Fiction

  • Jeannette King
Part of the The History of British Women’s Writing book series (HBWW)


‘All novels called “historical novels” before the publication of Waverley [were] misnamed’: T.H. Lister’s claim, published in the influential Edinburgh Review in 1832, concerns not only genre but also implicitly gender.1 As Ina Ferris has argued, with Waverley Walter Scott was seen to restore masculinity to the novel, re-establishing fiction as a male domain and novel reading as a ‘manly practice’ (p. 80). In the process he also altered the ‘generic hierarchy’ (p. 1). Before Scott, reviewers regarded the predominantly female genre of fiction ‘confined’ to the private life, written for a predominantly female readership, as a degraded form compared to the eighteenth-century male canon. That view was perpetuated into the twentieth century, notably by Georg Lukács, whose book The Historical Novel (1962) also credited Scott with creating the genre. Scott’s characters, ‘in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces’, unlike novels which are ‘historical’ only in theme and costume.2 Suggesting that the ‘authenticity’ of Scott’s work derives not from the local colour of his descriptions but from his ability to make the reader ‘re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality’ (p. 42), Lukács emphasizes the novelist’s power to contribute to the reader’s understanding of history. By addressing serious political, economic, cultural, and sociological concerns, and using historical facts with accuracy, Scott established a new benchmark for realism; he, nevertheless, also showed a readiness, in Ferris’s words, to ‘interrogate official history’ (p. 197), through his focus on the experiences of individuals.


Woman Writer Historical Romance Historical Fiction Female Readership Victorian Period 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Quoted in Ina Ferris, The Achievement of Literary Authority: Gender, History and the Waverley Novels (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 7.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1983), p. 34.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Margaret Forster, Diary of an Ordinary Woman 1914–1995 (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 1, p. 7.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Jane Rogers, Promised Lands (London: Abacus, 2000), p. 160.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety (London: Viking, 1992), p. 29.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    A.S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), p. 38.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Lisa Fletcher, Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), p. 1.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 190, p. 187.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Sarah Waters, ‘Wolfskins and Togas: Maude Meagher’s The Green Scamander and the Lesbian Historical Novel’, Women: A Cultural Review, 7 (1996), p. 176.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 20.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Louisa Hadley, Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 13.
    A large body of criticism has developed around neo-Victorian fiction. In addition to Hadley (note 12), see, for example, Alice Jenkins and Juliet John, eds, Rereading Victorian Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999);Google Scholar
  13. Jeannette King, The Victorian Woman Question in Contemporary Feminist Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cora Kaplan, Victoriana: Histories, Fiction, Criticism (Edinburgh University Press, 2007);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). See also the e-journal, Neo-Victorian Studies ( and the Neo-Victorian Series (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi), co-edited by Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 14.
    Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 140.Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    Quoted in Dana Shiller, ‘The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel’, Studies in the Novel, 29 (1997), p. 539.Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    Lynn Pykett, ‘The Century’s Daughters: Recent Women’s Fiction and History’, Critical Quarterly, 29 (1987), pp. 71–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 17.
    Linda Anderson, Plotting Change: Contemporary Women’s Fiction (London: Edward Arnold, 1990), p. 134.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    Kate Mosse, Labyrinth (London: Orion, 2005), p. 611.Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 20.
    Rose Tremain, ‘Introduction’, Restoration (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 1.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jeannette King 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeannette King

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations