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 
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© Jeannette King 2015

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  • Jeannette King

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