• Diana Wallace


Women’s relationship with ‘real solemn history’ — that catalogue of kings and popes and battles lost and won — has often been ambivalent, but they have been reading and enjoying historical novels for well over two centuries. One of the ironies of Catherine’s condemnation of traditional history in Northanger Abbey is that her preferred reading, Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), is in fact a ‘historical’ novel, being set (however vaguely) in the sixteenth century. Radcliffe, in contrast to the writers of ‘real history’, uses her historical setting as a fantasy space in which she can centralise a female consciousness and explore female fears and desires. This female-centredness is partly why Catherine, bored and repelled by male-dominated ‘real history’, enjoys Radcliffe’s books. Similarly Catherine’s twentieth-century descendants have enjoyed the historical novels of Georgette Heyer, Margaret Irwin and Jean Plaidy in huge numbers. But these books have (like Radcliffe) been stigmatised as ‘popular’ or ‘escapist’ fiction. Just as Catherine felt her novel reading was something to be slightly ashamed of because ‘gentlemen read better books’ (Austen, 1985, 121), as a school-girl A.S. Byatt felt that her taste for Georgette Heyer had to be concealed and enjoyed secretly. Reading a popular historical novel led to an ‘illegal’ act, even if it was only joining a circulating library.


Woman Writer Historical Setting Historical Romance Historical Fiction Male Protagonist 
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  1. 1.
    These include Avrom Fleishman, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (1971).Google Scholar
  2. Nicholas Rance, The Historical Novel and Popular Politics in Nineteenth-Century England (1975).Google Scholar
  3. Andrew Sanders, The Victorian Historical Novel 1840–1880 (1978).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Mary Lascelles, The Story-Teller Retrieves the Past: Historical Fiction and Fictitious History in the Art of Scott, Stevenson, Kipling, and Some Others (1980).Google Scholar
  5. Harry E. Shaw, The Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and his Successors (1983).Google Scholar
  6. Harold Orel, The Historical Novel from Scott to Sabatini: Changing Attitudes to a Literary Genre, 1814–1920 (1995).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Harry B. Henderson’s Versions of the Past: The Historical Imagination in American Fiction (1974) offers a different story in relation to America but it is again concerned with a male tradition.Google Scholar
  8. Neil McEwan’s Perspective in British Historical Fiction Today (1987) discusses twentieth-century writers but Mary Renault is the only female writer he includes.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 2.
    As forerunners, Radcliffe is mentioned in Sanders, and Maria Edgeworth in Fleishman (who also mentions Clara Reeve and footnotes Jane and Anna Maria Porter), Rance and Lascelles. Fleishman offers detailed discussions of George Eliot’s Romola (1863).Google Scholar
  10. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) and Between the Acts (1941).Google Scholar
  11. Briefly mentions Naomi Mitchison, Mary Renault and H.F.M. Prescott, while dismissing Georgette Heyer. For the nineteenth century, Rance and Sanders include Romola and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers (1863).Google Scholar
  12. While Rance adds Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849).Google Scholar
  13. Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866).Google Scholar
  14. Shaw includes Romola in what is really a detailed study of Scott’s form, and Orel likewise mentions Romola but his real interest is in the male-authored historical romance as an adventure story. Many other obviously ‘historical’ novels by women, such as Mary Shelley’s Valperga (1823) or Perkin Warheck (1830), are ignored.Google Scholar
  15. 5.
    Examples include Scott’s The Abbott (1820).Google Scholar
  16. Schiller’s tragedy, Maria Stuart (1800).Google Scholar
  17. A trilogy by Swinburne beginning with Chastelard (1865), and Maurice Hewlett’s The Queen’s Quair (1904).Google Scholar

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© Diana Wallace 2005

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  • Diana Wallace

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