The Historical Novel: A Review

By James Au

Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel, Routledge, 2010.

What is a historical novel? The answer to it is not as straightforward as one thought, as Leopold von Ranke, an influential figure in the discipline of history, and his followers has chanted the study of primary sources as the only effective historiography. All historical novelists, from the eyes of these pseudo-scientists, are more like an ‘amateur pursuit’ (34) of the ‘real’ past.

But de Groot’s book here tells us that a historical novel is neither created simply for the sake of art, nor to just entertain its readers. Indeed, The Historical Novel is a comprehensive attempt to deal with various theoretical paradigms, including Georg Lukás’s emphasis on a historical novelist’s ability to ‘create a sense of human connection’ (26) with the past so that a reader can gain consciousness of it, and Alessandro Mazoni’s argument that readers can comprehend the story of the fictional characters through their historical context. (32) Through demonstrating the two frameworks concisely, de Groot is inclined to suggest that historical novel, a hybrid product of literature and history, should be studied as an independent discipline.

In the sections and chapters that follow, de Groot first traces Walter Scott’s works as the original archetypes of most historical novels, exemplifies with works such as those of Austen, Balzac and Hugo the form and style of historical novels, and sees the novels separately from feministic, cosmopolitan and postmodernist perspectives. Novel in a period, and/or with a special ideology, he argues, contains the historical elements in the way that history becomes intertwined, and inseparable from fiction. In the end, de Groot advises that historical fictions do not only provide the dissonance of the past, but also ‘challenge the mainstream’ (140) – to unveil the history of the marginalized group – to suggest an ‘alternative history’ in which it posits that the established history is a false belief imposed by the society on us, and the facts that we believed are fiction.

The demerit of The Historical Novel is the Eurocentric vision of the analyses, as de Groot himself also admits, without paying attention to the Asian tradition of historical fictions. It also ignores the historical writings in the old times, including those of Plutarch and Thucydides. However, the book is a good fit for those who wants an introductory book which reviews precisely all sorts of historical novels and the theories concerned.

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