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Historical but not historical enough

Curiously, despite the fact critics treated some works with fairly recent settings as historical fiction, quite a few others by major Victorian novelists were excluded on the grounds that their "historical" elements lacked public significance. For example, several novels set in the eighteenth century that followed the careers of actual persons were not considered "historical" fictions: Charles Reade's fictional biography of a real actress of the 1740s, Peg Woffington, apparently lacked sufficient public importance to be called "historical." Margaret Oliphant classified Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Eugene Aram and Paul Clifford, both of which were based on the lives of famous criminals, not with his "legitimate historical novels" like Rienzi and The Last of the Barons, but with his purely fictitious novels of the "criminal picturesque” like Night and Morning. Similarly, Anne Mozley, writing in the 1859 Bentley’s Quarterly Review, says Eugene Aram is "pure invention" (82). With regard to The Disowned (1829), also set in the eighteenth century, Bulwer chose not to write a truly "historical" novel, explaining in his "Introduction": "the period I have chosen is peculiarly ill-adapted for much or prolific delineation of manners; it is not sufficiently remote for the interest of antiquity, nor sufficiently near for that of familiarity" (I: xxxv-xxxvi).

George Eliot

Critics believed that Eliot's Adam Bede (1859) and Silas Marner (1861), which accurately re-create rural English life "sixty years since," were not proper "historical" novels (nor would Middlemarch be to reviewers of 1872). When Felix Holt appeared, most reviewers perceived it as a return to Eliot's earlier vein after an excursion into the "historical romance" in Romola; see, for instance, in the bibliography below the reviews by Venables, John Morley, and [Collinss. E. S. Dallas, writing for the Times, 26 June 1866, p. 4, declared "Felix Holt, the Radical is not, as its title would lead one to suppose, a political novel." An exception to these usual judgments is H. H. Lancaster, who discusses Felix Holt in connection with Romola when describing Eliot's weaknesses "as a historical novelist.

Chartism and the Reform Bill did not have “public significance”?

Even references to recent political and historical events—and to the indirect influence of such historical developments on communities—were not sufficiently significant to make “historical" novels of works by major writers that touch upon, for instance. Chartism — such as Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850); Reform-Bill era elections—such as Bulwer Lytton’s The Caxtons (1850) and Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866); or Napoleonic-War related deprivations— such as Charlotte Brontë's Shirley (1849), Dinah Muiock's John Halifax (1857), and Gaskell's Sylvia’s Lovers (1863). Although such works often display historical themes and purposes not unlike those found in some of Scott's novels, both the example of the Waverley novels and the traditional subject matter of "history" dictated that true historical fiction should depict important events and persons.

The problem with Disraeli’s novels

Although in most cases it is easy to distinguish between works that were and were not historical novels to early and mid-Victorian novelists and readers, a few important novels of the period proved difficult for contemporaries to categorize. Among these were, for instance, the first two novels of Benjamin Disraeli's "Young England" trilogy, Coningsby (1843) and Sibyl (1844). Featuring the major English political personages and events of the 1830’s, these works clearly constituted "hybrids" of fiction and history. The new Monthly Magazine, noted of Coningsby that, unlike novels whose settings might be moved forward and backward in time "without the slightest risk of anachronism," Disraeli’s tale was "enphatically a novel of our own times — of our own day — of the great political cycle, beginning with the Reform Bill, and ending, as far as we can see at present, with Young England." Coningsby could thus be read as a history of its time:

To the future explorer of our institutions, who desires to investigate the real condition of the highest circles of society during the volcanic period comprehended within the compass of ’Coningsby,’ we know no book—certainly no historical book—in which that strange history will be found depicted with such picturesque fidelity, vigor, and fearlessness. [Conington]

Accordingly, Coningsby and Sibyl were discussed in at least one general survey of the historical novel genre. But many Victorian commentators on these novels called them "political" rather than "historical" fictions and omitted them from surveys of historical novels; for then, apparently, a historical novel in the Scott tradition had to be at least slightly removed from familiar, immediate matters, if not by remoteness in time at least by unfamiliarity of place — as could be found, for instance, in novels about the Crimean War and the Continental Revolutions of 1848, works which were consistently termed "historical" fictions.

Thackeray's Vanity Fair

Another well-known work which was sometimes but not consistently viewed as a "historical" novel was Thackeray's Vanity Fair. The public element in this fictional masterpiece is certainly kept to a minimum; the Battle of Waterloo, the only major historical event that figures in the novel, is described only in terms of its impact on private lives. In view of the many Victorian novels that give historical events at least a peripheral role, it is not surprising that several Victorian analysts of historical fiction tried to differentiate between a book like Vanity Fair, with its "background of real history," and a conventional "historical novel" like The Virginians, in which the author "[mixes] up historical with imaginary personages in the action." But by other reviewers. Vanity Fair was ranked with "historical" fictions; the Brussels scenes provoked comments from George Henry Lewes about Thackeray’s “fine faculty for historical romance” and prompted Nassau Senior to digress on the subject of historical fiction. Evidently the historical importance of Thackeray’s subject, if-not necessarily his treatment of it, did invite comparison with the novels of Scott, Vanity Fair, then as now, eluded ready classification.


But if the early and mid-Victorian definition of historical fiction — like most attempts to delimit this genre — founders on a few individual works, it is nevertheless clear and consistent enough to allow us both to identify most works that contemporaries would have considered “’historical" novels and to analyze the period’s popular and critical response to the genre pioneered by Walter Scott. For English writers and critics of the years between 1830 and 1870, the peculiar province of the "historical romance" as pioneered by Scott lay, not in its theoretical insight into history, nor in its use of what Georg Lukacs calls "middle-of-the-road heroes," nor even exclusively in its retreat into a remote past, but in its integration of two distinct materials: the important, verifiable facts of the historian and the invented fictions of the imaginative writer. Early and mid-Victorian novelists who followed the example of Scott were free to choose, as he had done, whatever time and place seemed most suitable to their ends, but they were also expected, like him, to observe the demands of the novel form and at the same time to represent, as a historian might, aspects of both the public affairs and daily life of their chosen settings.


[Collinsl, “Felix Holt, the Radical.” Blackwood’s Magazine 100 (July 1866): 94.

[Conington], “Recent Classical Romances.” Edinburgh Review 92 (October 1850): 471.

"George Eliot’s Novels," North British Review 7 (March 1866): 211.

[Lewes, George Henry], Review of “Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray,” Athenaeum (12 August 1848): 79.

[Morley, John]. Saturday Review (16 June 1866): 722.

Mozley, Anne. "Novels by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton," Bentley’s Quarterly Review I (March 1859): 82.

[Oliphant, Margaret] "Bulwer." Blackwood’s Magazine. 77 (February 1855): 227.

[Senior, Nassau], "Thackeray's Works." Edinburgh Review 99 (January 1854): 211.

(Venables], "Felix Holt, The Radical," Edinburgh Review 124 (October 1866): 435

“Coningsby; or the New Generation," New Monthly Magazine 71 (June 1844): 210. Another, less favorable view of the "historical picture [s]" presented in Disraelis young England novels is that of R. M. Milnes in "Kr. Disraeli's Tancred," Edinburgh Review 86 (July 1847): 140,

Last modified 26 December 2017