The Pre-History of Historical Fiction 

In 1895, George Saintsbury, a journalist, literary critic and renowned wine expert, published a book called The Historical Novel, which was one of the earliest sustained investigations of the genre. For Saintsbury the historical novel in prototype at least had existed for more than 2,000 years, beginning with Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, a fictionalized biography of Cyrus the Great of Persia. Written in the 4th Century before the Common Era, the Cyropaedia could be seen as the first historical novel at least in Saintsbury’s view. And it’s easy to see why. It combines an attempt to convey accurately the history and customs of the ancient Persians several centuries before Xenophon’s own time, with a lot of creative exposition and an enormous amount of invented dialogue that Xenophon uses to lend his historical characters distinctive personalities and a surprising psychological depth.

Even while he proposes Xenophon as the father of historical fiction in a way, though, Saintsbury admits that it’s perhaps rather excessive to regard him as having intentionally written a novel in our sense at all. Xenophon was writing a political treatise, not a novel, and as Saintsbury puts it, ultimately the Chiropedia is a philosophical romance for which its author has chosen to borrow a historic name or two. Saintsbury then goes through the rest of Greek and Latin literature, the romances and crusading epics of the Middle Ages, the Icelandic sagas and Renaissance writings, identifying important precedents to the modern historical novel. And its culmination in the work of Sir Walter Scott. Extolling, as he puts it, quote, the singular and miraculous fashion in which Sir Walter, taking a kind of writing which had, as we have seen, been tried or at least tried at for more than 2,000 years. And which had never yet been run smoothly on its own lines to its own end. By one stroke affected what the efforts of those two millenniums had been bungling and balking themselves over, unquote. This is a largely outdated view of how the historical novel develops. But there’s some real value in Saintsbury’s account, aside from its historical breadth. He’s one of the first critics to put into words a distinguishing element of historical fiction. And that is its self-conscious relationship with the corpus of written history. The attraction of historical subjects in fiction, Saintsbury writes. For the writer to some extent, and still more for the reader. Depends entirely upon the existence of a considerable body of written history, and on the public acquaintance with it.

A culture needs distinct historical sensibility and a body of written history, in other words, in order to produce historical fiction. To distinguish historical fiction from history writers and readers both need to be able to say that an author deliberately fictionalized facts, and knew the difference between the two. And once we accept this notion at least provisionally we can see all kinds of places in literature that exhibit that flavor or sensibility of self-conscious past-ness that will inform modern historical fiction.
Let’s take the beginning of The Knight’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written shortly before the year 1400. This is a romantic tragedy that takes place in Ancient Greece. And Chaucer’s knight is quite careful as he begins the tale, to establish a historical difference between his audience and the setting of the story.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Thesuesu;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour
hat gretter was ther noon under the sonne

 Now few would argue that The Knight’s Tale fits the strict definition of historical fiction I gave you in the last article, or even a loose definition. But it does use the rhetoric of historical distance to establish the narrator’s authority. It begins with Welome, once upon a time. And it puts Theseus in his time. Setting a story self-consciously in the past. And using the pastness of the setting as a way to explore character, motivation, and so on.
But if The Knight’s Tale and other Medieval narratives are prototypes of historical fiction in spirit, most literary historians would now say that the historical novel itself was a product of the 18th century. And a few have even argued that historical fiction, as we know it today, begins in the Renaissance. Here we might look at something like Thomas of Reading, a prose work by Thomas Deloney, a silk-weaver, ballad writer, and accomplished author of prose fiction, who was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Thomas of Reading, published in 1599, was written as a celebration of English clothiers or tailors. It’s set in the 12th century, in the decades following the Norman Conquest. And it begins with a look back over forced entries to the time of King Henry the first. Here’s how it begins.


In the days of King Henry the first, who was the first King that instituted the high Court of Parliament, there lived nine men which for the trade of clothing were famous throughout all England. Which art in those days was held in high reputation both in respect of the great riches that thereby was gotten. As also of the benefit it brought to the whole commonwealth. The younger sons of knights and gentlemen to whom their fathers would leave no lands. Were most commonly preferred to learn this trade, to the end that thereby they might thereby live in good estate and drive forth their days in prosperity.

In this opening passage, we can see some of the elements that will distinguish the historical novel in the coming centuries. A historical difference on a prior era, an awareness of the history of institutions. The example here is the Court of Parliament. Which in this period was often described as the invention of Henry the First, a sense of the customs of the people at the time, the learning of the trade by the younger sons of knights and gentlemen and so on. The literary scholar Michael McKeon has called the novel a story of upward mobility gone sour, and he notes the plot’s resonance with political events contemporary with its author.


Thomas of Reading is set in a 12th century England that is overlaid, with some plausibility, with the cultural conflicts of 16th century absolutism. The struggles between baronage and monarchy, the centralization of power in the hands of the king and the uncertain role in this transition of new men who are disaffected with the old aristocratic dispensation and increasingly committed to protectionist legislation and absolute ownership.
-Michael McKeon

So even in the English Renaissance there were works of fiction published that have a strong claim to being identified as historical novels. The same holds true and even more so in the 18th century which saw an explosion of works that identified themselves more or less explicitly as historical novels, many of them written by women. One example of this efflorescence is Sicily. Or, the Rose of Rabbie, published in 1795 and written by Agnes Musgrave, a little known writer today who was widely read in her own period. The novel tells the story of Lady Cicely, daughter of the first Earl of Westmoreland, and Countess Joan, a couple in the upper English aristocracy in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The book clearly markets itself as a historical novel. Another thing you’ll notice about the title page is the lack of the author’s name. Like many novels by women in the 18th Century, this one was published anonymously, and even the earliest reviews don’t identify Musgrave as the author. Though they’re clearly aware that the book was written by a woman. Cicely, or the Rose of Raby, begins with the story of a found manuscript. An account from the author or narrator telling us how the memoirs of Lady Cicely came into the hands of the publisher and authenticating its veracity. So the author is rummaging through an old trunk. And in it she finds a variety of letters from the 15th century. Then, at the bottom of the trunk, amongst many other papers of some importance, were 2 thick rolls, one of which appeared to be almost illegible, whilst the other was in excellent preservation, to which was affixed a label that informed me those papers contained the history of the Lady Cicely. Daughter to the great Earl of Westmoreland, and the Countess Joan.After she finds these old papers, she begins to read Lady Cecily’s history, but finds the style and writing so archaic and the manuscript so damaged, that she almost gives up. But her friends convince her to publish the tale she’s discovered.

My friends flattering me by saying, I was competent to the task, urged me to set about changing the antique dress in which I found the narrative of Lady Cicely, careful of not altering the story, nor deviating from the style, but to make it merely modern enough to be interesting. At length I finished it, though not without much pains, and am now enabled to lay it before the public. Who perhaps may think I have been only mis-employing time, or that nature never destined me for such a work, however to their perusal it is now dedicated and their award must determine whether Cicely of Raby shall be once more admired as a favorite. Or sink again with her ashes into entire oblivion, unnoticed and forgotten
-Agnes Musgrave

What Musgrave is doing here is appealing to her reader’s historical curiosity through the romance of the archive. Which contains endless tales of love and adventure that risks sinking into oblivion, if we don’t recover and reinvent them for modern readers. Like many early historical novels, Cicely explores that relation between history and romance in a variety of ways. As Musgrave writes in the introduction, it speaks of many things mentioned by our historians, yet such an air of romance hangs over it, so many strange adventures intermingled. I knew not what to believe.And Musgrave’s own doubt of course is part of what makes the authenticity of the Medieval narrative so convincing.It’s no accident that Musgrave’s reviewers were well aware of that difficult balance of fiction and history as it informed the novel. Here’s the beginning of a review of Cicely, published in a periodical called The Critical Review in 1796.


It has been frequently and justly observed, that the mixture of truth which renders an historical novel interesting, makes it all so deceptive. It is certain that the facts which are interwoven in the tissue of fiction have a tendency to bewilder the youthful mind. Yet it is a question requiring some casuistry to solve, whether the writer, who, by deviating into the regions of fancy, awakens and calls into exercise the more exalted energies of the human mind. Does not really benefit his species more than the plain narrator of those sordid and disgusting facts which so frequently stain the page of history.
– Anonymous,The Critical Review in 1796


The anonymous reviewer goes on to give a pretty critical review of Musgrave’s novel. But what’s fascinating here, to recall the previous lecture. Is that even in the late 18th century when the historical novel was a relatively new genre, it was raising all kinds of questions about truth and deception. About historical fiction as a form of lying. Could it be that reading historical fiction, with all the fancy and fiction it entails, is actually better for us than reading the sordid and disgusting facts staining the pages of history? Should historical fiction be considered a more exalted form in other words than historical fact? These are just a few of the complex questions raised by the pre-history of historical fiction. And the same questions will come up again and again over the next two centuries, as the genre comes to assume its contemporary form. In the next lecture, I’ll talk about two novels that played a very important role in the development of historical fiction. And we’ll keep these questions in mind as we move into the modern emergence of the genre.

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