The Historical Novel by Jerome de Groot

Tegan Zimmerman


Groot, Jerome de. The Historical Novel. London; New York: Routledge, 2010. viii + 208 pp. Print. The New Critical Idiom Ser.


The New Critical Idiom Series aims to promote literary genres with complex boundaries. Accordingly, The Historical Novelby Jerome de Groot explores a genre that combines fact and fiction while raising crucial questions about national identity and history, gender and postmodernity, narratology and intertextuality, and the role of the author, reader and critic in the negotiation of cultural memory. Memory, in particular, is an integral aspect of the historical novel, providing a complex means of exploring self-identity and group formation by questioning the completeness or accuracy of historical record (see Sarah Jefferies’ review of Anne Whitehead’s Memory in this issue). As such, the genre can act as a site of struggle, a means for peoples to rewrite historical narratives and contest the hegemony of recorded history, or as a way to confirm and extend dominant practices in the face of social change. The historical novel is a means of holding on to and remembering the past so as to inform the present and project the future. For the first time, Groot introduces these issues in a manner aimed at a general audience unfamiliar with the genre.

The Historical Novel is divided into six chapters that trace the development of the genre from early antecedents, development and recognition to the present. In the Introduction, Groot sets out the contemporary prevalence of the form, explaining that the historical novel sells remarkably well, frequently appears on curricula and readily appeals to a global readership. His book, he argues, “attempts to trace the defining characteristics, key manifestations and cultural meanings of this particular kind of fiction,” which takes into account many subgenres, including “romance, detective, thriller, counterfactual, horror, literary, gothic, postmodern, epic, fantasy, mystery, western, [and] children’s books” (2). Thus, Groot aims to explore the innate hybridity of the genre, taking into account functionality and malleability, sub-genres and popularity as well as theoretical perspectives, including Marxist, postcolonial, feminist, queer and postmodern.

The second chapter, “Origins: Early Manifestations and Some Definitions,” touches briefly on the works of Homer, Virgil, Wu Cheng’en, Geoffrey Chaucer, Daniel Defoe and Madame de Lafayette. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), however, is described as the most important ‘early’ historical novel. Groot argues that “The work is historical, in so far as it takes place ‘not long since’ but the main importance of this work throughout Europe was to popularize the prose account which eventually developed into the novel form” (13). In the next chapter, he turns his attention to “Gothic Novels and the Fetishisation of European History.” Focusing primarily on Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), he suggests that Walpole “articulates a sense of historical characterisation and authenticity that would be developed by [Walter] Scott” (15). According to Groot, Scott’s Waverley Novels (1814-31) developed this faithfulness to the manner of the times while incorporating a variety of forms and themes, including realism, anti-romance, progress and rationalism (16). Groot pays special attention to Georg Lukács, one of the most influential theorists of the historical novel and in part responsible for the re-emergence of Scott in the twentieth century. This far-reaching chapter concludes with discussions of Alessandro Manzoni’s theorization of the historical novel, nineteenth-century works by Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin, the historian Herbert Butterfield, and the twentieth-century turn to modernism.    

The remaining chapters cover the twentieth century in more detail. In the third chapter, “Genre Fiction” is divided into three sub-sections: (1) Novels for women: romance and history, including Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson with reference to Diana Wallace’s The Woman’s Historical Novel : British Women Writers, 1900-2000 (2004); (2) Novels for men: authenticity, adventure and heroism, including Alexandre Dumas, C.S. Forester, Richard Woodman and Robert Louis Stevenson; and (3) Historical fiction for children, including G.A. Henty, Joan Aiken, Rosemary Sutcliff and Philip Pullman. The primary focus is on “[popular] novels that are not generally judged literary and therefore are often unconsidered by critics” (51). Chapter four, “Literary Fiction and History,” considers global novels that have wide readerships, in particular, those from the twentieth century whose subject matter is WWI or WWII. The fifth chapter, “Postmodernism and the Historical Novel: History as Fiction, Fiction as History,” explains how a radical shift in the 1960s and 1970s to postmodernist historiography and meta-fiction influenced the writing of the historical novel. Groot looks at the main theorists of the period – Hayden White, Nancy Partner, Louis Mink, Alun Munslow, Linda Jenkins and Linda Hutcheon – those who “have conceptualized ‘history’ as a set of narrative tropes” (111). The result is a questioning of the definition of History and historical truth reflected in the novels discussed, including John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman(1969), Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion(1987), and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime(1975). Groot brings this chapter to a close with a look at Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose(1980), detective fiction, magical realism, history and an account of the problematization of postmodernism with reference to critic Fredric Jameson, which deals with the political complexity and implications of writing history.   

The final chapter, “Challenging History,” is an analysis of history from the margins that further complicates the notion of history as History. Histories from the margins, Groot suggests, “destabilize cultural hegemonies and challenge normalities” by providing “a space for political intervention and reclamation, for innovation and destabilization” (139-40). Novels discussed in the first section, “Conflicted National Histories,” include crime novels by James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, the war novels of Sebastian Barry and Roddy Doyle, and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang(2000). Groot also discusses gay and lesbian historical fiction, including authors such as Mary Renault, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Sarah Waters, as well as women on the margins, emphasizing the feminist publishing house Virago. Also included in this chapter are anti-colonial novels by authors such as Chinua Achebe, Jean Rhys and Hari Kunzru. Groot analyzes these novels in relation to postcolonial theorists Edward Said, Homi K. Bhaba and Bill Ashcroft. The chapter concludes with a brief look at recent counterfactual novels such as Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) and historical conspiracy fiction, for example, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code(2003).

While Groot demonstrates how the genre has developed and is continually changing, his theoretical position on the genre itself is not always forthcoming and a more candid conclusion would serve the reader well. Nonetheless, Groot deals adequately with the key movements and concepts within the genre in a way no other work has done. By focusing more on the influence of women writers and histories or memories from the margins, Groot shifts the emphasis of previous studies, such as Richard Maxwell’s The Historical Novel in Europe: 1650-1950 (2009), from strictly Anglo-European texts and theorists to a more global and multicultural approach. Although perhaps too generic for advanced students and specialists in the field, The Historical Novel is a useful introductory text, particularly with the glossary of key terms and the extensive bibliography included and provides an excellent starting place for further discussions of the genre.




Tegan Zimmerman is a PhD Candidate in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta with both academic and creative publications. Her research interests include women’s history, the (feminist) historical novel, feminist-Marxism and feminist theory.



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