WHAT IS HISTORICAL FICTION?
Of the many definitions available, I find the most acceptable one is the category of fiction which is written with the background of some era in the past where even if the characters and events are fictional, they are rooted to a specific time period. Hence, the simplest Historical fiction definition can be stories that take readers for a time-machine ride to a place in the past. Though Lynda Adamson in her bibliographical reference work of World Historical Fiction has considered all novels with “about a time period at least 25 years before it was written”, Historical Novel Society accepts a literary work as a historical fiction only if it is “written at least after fifty years of the event described”. Hence, the question “What is historical fiction?” can be summed up as a style of literature written by blending true historical facts and events with fictional characters set in a real place during a culturally recognizable time and written with a backstage of at least fifty years. It is hence of significance that going by definition in strictest sense, “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo which was published in 1969 qualifies as a wonderfully written crime fiction only but not as historical fiction- as despite the fact that the large part of the novel was based upon reality, it covers the period 1945-1955. Similarly, going by the set rules of qualification as historical fiction, Matterhorn of Karl Marlantes or The Things They Carried of Tim O’Brien qualify as well written fictions but not as historical fictions as they were written in 2009 and 1990 respectively. Thus it may be a wise decision to leave it on the readers to do this categorization.
Historical Fiction Characteristics
Historical fictions are unique in their characteristics, and they can be easily marked out from the rest of other categories of fiction. In historical fictions, the journey down the past is painted without any assertiveness but with an elan, a background being believable and near accurate. The description most of the time include actual historical characters even if the events in the historical fiction are created out of the imagination of the author and are not from history. Another important characteristic is that the historical fictions lay eyes to the authenticity to hold the right flavour and essence of the period considering the society of that time and the languages and the sounds and remain totally faithful with the time that is been captured- without any compromise. Balancing the various opinions of that era is an important characteristic that the author must possess while writing a historical fiction. Biasness, prejudice and ignorance has no room in this form of literature. Characters, irrespective of being fictional or real, must behave in a realistic way. Along with the characters, the description of the place and the event has to be elaborate- if the part of the history is not known to the readers and is foggy, it is the duty of the author of the historical fiction to remove the fog and make it visible to the reader.
Origins of historical fiction
The origin of this genre of literature dates back to nearly 2400 years. Many historians are of the opinion that it was with Plato and his book on Atlantis, the journey of historical fiction started.
Historical Fiction in Literature
Historical fictions rose into real prominence and became one of the most popular forms of literature in 18th century. It was this period that has umpteen number of historical fiction examples bestowed as jewels on the crown of literature. And these historical fictions had not only become popular, they also had a major impact on the society of Europe. The works of Walter Scott created interest in Scottish history and have been doing so ever since. Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” kindled the movement to preserve the Gothic architecture of France. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens written under the backdrop of French revolution, Barnaby Rudge with Gordon Riots as background, Kidnapped of R.L. Stevenson written against the backdrop of Jacobite problems in Scotland, “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy are a few examples of iconic historical fiction books.
Types of Historical Fiction
There is a wide range of variety available in literature.
Historical romance fictions
They are fictions with a romance theme- written with accurate historical timeline. 20th Wife by Indu Sudarshan, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin are two examples capturing two different era.
Biographical Historical Fictions
These are are stories that builds a bridge between a real life person and fictionalized story. The Master by Colm Toibin tells the story of Henry James. Middle Passage by Charles Johnson detail the terrors of the slave trade.
Documentary fictions closely adhere to events of an era and try to maintain the historical accuracy. Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and The Night Watchman by Louise Erdich are classical example of this type of historical fiction.
The most prominent example of this genre in world literature is Count of Monte Cristo. Written by Alexandre Dumas in 1846, where he writes about a powerful and mysterious Count comes from east and makes an entry to the fashionable and elite Paris of early part of nineteenth century – and ulterior motive of destroying men who conspired against him.
Historical Mystery and Thriller
The first modern English work which is classified as both mystery and thriller and is a subset of historical fiction genre is the 1911 Melville Davisson Post story “The Angel of the Lord“. The story features an amateur detective. In all the 22 stories Post wrote between 1911 and 1928, the character puzzled out local mysteries with his keen observation and knowledge of the Bible. Historical Mysteries and Thrillers are fewer in number compared to other categories of historical fictions. The historical murder mystery set in the year of 1327 in an Italian monastery – The Name of Rose of Umberto Eco became an instant hit when it was published in 1980.
These stories have been written in many languages across the globe and some of their origins have been from folklores for centuries. Arabian Nights is the most famous book of this genre. Mary Poppins by P.L. Traers or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Louis Carol are two of the names which has been widely read too.
While wrapping up on historical fictions, it is pertinent to mention on the thin line of difference between historical fiction and a fiction. The never-ending controversy on whether the epic Mahabharata is a historical fiction or merely a story has finally come to an end with the archaeological findings of recent times have finally established the saga as work of historical fiction and not a myth.