On The Historical Novel.

A Few Thoughts And Doubts.

M.A. Mercier
May 11 · 3 min read

The Historical Novel is a genre of novel that has been subject to long and exhausting debates. The reason for it is that it is difficult to define, and even more difficult to identify in a novel. What I mean by that is that we can confuse many novels to be historical, when they are not.

Here are a few thoughts and doubts I have about it. We will take Katherine Howe’s ‘The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane’ as a reference for this article because it has an interesting perspective that I could exploit for my doubts. It is a novel based in Salem, MA, USA. There are two parallel times in the plot, 1692 and 1991. It is about the Salem Witch Trials and the life of Deliverance Dane, one of the most famous people to be executed on the basis of being a witch.

Photo by Dmitry Vechorko on Unsplash

In the novel and in interviews, she has told that 1991 was much more similar to 1692 than it was to 2009, when she published this book. Historical Fiction is defined as a fictional retelling of a chronologically remote event. Critics and experts have debated on the time that needs to have passed before it is considered Historical Fiction. Many have agreed on 70 years, and it was probably right for the time that they decided it. The difference between 2000 and 2020 is much bigger than between 1950 and 1970. I feel like ‘historical’ is being taken in a more literal way than originally intended. Historical fiction needs to demonstrate the times which were not ‘chronologically remote’. Even if we believe that there needs to be a difference between that and actual historical fiction, maybe 70 years is a bit too long. Most authors do not write at the age of 70. Maybe 30 is a better option.

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Another thing that I wanted to talk about was that imagine a novel written about, say 1940, in 1940. Should that be considered ‘Historical Fiction’? There can be two circumstances. First one being that it was a manuscript and passed on to his/her descendants. They publish it today. It will definitely be considered Historical Novel. If, although, it was published in 1940, the ‘experts’ will disregard this notion as ridiculous. I feel that a work of fiction is always a work of fiction and if it has been decades and numerous changes since that novel, it should be considered Historical Fiction. I even think it adds a layer of authenticity. The opinions and views of the author are not bent due to the experience of the present-day society, they have only seen that period and could provide valuable insights.

I have one problem with my own opinion. While reading this, I felt like I was describing a primary historical source. That is, undeniably, different to ‘Historical Fiction’. But then again, it is fictional books I imagined in the first place. As you can tell, I am conflicted.

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I just want you to think about this. Are they correct, and am I missing something? Do you agree with me? Let me know in the comments.

That’s it then!

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