Historical novel

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A historical novel is a fictional prose work , the plot of which takes place in a historical time and treats historical processes and people without any claim to scientific accuracy in fictional form.

General and delimitation

According to Rainer Schönhaar, the historical novel is regarded as a "type of novel that deals with historical figures and incidents or is set in a historically authenticated environment and is based on a certain historical image"

The temporal distance usually makes extensive research, consisting of reading historical accounts or direct access to sources, unavoidable. The demand for an authenticity of the historical is a relic from the time of origin of the early historical novels, which coincides with the modern effort to provide a correct representation of history, which no longer merely pursues the praise of the ruler or the subsequent legitimation of political decisions, but the subject of history a critical consideration. The work of the French enlightener Voltaire, including his writings Histoire de Charles XII and Le Siècle de Louis XIV , aroused criticism due to their arguable accuracy and indisputable art of representation. The historical novel is therefore criticized by representatives of historical science - even though it is a work of art - for the correctness of the facts as if out of historical-political care. On the other hand, there is the descriptive approach of literary studies, which, for example, evaluates anachronisms as independent aesthetic signals.

A historical novel can be about fictional people who live in a specific era or about historical people. In the latter case, actual experiences of the person are narrated or experiences are invented. Because novels follow the laws of storytelling, rather than those of history , a writer can tend to deviate greatly from historical facts. There are overlaps with contemporary, artist, social or romance novels. After Walter Scott's debut, there are at least sixty years between the period and the writing of the novel. The time delimitation, however, is not a fixed quantity, because the accelerated perception of time in modernity has also led to a change in the perception of the past, especially the recent past as a temporal quantity, so historians of contemporary history devote themselves to the recent past. In numerous historical novels of the 19th century, the epoch dealt with was a truly historical epoch for the author that he did not experience himself. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo plays in accordance with romantic interests in the Middle Ages , I Promessi Sposi by Allessandro Manzoni in the 17th century, and Die Kartause von Parma von Stendhal only forty years before it was written. Novels with a contemporary background are therefore not counted among the typical historical novels, as they deal with the author's present, such as Sansibar or the last reason by Alfred Andersch or The Tin Drum by Günter Grass .

The fantasy novels that play with set pieces from the Middle Ages and often also introduce supernatural elements are not counted among the historical novels . The reworking of sagas and legends is also not included, nor are highly schematic genres such as Wild West or knight stories. One of many borderline cases is the novel tetralogy Joseph and his brothers by Thomas Mann , which is laid out around the biblical Joseph . Popular science or columnist representations that relate to real people and events are also not historical novels. Examples are the biographies of Stefan Zweig about Marie Antoinette or Joseph Fouché . If, however, people and events are invented (for example because the traditional factual basis is very thin), it is again about novels, such as the novel biographies I, Claudius by Robert Graves and beloved Theophanu by Eberhard Horst .

Literary history

19th century

The historical novel in Germany has its forerunners in the Baroque era with authors such as Andreas Heinrich Bucholtz (1607–1671) and Daniel Casper von Lohenstein (1635–1683), to whom the writer Benedigte Naubert (1752–1819) can build on. Some of their historical novels have also been translated into French and English, so that Walter Scott got to know them and was inspired by them. In novels such as Ulrich Holzer , Walter von Montbarry and others, she already uses the principle of making secondary characters of the story the main characters of her novels, which were adopted by Walter Scott. In contrast to Walter Scott, Benedict Naubert is largely unknown today.

The early historical novels in Europe belong to a general stream, to the romantic interest in history, which also promoted other art forms as well as the science of history and linguistics . The appearance of the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo promoted the movement to preserve Gothic heritage in France , which led to the establishment of the state authority Monuments historiques . Charles Dickens ' novel A Tale of Two Cities describes the French Revolution from a British perspective.

Important German-language contributions to the historical novel of the 19th century include Wilhelm Hauff Roman Lichtenstein , Adalbert Stifter's Witiko and Theodor Fontanes Before the Storm . What both of the first-mentioned works have in common is a restorative tendency. In the succession of Novalis romantically motivated reconciliation of nobility and people, which presupposes an unequal relationship of dependency between protective and powerful sovereign as well as the loyal people, Hauff lets sovereign Ulrich perish because of his lack of appreciation for the people. Although Adalbert Stifter ties in with Walter Scott, his fragment Witiko can be read as Anti-Scott. The political implications of the historical novel cannot be overlooked. In response to the unrest in 1848, he wrote the three-volume story of the founding of the noble family of the Witigones. The protagonist's inability to make decisions, the armament of the rural population for which he was responsible, against the usurper Konrad von Znaim, as well as the staging of landscapes free of development and an act that was undramatic and emotionally weak due to broad discussions, deliberately construct a counter-image to the bloody unrest in the Habsburg Empire. The genre of the educational novel is also fulfilled atypically, because Witiko achieves the highest merits not because of an inner maturation, but because of the persistent adherence to his anti-subversive virtues. Nevertheless, Stifter's approach of equating historical development and moral maturation led to the inevitable admission that this led to an ahistorical state.

Numerous novels of world literature such as War and Peace (1867) by Leo Tolstoy , Gustave Flaubert ' Salambo , The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne or I Promessi Sposi (1842) by the Italian Alessandro Manzoni , Valdemar Seier by the Dane Bernhard Severin Ingemann , Drottningens juvelsmycke (1834 ) by the Swede Carl Jonas Love Almqvist , Pigen fra Norge (1861) by Norway Andreas Munch , Az utolsó Bátori (1837) by the Hungarian Miklós Jósika are historical novels.

In the course of the 19th century, the historical novel also reached the masses in the German-speaking world ( entertainment literature ). A well-read author was Willibald Alexis , who warned in his novel with the significant title rest is the first civic duty of a possible degeneration of the Prussian bourgeoisie like in the time of Napoleon. He deepened the representational art of his predecessor Hauff through the psychology of his characters. The greatest success, however, was the Frenchman Alexandre Dumas the Elder with his adventure and historical novels, among them The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Christo (1844-1845) are the best known. Historical novels also served in many cases to promote national feeling . The Waverley novels Scott (see below) already promoted interest in the history of Scotland . With Ein Kampf um Rom, Felix Dahn wrote a bestseller in which he glorified Germanism in social Darwinian terms and brought it together with the sense of mission of the strengthened empire. The Polish Henryk Sienkiewicz , winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905 , described in his novels the conflicts between Poland and the Teutonic Order , the rebel Cossacks and the invasions of Sweden . Sigrid Undset achieved a similar significance for Norwegian history with the novel Kristin Lavransdatter , with which she also won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

20th century

In the first half of the 20th century the genre was in some cases further trivialized, the nationalist thrust intensified or revived as an art form. In Die Dithmarscher (1898), Adolf Bartels glorified the freedom struggle of the Dithmarsch peasant republic against the Kingdom of Denmark. In his novel The Wehrwolf, Hermann Löns stylized the heather farmers as defenders of their clods against landless rabble and marauding troops. The peasants - a social group that was strongly marginalized in the 20th century due to urbanization and advanced industrialization - represent as conspiratorial, uncivilized fighting communities an imagined counterweight to the real majority population of the cities. Furthermore, they are declared to be an overhistorical entity, making them independent of their time as a role model for a closed community.

The catastrophe of World War I represented a turning point. Ricarda Huch's The Great War in Germany (1915), in which a historical figure like Wallenstein could still be portrayed as a great individual in the tradition of Thomas Carlyle , was no longer comprehensible because of the de-individualized warfare. The care in the presentation of the historical locations was continued, but was no longer a decisive quality criterion in accordance with the critical tradition of the historical novel, in which an examination of one's own epoch was sought. In Alfred Döblin Wallenstein, for example, the epic story was given greater weight than the accuracy of the demise of individual characters. As a counter-program to the ideologization and mystification of the historical novel, educational work was increasingly pursued, for example by Lion Feuchtwanger (e.g. Jud Süß , the Josephus trilogy ), or a humanistic utopia designed as in Heinrich Mann's The Youth of King Henri Quatre . Joseph Roth's novel Radetzkymarsch takes on the Austrian present - based on the narrative of decadence literature. Other important historical novels are The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel , in which the process of becoming a nation state in the Ottoman Empire is named as the cause of the genocide committed by the Young Turks , such as The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch . From English-language literature, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! to call. The personal multiple perspectives like the description of the ruthless land grabbing problematize the acquisition of historical knowledge like its reduction to master narratives and deconstruct the southern state myth.

The structure of the trivial historical novel is based on the Scottish historical novel. Martin Neubauer even thinks that the historical novel is therefore "in many cases [...] at best as a transitional reading, suitable only for a young audience, as a nostalgic glorified milestone in the individual reader's biography". Novels such as Die Säulen der Erde , Der Medicus , Die Päpstin or Die Wanderhure became bestsellers and, for large parts of the readership, fulfill the idea of ​​a historical novel.

The historical novel has been one of the most popular genres in postmodern literature since the 1960s . The term historiographical metafiction was coined for this variety .

Sir Walter Scott

The historical novel begins in English literature with the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Novels dealing with a historical background existed before; However, the people acted according to the customs and norms of the present day of the writer, so that one does not speak of historical, but of romaneses or the like. The question arises why the novel type of historical novel only emerged at the beginning of the 19th century and was immediately successful - Walter Scott's first historical novel " Waverley " was published in 1814.

The wars that followed the French Revolution , Napoleon's campaigns, and the restoration that followed had shown large parts of the European population the impact of history on their personal lives, in a shorter time and to a greater extent than ever before.

The change in warfare - mass armies instead of small mercenary troops - turned history into a mass experience, but also obliged states to communicate the goals of the wars to the warring masses, which happened with recourse to national history and its ups and downs.

It is safe to assume that Walter Scott did not write “Waverley” to meet these state needs. But he was certainly aware of the interest of his readers in the subject of the "Waverley", the Jacobite revolt of 1745/46 , and deliberately designed his novels in such a way that they could serve to convey the historical material.

Characteristics of the historical novel by Walter Scott

Walter Scott's historical novel now has a number of peculiarities that make it possible to speak of a novel type of its own. The aim of this type of romance is to bring the past to life. The historians provide the facts which the writer fills with life. In the specific case of "Waverley", which describes an epoch not far back then, the hero is supposed to mediate between the present of the reader and the past. This hero, and this is the big difference to the epic , is now the so-called "middle hero". People who are not at the top of society and who do not trigger historical events, but get entangled in them. The protagonist is morally stable, sacrificing himself, but a human passion that sweeps the reader away never arises. Scott's main characters are: "... nationally typical characters, but not in the sense of the summing-up, but in that of the efficient average."

The historical personalities are only secondary characters, but appear in significant situations according to their role. Between the appearances of the historical personalities, the writer is relatively free to shape the life of his protagonists within the historical circumstances. Dialogues that serve to bring the past to life are gaining in importance, as are the minor characters who represent opposing sides along historical lines of conflict. Scott's novels influenced a number of authors:

“Balzac, Hugo, de Vigny and Mérimée in France, Manzoni in Italy, Pushkin and Tolstoy in Russia, Stifter and Fontane in the German-speaking area. (...) In North America, Cooper's leather sock saga became a sounding board for Scott. "(Lukács)

Scott's reception in France and the romantic historical novel

But while Manzoni , Pushkin and others followed Scott's tradition, some of whom viewed themselves as his pupils, in France, and also in Spain, Scott's model was reflected rather than reproduced. Georg Lukács even speaks of intellectual struggles over the historical novel in France and a theoretical formulation of the romantic historical novel on a higher level than in other European countries.

The reasons why the debate about the historical novel was most intense in France is to be found in French history. While in England the largely bloodless struggles for more rights for the citizens enabled a more optimistic understanding of the course of history, the French were confronted with the less optimistic experiences of the revolution, the subsequent " terreur " and the building of a post-revolutionary society. So the discussion about the historical novel in France was basically a debate about the conception of history, in short, about the question of whether the French Revolution was an “industrial accident” in history or the logical consequence of earlier developments.

Alfred de Vigny

Alfred de Vigny was instrumental in this discussion. His understanding of history is already expressed in the novel "Cinq-Mars ou une conjuration sous Louis XIII." Published in 1826 , which takes place in the Richelieu era . He then records his theoretical foundations in the foreword to the fourth edition (1829), which Lukács describes as the most significant theoretical manifesto of the Romantic trend in the historical novel. Vigny rejects Scott as being light, as invented figures act here, historical figures only appear on the edge and only serve to date the period. Accordingly, the main characters of his novel are Cardinal Richelieu, the creator of absolutism, and Cinq-Mars, who appears as the defender of feudal privileges. De Vigny turned back to the “history-making great men” of this era. According to de Vigny, it is not the facts that are important, but their fictionality. The writer must interpret the facts and make them meaningful, present their moral consequences, and therefore transform historical facts. In this respect, the writer is not necessarily tied to the real historical personality, for example Richelieu, what is important is the idea to be conveyed. De Vigny, who sees himself as a fighter for the second estate, which has since disappeared, and understands absolutism as the wrong path in history that inevitably led to revolution, viewed the facts with a “subjectivist-moral a priori”, as Georg Lukács put it.

The aim of romantic historiography is therefore to look back from the maturity that France has reached and to give an account of the errors of youth.

In contrast to the Scottish historical novel, history is not only brought to life, but interpreted. This is done with reference to the great characters in history.

Even if de Vigny's interpretation of French history and his perception of its youthful errors is not shared by everyone, his understanding of the type of historical novel is quite widespread and is used by other authors such as B. Victor Hugo shared.



  • Sir Walter Scott Prize , a former literature prize for outstanding German-language historical novels
  • HOMER , a literary prize that has been awarded by the "HOMER Historical Literature" association since 2014 for the best historical novels and short stories

See also


  • Hugo Aust: The historical novel . Metzler, 1994.
  • Herbert Butterfield: The Historical Novel: An Essay . Cambridge University Press, 1924
  • Avrom Fleishman: The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf . Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1971
  • Hans Vilmar Geppert: The "other" historical novel. Theory and structures of a discontinuous genus . Niemeyer, Tuebingen, 1976.
  • Hans Vilmar Geppert: The historical novel. History retold - from Walter Scott to the present day. Francke Verlag, Tübingen 2009, ISBN 978-3-7720-8325-9 .
  • Kian-Harald Karimi: A story told in a poor time. Historical novels in modern and postmodern . In: Romance journal for the history of literature . 2018, No. 3–4, 447–471.
  • Kian-Harald Karimi: History as a pantry for costumes. The contemporary Spanish novel and dealing with pre-civil war history . In: Iberoamericana . 1999, No. 3-4, pp. 5-37.
  • Georg Lukács : The historical novel . Berlin 1955
  • Heinz-Joachim Müllenbrock: The historical novel of the 19th century . Winter, Heidelberg 1980, ISBN 3-533-02920-4 .
  • Frauke Reitemeier: German-English literary relations: the historical novel Sir Walter Scott and its German predecessors . Schöningh, Paderborn 2001.

Web links

Wikisource: Historical Novels  - Sources and Full Texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Rainer Schönhaar: Historical novel , in: Metzler Literature Lexicon. Terms and Definitions, ed. by Günther Schweikle and Irmgard Schweikle, p. 201.
  2. ^ Hans Vilmar Geppert: The historical novel. Story retold. From Walter Scott to the present . Tübingen 2009, pp. 128–129.
  3. ^ Hans Vilmar Geppert: The historical novel. Story retold. From Walter Scott to the present . Tübingen 2009, p. 129.
  4. Barbara Potthast: The entirety of the story. Historical novels in the 19th century. Göttingen 2007, p. 268.
  5. ^ Hans Vilmar Geppert: The historical novel. Story retold. From Walter Scott to the present . Pp. 133-134.
  6. Hans Olov Granlid: Då som nu . Nature and Culture, Stockholm 1964.
  7. Dingstad, Ståle Norheim, Thorstein Rees, Ellen Andersen, Per Thomas, Honoree .: Kulturmøter i nordisk samtidslitteratur festskrift til Per Thomas Andersen . Novus forl, 2014, ISBN 978-82-7099-778-7 ( worldcat.org [accessed March 31, 2020]).
  8. Winge, Mette .: Fortiden som spejl: om Danske historiske romaner . Samleren, 1997, ISBN 87-568-1418-6 ( worldcat.org [accessed March 31, 2020]).
  9. The modernity of the novel is often not recognized because of its assignment to decadence literature. In his Berlin program, however, Döblin justifies an "open, no longer ashamed lyricism with its immediacy [...] whereby the naive reasoning is permissible" as a possibility of a contemporary novel. Roth's novel takes a decidedly conservative position by mythologizing the Habsburgs against a specific criticism of ideology such as that pursued by Feuchtwanger and Mann, but with its atmospheric presentation and marginal narrative perspective it simultaneously fulfills both conservative and modernist narrative projects.
  10. Stefan Neuhaus: Criticism of time in a historical guise? Five theses on the generic term of the historical novel using the example of Theodor Fontanes Before the Storm. In: Travelers through time and space , ed. by Osman Durrani and Julian Preece (= Amsterdam contributions to recent German studies. Vol. 51), Amsterdam / New York 2001, p. 210.
  11. Martin Neubauer: Earlier conditions. History and historical awareness in the novel from the turn of the millennium . Vienna 2007, p. 8.
  12. Quotations from: Lukács, Georg: The historical novel , Berlin 1955.
  13. HOMER shortlist 2015 announced , Buchjournal, buchjournal.de, accessed on October 21, 2016.