1) The Classic Historical Novel
(Defined largely by Georg Lukács in The Historical Novel) A novel in which a character of middling importance caught between warring factions in a conflict serves as reader’s ambassador to a setting and time well in the past of the publication date. Large historical figures, kings, clan war lords, mighty knights, generals, the famous of history are minor characters, called upon stage only when they are making history. See Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley and Heart of Midlothian.
2) The Epic Historical Novel
A novel in which all main characters are outsized, Achilles-scale, major players of history, as Lukács calls them “world historical figures.” Most often there is no reader’s ambassador here, no single protagonist to focus upon. Our narrator can range from the sweep of continents to the creases beside Robert E. Lee’s tired eyes. Accuracy is lifeblood, the course of the narrative follows history closely, and the purpose is to give some feeling and emotional flicker to the actions of the great makers of history while at the same time affirming legend held dear in a people’s collective memory. Especially for an American market that hungers for nonfiction learning and strongly prefers prose to poetry, these creations seem attempts at national epics. See Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels.
3) The Military Historical Novel
A novel in which almost all characters, save for a few well-placed, lustily portrayed, fiesty women heaving in near must, are members of the armed forces. These do not, to my experience, make pretensions toward national epics. Very often there is a reader’s ambassador, a protagonist, of either middling importance, neglected or forgotten significance, or one on a cornerstone arc. By cornerstone arc, I mean an arc of character in which “the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone.” Great, heroic things come from unanticipated, unlikely quarters. In the Military Historical Novel, a character with a cornerstone arc, such as the rogue hero Richard Sharpe, is middling enough to see all of one side of a conflict and expose foibles of a military-social order while at the same time countering or affirming dearly held legend in collective memory, and even quibbling with the historical record. Military accoutrement, weaponry, and chariots of war often replace narrative in the worst of these novels. Accuracy is lifeblood. Character development can be well handled, if predictably, in the best of these. Or characters can all be extremely clichéd so that we can quickly dispose of the soldier and get busy with his uniform, knives, and guns. See any of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s series of adventures for the best of these. I have no suggestions for the worst of these. But they are there, if I may, in legion.
4) The Literary Historical Novel
A novel set in the past involving one or a tight group of middling characters who change throughout the course of a novel in an arc, and whose changes of heart are the primary focus of the novel rather than the history surrounding. E. L. Doctorow would insist we just call these novels. His novel Ragtime in many ways upends all these definitions, bringing his middlings in contact with Houdini and Houdini in contact with Archduke Franz Ferdinand and so on. His is the beautiful exception to every definition. In the Literary Historical Novel there can be a single ambassador to the reader, or a village narrator as in Anton Chekhov’s Ward 6, or The Peasants, The Kiss, or The Duel. Or the narrator can be first person, as in Joseph Roth’s great novel The Emporer’s Tomb. Historical accuracy, if it is even required, serves as a technique (like starting en media res or interspersing dialogue with necessary but-not-so-exciting descriptive matter). In the Literary Historical Novel, accuracy as a technique serves to preserve the seamless dream state of the novel. Those readers with large willingness to suspend disbelief don’t need minute equipage and unwavering obedience to facts. Readers are after emotional truth, not eventual truth. This may be why historians get so fussy with novels; they know a great deal about history and are quite sure of their way of seeing it. So it takes very little out of place to shutter the dream and ruin their reading experience. A pity. (Doctorow notes in his Atlantic Monthly essay that I link to that historians love novels and welcome fiction and adore what he’s doing; so maybe I’ve been marketing books from and encountering a unique and very particular set of historians, or maybe the authors I was helping felt free to be honest with me.) For great Literary Historical Novels, or just fiction set in the past (which as Doctorow tells us, that’s ALL literary novels) see those mentioned above, and Joseph Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, William Harrison’s Burton and Speke. Or for those wanting great literary “historical” fiction of the Ozarks see Donald Harington’s The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, Butterfly Weed, and many of his others, Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On, and Paulette Jiles’s Enemy Women.
5) The Historical Romance Novel
quoted from In Bed with the Duke by Christina Dodd
Countess Martin drifted by and said, “Miss Chegwidden is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Her blood is purer than yours, Mrs. Mortensen, with a strong Danish influence.” And she drifted away.
“Humph!” But Mrs. Mortensen said nothing more.
Countess Martin had repeated a much-treasured Chegwidden family tale. Emma didn’t ask how she knew.
She didn’t ask because nothing that happened in the daytime mattered very much. What mattered were the nights, when the Reaper appeared in her bedchamber. He did not come for information. With the prince gone, she had none to give him. He came for her.
He appeared suddenly in a gust of wind, and once, in the distance, thunder growled. She ran to him, flung herself in his arms, and they kissed, passionately, yearning, touching each other with ever increasing boldness. He caressed her ears, her shoulders, the base of her spine, and the peaks of her breasts. He pressed her against the wall, holding her there with his body, while they grew ever more frantic with need.
But every night, despite her invitation, he left her alone to dream deeply of him and a passion so bold her dull life was tranformed. “
Excuse me, a glass of ice water and my asthma inhaler, please. Thank you. Much better. Further definition or explication of The Historical Romance Novel will place us in peril of grave sin, so the above will have to suffice. Non-Catholics, at least see bourgeois decadence.
Where does Morkan’s Quarry fall? Well, I know where I wanted to drop it: Among those of number 4. But such questions are up to the reader, if the book gains any readers at all.