Reflections - Part II - Historical Fiction

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The modern definition of a 'novel' is a long narrative, normally in prose, which describes fictional characters and events, usually in the form of a sequential story.
The genre has also been described as possessing "a continuous and comprehensive history of about two thousand years".
This view sees the novel's origins in Classical Greece and Rome, medieval, early modern romance, and the tradition of the novella.
The latter, an Italian word used to describe short stories, supplied the present generic English term in the 18th century.
Don Quijote-de-la-Mancha
Augusto Ferrer Dalmau
Miguel Cervantes
It is generally accepted, however, that the novel first came into being in the early 18th century,
Miguel de Cervantes, author of 'Don Quixote', is frequently cited as the first significant European novelist of the modern era; the first part of 'Don Quixote' was published in 1605.
The 'romance' is a closely related long prose narrative.
Walter Scott defined it as "a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents", whereas in the novel "the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events".
Emily Bronte
Sir Walter Scott
Sir Henry Raeburn
However, many romances, including the historical romances of Scott, Emily Brontë's 'Wuthering Heights' and Herman 'Melville's Moby-Dick', are also frequently called novels, and Scott describes 'romance' as a "kindred term".
'Romance', as defined here, should not be confused with the genre fiction 'love romance' or 'romance novel'. 
Other European languages do not distinguish between romance and novel: "a novel is 'le roman', 'der Roman', 'il romanzo'.

Fictionality is most commonly cited as distinguishing novels from 'historiography'. 
However this can be a problematic criterion.
Throughout the early modern period authors of 'historical narratives' would often include inventions rooted in traditional beliefs in order to embellish a passage of text, or add credibility to an opinion.
Historians would also invent and compose speeches for didactic purposes.
Novels can, on the other hand, depict the social, political and personal realities of a place and period with clarity and detail not found in works of history.
The novel is today the longest genre of narrative prose fiction, followed by the 'novella', short story, and 'flash fiction', however, in the 17th century critics saw the 'romance' as of epic length and the novel as its short (?) rival.
A precise definition of the differences in length between these types of fiction is, however, not possible
The requirement of length has been traditionally connected with the notion that a novel should encompass the "totality of life."


Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past.
Historical fiction can be an ambiguous term: frequently it is used as a synonym for describing the historical novel; however, the term can be applied to works in other narrative formats, such as those in the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, television, comics, and graphic novels or illustrated serial novels - such as 'The Story of Gracchus'.
An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past, and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the period depicted.
Authors also frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, (although this can be unwise - unless one studiously adheres to known, or generally accepted facts), allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments. 
Historical fiction, as a contemporary Western literary genre, has its foundations in the early 19th century works of Sir Walter Scott and his contemporaries in other national literatures, such as Frenchman Honoré de Balzac, American James Fenimore Cooper, and later Russian Leo Tolstoy, however, the melding of "historical" and "fiction" in individual works of literature has a long tradition in most cultures; as in Ancient Greek and Roman literature.
Robert Graves
this image gives a whole new meaning
to the term 'supercilious'
 'I Claudius' - Robert Graves
BBC TV Series
In Twentieth Century English literature, Robert Graves, poet and author, wrote several popular historical novels, including 'I Claudius', 'Claudius the God', 'The Golden Fleece' and 'Count Belisarius'.
Other significant British novelists include Georgette Heyer, Naomi Mitchison, and Mary Renault, best known for her (highly inaccurate) historical novels set in Ancient Greece.

In addition to fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato there are her rather over romanticized stories about Alexander the Great.
Mary Renault - Fire From Heaven
Mary Renault - The Persian Boy
In some historical novels, major historic events take place mostly off-stage, while the fictional characters inhabit the world where those events occur.
This is very much the case in 'The Story of Gracchus'.

One of the most prolific writers of historical novels based in Roman times is Lindsey Davis.
The link between the 'Falco' series and 'The Story of Gracchus' is the fact that they are both set in the same period of Roman History - the reigns of Vespasian, Titus and Domitiian.
Initially these novels feature Marcus Didius Falco - 'delator' or private informer, the equivilent of a private detective in present day terms.
These novels, therefore, are an amalgam of the 'historical novel' and the 'who dunnit' detective/crime novel.
Lindsey Davis - Shadows in Bronze
In the literature of the ancient world, of course, there was no such things as the 'crime novel'.
People were simply uninterested in the sordid goings of the the criminal classes, and were drawn more to romanticism and fantasy.
Lindsey Davis' novels are undoubtedly 'realistic', in that they 'overflow' with historical detail - which often seems to amount to simple 'showing off' - 'look how much I know about ancient Rome'.
However, while the author can undoubtedly 'set the scene', there are problems with the recreation of Roman society.
As there were no 'private detectives' in the ancient world, Falcos' social status is questionable.
Also, as in so many books, films, TV series etc. featuring the ancient world, we find relatively low class individuals 'hobnobbing' not only with members of the aristocracy, but even emperors.
Thus, 'Pulio' (a common legionary - in the TV series Rome) drops in to chat with Octavian after Octavian has become first consul, and is on the way to becoming Princeps (impossible), and that is in addition to the fact that he has supposedly had sex with the Queen of Egypt, and fathered her son, Caæsarion. Equally, we are expected to believe that the mother of one of the wealthiest and most noble families in Rome would entrust her son (the young Octavian - whose great uncle was Gaius Julius Cæsar) to the care of a common Roman legionary in order to have the boy inducted into the mysteries of sex by a common prostitute - (when there was a domus filled with nubile, attractive slave-girls who would be expected to oblige - and at no cost).
In the Lindsey Davis novels, the main character Falco, the lowly son of an auctioneer - living in a seedy 'insula' (block of flats) in the 'slummy' part of the Aventine, pops along for private, friendly chats with the Emperor Vespasian.
A modern equivalent would be Queen Elizabeth having private chats at the palace with a low class private investigator who lived in a council flat in Woolwich or Tower Hamlets - not very likely.
In one novel Falco is invited to join Titus Flavianis in the 'Pulvinar' (Imperial Box) of the Circus Maximus - a bit like the Prince of Wales inviting some 'nobody' to join him in the Royal Box at Ascot - equally unlikely.
As a contrast, in the 'Story of Gracchus', Marcus only meets Titus Flavianus after he has become Dominus of the House of Gracchus, and probably one of the richest men in the empire - so their meeting although accidental - (caused by an error on the part of the secretary, Quintus), is entirely appropriate and believable in terms of Roman concerns regarding the nature of 'social status'.
What many writers - both of scripts and of novels - do not seem to understand is the extreme rigidity of the Roman class system, and the vast distance, in both status and wealth, between the highest levels of society (as represented by members of imperial and senatorial families) and the lower orders (see 'Preface' on 'Rich and Poor').
In the case of the 'Falco' novels, one may argue - 'well, it's only a story' - but then why set such a story in ancient Rome, and then contradict what is known of ancient Roman society ?
So Falco blunders on - chatting to senators and wandering into villas unannounced.
Later Falco's adopted daughter takes over the investigating business - a problem because in general aristocratic Romans, (and Flaco was no aristocrat), did not adopt girls - but rather boys (as Cæsar adopted Octavian, and Gracchus, in the Story of Gracchus, adopted Marcus).

to be continued.....


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