British Historical Fiction Before Scott

Written by Anne H. Stevens
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

Anne Stevens examines eighty-five popular historical novels from 1762-1813 and looks in detail at how the genre developed during this period, fifty years before Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. She argues that Scott took something that was already an established genre with and made it his own rather than inventing it, as has been claimed.

Thomas Leland’s novel Longsword, Earl of Salisbury 1762 marks the starting point for this study. Leland was primarily an antiquary and here Stevens points out the important influence antiquarianism had on the development of historical fiction, helping to bring historical settings back into fashion after the ‘modern’ novels of Fielding and Richardson. These historical novels combined ‘the conventions of medieval romance with a new interest in psychological verisimilitude’. Stevens also provides important detail on the decisive influence circulating libraries had in the popularity of the nascent genre and the linked role critical reviews had in shaping its future direction. She discusses the importance of footnotes in the historical novel of the period which provided the instructional material required of novels of the time; a debate that has contemporary resonance. Finally she discusses what Scott brought to the genre, particularly his use of simultaneous and more complex narratives.

This is a fascinating study of early historical fiction that offers insightful analysis on a period has so far received little critical attention and the bibliography itself is a treasure trove of historical fiction’s past. Recommended.