The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Historical Romance

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

In the modern era the meaning of the term “romance” is limited to love stories, but in previous centuries the word had a much broader definition. Traditionally the word has been used to refer to conventional narratives of adventure and has been set in opposition to mimetic, naturalistic stories. The romance of the Middle Ages was the chivalric epic and the romance of the late eighteenth century was the Gothic novel. During the nineteenth century in America “romance” applied to a wide range of popular fiction genres, but for most of the nineteenth century in England its primary literary use was in reference to historical fiction. Beginning with Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: A Romance in 1819 and continuing through the late 1870s, the phrase “historical romance” was widely used and commonly understood to refer to historical novels, and it is in that sense which the phrase is used here.

Gothic novels can be described as historical novels, in that they are set in the past, but the approach of Gothic writers was the opposite of nineteenth century historical novelists. Gothic writers did not attempt to portray the past or its inhabitants with any accuracy. Gothic writers did little research into the settings of their novels, and the characters of Gothics are the products of their writers’ imaginations. Gothics, though vaguely historically rooted—and indeed, critics are in agreement that one of the requirements of the traditional Gothic be that it is set in the past—are fundamentally ahistorical, set in a nebulous time period which has the trappings of the past but nothing else. (An apposite comparison is to bad science fiction, in which the only difference between the present and the future is the props). The Gothics fetishized European history, displaying a fascination with the savage barbarities and “horrific possibilities”1 of the past, but its authors did not care to pry too deeply into the unromantic and tedious realities of the past. The past, in other words, does not exist as backdrop, but as “a site where history might attack the visitor, a charnel house of remains that still have the power to harm.”2 

This changed with Waverley novels (see: Waverley) of Walter Scott. Scott was preceded in his new approach to writing historical romances by Jane Porter (see: The Scottish Chiefs), but Porter’s novels were as much traditional romances as historical novels. Porter focused on the lives of the rich and powerful but, although her novels accurately match events with dates, they do not convey any sense that past cultures and people were truly different from those of the present. Scott’s novels did.

Few novelists have had as immediate an impact on a genre as Scott did with the Waverley novels. Scott’s approach, his construction of historically accurate settings, his use of protagonists who were ordinary people rather than historically prominent characters, his use of non-standard speech, including dialect–all of these elements, new to the historical novel, were imitated by other English writers. Scott turned the historical novel into “a rational, realist form, shifting away from the excesses of the Gothic to emphasise process, progress and transcendent human values.”3 Scott was the dominant writer of historical romances in the 1820s, and the Waverley sequence of novels, beginning with Waverley (1814) and ending with Ivanhoe (1819), are generally seen by critics as the beginning of the historical novel, and the historical romance, proper.4 

The most popular historical novelists of the 1830s–G.P.R. James and William Harrison Ainsworth–usually wrote in imitation of Scott. However, even in the 1830s writers began to deviate from the model of Scott and to be influenced by other popular genres, so that Ainsworth, in Rookwood and Jack Sheppard, showed the influence of the Newgate Novel (see: Proto-Mysteries), and Bulwer Lytton, in The Last Days of Pompeii, wrote a historical romance with a classical setting rather than a recent one. But by the 1840s the historical romance of the Scott mode had become a cliché, familiar and boring to the reader, and a drag on the literary market.

The 1850s saw a revival of the form, with more serious aims than those of previous historical novelists. Bulwer Lytton’s last historical novel, Harold (1848), was written as a political allegory, reinforcing the politically conservative ideas of the Young England movement of the 1840s. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852) applied elements of style and aesthetics previous writers had omitted. Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia (1852) argued against Catholicism, while J.H. Newman’s Callista (1856) argued against the persecution of Catholics. And Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution, in 1859.

The 1850s and 1860s were the peak decades of production of the historical romance. Best-selling historical novels of those years included Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, Kingsley’s Westward Ho! and Hereward the Wake, and Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, which started an enthusiasm among readers for historical romances set in particular regions. The 1870s began the shift of the historical romance toward adventure writers and writers of boys’ fiction, and although there were some historical novels of the 1880s (J.H. Shorthouse’s religious study John Inglesant (1880) and Walter Pater’s philosophical romance Marius the Epicurean (1885)) it became the province of popular rather than serious novelists.

The last stage in the nineteenth century evolution of the historical romance began with Robert Louis Stevenson. His historical novels, particularly The Master of Ballentrae (1889), combined the serious themes of earlier historical novelists with Stevenson’s interest in his native Scotland and an element of high adventure. Stevenson’s approach, the “New Romance” (see: From the Memoirs of a Minister of France), was adopted by other writers, including Arthur Quiller-Couch, and was mastered by Stanley J. Weyman, the best of the 1890s historical novelists. Weyman was so successful in his historical romances (A Gentleman of France, From the Memoirs of a Minister of France, The Red Cockade) that the most popular New Romance writers, including Rafael Sabatini and the Baroness Orczy, used Weyman, rather than Stevenson, as a model, stressing the swashbuckling, adventurous, (and for the reader, fun) aspects of the historical romance rather than its more serious and philosophical aspects. Weyman avoided the ponderous and dull elements of Scott and Dumas and perfected a lean style that combines splendidly with his witty dialogue, concise characterization, and action.

While Weyman, his followers, his rivals, and his contemporaries continued to turn out a significant amount of excellent historical romances after the turn of the twentieth century, and indeed “were the major bestsellers on the earliest published lists from 1895-1902,”5 during the opening years of the century

the historical novel (and in particular historical romance) began to fall into disrepute among reviewers and critics. Indeed, a fierce conflict raged in America and England, fought in the turn-of-the-century review columns of newspapers and magazines and in the editorial offices of New York and London publishers. The heart of the conflict addressed the artistic nature of literature and its future direction¼a divide arose regarding the fundamental purpose of storytelling among those who wrote the stories and those who evaluated them. Should the novel be entertaining or instructive? Should it be written for a wide, popular market or a select, highly educated readership? Should it be written for money or for art’s sake? And, ultimately, should it be dictated by the heightened imagination of romance or by the precise constraints of reality?6 

Realism, alas, ultimately won.

For Further Research

Jerome De Groot, The Historical Novel. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009.

Helen Hughes, The Historical Romance. Abingdon: Routledge, 2003.


1 Jerome De Groot, The Historical Novel (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 15.

2 De Groot, The Historical Novel, 16.

3 De Groot, The Historical Novel, 16.

4 But, as Jerome De Groot notes, “We also, finally, need to be aware that the story of the development of the historical novel is particularly Eurocentric (see Moretti 2007). Scott’s example and influence were so wide-ranging throughout the nineteenth century that they have obscured other historical fictive writing, particularly that of non-Western cultures.” De Groot, The Historical Novel, 14. De Groot’s point is well-taken: the tradition of historical novels in, to take one non-Western country as an example, China predates the Western historical romance by centuries.

5 Amy Kaplan, “Romancing the Empire: The Embodiment of American Masculinity in the Popular Historical Novel of the 1890s,” American Literary History 2, no. 4 (Winter, 1990): 660.

6 Gary Hoppenstand, Perilous Escapades: Dimensions of Popular Adventure Fiction (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018), 54.