Portrait of Venetia, Lady Digby, by Sir Anthony van Dyck ©WM Commons
The historical novel is a supremely elastic genre. It stretches to lowbrow, bodice-ripping efforts, pings back to highbrow—Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, for example, or Eliot’s Romola—while maintaining a solid middlebrow, from I, Claudius to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It can build nations, as Scott’s Waverley novels do, or speak to children, like Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth, or it can tumble sideways, like Woolf’s modernist fantasia Orlando, which can be read as a parody or celebration of the genre.
And yet these very different works share a set of core conventions. What defines a historical novel? The Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukacs is useful here; so is Perry Anderson’s 2011 essay, “From Progress to Catastrophe.” These are some basic commandments:
1. The historical novel shall foreground the individual against a background of dramatic social change, which has transformed the world of the protagonists by the time the book is over.
2. Recognisable “historical figures” shall play their part, sometimes on the fringes of the novel—Napoleon in War and Peace, for example—and sometimes in the title role, as in Gore Vidal’s J…