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  • An Evolving Past:The Story of Historical Fiction and Nonfiction for Children
  • Suzanne Rahn (bio)

Fantasy, the young adult novel, and the picture book—these genres dominate the discussion of children's literature today. They sell well, and authors who specialize in them tend to gain the most prestige. In popularity with those who study children's books, as well as with the children, the historical novel seems to have fallen to somewhere near the bottom of the list.

Yet no one questions the high standards of the genre—the classics, from Kidnapped to the Little House books, the rich array of Newbery and Carnegie Award winners and Honor Books. Despite its current lack of visibility and sales appeal, the English-language historical novel has continued to attract many of the most distinguished children's writers of the last quarter century.1 And, as an overview of its own history will show, it is a survivor, too. It has outlived groundshaking changes, responding, adapting, and freely crossbreeding with other genres. Its inherent interest and vitality have not staled, and it deserves more scholarly attention than it has received so far.2

In some respects, its history as a genre within children's literature parallels that of fantasy. Both established themselves in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, and reached a peak of excellence in the golden era between 1865 and 1910. Both enjoyed a second flowering beginning around World War II, and lasting more than twenty years. And one can see why an audience receptive to one genre might like the other. Both transport the reader to worlds other than our own, and through similar techniques of narrative and description. Picture a knight in armor riding a black horse along a mountain road toward a distant castle—and the story you imagine for him may be either historical fiction or fantasy. For both genres sprang from the Romantic Movement, and especially from its fascination with the Middle Ages, which produced both Sintram and Ivanhoe. [End Page 1]

In his "Introductory" to Waverley (1814), Sir Walter Scott began defining the genre he had just invented by explaining his choice of subtitle—" 'Tis Sixty Years Since." Had he called his novel "Waverley, a Tale of Other Days," he says, "must not every novel-reader have anticipated a castle scarce less than that of Udolpho, of which the eastern wing had long been uninhabited"—and all the other trappings of the Gothic romance (3-4)? "Waverley, a Romance from the German" or "Waverley, A Sentimental Tale" would induce similar preconceptions, while "Waverley, A Tale of the Times" would have implied a setting here and now. Scott's subtitle identified his novel as "neither a romance of chivalry nor a tale of modern manners" (4) but as something new—a story set in a particular year in history; the mathematical precision of it reflects the accuracy Scott aimed for in his reconstruction of the past. Trained as a lawyer and a scholar of folklore to appreciate detail and weigh documentary evidence, Scott would not evoke the vague "Other Days" of Gothic romance, or its exaggerated heroes, heroines, and villains. He wanted an authentic past, and was convinced that its people were as human as ourselves—that the same passions "have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corselet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day" (5). Under Scott, the historical novel became, as my Handbook to Literature defines it, "A novel which reconstructs a personage, a series of events, a movement, or the spirit of a past age and pays the debt of serious scholarship to the facts of the age being recreated" (Thrall and Hibbard 223). Scott's success at setting this standard of scholarship was such that he was soon able to reclaim the Middle Ages from Gothic romance in his own Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825).

Despite the unusual clarity of these origins, the historical novel is more controversial to define than one might expect. As my handbook goes on to point out,

The extent to which actual historical events...