When asked, many would define historical fiction as made-up stories set in the past. However, when required to provide more parameters, the classification of the genre becomes unclear. How many years in the past must the book take place to be considered “historical?” Does Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, written in and depicting Regency era England, count as historical fiction if read by a 21st century audience?
Within the ambiguous genre of historical fiction, book reviewers are careful to either give or withhold this label because it connotes poor writing. The novels I analyze in this essay wear the scarlet label of “historical fiction” as they have themes of adventure and romance, often associated with unsophisticated formulaic literature. In response to this stigma, many authors of historical fiction attempt to prove the legitimacy of their work by demonstrating its historical accuracy. Authors who set their novels during the American Revolutionary war, additionally, appeal to their audience by affirming the reader’s preconceptions of the war.
Many writers of historical fiction prove the validity of their work by detailing their knowledge of the setting and commitment to crafting accurate portrayals of the past. In The Carolinians, the book jacket describes how author Jane Barry is “a long-time student of the Revolution” because she “spent three years researching the historical background” (Barry). Similarly, in The Neutral Ground, Frank O. Hough establishes his commitment to authenticity in his author’s note. After admitting to intentional chronological inaccuracies, Hough says “the writer can only plead expediency and belief in that doing so he has not ... altered in any essential respect a minor page of history (Hough 10). Authors additionally prove the factuality of their books by incorporating maps and dates. The intended purpose of these elements may be to aid the reader’s understanding of the locations and the passage of time. However, maps and dates also show the work is rooted in fact as the novel takes place in real places and follows a recognizable historical timeline.
While writers of historical fiction attempt to prove the factualness of their work, authors who set their stories during the American Revolution have more of a commitment to accuracy because of their audience’s prior knowledge of the event. In The Charlatan by Carter A. Vaughan, the protagonist Colonel Elias Wheaton is a spy who rescues the Duke of Savoy’s illegitimate son during the War of Spanish Succession (known as Queen Anne’s War in the colonies). The plot of the novel is full of adventure and drama as it details Elias’ love affairs and grand duels. In contrast, Vaughn’s novel The Yankee Rascal, is more believable story, following the patriotic war efforts of American Captain Jeremey Ford during the American Revolution. Although the novels are by the same author, the marvelousness of the story changes based off its historical backdrop. Since the audience is more familiar with the American Revolution than the War of Spanish Succession, Vaughn has more of a commitment to factualness in Dragon Dove and, thus, writes a more believable tale.
Authors who set their stories during American Revolution, furthermore, incorporate recognizable war tropes to characterize the soldiers as patriotic and heroic. For example, in Lucifer Land by Mildred and Katherine Davis, Cassie initially fails to recognize a ragged soldier from her past until she notices “It was the same body but erect instead of stooped. The same eyes, but filled with knowledge, instead of empty. The same voice, but sharp instead of blurred” (Davis and Davis 324). The authors utilize the trope of the war-torn hero to characterize the returning soldier as a patriotic man who sacrifices both his physical and mental health. Other novels formulaically incorporate a noble death on the battlefield. In Dragon Cove by Carter A. Vaughan, Oliver is a young boy who, although advised by the captain to flee, fights against the British during a naval battle. While the Americans win the battle, Oliver dies, conveying the hardship and tragedy of the war. Oliver’s young age, moreover, prompts an emotional response from the audience who characterizes him as valiant and courageous. From popular culture, the audience expects favorable depictions of fearless and honorable Revolutionary War heroes. Thus, the authors use these familiar war tropes to appeal to their readers and reassert the prevalent narrative.
The jackets of the books in the collection, furthermore, affirm the audience’s expectation of glorious and brave war heroes. Much of the artwork depicts a strong man, sometimes accompanied by a love interest. Behind him is often a burning or desolate town he defends. The juxtaposition of the feeble town and the powerful man connotes a resilient American rising from hardship. Many of the covers also portray American soldiers ready to attack the opposing British force. The cover of The Ragged Ones by Burke Davis illustrates a soldier in rags who looks down on the British from a cliff. The man holds his gun and powder horn as he is preparing to attack the troops below. Behind him are two other men who also hold weapons and take fighting stances. The ragged clothing symbolizes the hardship of the gritty soldiers while their powerful body language portrays their bravery and toughness. These images of hardened noble soldiers resonate with the audience who envisions the courageous rebels often depicted in popular culture.
In addition to reaffirming the audience’s expectation of valiant soldiers, the collection of novels defends other lore such as the American dream. In many of the books in the collection, the protagonist gains social status because of their efforts in battle. This trajectory mirrors the real-life inspirational journey of Alexander Hamilton whose war efforts helped him improve his social standing. The authors’ portrayal of the American dream reinforces the concept of the country as a meritocracy. Furthermore, since the novels are set during the birth of the country, the depiction of this ideal not only affirms the audience’s belief in the American dream but asserts social climbing has been achievable even before America was a country.
Finally, the collection of novels conveys the dominant narrative that America was made for white men. In many of the novels, the women only function as potential love interests for the heroic male protagonist. In The Wilderness by Carter A. Vaughan, Naomi is an indentured servant until Gordon rescues and marries her. Although Naomi technically achieves social mobility, she does not have control over her fate as Gordon is the one who frees her, showing women do not have power in patriarchal America. The novels in the collection, additionally, exclude the enslaved from the dominant narrative. When the authors refer to the enslaved individuals as “black servants,” they write over the presence of slavery in colonial times. The enslaved in the novels, additionally, often do not have dialogue, showing how their narratives have literally been silenced. Furthermore, when enslaved individuals make brief appearances in the novels, they are depicted serving the white male protagonist. Thus, their achievements and contributions to America are ignored. While the depictions of women and the enslaved were widely accepted at the time the novels were written, many modern audiences would take issue with these negative portrayals. In response, current novelists such as Laurie Halse Anderson who wrote The Seeds of America Trilogy: Chains; Forge; Ashes, are now giving positive representation to historically oppressed groups, such as the enslaved.
due to the stigmatization of the historical fiction genre, many novelists tend
to overcompensate the legitimacy of their work by showing its historical
accuracy. The novels set during the Revolutionary War, additionally, affirm the
audience’s preconceptions of the war by using tropes to depict the war and its
outcome as noble and courageous. While this formula praises the noble hero, it perpetuates
unfavorable depictions of women and the enslaved. Thus, it would be interesting
to examine how modern books recreate this pattern or reject the traditional
representation of the American Revolution to provide better portrayals of women
Barry, Jane. The Carolinians. Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1959.
Coolidge, Olivia E. Cromwell's Head. Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
Davis, Burke. The Ragged Ones. Pocket Books, 1953.
Davis, Lou Ellen. Clouds of Destiny. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.
Davis, Mildred, and Katherine Davis. Lucifer Land. Random House, 1977.
Graves, Robert. Proceed, Sergeant Lamb. Methuen, 1941.
Horan, James D. King's Rebel. Crown Publishers, Inc., 1955.
Hough, Frank O. The Neutral Ground. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1942.
Hough, Frank Olney. If Not Victory. Carrick & Evans, Inc., 1939.
Hough, Frank Olney. Renown. G.G. Harrap & Co., 1938.
Hungerford, Edward Buell. Forge for Heroes. Wilcox & Follett Company.
Schoonover, Lawrence L. The Revolutionary. Ballantine Books, 1971.
Vaughan, Carter A. The Wilderness. Doubleday, 1959.
Vaughan, Carter A. The Yankee Rascals. Doubleday, 1963.
Vaughan, Carter A. Dragon Cove. Doubleday, 1964.
Vaughan, Carter A. The Charlatan. Doubleday, 1961.
Vaughan, Carter A. The Invincibles. Redman, 1959.
Vining, Elizabeth Gray, et al. The Virginia Exiles. Doubleday, 1955.
Nicholas E. The Braintree Mission. The Macmillan Company,