Historical Fiction

Module code: EN3171

Module co-ordinator: Dr Kate Loveman 

This course explores the writing and reception of historical fiction taking examples from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Beginning with Walter Scott's Waverley -- often called 'the first historical novel' -- we will investigate the advantages and challenges facing authors who choose to set their work in the past, along with the varying appeal of this work for readers and critics. 

What draws authors to particular time periods? What makes a novel 'historical' and what are the preoccupations and narrative techniques common in historical fiction? How are historical sources employed in these works? We will consider the factors that influence whether a historical novel is labelled intellectually respectable or 'merely' popular. If historical fiction has been among the most commercially successful literary forms in recent years, it has always been among the most provocative.


The main focus of this module will be on narratives set in the early modern period (1500-1750). Scott's best-seller Waverley (published in 1814 but set in the 1740s) offers an introduction to many of the issues surrounding historical fiction. We will look at the connections between historical fiction and other literary forms such as the detective story and the Gothic, using works such as James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1825). Most of our examples, however, will be from twentieth- and twenty-first century writers, including Hilary Mantel's Booker-prize winning Wolf Hall (2009). Primary works will be set in context through the use of historical documents, contemporary reviews, and secondary criticism.


The module is taught through weekly two-hour seminars. While some contextual materials will be provided, students will be asked to explore the reception of more recent works through their own investigations. Each student will offer a brief oral presentation to provide the basis for group discussion of one of the texts. Study of the longer books on the course will be spread over more than one week.

By the end of the module, students will be able to...

  • Construct clear and detailed arguments concerning a range of historical fiction from the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century
  • Demonstrate awareness of the debates surrounding individual works of historical fiction and the 'historical novel' as a genre
  • Analyze how historical sources have been employed in the creation of particular fictional narratives
  • Identify the techniques used to position and market examples of historical fiction, and how these techniques may change over time


  • A 5,000-word essay