Favourite historical fiction authors – a 1902 perspective

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 9.07.29 AMEileen Iciek and I met through Goodreads after I posted a note about the 2013 favourite historical fiction authors and Eileen responded by referencing a 1902 list of favourite historical fiction. A 1902 list? WOW. I immediately asked Eileen whether she would write a blog post and, to my delight, she agreed. Here’s Eileen’s thoughts based on that 1902 list.

In January 1902, a man named Jonathan Nield published “A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales.”  I happened across it one day as a free download from Amazon for my Kindle, not realizing at first that it was over one hundred years old. Once I realized its age, I was unsure what I might find, but decided to rummage through it out of curiosity.

Mr. Nield’s introduction provided his definition of historical novel: “A novel is rendered Historical by the introduction of dates, personages, or events, to which identification can be readily given.”  Not exactly how it is commonly defined today, but good enough for the time.  A couple of other observations I gleaned from his opening comments were first, that the issue with anachronisms in historical fiction in one that authors of the genre have experienced since the beginning.  He said he had not included some books, despite their popularity, due to their blatant anachronisms.  Second, at that time the terms “historical novel” and “romance” were almost interchangeable.  He often referred to “historical romance” synonymously with “historical novel,” while today historical romance would be considered a subgenre.

There were no bestseller lists at that time (at least that I am aware of) so Mr. Nield simply listed historical novels he had either read or knew to be good.  From his 168-page book, I did an unscientific listing of the authors whose names seemed to pop up most frequently, and used that as an approximation of popularity.  One thing was immediately obvious: in the recent 2013 listing of most popular authors, 15 of the top 20 were women.  In 1902, of the 24 I noticed most often, 22 of them were men.

It was also clear the ancient Romans, the Tudors, and Mary, Queen of Scots have fascinated authors of historical fiction since the beginning.  Not to say that other times and places did not receive attention, particularly the Napoleonic period, but Caesar, Henry VIII and the Scots queen have captivated writers and their audiences for a long time.

I saw only twenty-three books on Nield’s list that I thought are still known or read with any frequency.  They are:

  • Ben Hur – Lew Wallace
  • Quo Vadis – H. Sienkiewicz
  • The Last Days of Pompeii – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  • Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Alexandre Dumas
  • The Prince and the Pauper – Mark Twain
  • The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  • Lorna Doone – Richard Blackmore
  • The Master of Ballantrae – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Last of the Mohicans – James Fennimore Cooper
  • A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  • The Man Without a Country – Edward Everett Hale
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  • Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
  • Middlemarch –George Eliot
  • The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
  • The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Tom Jones – Henry Fielding
  • The Vicar of Wakefield – Oliver Goldsmith
  • Adam Bede – George Eliot

Not all of the authors of the books listed above are included on the list [Nield’s list] of the most popular writers.  For example, George Eliot has two books listed, but her output was not sufficient to get more than a few books recorded compared to the many books others produced.  I chose to list only Scott’s Ivanhoe, simply because I knew so little about his many other books.  The Man Without a Country is actually a short story (tale).  And there are a few odd omissions by Nield, such as that of Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The authors most frequently listed in Nield’s compendium were prolific in an age when writing was done largely by hand.  I lost track of the number of books written by Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas who stand atop the list as the most frequently listed authors still extant.  Many of the other writers’ books can be found on Amazon as free downloads to Kindle readers; some authors and their books, however, have become too obscure to be listed.

The most frequently listed authors I noted on the 1902 list were:

  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Alexandre Dumas
  • A.J. Church
  • Georg Ebers
  • J.M. Ludlow
  • C.W. Whistler
  • A.D. Crake
  • G.A. Henty
  • J.G. Edgar
  • Edward Bulwer Lytton
  • G.P.R. James
  • Charlotte Yonge
  • E. Gilliat
  • Stanley Weyman
  • G.J. Whyte-Melville
  • James Fennimore Cooper
  • S.R. Keightley
  • Emma Marshall
  • Ronald Macdonald
  • S.H. Burchell
  • William Makepeace Thackery
  • Walter Besant
  • C.D.G. Roberts
  • Robert Louis Stevenson

My apologies to anyone who might choose to check these results – they were only my own observations of frequently noted names and may not be wholly accurate.

Finally, I should mention the authors included in Nield’s list that I had known for works that were not historical fiction, but who had published a historical novel or two.  I was most surprised to find that Winston Churchill, aged 27 at the time Nield’s book was published and not yet widely known, had written two historical novels good enough to be included, one set during the American Revolution, and one during the U.S. Civil War.  Others included were Balzac, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Emil Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Mary Shelley, H. Rider Haggard, George Sand and F. Hodgson Burnett.  Flaubert’s novel was set during the Carthage-Rome conflict, of all things.  Mary Shelley’s foray into the genre was titled Perkin Warbeck.  The fact that these writers produced and had some success with historical fiction demonstrates, I believe, the continuing popularity and influence of this genre.

Many thanks for this, Eileen! It’s a fascinating look back in time. From my perspective, I’ve read only a few of the authors Nield mentioned which means there’s much more exploring to be done in this wonderful genre. For those interested in pursuing Nield’s book further, you can check it out on Project Gutenberg or as a free download from Amazon.

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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3 Responses

  1. Just when I thought I had started to get some control over my book reading pile another fascinating list of authors and books turns up. I badly need a post on how to find another six hours reading time a day.

    There may be a solution … is there an anthology similar to the following to help screen out a few likable gems. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Little-Aloud-anthology-reading-someone/dp/0701185635/ref=cm_cr-mr-title.

    In this book I have already found the Real Gold delights of George Eliot in Silas Marner. Alas I also need to find time to write and self edit my own books.

  2. What an absolute gem of a book! Thank you for blogging about this, Ms Todd. And congratulations and thanks to Ms Iciek for both finding the book, and telling others.

    I thought I had a pretty good grip of literature available from 1850 onwards, but there were so many names I had not even heard of, never mind read their books.

    I’m with Alexander – we need more hours in the day to get all our reading done!

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