The rise and fall of the historical novel? A study of nineteenth-century periodical reviews

Helen Kingstone, Jonathan Taylor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The historical novel was a central genre in nineteenth-century publishing, but has always been maligned as well as celebrated. This article investigates what nineteenth-century reviewers thought made a successful historical novel, and how ideas about the value of history-writing and fiction-writing fed into these judgements.

This data-driven study involved reading and categorising almost 2,000 reviews of historical fiction found via a complex search of ProQuest’s British Periodicals database. The results revealed the criteria on which reviewers evaluated the genre, and the ways that reception changed over the century. Reviewers were very conscious of the genre’s hybridity and what they saw as its ethical pitfalls. The advent of Walter Scott in 1814 chastened, but did not eliminate, a strand of response that questioned the genre’s validity.
Contrary to György Lukács’s still-influential theory that the genre fell from grace after 1848, we show that historical novels continued to be well received. This issue puts qualitative and quantitative data in tension: in the 1880s, obituaries for the genre were rife, but individual novels were met with renewed enthusiasm, suggesting that as a genre’s status falls it might be received more leniently.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)125-144
Number of pages20
JournalNineteenth-Century Contexts
Issue number2
Early online date25 Apr 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Apr 2023


  • historical novel
  • periodicals
  • genre

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