The Historical Novel

I was intrigued when I discovered that Sir Herbert Butterfield, the historian had written a book about historical fiction.

Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) took up the chair of modern history at the University of Cambridge in 1944 and was appointed to the Regius Professorship of modern history in 1963. He was editor of the Cambridge Historical Journal from 1938 to 1955 and president of the Historical Association from 1955 to 1958. He was also master of Peterhouse from 1955 to 1968 and vice chancellor of the university from 1959 to 1961. He was knighted in 1968.

As an undergraduate at Peterhouse he entered the Le Bas prize (offered annually for an essay written on a literary subject, the winning entry to be published by Cambridge University Press). It was this essay, which was the basis for Butterfield’s first book The Historical Novel (1924).  

In the Preface he outlined his intention in writing the book:

an attempt to find some relation between historical novels on the one hand and history treated as a study on the other. It does not defend historical fiction against the historian; it welcomes this form of art from his point of view, finding its justification in the character of history itself. It seeks to estimate the novel as a work of resurrection, a form of ‘history’, a way of treating the past.

His key arguments were that the historical fiction brings emotion and imaginationwith it:

if we find nothing else we find the sentiment of history, the feeling for the past, in the historical novel. (p.3)

bringing in fiction to supply what history fails to give. That is true resurrection, that is the reason why historical novels are full of life and of people, where history is often bloodless and dead. (p.74)

Butterfield also acknowledged differences between the approach of historians and historical novelists to the past:

for the historian the past is the whole process of development that leads up to the present; to the novelist it is a strange world to tell tales about. (p.113)

the most homely and intimate and personal things slip through the hands of the historian. (p.15)

the historical novelist receives his hint from history (p.29)

the historical novelist does not merely acquire information about the past, but absorbs it into his mind (p.107)

So in the historical novel, when it is done well:

history and fiction can enrich and amplify one another… each making the other more powerful. (p.7)   

History is re-inforced by being written in the story-teller’s way (p.27)

Several times in the book Butterfield mentions the ‘special kind of appeal to the reader’ that historical novels can have. (p. 5, p.7)

  • Although The Historical Novel was written over ninety years ago, it still makes some very valid points.
  • Many social historians may well argue against Butterfield’s comment about the homely, intimate and personal things…
  • It would also be useful to ask present day historians turned historical novelists their view, particularly in their approach to researching the past.

To end this post, here is an analogy Butterfield uses in the book – which I love:

like a song, in which music and poetry are interlocked and become one harmony the historical novel is a fusion. (p.6)


Butterfield, H. The Historical Novel: an essay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924)