Enrollment in “Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction” is currently around 11,000 (see “Historical Fiction Meets the MOOC” for a post introducing the course). Since registration opened, I have received several hundred inquiries about the reading list, which appeared in skeletal form on Coursera’s introductory course page. I’ve now fleshed out the schedule of readings in more detail and wanted to provide them here a few weeks in advance of our start date of October 15. I’ll be posting this on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and I hope students will do the same in order to spread the word. The paragraphs below will appear under the “Readings” tab once the course begins, though we’ll likely see some refinements and additions as the eight-week class proceeds. Please let me know in the comments if there are any broken or buggy links, and I’m always happy to hear about additional resources to supplement the links provided below.
This page provides links to all of the recommended reading for this class, including novels, archival sources, modern critical writings, and other works discussed in the video lectures. For the lectures in Units 1 and 3, most of the novels are available in full, and I have tried to link to easily accessible editions in all cases (from Project Gutenberg, Google Books, etc.). For the visiting author seminars in Units 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7, students have two options: (1) Purchase the books, as recommended by the instructor (links to Amazon.com are provided for each title, though students may wish to use another source); or (2) Follow the links to excerpts of the novels currently available on Google Books. Be aware that option (2) will give you just a few portions of these novels, which are under copyright and cannot be reproduced and distributed freely. Our visiting writers have recommended certain supplemental readings to accompany their novels, and I have provided links to these as well (they will give you a nice glimpse at the kinds of primary sources novelists turn to in writing historical fiction).
Beneath each lecture title you will find a sentence or two pointing you to the works of fiction covered during the lecture as well as additional materials discussed in relation to the fiction on the syllabus. I have included links to a number of scholarly and journalistic discussions of particular works and themes, so take advantage of these if you are so inclined. I am always happy to recommend additional readings for those who want to follow up on any specific topic.
Please keep in mind that this class is a short introduction to a very large body of literature written over several centuries. The lectures in Units I and II alone cover nearly two dozen novels in more or less detail, so unless you’re a champion speed reader you won’t be able to read all of the recommended works in full (or anything close to it). I’ll indicate clearly in each lecture the specific pages or chapters I’m discussing, so try at a minimum to read those portions if you can. You might think of this course as a living textbook or guidebook of sorts to historical fiction: it will suggest particular places to visit and linger for a little while, examining certain aspects of each of them from a few intriguing angles, all in hopes that you’ll come back when you have time to experience them in more depth.
Unit 1: What Is Historical Fiction?
1.1 Defining the Genre
Definitions of historical fiction can be found in many places and take many forms. Perry Anderson’s “From Progress to Catastrophe” is a sophisticated overview of the historical novel since the early nineteenth century (it appeared in the London Review of Books). You might also visit the extensive website of the Historical Novel Society, “the home of historical fiction online.” Writings mentioned in the lecture include Ian Mortimer’s “Why Historians Should Write Fiction” and Larissa MacFarquhar’s “The Dead Are Real” (on Hilary Mantel). Aristotle’s most extensive remarks on the concept of mimesis (imitation) can be found in the Poetics.
1.2 The Pre-History of Historical Fiction
George Saintsbury’s The Historical Novel (1895) is available on Google Books, and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia is available through Project Gutenberg (if you want a taste of Xenophon’s style take a look at Cyrus’s quite moving interactions with his father in Book I chapter 3). There is a nice interlinear translation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale available through Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Page; The History of Thomas of Reading is hosted on the California Digital Library; Cicely, or The Rose of Raby is on Google Books (the link takes you to Volume 1; the subsequent volumes can be found through a search on the same title). I also highly recommend Matthew Phillpott’s “Brief History of Historical Fiction,” an essay produced for the Institute for Historical Research that covers the subject in depth.
1.3 From Archive to Novel
Mary Mallon’s letter of 1909 (to be discussed in more depth during Unit 6) is transcribed in part on pbs.org. The interview with Mary Beth Keane appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. A full text of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer is available through Project Gutenberg (the scene on Otsego Lake is in chapter III). The Anne Boleyn scene appears in Part II of HIlary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
1.4 The Question of Origins
The two novels discussed in this lecture, Sophia Lee’s The Recess and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, are available in full on Google Books and elsewhere. Professor Michael McKeon, the scholar referenced at the beginning of the lecture, discusses the relationship between history and fiction in the eighteenth century in his book The Origins of the English Novel; I hope everyone views the Author Conversation with Professor McKeon at some point during the eight weeks (we discuss, among other topics, György Lukács’ The Historical Novel, a very influential theoretical work on the nature and origins of historical fiction).
1.5 Historical Fiction: A Global Genre
This lecture touches on three historical novels: Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, Jurji Zaydan’s The Conquest of Andalusia, and the anonymous Jicoténcal. Portions of the first two are available online. Students might also want to take a look at some of the essays posted on Reviews in History as part of a Special Issue on Historical Fiction in 2011, particularly the pieces by Lovell (on the Cultural Revolution in China) and Martin (on Russia).
Unit 2: Poetry and Exile in Ancient Rome: Jane Alison
Jane Alison’s The Love Artist may be purchased at Amazon; a fair amount of the text is available through Google Books. Excerpts from Alison’s own translations of Ovid–two from the Amores, then his stories of Echo and Narcissus, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Arethusa, and Glaucus and Scylla–will be made available as a pdf alongside the seminar recording (all these myths are mentioned in the opening three or four chapters of The Love Artist, so they make for good supplemental reading to accompany the seminar). See also the UVA e-text translation of Ovid’s version of the Medea story in Metamorphoses (although better translations are to be found in print editions like those by Humphries, Lombardo, and Martin).
Unit 3: Two Centuries of Historical Fiction
3.1 Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: Fiction on the Frontier
Project Gutenberg has made available full texts of the five novels in the Leatherstocking series: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans , The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and The Prairie (listed here in order of story chronology rather than order of publication). For those who like their historical fiction delivered by ear, there is also a fascinating series of old radio adaptations of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans (recorded in 1932). Mark Twain’s wonderfully acerbic critique of Cooper and the Leatherstocking series appears in an essay titled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
3.2 Brown’s Clotel: Slavery, Fiction, and a Founding Father
Brown’s novel–the full title is Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States–is available in an illustrated hypertext at UNC’s Documenting the American South project. Also referenced in the lecture are Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemings: A Novel (1979) and Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).
3.3 Dickens and the French Revolution: A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: A Story of the French Revolution is available in multiple formats at Project Gutenberg. Also discussed in the lecture is one of the author’s most important sources for the novel, Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History (1837), available on Internet Archive.
3.4 Anna Katharine Green and the Invention of the Historical Mystery
Green’s novel The Forsaken Inn, often described as the first bona fide historical mystery, is available on Project Gutenberg. There’s also a cool illustrated Kindle edition at Amazon. The standard biography of this remarkable and little-known writer is Patricia Maida’s Mother of Detective Fiction: the life and works of Anna Katharine Green (1989).
3.5 Modernism, Metafiction, and the Mass Market, 1920-1980
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando are available on Google Books. Linda Hutcheon’s influential discussion of “historiographic metafiction” appears in the seventh chapter of her book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction.
3.6 The New Historical Novel in Latin America
Suggested readings for this lecture (actually a conversation with University of Virginia Spanish Professor Gustavo Pellón) will be announced soon. In the meantime, you might take a look at Professor Pellón’s translation of Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs: Pictures and Scenes from the Present Revolution (orig. Los de abajo).
Unit 4: Witchcraft and the Early Americas: Katherine Howe
Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane may be purchased at Amazon; excerpts are available on Google Books. Several primary sources from the Salem trials inspired particular scenes in the historical sections. The Interlude in which Deliverance is in prison awaiting her witchcraft trial (p. 294 of the paperback edition) has her in a cell with Sarah Good and her daughter; see the actual document filed with the state by William Good, Dorcas’s father, many years after the trials asking for support because Dorcas lost her mind in prison. In that same Interlude, Deliverance’s body is searched for signs that she has the “witches’ teat.” Another document from Salem describes that real search on the real bodies of Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, Alice Parker, Susannah Martin, and Sarah Good. The Interlude that begins on page 309 is Deliverance’s examination in court; one model Howe used for this scene was the examination of Bridget Bishop, the first woman executed during the Salem panic. These and other documents are available through the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.
Unit 5: A Plague Year in Renaissance England: Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders may be purchased at Amazon; excerpts are available on Google Books. Many primary sources relating to the great plague year in Eyam are brought together in William Wood’s The History and Antiquities of Eyam; With a Minute Account of the Great Plague Which Desolated That Village in the Year 1666, published in 1842. See pp. 71-73 for a wrenching letter from William Mompesson to his children on the death of their mother. A list of Eyam plague deaths is available on the Eyam Museum website, which is well worth a visit.
Unit 6: Disease and the Written City: Mary Beth Keane
Mary Beth Keane’s Fever is available from Amazon; excerpts are available on Google Books. Numerous sources relevant to the case of Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”) may be found on the website accompanying the NOVA program, “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World,” including a letter that is part of her habeas corpus file and describes her life on North Brother Island.
Unit 7: Ghosts and Marriage in Colonial Malaysia: Yangsze Choo
Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride is available from Amazon; excerpts are available on Google Books. For a description of the Chinese population in Malacca during the years in which the novel is set, see Isabella Bird’s The Golden Chersonese: Travels in Malaya (1879), particularly Letter IX, “A Tropic Dream” (pp. 130-34). Choo has also recommended a recent article on ghost marriage and grave-robbing for our class discussion.
Additional supplemental readings will be posted as the course proceeds.