Hawthorne and the Historical Romance

Although we now refer to The Scarlet Letter as a novel, Hawthorne subtitled his book A Romance, a reference to the European tradition of stories of knights embarking on fantastic quests and having high adventures in foreign lands. The “historical romance” was a subgenre of romance that fictionalized historical events. Scholars consider the first modern historical romance to be Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley. Published in 1814, Waverley retold the story of a Scottish uprising against the English monarchy in 1745 from the perspective of an English soldier who discovers his Scottish heritage after he joins a band of highlanders and falls in love with their female leader. Scott blended history with fiction to help readers understand what it must have felt like to live in that historical period. Almost all of his Scottish characters speak in dialects from the period, real historical events occur around the characters, and actual historical figures even make cameo appearances. The protagonist experiences many reversals and thrilling escapades in his quest to win the heart of his beloved.

Walter Scott’s historical romances were immensely popular in the United States and provided many early American authors with a template for writing about their own country. American writers were very interested in using stories to develop a sense of national identity and pride, and to help readers make sense of their past and history. Authors like James Fenimore Cooper and Lydia Maria Child adapted Scott’s stories, replacing the encounters between Scottish highlanders and English citizens with Native Americans and Anglo-European colonists. Cooper’s novels, especially, struck a chord with American audiences, and he quickly became known as the “American Scott.” One of the ways American historical romances differed from their European counterparts was in their preoccupation with what it meant to be “American.” These authors, who were mostly writing in the 1820s and 1830s, profoundly influenced Hawthorne, whose own fascination with American history is evident in the numerous tales and sketches he published about Puritan New England.

The Scarlet Letter redefines the historical romance as a historically accurate story that uses heightened sensations and supernatural effects to produce a dreamlike feeling. While most readers in the 1800s would have thought of the historical romance as a literary genre that mixed history and fiction together, Hawthorne develops a definition of “romance” in “The Custom House” preface that is much different. He makes clear that The Scarlet Letter is not a novel, because novels, great as they are, tell the stories of people’s everyday, ordinary lives. Romances, on the other hand, transport readers to another place and time, where separating out the real from the fictional is much harder to do. Hawthorne says that reading a romance is like sitting in your living room when moonlight is shining in. In the darkness, the way moonlight shines on the objects in the room will “spiritualize” them and make these familiar things suddenly unfamiliar. In this atmosphere, the room becomes a place “between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet.” For Hawthorne, then, romances like The Scarlet Letter present a version of reality that is somewhere in between the possible and the impossible, or the real and the imaginary.

Read more about the romance genre in the context of Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale.