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Charles Major: Father of the Historical Romance

One of the most successful writers of historical romance was Charles Major, one of many Hoosier writers (including Booth Tarkington, Meredith Nicholson, and James Whitcomb Riley) who made their mark in the American literary world during the 19th century. Famous Shelbvyille people are all over the place in terms of their professions; some are sports figures, others have been active in politics. Charles Major is the only one who was involved in the arts, and he is one of the most striking literary figures from Central Indiana. Born on July 25, 1856 in Indianapolis to an upper middle class lawyer and his wife, Charles Major had an interest in the law from early on. The family moved to nearby Shelbyville, Indiana when Major was thirteen years old. Upon his high school graduation in 1872, Charles Major studied law at the University of Michigan, where he received his degree in 1875. He was admitted to the Indiana bar just a few years later in 1877, but his life as a lawyer was always secondary to his life as a novelist.
1898 saw Charles Major’s first novel, When Knighthood Was in Flower, skyrocket to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List; the novel stayed on the list for three years. When Knighthood Was in Flower was a historical romance set during the reign of King Henry VIII which sold over two hundred thousand copies in its first two years of existence. The impact of When Knighthood Was in Flower stretched beyond mere sales figures, however. The book would go on to create an entire industry out of historical romances. Made into a Broadway play in 1908, When Knighthood Was in Flower also saw two film releases, one in 1908 and another in 1922. The success of the novel allowed Charles Major to close his law office and focus exclusively on his fiction, much to the joy of Hoosier readers.

Other historical romances dot Charles Major‘s bibliography, including Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall and A Gentle Knight of Old Brandenburg, but romance wasn’t the only mode Major wrote in. He also wrote three juvenile classics of Indiana literature, The Bears of Blue River, A Forest Hearth, and Uncle Tom Andy Bill: A Story of Bears and Indian Treasure. These three novels are all set in Indiana, near Major’s home town of Shelbyville, and tell the tale of Balser Brent, a boy with an adventurous streak and a penchant for killing bears. Each novel examines the pioneer spirit that led to the destruction of much of Indiana’s natural forest, the man vs. nature ideas that dominated the 19th century, and the rise of Indiana’s farming culture, all wrapped up in a trio of thrilling adventure stories. The Blue River which winds around Shelbyville is featured prominently in each of these novels. The Bears of Blue River saw a film release in 2006.
Though all of this famous Shelbyville person’s novels experienced some level of success, Charles Major’s writing career came to an abrupt end in 1913, when he passed away in Shelbyville due to liver cancer. Charles Major’s legacy is an important part of Shelbyville culture; Charles Major Manor is an apartment complex in Shelbyville, the Charles Major Education Center is a Shelbyville school named after the writer, and the annual Bears of Blue River Festival is a Shelbyville event named after Major’s novel of the same name.

Starting with the rampant success of When Knighthood Was in Flower, Shelbyville resident Charles Major established himself as the father of the modern historical romance. Most bodice ripper paperbacks you find on library shelves are direct or indirect descendants of Major’s canon, but Charles Major didn’t limit himself to one style. In an interesting dichotomy, he also wrote juvenile adventure novels, the most well known being The Bears of Blue River. If you’re a fan of today’s dime a dozen romance novels, you’d do well to revisit the Hoosier author who started it all: Charles Major.


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