"En Toch, Wat is Eigentlyk het Historieke Roman?" The Emergence of the Historical Novel as a Distinct Genre in Belgium in the 1830s and 1840s

Nele Bemong, Research Assistant of the Fund for Scientific Research (FWO), Flanders (Belgium) at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

In the course of the 18th century, the novel experienced a spectacular rise all throughout Europe. From the very beginning, this new literary genre was unanimously reviled because of its association with falseness, invention and fiction. The number of accusations launched against the genre in the early 18th century was truly enormous. Henin compares the position of the French novel in this period to that of a defendant in the witness stand (35). The privileged place where this defendant puts forward the elements in his defence, hoping to escape his sentence, is the preface. The rise of the novel as a genre was therefore accompanied by an emphatic increase in the number of prefaces. The preface proved to be the privileged locus for expressing the literary novelistic conscience. As Kremer points out, the preface is simultaneously a rhetorical and a dialogical place (77). Rhetorically, it resembles the exordium: the author asks for the reader's kind attention to his work; he tries to instil a favourable disposition to his work and convince the reader to embark upon a reading of it. As one of the authors in the corpus under discussion points out, in the preface an author "has the reader as a confidante, before having him as a judge" ("on a le lecteur pour confident, avant de l'avoir pour juge"; Joly i-ii).1 As a dialogical place, on the other hand, it is the space where the novel conceptualizes itself in a constant dialogue with the expectations of the reader, the place where the author adjusts himself, or feigns to adjust himself, to the demands and taste of both readers and critics, and where, at the same time, he tries to seduce these readers into entering the web of romance (Kremer 77). During a large part of the 18th century, the preface thus provides "le discours par excellence" (Kremer 77), not only for convincing one's reader but also for voicing one's poetics.2 After the European enmity against the novel had reached its height in the first half of the 18th century, in the second half of the 18th and the first decades of the 19th century, the genre increasingly won acceptance (Henin 35) and the necessity to exonerate the novel from the flood of accusations launched against it gradually waned. This loss of one of its most important functions caused the preface to disappear in the second half of the 18th century: because the reader no longer needed to be convinced of the harmlessness of reading novels, views on the genre, that had up to then found their place in the preface, could now be voiced elsewhere, for instance in periodicals or in narrator's comments in the novel itself (Pol 18).

The Belgian literary system -- the focus of this article -- however, differed greatly from this general European picture. Belgium, as a nation-state, did not come into being until 1830. After the fall of Napoleon's Empire in 1814, the Allies had decided to unite the Southern and Northern Netherlands in the United Kingdom, in order to construct a buffer state against France. But soon, King William's policy of centralisation and of "making Dutch" the gallicized south, together with the freedom of religion as it was laid down in the constitution, aroused strong feelings of resentment among the southern population. In September 1830, in the wake of the Parisian July Revolution, the southern regions eventually rose in revolt against the king. Whereas the goal of the uprising had initially been limited to an administrative separation between North and South, the unyielding attitude of King William led to a complete rupture. On October 4th, during the Protocol of London, the independence of Belgium was proclaimed. Immediately after the independence, the Belgian government saw itself confronted with a serious anomaly. While a Belgian state did exist, a Belgian national consciousness still had to be "created". The Belgian politicians assigned a prominent role to literature as a powerful tool in affirming - and especially safeguarding - the cultural and even political identity of the nation (Vlasselaers 118). As a consequence, the literature of the early 19th century was allotted a primarily political and cultural function, which consisted in designing a "Belgian" past and creating a feeling of Belgian nationality by mobilizing the great episodes of the national past.

The greatest challenge the first Belgian literators saw themselves confronted with was their choice of the most adequate genre. The spectacular rise of the novel in 18th-century-Europe had taken place largely outside of the Southern Netherlands. That the only novels these regions were familiar with were French novels did not exactly instil a favourable disposition to the genre, as I argue in my article "Nulla fides Gallis". The preface to In 't Wonderjaer, the very first Flemish novel, published as late as 1837, twenty-four years later than Scott's Waverley, or, Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), testifies to this fact. The author Hendrik Conscience forewarns his public not to be frightened by the fact that he is presenting them with a novel, since it is "not a novel like those French" ("Het is een Roman! schrikt niet. Niet een Roman als de franschen [...]"; iii). The late introduction of the novel in the Belgian literary system can help to explain the fierce resistance that the genre aroused in Belgium until deep in the first half of the 19th century. Where the rest of Europe had by this time grown more or less accustomed to the genre, to the Belgians it was still new. As late as 1843, the Belgian bishops published a pastoral letter on the malignant influence of "bad books".3

Still, there was one novelistic genre that had earned its credentials in the neighbouring countries as a genre well suited for the urgent task of providing the young nation-state with a history 'as a nation', and thus with a unique national identity that could legitimate the often contested independence.4 That genre was the historical novel. But since the Belgian (and especially the Flemish) reading public in the 1830s and 1840s was for the most part hardly educated and unfamiliar with literary traditions, historical novelists had to find a suitable model, a blueprint as it were, for a type of historical novel that could fulfil the tasks that were being set. As my essay will reveal, the historical novels that started appearing in Belgium after 1830 were not only influenced by foreign literary traditions (a number of novelists explicitly mention the models of Walter Scott and of the French historical novelists in their prefaces), but also, and for a large part, by 'native' (local or national) folk tales and popular legends, with which the public was familiar.

The question of whether the national literature that was explicitly called for should be written in 'Flemish' or in French was of secondary importance during the first two decades after independence.5 In 1846, Pieter Ecrevisse, the author of several Flemish historical novels, expressed the, in those two decades predominant, unproblematic attitude towards the bilingual position of a Belgian national literature as follows in the preface to De Drossaert Clerckx: "Create, and help to create a patriotic literature; it will be the staunchest pillar of the national building! Write in French or in Flemish; but be Belgians in your writings!" ("Schept, en helpt mede tot het scheppen eener vaderlandsche letterkunde; zy zal de hechtste steunpilaer zyn van het nationale gebouw! Schryft fransch, of schryft vlaemsch; maer weest Belgen in uwe schriften!"; 15). Between 1830 and 1850, there existed a truly Belgian literature, written in both Flemish and French, but with the presence of one unique subject matter -- the Flemish theme6 -- and aimed at achieving a single goal: creating a Belgian past, and thus constructing a Belgian identity.

The first Belgian historical novelists were, however, not only confronted with the task of devising a specific 'form' for a Belgian historical novel that essentially had to be the reflection of the national character (bilingual, and rooted in a glorious past). They also had to clarify their position vis-à-vis another current, highly narrative form of historical prose in which fictionalisation went almost as far as it did in historical novels: contemporary historiography. As Nachtergaele, amongst various others, has pointed out, the generic demarcation between the historical novel and historiography was, up to 1850, still very vague and hazy: "In fact, as to the first half of the 19th century, one does not have the right to oppose the historical novel to historiography: these genres did not yet have a proper generic identity at that moment." ("En effet, s'agissant de la première moitié du XIXe siècle, on n'a pas le droit d'opposer le roman historique è l'historiographie: ces genres n'avaient pas encore d'identité générique propre è ce moment-là"; Roman historique et identité nationale 12-13).7

This paper traces the attempts of the first Belgian historical novelists to legitimize their choice for the genre of the historical novel in spite of the manifold accusations against the genre, and to justify the genre's right to exist. Where the preface abroad had lost its prominent role as a medium of reflection in the second half of the 18th century to the periodical press, in Belgium it retained this privileged status until deep in the 19th century, since the Belgian novelists still found themselves in the witness stand.

The accusation launched most often against the Belgian historical novel is that it is a "crossbreed" ("basterd genre"; Van Kerckhoven, Arnold van Rummen 151), a mixture of fact and fiction, of the historical and the romantic. In 1845, in his article "The historical and the contemporary novel", the Flemish literary critic Van Kerckhoven writes:

But, what is the historical novel? -- An epic poem we can understand, just as we can understand a thorough, true history -- but something hovering in between these two forms, we cannot appreciate. The historical novel steals its forms from the Epic, it steals its facts from History, and then mutilates both; it dresses itself in a cloak of apparent truth and skirts the borders of the imaginary worlds; it distorts and tortures the historical facts to make them fit its intrigue.

En toch, wat is eigentlyk het historieke roman? -- Een episch gedicht verstaen wy; eene grondige echte geschiedenis verstaen wy ook; -- maer iets dat tusschen die twee vormen zou moeten hangen, en goed zyn, kunnen wy niet begrypen. En echter is het historische roman in zulk een geval. Aen de Epopea steelt het vormen, aen de Geschiedenis steelt het feiten en verminkt die beide; het omkleedt zich met den mantel van schynwaerheid, en loopt op de boorden der verbeeldingswereld; het verwringt en martelt de feiten der geschiedenis om ze tot eene intrigue te kunnen buigen. (97)

Three years later, in a review of Van Boekel's Arnold van Rummen of Loon en Luik, in de XIV eeuw, Van Kerckhoven is still extremely hesitant about evaluating works of this kind. He is in doubt as to the perspective from which to consider the historical novel: should these works be evaluated "as history?" ("Als geschiedenis?") But, he reasons, "the writer has not announced to be presenting us with a history" ("daer de schryver niet gezegd heeft ons eene geschiedenis te leveren"; 154). Regarding the work as a romantic tale, on the other hand, would force him to condemn certain elements of the work which he would rather point out as its best qualities, since he prefers "true" historiography to the historical novel. In other words, Van Kerckhoven is doubtful as to which reader-expectations should be activated.

This goes to say that even at the end of the 1840s, there was still a lot of insecurity around concerning the genre of the historical novel. Literary critics often attacked the genre, and historical novelists tried to defend themselves in their prefaces, while trying to incorporate the criticism in later theoretical accounts on the genre. In this paper, I will focus mainly on the pioneers of the genre in Belgium. For the French-speaking part, I will deal with the novelists Henri-Guillaume Moke and Jules de Saint-Genois, and with the critic Pierre De Decker. For the Dutch-speaking part, I will discuss the Flemish novelists Hendrik Conscience, Caspar Hendrik Van Boekel, and the critic Pieter Frans Van Kerckhoven.

Henri-Guillaume Moke, the pioneer of the genre in Belgium, published his first historical novels during the period of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, but did refer, in the subtitles of these novels, to "Belgium". Although Belgium had not been a separate nation until 1830, there had been a growing particular feeling of a Belgian national identity since the Austrian government, and especially since the Brabant Revolt (1787-1793).8 This feeling was still largely undefined and certainly not as explicit as it would become after 1830. However, this context does provide a good argument for regarding Moke's Le Gueux de Mer ou La Belgique sous le Duc d'Albe, a historical novel published already in 1827, so three years before the Belgian independence, as the first Belgian historical novel.

In the preface to Le Gueux de Mer, Moke already feels the need to justify his choice for a work of this kind. He does so on the basis of its being able to reach a wide audience (ij). In the preface to his third historical novel, Philippine de Flandre, ou Les prisonniers du Louvre, published in 1830, the year of the Belgian Revolution, Moke again takes up the defence of the genre, "in response to the objections of some of [his] friends, who want to outlaw the harmful historical novel" ("je vais tâcher de répondre à l'objection de quelques uns de mes amis, qui veulent proscrire comme pernicieux les romans historiques"; viij). His main argument in favour of the historical novel is: "this immense majority of readers who skip from one subject to another, will they be able to devote themselves to the reading of a stern genre? Or should they be condemned to read nothing truthful?" (« Et cette immense majorité de lecteurs qui lit à bâtons rompus, pourra-t-elle s'attacher à des ouvrages d'un genre sévère, ou faudra-t-il la condemner à ne rien lire de vrai? »; Moke, Gueux ix-x). For these less educated readers, the historical novel is in fact more of a blessing than it is harmful, Moke argues, since it constitutes their only entrance into national history.

Moke's works, however, soon disappeared into oblivion, mostly because of the insecure political situation in the Netherlands at the end of the 1820s, when they had been written. In 1835, Jules de Saint-Genois wrote what is generally regarded as the first real Belgian historical novel, Hembyse. Histoire gantoise de la fin du XVIe siècle. In his review of this work, the critic Pierre De Decker mounts a severe attack against the genre, condemning especially its hybrid character: "the false is mixed with the truthful! [. . .] historical characters and facts are substituted or joined by imaginary ones!" ("le faux est mêlé avec le vrai! [. . .] on substitue ou l'on joint aux personnages et aux faits historiques, des personnages et des faits imaginaires!"; 275). De Decker opens his critical review with a lengthy discussion of the double problem "firstly, whether it is necessary, in order to make people read history, to present it in the form of a novel; secondly, whether this way of writing is without danger for the knowledge and understanding of history?" ("d'abord, est-il nécessaire, pour faire lire l'histoire, de lui donner la forme du roman; ensuite, cette manière d'écrire l'histoire est-elle sans danger pour la connaissance et l'intelligence de l'histoire?"; 271) This double question goes to the heart of the early 19th-century dispute between novelists and critics.

De Decker answers the first question negatively. "We do not believe that this genre offers the usefulness that is often ascribed to it," ("nous ne croyons pas que ce genre d'ouvrage offre toute l'utilité qu'on semble y attacher"; 270) he states, thus rejecting Moke's aforementioned argument. De Decker's argumentation runs as follows. He starts from the observation that, "because historical studies are often difficult and dry, writers want to hide the dryness beneath an agreeable and dramatic form; they want to add to the interest that results from the sole events that of a romantic combination, of seductive and varied poetical paintings" ("les études historiques étant parfois difficiles et arides, on veut en cacher l'aridité sous une forme agréable et dramatique; on veut ajouter à l'intérêt résultant des seuls événements, celui d'une combinaison romanesque et de peintures poétiques séduisantes et variés"; 270-71). This notion of history being too dry and too boring to be of interest to the less educated reader can be found in many other reviews and prefaces, amongst others in the preface to Hembyse, the novel De Decker is reviewing. De Saint-Genois (the author of Hembyse) wants to "cut the pedantic aridity of history by the intrigue of a novel" ("couper [. . .] l'aridité pédantesque d'une histoire par l'intrigue d'un roman"; v-vi). Three years later, when expressing the poetics underlying his De Leeuw van Vlaenderen of De Slag der Gulden Sporen in a letter to F.A. Snellaert, Hendrik Conscience voices a similar objection to historiography. He sees history as the "simple recording of facts, without liveliness" ("de eenvoudige aenteekening der gebeurtenissen zonder zwier of levendigheid"). It can only be compared to "a grave, in which the corpses of our forefathers lie neatly arranged, next to one another. That is why it tends to bore one, why it leaves the heart cold: it only shows the reader the skeleton of a body" ("dan by een graf, waer in de lyken der voorvaderen nevens elkander geschikt liggen. Daerom verveelt zy somtyds en laet het hart koud, om dat zy den lezeren slechts het rif van een lichaem aentoont"). "The romantic writers", on the contrary, "take one of these fleshless bodies, envelop it with round muscles, and colour it rosy or brown, according to their capacity as artists" ("De romantische schryvers [. . .] nemen een dier ontvleeschde geraemten, omkleeden hetzelve met ronde spieren, en kleuren het roosverwig of bruin volgens kunne of inborst"; Jacob 7). What matters here is that Conscience regards the novelist as an artist, his work being distinctively a work of invention, which adds colour and magic to the dry facts of history.

De Decker, however, who is "talking from a purely historical perspective" ("historiquement parlant"; 275) as he himself acknowledges, notes that historical novelists who pretend to cover the dryness of history under the form of a novel, never choose the truly difficult, dull, dry pages of history, but, on the contrary, always take up historical episodes that are in themselves already of a dramatic and interesting force, and do not need to be adorned by inventions (270-71). In his view, the historical novel perfectly illustrates his point: it offers manifest proof and a tacit admission that history possesses an inherent dramatic quality. How often is it not the purely historical part of these works that is most beautiful and appeals most to readers "of good taste" ("de bon goût"; 272)? So why would one want to take his refuge in fiction? Besides, he argues, sales figures in France show that works by historians like Châteaubriand, Thierry and Barante are frequently consulted, and that readers acquire their historical knowledge through these works, not through novels. This cancels Moke's didactic argument, and De Decker concludes: "we believe to have proved that history can be perfectly read without first being given the form of a novel" ("Nous croyons donc avoir prouvé qu'on peut fort bien faire lire l'histoire sans lui donner la forme du roman"; 272-73).

But the novelists did not shy away from this challenge. Six years after De Decker's review, Jules de Saint-Genois can be found supporting Moke's argument in the postscript to the Dutch translation of one of his novels. He reports that "serious men" ("[e]rnstige mensen") blame him for choosing the form of the novel instead of writing "the true history," ("de ware geschiedenis") their argument being that in a novel, which always remains a literary work, it is hard to distinguish truth from lie. In his defence, de Saint-Genois claims that "the immortal Walter Scott, in his romantic portrayal of the historical events of Scotland, has contributed more to the knowledge of the times of yore of his native country than all the chroniclers of these regions taken together" ("dat de onsterfelyke Walter Scott, door het romantisch afschilderen der gebeurtenissen van Schotland, meer tot de kennis der oudheden zyns vaderlands heeft toegebragt dan al de kronykschryvers van die streken"; de Saint-Genois, Bertrand van Rains 141). De Saint-Genois' choice for the novel is thus primarily based on a didactic argument: he wants to reach as many readers as possible, and diffuse as much knowledge as possible on the history of Flanders.

Some literary critics stand up to support the historical novelists. One year after De Decker's negative review, Charles Faider openly challenges his colleague when writing, in his own review of Hembyse:

We know many people who are little in favour of the historical drama or novel; we acknowledge that we are of a totally different persuasion. [. . .] the historical novel [. . .] is an ideal means of rendering popular the striking deeds and great men from previous centuries; and when one recalls that the basis of patriotism is [. . .] the memory of a heroic past, one might finally come to the conclusion that the historical novel is a necessity for a free nation.

Nous connaissons beaucoup de personnes peu partisans du drame ou du roman historiques (sic) ; nous avouons que nous sommes d'un sentiment tout-à-fait opposé [. . .] le roman historique, ou l'histoire romantisée [. . .] est un moyen de rendre populaires les faits et les hommes marquans d'une époque ; et si l'on se rappelle que la base du patriotisme est la tradition ou le souvenir historique, on finira peut-être par convenir que le roman historique est une nécessité chez un peuple libre. (144)

Faider evidently supports the cultural-political role literature was attributed in the first decades of Belgian independence, whereas De Decker is trying to define a more or less autonomous, purely literary project.

Jules de Saint-Genois himself comes to Faider's aid when, in 1839, he uses his authority as a literary critic, reviewing Coomans' Richilde ou Épisodes de l'histoire de la Flandre, au onzième siècle, to defend the historical novel against the charges mounted in the periodical press:

Whatever has been argued, the historical novel [. . .] is an infinitely useful means in popularising the annals of a nation. We are well aware of the fact that serious men, positive and cold minds [. . .] will not cease to complain about the denaturing of facts setting in from the moment one alters the substance by adding strange details. [. . .] But these works have the privilege of entertaining and instructing at the same time, of diffusing amongst the idle masses particulars which they wouldn't have taken the trouble of seeking elsewhere. No one will deny that Walter Scott has singularly contributed to spreading the history of his native country across Europe. [. . .]

The strict, severe history [. . .] only pleases enlightened, patient men, who are searching for veritable science. Everyone knows that these men are few in number; the scholars are thin on the ground, but the number of ordinary readers grows profusely. In earnest: if one desires to be as useful as possible, is it not to the latter that one should offer a glimpse of generally ignored issues? Find me a better means than the historical novel, and I will adopt it immediately.

Quoi qu'on en dise, le roman historique [. . .] est infiniment propre à populariser les annales d'une nation. Nous savons bien que les gens graves, les esprit (sic) positifs et froids [. . .] ne cessent de se plaindre qu'on dénature les faits dès l'instant où l'on en altère la substance par des détails étrangers à leur identité. [. . .] Mais [. . .] des ouvrages de cette espèce [. . .] ont le privilège d'amuser et d'instruire en même temps, de répandre parmi la foule des lecteurs oisifs des particularités qu'ils ne se donneraient pas la peine de chercher ailleurs. Personne ne niera que Walter Scott ait singulièrement contribué à faire connaître en Europe l'histoire de sa patrie. [. . .]

L'histoire raide, sévère [. . .] ne plaira qu'aux hommes assez éclairés, assez patients surtout pour vouloir acquérir de la véritable science. Tout le monde sait que ce n'est pas le grand nombre ; les savants sont clair-semés, les lecteurs ordinaires pullullent au contraire partout. En bonne conscience, si vous désirez être le plus utile possible, n'est-ce pas à ces derniers qu'il faut donner quelque teinture de choses généralement ignorées ? Trouvez-moi un meilleur moyen que le roman historique et je m'engage à l'adopter aussitôt. (207-08)

This invocation of the authority of Walter Scott will become a leading motif in the defence of the genre. In 1839, we find another example in a different review of Coomans' Richilde (Blommaert 263) and another three years later, in 1842, Nicolaas de Cuyper is the first Flemish critic to take up the motif. Scott's "ingenious inventions" ("vernuftige verdichtsels") are estimated worthier than the "learned clarifications" ("geleerde opmerkingen") of the historiographers: the first are the ones that have made Scottish history appear "in its true light" ("onder het ware daglicht"; 263).

So, literary critics are strongly divided on the historical novel. "This genre has its warm admirers as well as its unflinching faultfinders," ("Ce genre de composition littéraire a ses chauds admirateurs comme ses critiques inflexibles") the anonymous critic of the Revue de Bruxelles points out in 1840 (Faux Baudouin 148). The "faultfinders" will invert the didactic argument which the novelists use in their defence: they will argue that the novels have too strong an influence on the inexperienced readers, and consequently cause much harm.

In his preface to Philippine de Flandre (1830), Moke counters the classical reproach that the historical novel confuses the reader by its mixture of fact and fiction. The allegation is without foundation, he says, since there is no problem whatsoever: if the reader takes a fictional detail or a secondary character to be historically truthful, so what? It will not diminish the worth of the general ideas which are transmitted. The potential negative result of a misinterpretation is negligible, compared to the benefit of the instruction offered by the historical novel:

It is argued that the result of this mixture of fact and fiction is that the reader cannot distinguish the one from the other. If one would care to pay attention to what constitutes the usefulness of history, one would easily observe the triviality of such an objection. The true existence of a minor character is of no historical importance whatsoever. When one will have become acquainted, through reading [Walter Scott's] Ivanhoe, with Coeur de Lion, his brother, and the Templar Knights, it will not matter if one believed Cedric the Saxon and Rowena to be real characters as well. One would be mistaken, but on a point that cannot harm the truthfulness of the general ideas encountered, and if someone would be persuaded that Richelieu had said everything that M. Alfred de Vigny makes him say, he would not know anything less about this great man than if he had only read the historians that society normally reads. Therefore, it is absolutely indifferent whether the reader fools himself concerning the fable of the novel, provided that he receives a proper impression of the historical part.

Mais, dit-on, il résulte de ce mélange de vrai et du faux que le lecteur ne distingue pas l'un de l'autre. Si l'on veut faire attention à ce qui constitue l'utilité de l'histoire, on s'apercevra aisément du peu de force d'une pareille objection. L'existence d'un personnage subalterne est d'une importance historique tout-à-fait nulle. Quand on aura appris dans Ivanhoe à connaître Coeur-de-Lion, son frère, et les Templiers, il n'y aurait aucun inconvénient à ce que l'on crût que Cedric le Saxon et Rowena sont aussi des personnages réels. On se tromperait, mais sur un point qui ne pourrait rien ôter à la justesse des idées générales que l'on aurait re¸ues, et si quelqu'un se persuadait que Richelieu a dit tout ce que M. Alfred de Vigny lui met dans la bouche, il n'en connaîtrait pas moins ce grand homme beaucoup mieux que s'il avait lu seulement les historiens que lit ordinairement la société. Il est donc absolument indifférent que le lecteur se fasse ou ne se fasse pas illusion sur la fable du roman, pourvu qu'il re¸oive l'impression convenable de la partie historique. (x-xj)

Not every fictionalisation, however, is tolerated by Moke. Historical characters must be portrayed truthfully, in imitation of the great models in the genre (Scott, Zschokke, Van der Velde, de Vigny). Authors who do not respect the facts passed down to us concerning the historical figures must be denounced as frauds.9 But the genre as such is exonerated from the accusation of deceit. Historians, for that matter, do not lie any less than novelists, Moke adds.

It would be a totally different matter if one were to offer the public false portraits of historical characters. But such a vice would come from the author, not from the genre. Neither Walter Scott, nor Zchokke, nor Van der Velde, nor M. de Vigny have deceived their readers like that. If others do, one must not accuse the historical novel, just as one must not hold historiography [as a genre] responsible for the falsity or inaptitude of the majority of historians.

Ce serait un défaut bien autrement grave que celui de présenter au public des portraits faux de personnages véritables. Mais un pareil vice viendrait de la faute de l'écrivain, et non de celle du genre. Ni Walter Scott, ni Zschokke, ni Van der Velde, ni M. de Vigny, n'ont ainsi trompé leurs lecteurs. Si d'autres le font, on ne doit pas plus en accuser le roman historique, qu'il ne faut imputer à l'histoire la fausseté ou l'ineptie du plus grand nombre des historiens. (xj-xij)

Moke's argument that historians do not always tell the truth either, fits in a long tradition that is described by Klaus Heitmann's third frame formula.10 The mistrust of what historians put forth as the truth reached its peak during the transition to the 18th century, in what is called the "historical Pyrrhonism".

Already in ancient times the credibility of historiography [. . .] was occasionally questioned. [. . .] This scepticism intensified later on, to develop eventually into the general phenomenon, generally referred to as the historical pyrrhonism of the Age of Enlightenment. The profound distrust in the Voltaire era of history and its reliability not infrequently resulted in a levelling of the differences between the multiple unreliable (as it was believed) narratives of the historians and the fantasies of the poets.

Schon im Altertum war die Glaubwürdigkeit der Geschichtschreibung [. . .] gelegentlich in Frage gestellt worden. [. . .] Diese Skepsis verstärkte sich in der Folgezeit, um schließlich zu dem generellen Phänomen anzuwachsen, das man den historischen Pyrrhonismus des Aufklärungszeitalters genannt hat. Das Mißtrauen der Epoche Voltaires der Historie und ihrer Zuverlässigkeit gegenüber hatte nicht selten zur Folge, daß man den Unterschied zwischen den, wie man annahm, so vielfach ungesicherten Erzählungen der Historiker und den Phantasien der Dichter überhaupt nivellierte. (Heitmann 275-76)11

It is precisely such a levelling that can be discerned in Moke's discourse, and which Heitmann describes as follows:

Through this strategy the novel as genre achieved its aim: it rose in rank. The price for this evolution was, however, that history fell in rank. If the public opinion of the readers gradually ceased to assume the untruth of the one, at the same time it was no longer convinced of the truth of the other, or -- more precisely -- it was confirmed in its distrust, that was nourished by other, older reasons. It already entertained suspicions before the transition from the 17th to the 18th century.

Der Roman als Gattung erreichte mit dieser Taktik sein Ziel: er stieg im Rang. Der Preis dafür war aber, daß die Geschichte im Rang fiel. Wenn die öffentliche Meinung der Leser allmählich nicht mehr eine völlige Unwahrheit des einen annahm, so war sie auf der anderen Seite auch nicht mehr von der Wahrheit der anderen überzeugt oder sah sich -- genauer gesagt -- in dem von anderen, älteren Gründen genährten Mißtrauen ihr gegenüber bestärkt. Dahin war es bereits vor der Wende vom 17. zum 18. Jh. gekommen. (277)

In his review of Conscience's De Leeuw van Vlaenderen, one of the first Flemish exercises in the genre of the historical novel, F.A. Snellaert subscribes to Moke's claim that one must not blame the genre for the inadequacies of individual authors:

Grave accusations have been brought up against the historical novel, and often these accusations were well-founded; but all of them are equally applicable to the epic poem and the historical painting. The one exaggerates its characters, the other its figures. Painter and poet can both slip into the gravest anachronisms; these faults are, however, to be blamed upon the individual artist, not upon the art. The novelist can falsify an aspect of history willingly or otherwise, and he can betray his ignorance concerning manners and customs; but all these are not sufficient to indict the type [genre (N.B.)].

Men heeft gewichtige redenen tegen den historischen roman ingebragt, en doorgaens met zeer veel grond; evenwel altemael redenen, welke zoo goed op het heldendicht en het historisch schilderstuk als op den roman toepasselyk zyn. Het eene overdryft zyne karakters, het andere zyne figuren. Schilder en dichter kunnen beide in de grofste anachronismen vallen; misslagen echter, die aen den kunstenaer, niet aen de kunst, zyn toe te wyten. De romanschryver kan willens of onwillens een punt der geschiedenis vervalschen, hy kan zyne onkunde wegens zeden en gebruiken verraden; doch dit alles zyn geene voldoende redenen tegen een soort. (38-39)

But Moke does not convince the critics when stating that the fictional additions or transformations are harmless. In fact, Pierre De Decker takes up precisely this argument as the basis for the second part of the double question which I addressed earlier, and which ran as follows: « d'abord, est-il nécessaire, pour faire lire l'histoire, de lui donner la forme du roman; ensuite, cette manière d'écrire l'histoire est-elle sans danger pour la connaissance et l'intelligence de l'histoire? » (De Decker 1836, 271) After having answered the first question in the negative, De Decker proceeds to the second one.

The historical novel is written not for scholars, but for the public, that is to say, for less instructed readers who do not have the time nor the courage to study history in books written to that particular end. Now, how many readers will be able to distinguish fiction from fact, the capricious invention from the truthful narration? How many, in reading this book, where all is new to them, will be able to say: this belongs to the realm of the novel, this to the realm of history? Which confident guide, which thread helps them to orient themselves in this labyrinth of the ideal and the real ? Not knowing how to distinguish what belongs to the realm of history, what kind of incontestable historical knowledge will they have drawn from this book?

On n'écrit pas ce roman pour les hommes de la science, pour ceux qui se livrent à l'étude de nos annales. Ceux-là vont puiser, ou directement aux sources, ou dans les ouvrages purement historiques [. . .] On écrit donc le roman historique pour le public, c'est-à-dire, pour les personnes moins instruites qui n'ont ni le temps ni le courage d'apprendre l'histoire dans les livres à ce destinés (sic). Or, combien de personnes pourront distinguer la fiction d'avec la vérité, la capricieuse invention d'avec la fidèle narration ? Combien, en lisant ce livre où tout est nouveau pour elles, pourront se dire : ceci est du roman, ceci est de l'histoire ? Quel guide assuré, quel fil ont-elles pour s'orienter dans ce labyrinthe d'idéal et de réel ? Ne sachant pas distinguer ce qui appartient à l'histoire, quelles connaissances historiques, certaines et incontestables, auront-elles puisé dans cet ouvrage ? (273-74)

Nine years later, the Flemish critic Van Kerckhoven, who, as we have already seen, called the historical novel a crossbreed, combatively repeats De Decker's argument:

These deceptions would not be so reprehensible if they had not been such a rape of history, and if the manner itself of the representation did not add to the firm impression of groundless matters on the mind of the ordinary reader. A romantic historical tale, rich with sumptuous imagination and written with grandiloquence, always has more influence on an ordinary reader than a brief history where acts and deeds are presented conscientiously. The inevitable consequence is that novelists imprint false ideas about history and often confuse the mind of a reader forever. -- More than once, we ourselves have come upon a case of two persons arguing about a historical issue, and, when it finally came to mentioning the sources of their opinions, one of them would say conceitedly that he had read it the very same day in a certain book. Now, this book would turn out to be a historical novel, and when one told the quarreller that these things are devoid of real truth and should only be regarded as fictions, it was curious to see how shamefaced he would look and how he would then rage against these fabrications.

Die misleidingen zouden niet zoo zeer laekbaer zyn, indien daer door de geschiedenis niet verkracht en valsch voorgesteld werd, en indien de wyze zelve der voorstelling niet hielp om het ongegronde diep in den geest van den gewoonen lezer te prenten. Een romantisch geschiedkundig verhael, ryk aen weelderige verbeelding en eenigzins met bombast geschreven, heeft immer meer invloed op eenen gemeenen lezer dan wel eene beknopte geschiedenis waer daden en daedzaken bondig en gewetensvol worden voorgedragen. Zulks moet dus onvermydelyk voor uitwerksel hebben, dat men den lezer valsche gedachten over de geschiedenis inboezemt en dikwils voor altyd zynen geest in twyfel brengt. -- Meer dan eens hebben wy zich het geval zien voordoen, dat twee persoonen, na uren lang over een historisch punt getwist te hebben, toen het er eindelyk op aenkwam de bronnen waeraen zy geput hadden, optenoemen, een van hen met verwaendheid zegde, dat hy het nog denzelfden dag in dit of geen boek gelezen had. Welnu, dit boek dan was een historische roman en wanneer men den twister deed verstaen, dat zulke dingen van zuivere waerheid ontbloot zyn en slechts als verdichtsels mogen beschouwd worden, was het verwonderlyk om zien welk beschaemd figuer hy maekte en hoe hy alsdan tegen zulke gewrochten uitvaerde. (Historische en het hedendaegsche roman 97)

The novelists' apologetics had clearly not been convincing enough. Precisely the argument that the novelists put forth in their defence, namely that the historical novel is able to reach a wider audience and can therefore provide instruction far more easily, is taken up by the critics and turned against the genre: the ordinary reader lacks the critical capacity to distinguish between fact and fiction, and is thus far too easily led astray.

What we in fact get here is the clash of two opposed attitudes towards the veracity of historiography versus that of literature. Klaus Heitmann has studied the different attitudes towards this concept in theories up to the end of the 18th century. He distinguishes three fundamental attitudes, or, as he calls them, "frame formulae" (259-79).12 The first formula equals truth to factuality ("dem Kriterium der faktischen Wahrheit" (262)) and opposes the truth of historiography to the untruth of literature. This is the attitude shared by the critics De Decker and Van Kerckhoven. According to Van Kerckhoven, historical novels are "devoid of real truth" and should only be regarded as "fabrications" (cf. supra).

De Cuyper, on the other hand, and together with him also Faider and most novelists, claim for literature the right to a higher truth than that which is reached through historiography. While strict historiography is limited in its area of competence to the external facts, literature can proclaim a universal truth, precisely through its ingenious inventions. This argument goes back to the ninth chapter of Aristotle's Poetica and is distinguished by Heitmann as the second "frame formula", which attaches truth to both historiography and literature. (The third formula, which represents the attitude of regarding both historiography and literature as untruthful, has already been discussed; cf. supra.)

In what I consider to be a next phase in the evolution of the poetics of the Belgian historical novel, these critical comments are taken to heart by the novelists. In 1847, in the preface to Arnold van Rummen, the Flemish novelist Van Boekel takes up De Decker's phrase on the labyrinth (cf. supra) when he states that Belgian novelists should not follow the example of some French authors, who afford themselves a great degree of freedom regarding the addition of fictional elements. "Charming though this may be, it becomes harmful and dangerous for the reader, who is led into a labyrinth where he can no longer distinguish the real from the fabulous" ("dewyl zulks, hoe bekoorlyk somwylen, schadelyk en gevaerlyk wordt voor den lezer, dien men op zulke wyze in eene doolhof voert, waer hy het wezenlyke van het fabelachtige niet meer weet te onderscheiden"; viii). An analysis of the reception of the work reveals that the distinction between the historical and the romantic part of the novel was indeed very clean-cut, and this led the critics to praise the work.13

In the preface to Jacob van Artevelde (1849), the Flemish novelist Hendrik Conscience shares Van Boekel's emphasis on the need to draw an unambiguous line between the "historical" and "the romantic" parts ("het historische [en] het romantische"), preferably by means of footnotes, so that the reader will not get confused. Conscience moreover subscribes to the precepts which Moke issued in 1830 in the preface to Philippine de Flandre, when, concerning the portrayal of historical figures, he states that "a novel never deserves to be called a historical novel from the moment it uses renowned names and ascribes to them deeds and intrigues that are unfamiliar to History, and when the novelist distorts and transforms the images of heroes to make them play an ordinary part in a work of fiction" ("Ons dunkens, verdient een roman nooit de benaming van historisch, zoohaest hy gekende namen bezigt tot daden en intrigues, welke der Geschiedenis vreemd zyn, en hy dus de beelden der helden verwringt en vervormt om hen eene gewoone rol in een uitgevonden stuk te laten vervullen"; xxii-iii). In the reception of Jacob van Artevelde, though, it is precisely the successful synthesis of both components (truth and invention) which is appraised. The critic "Z" puts it as follows: "The historical facts are so easily distinguishable from the invented ones, while at the same time, they are so appropriately interwoven, that we do not know what to admire most in the writer: his knowledge of history, or his romantic talent" ("de historische feiten zyn zoo gemakkelyk van de ingebeelde te onderscheiden, terwyl zy toch zoo doelmatig in een gebragt zyn, dat wy niet weten wat het meest in den schryver te bewonderen, of zyne kennis der geschiedenis, of zyne romantische begaefdheid"; 93).

In the previous years, this demand of a synthesis of the two components had been issued several times by the literary critics: one of the many points of criticism that J.F.J. Heremans brings up against Ecrevisse's Verwoesting van Maestricht, historische tafereelen uit de XVIe eeuw (1845) concerns precisely the fact that "as a historical novel, the creation of the poet does not sufficiently blend with history" ("Alzoo [als historische roman (N.B.)] beschouwd is de schepping des dichters niet genoeg met de geschiedenis versmolten"; 93). And already in 1840, Charles Faider had considered it a valuable characteristic that "the events [. . .] which history provides, and those which the author owes to his imagination are so closely knit" (« les événements [...] que l'histoire a fournis à l'auteur, et ceux qu'il doit à l'invention sont si intimement confondus ») in de Saint-Genois' Le Faux Baudouin (Flandre et Hainaut) 1225 (229).

The best formulation of this demand made by the critics, and of the awareness of the difficulty of such a synthesis, is put forth by an anonymous Flemish reviewer of De Vlaemsche Rederyker. Embarking upon "the eternal point of controversy of the historical novel, i.e. the appropriate distribution and interweaving of invention and history," ("het oude twistpunt der geschiedkundige romans: de juiste verdeeling en inweving namelyk van de verdichting en historie") he stresses that "if a novelist does not succeed in combining these two aspects into a pleasing and satisfactory whole, he has not yet reached the summit of art" ("indien hy die twee niet weet tot één bekoorlyk en vooral tot een bevredigend geheel te brengen, dan heeft hy nog geenszins het groote doel der kunst bereikt"; Kasteel van Wildenborg 45). Now, he goes on to ask himself and his audience,

is reaching that summit a sign of calculation or genius? We think it is the last. One could compare it to two co-adhesive substances, which are transformed into one totally new substance by an electric spark, but only by such a spark. These substances are transformed in such a way that this newly born substance does not possess a single property of the constituent parts.

En is het bereiken daervan, berekening of genie? Ons dunkt het laetste. 't Is als twee coadherende hoofdstoffen, die door de vonk der electriciteit, doch ook slechts door haer alleen, tot één geheel nieuwe stoffe worden vereenigd en zóó omgeschapen, dat dit nieuw geboren ligchaem niet één der eigenschappen bezit van de zamenstellende deelen. (46)

And somewhat later, he again fulminates against "those miserable packs of history and invention that are paired in a split-second, as if by nature and disposition they were fit to be paired thus, while in fact, they are precisely completely alien to one another, incompatible like fire and water, and only he who has knowledge of the secrets of the highest art can in any satisfactory way combine them" ("die elendige (sic) zamenraepsels van geschiedenis en verdichting, die in een oogwenk aen elkander worden gehuwd alsof zy daertoe door hun aerd en natuer geschikt waren, terwyl zy juist geheel aen elkander vreemd, en strydig als vuer en water, door niemand kunnen worden verbonden dan door hem, die de geheimen der hoogste kunst bezit"; 208).14

It is time for some conclusions. In the early 1830s, the attacks launched against the historical novel were mostly, as elsewhere in Europe, aimed at the hybrid character of this "crossbreed". The authors Moke and de Saint-Genois, writing in French, defended their fusion of the historic and the romantic by emphasizing the enormous didactic value of the genre in a society where most people have not received proper education, as well as by arguing that fiction can reveal a higher truth, one hidden behind the dry facts of historiography. Critics, however, warned against the malignant influence of historical novels: the public lacked the critical capacity to distinguish between fact and fiction, and would be led astray. The Flemish authors Conscience and Van Boekel, whose novels appeared some ten years later, responded to this criticism by somewhat "adjusting" the poetics of the genre. The novelist was entitled to invent fictional story lines, but he had to remain within the boundaries set by historical fact, while fact and fiction should at any time be clearly distinguishable. This new poetics, however, collided with the widespread opinion that "good" historical novels should precisely offer a perfect synthesis of the two constituent parts, the example of which was set by Walter Scott. Conscience's Jacob van Artevelde, published in 1849, at the end of the period I have investigated, is hailed precisely as such a work of genius.

The story of the trials and tribulations of the genre from the 1850s on - when the Belgian nationalist context had to make way for a growing feeling of Flemish nationalism, and the 'two literatures' that for two decades made up a single, national, Belgian literature, gradually drifted apart -- is one that will not be embarked upon in these pages.

Works cited

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Rev. of Arnold van Rummen of Loon en Luik, in de XIV eeuw, by C.H. Van Boekel. Messager des Sciences historiques et Archive des Arts de Belgique (1847): 500.

Bemong, Nele. "Nulla fides Gallis. De Belgische historische roman als medicijn tegen de Franse pest." Het verderf van Parijs, Alfred Cauchie Reeks 7. Ed. Raf de Bont and Tom Verschaffel. Leuven: Universitaire Pers, 2004. 223-241, 312-314.

Bemong, Nele. "A state just out of the cradle, but with age-old recollections. The memory-shaping function of the Belgian historical novel." Literature & Memory: Theoretical Paradigms -- Genres -- Functions. Ed. Ansgar Nünning, Marion Gymnich and Roy Sommer. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2006. (in print)

Berg, Christian. "The Symbolic Deficit. French Literature in Belgium and 19th Century National Sentiment." Nationalism in Belgium. Shifting Identities, 1780-1995. Ed. Kas Deprez and Louis Vos. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1998. 61-71.

Blommaert, Ph. Rev. of De Leeuw van Vlaenderen of de slag der gulden Sporen, by Hendrik Conscience and of Richilde, ou Épisodes de l'histoire de la Flandre, au onzième siècle, by Coomans ainé. Messager des Sciences historiques de Belgique (1839): 263-275.

Conscience, Hendrik. In 't Wonderjaer [1566]. Historische tafereelen uit de XVIe eeuw. Antwerpen: Schoesetters, 1837.

----. De Leeuw van Vlaenderen of De Slag der Gulden Sporen. Tekstkritische editie door Edward Vanhoutte. Met een uitleiding van Karel Wauters. Tielt: Lannoo, 2002 [1838].

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Jacob, A. Briefwisseling van, met en over Hendrik Conscience uit de Jaren 1837 tot 1851 met een inleiding en aanteekeningen. Vol. 2. Gent: Siffer, 1914. 2 vols.

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1Since no English translations of the historical novels under investigation exist, all translations are my own.

2Cf. also Pol 12.

3The « Instruction pastorale sur les mauvais livres, adressée par son éminence Mgr le Cardinal Archevèque et Messgrs les Évèques de Belgique au clergé et aux fidèles de leurs diocèses respectifs » of August 3rd 1845 (Delebecque 251-277).

4 Cf. Bemong, A State Just out of the Cradle

5 "[I]n the romantic epoch, Belgium knew in fact two literatures, but these were animated by the same patriotism and inspired by the same model [...]. In a sense [...] romantic Belgium had one and only one, unique literature, written in two languages!" ([À] l'époque romantique, la Belgique connaissait en fait deux literatures, mais animées par un même patriotisme et inspirées d'un même modèle [...]. En un sens [...] la Belgique romantique connaissait une seule et unique littèrature, mais en deux langues!"; Nachtergaele, Roman historique et identité nationale 364). The famous slogan of Antoine Clesse's Belgian literary programme was, in the same vein, to have "one heart to love the fatherland and two lyres to sing its praise" (Berg, The Symbolic Deficit 61).

6Cf. Nachtergaele, D'une littérature deux autres 366 and Bemong, A State Just out of the Cradle.

7The most telling indication of this hazy demarcation, is the fact that some major historical novelists (Henri-Guillaume Moke, Jules de Saint-Genois and Hendrik Conscience) were historians too (cf. infra).

8 According to Stengers, in 1789 there appeared for the first time an incontestable Belgian nationality on the political scene that was founded on a sentiment of national identity (Stengers 151) ("1789 est l'instant idéal [...] pour apercevoir, au moment où elle apparaît pour la première fois sur la scène politique, une nationalité belge incontestable, fondée sur un sentiment d'identité nationalé"). Cf. also De Schryver, Tussen literatuur en wetenschap 398; De Schryver, Vlaams bewustzijn en interpretatie 79; Tollebeek, Enthousiasme en Evidentie 57-58; Tollebeek, Historical Representation 329-353; Roegiers 32; Wils 34; Peeters 9, 26, 31-32.

9 The example of de Vigny's Richelieu shows, however, that it was permitted to have historical characters speak in historical novels, even though the words that a historical figure utters can never be verified. In contemporary historiography, historical characters were likewise portrayed while speaking. Cf. for example Nachtergaele 13-14.

10 For a discussion of Heitmann's frame formulae, cf. infra.

11 Cf. also Van der Wiel 40.

12 Cf. also Van der Wiel 35-40, where the aspects of Heitmann's article that are relevant to the historical novel are summarized.

13 "The historical part of his work has priority over the romantic," ("Het historische gedeelte van zyn werk heeft den voorrang op het romantische") the critic of De Eendragt writes (Arnold van Rummen in Eendragt 37). P.F. Van Kerckhoven also assumes this distinction, but - to his great joy! - he must conclude that in fact there is no romantic part whatsoever in this work: "every time, we inwardly raised the question, where, at last, the romantic tale would start? and we reached the end of the work, without this question being solved" ("telkens opperden wy inwendig de vraeg: waer nu eigentlyk het romantische verhael zou beginnen? en wy kwamen tot by het einde van het werk, zonder dat ons die vraeg werd opgelost."; Van Kerckhoven, Arnold van Rummen 153). Cf. also Arnold van Rummen in Messager 500.

14 Cf. William Godwin, who uses a similar metaphor in his essay Of History and Romance (1797): "The reality and the fiction, like two substances of disagreeing natures, will never adequately blend with each other." (Godwin [6])