Historicising the Historical Novel: Introduction

Chris Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University

The historical novel is inescapably, of course, much concerned with history -- its determining subject matter, the stuff it lives in, deals with, takes or makes its material from, interprets, takes as its pretext, fictionalises, retells and so on and so on. Unsurprisingly, many historical novelists have themselves either through their fictional writing or through prefatory or critical writings been much engaged with the status of their fiction vis-a-vis history. Equally, critics of the historical novel have been much concerned with what the relationship between the historical novel and authentic history was, or should be. Such discussions often drew on the broader aesthetic discussions of antiquity about the distinctions to be made between fictional and factual modes of writing, between poetry and history. Sandra Berman, in the introduction to her translation of Alessandro Manzoni's important essay On the Historical Novel (1850), observes Manzoni's several references to Aristotle, and his quotation of Aristotle's fundamental distinction between poetry and history in the Poetics:

The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen . . . Poetry therefore is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history, for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. (Berman 15).

Aristotle is here, of course, making a distinction between two different kinds of truth: history is a kind of truth-telling in that it relates that which has actually happened, while poetry is a kind of truth-telling in that it relates that which may plausibly happen in any imaginable situation. Aristotle glosses his own term 'universal' thus, 'by the universal I mean how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity' (Cited Berman 15). Aristotle concludes that poetry speaks in a higher register of truth because it escapes from the mere accident of what actually happened into telling what should happen by the higher 'laws' or order of 'probability' or 'necessity'. This turn in Aristotle's argument may well surprise modern (and post-modern) readers, inheritors of considerable later doubts about whether fiction does necessarily relate to any order of truth which can be grounded or objective. Sandra Berman suggests ways in which during the renaissance and after, Aristotle's argument is, through a series of complex shifts, turned almost inside out, so that history is more often seen as the higher order of truth because its particularity is understood to be a working out of one or other kinds of necessity. Certainly, Manzoni by the time he came to publish On the Historical Novel (the first extended treatment of the topic), was clear that many readers would approach the history / novel binary with an assumption that history was the more evident kind of truth-telling and the dominant term since it referred to things which had actually happened:

Some complain that in certain historical novels or in certain parts of a historical novel, fact is not clearly distinguished from invention and that, as a result, these works fail to achieve one of their principal purposes, which is to give a faithful representation of history (Berman 60).

The main thread of Manzoni's own literary career was, in fact, dominated by his intense engagement with the status of the historical novel and the status of history. He is remembered as a novelist for his very successful historical novel, I Promessi Sposi (1827), and as a critic for his essay On the Historical Novel (1850). He began the discursive piece soon after publication of the novel originally in response to a criticism from Goethe (see Berman 29) about his approach to history, working through his arguments over a period of thirteen years before finally publishing the essay. As the numerous and closely-argued twists and turns in Manzoni's argument suggest, the relationship between history and fiction compelled him, and, again, the modern reader may well be surprised by the final trajectory of his thesis. For while the essay traces many reasons for valuing the historical novel, it finally concludes that there is an inescapable problem with the genre's mixture of history and poetry:

With this, I am ready to make explicit what is implied in all I have said up to now, namely, that . . .the historical novel is not a false genre, but a species of a false genre which includes all compositions that try to mix history and invention, whatever their form. Being the most modern such species, the historical novel is only the most refined and ingenious effort yet to meet the challenge, as if the challenge could ever be met. (Berman 81).

Compare this to Manzoni's earlier and persuasive argument for what 'poetry' can add to history in his Lettre a M. Chauvet (1820; published 1823):

If one takes away from the poet what distinguished him from a historian, the right to invent facts, what is left? Poetry; yes, poetry. For what in the end does history give us? Events that are known only, so to speak, from the outside, what men have done. But what they have thought, the feelings that have accompanied their decisions and plans, their successes and misfortunes, the words by which they have asserted -- or tried to assert -- their passions and wills on those of others . . . by which, in a word, they have revealed their individuality: all that, more or less, is passed over in silence by history: and all that is the domain of poetry (cited in Berman 23).

As Manzoni's literary career so dramatically suggests, for both authors and critics, the form of the historical novel seems unavoidably caught up in doubts, assumptions and debates about the nature and status of history and of fiction, about relationships between past and present, and thus about the representability of reality itself. Manzoni himself thought that by the time he published his essay, history had reached its own verdict on the historical novel, which he thought was now a spent form (see Berman 127).

Later major critics of the historical novel, despite somewhat differing approaches, have also tended to see a golden age of the historical novel , and then a period of decline. Thus Lukacs in his The Historical Novel (1937; 1963) distinguishes between various periods when literary historicism has become merely a mannerism, and periods when historical genres have made authentic engagements with history, as some of his section titles may briefly suggest: 'The Classical Form of the Historical Novel', 'The General Tendencies of Decadence and the Establishment of the Historical Novel as a Special Genre'. Lukacs, of course, as one of the most influential marxist critics of the twentieth century sees the success of the historical novel at different period as not simply an aesthetic matter, but as one deeply determined by history itself:

But there is an historical basis to our theoretical study. The difference of principles between the historical novel of the classics and of decadence etc has its historical causes. And this work is intended to show how the historical novel in its origins, development, rise and decline follows inevitably upon the great social transformations of modern times; to demonstrate that its different problems are but artistic reflections of these social-historical transformations. (Lukacs 13)

He famously admires the classical period of the historical novel for its ability to deliver real and concrete understanding of the dialectic of history, admiring the achievement of major historical novelists from Scott to Tolstoy, and including Manzoni, of whom Lukacs says:

As a truly great artist he also discovered a theme which enabled him to overcome the objective unfavourableness of Italian history and to create a real historical novel, that is, one which would rouse the present, which contemporaries would experience as their own pre-history . . . the story of Manzoni's lovers grows into the tragedy of the Italian people as a whole (Lukacs 78; see also Berman 56)

Lukacs was well aware that the historical novel was still, or again, an important form in the thirties as he notes in his Preface ('Given the extraordinary role of the historical novel at present in both the literature of the USSR and the anti-fascist popular front' 13); however, it is also clear that he does not think the contemporary historical novel had at this point achieved the classical grasp of history which is the genre's major achievement.

Avrom Fleishman, in his The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (1971) does not conclude that the form reaches a terminus with Woolf's Orlando, but sees a semi-decline in which a few outstanding writers sustain a form which largely descends into popular escapism: 'Despite the prevalence of Kitsch historical novels -- the kind which become spectacular movies in the Cecil B. DeMille style -- the state of the art of historical fiction is still high . . . in England, the continued popularity of the genre makes possible the attraction of a number of fine novelists who distinguish themselves from the Georgette Heyers and C.S. Forresters' (xvii). Diana Wallace, in her recent monograph, The Woman's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000 (2005) interestingly takes a very different view in her recovery of the possibilities of the historical novel across both more 'literary' and more popular modes in this so-called declining period as a powerful genre for women writers in particular to explore the historically contingent representation of gender and reality.

I was motivated to propose this edition of Working Papers on the Web partly through work I had done on the historical novel in the thirties (important in Britain and many other counties in Europe as well as the USSR during the period), and partly through teaching postmodern fiction, with its interest in what Linda Hutcheon has identified as 'historiographical metafiction'. It seemed to me that different pockets of work on the historical novel and on history and the novel might usefully be bought together, from Scott to postmodernism, via Georgette Heyer or other popular writers. It seemed likely that there would be interesting connections to be made across the history of a form which, in fact, seemed far from exhausted or resolved. I therefore put out the following call for papers hoping to elicit essays which addressed the variety, complexity and value of the historical novel in a variety of contexts and periods.

'The term "historical novel" awakens some awkward connotations nowadays. We think of the Count of Monte Cristo, of Ben-Hur, of various historical films; we picture adventure, intrigue, costumes, heavy swaths of bright colors, overly theatrical language, a mixture of politics and love, and the reduction of events to the level of petty individual emotions . . . For my part, I admit to loving historical novels with a passion. I do understand the prejudice against this form of literature, but it is a prejudice' -- from Leon Feuchtwanger's 'The Purpose of the Historical Novel', 1935 (this translation from the German by John Ahouse).

'Historical fiction as a genre often seems to be the product of bad faith or guilty conscience, and the often formidable energies of the genre spring partly from an attempt to rationalise its own apparent sins out of existence. A standing offense against both the autonomy of aesthetic form and the scientific integrity of facts, historical fiction is a perennial embarrassment liable to generate many forms of critical inquiry -- 'Historical Novel' article by Richard Maxwell from Encyclopaedia of the Novel (Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1998).

The historical novel has, at various time and in different cultures and contexts been seen as a classic European form, as a world-genre, as middlebrow distraction, as a form with the potential for political critique, as a way of genuinely understanding the past, as a dangerous falsifier of national identities, and as an important part of post-modern writing in the shape of 'historiographical metafiction'. Essays are invited which historicise the historical novel or discuss its relation to history, in any of its varieties.

I feel that the essays published here bear out the interest the form still sustains, and suggests that the historical novel, past and present, is very much a major and living form, which may indeed derive its strengths and continuing possibilities from the questions its 'problematic' genre raises, as briefly exemplified in the discussion of Manzoni above. Each of the eight essays examines for their own author, field, form or period the implications and possibilities which the historical novel can still open up for us, its revealing and generally quite self-conscious dialogues between past and present, history and invention.

Works cited

Berman, Sandra (editor and translator). On the Historical Novel by Alessandro Manzoni. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf. Baltimore and London: the John Hopkins Press, 1971.

Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel (translated Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, 1962). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969.

Wallace, Diana. The Woman's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005.

Schellinger, Paul and others, Encyclopaedia of the Novel. Fitzroy Dearborn: London and Chicago, 1998.