Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Resisting 'The Spirit of Innovation': The Other Historical Novel and Jane Porter

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Resisting 'The Spirit of Innovation': The Other Historical Novel and Jane Porter

Article excerpt

Reviewing Joanna Baillie's Metrical Legends (1821), Thomas Carlyle remarks that 'The Fate of Wallace has been singularly bad, both in life and after it', his fame left 'to a vulgar rhymer':

We wish all this were remedied. Why does not the author of Waverley bestir himself? [...] THE WIZARD, if he liked, could image back to us the very form and pressure of those far off times, the very life and substance of the strong and busy spirits that adorned it. (1)

Since George Lukacs's reading of Walter Scott in The Historical Novel (1937), the representation of history as progress has been accepted as the defining characteristic of the historical novel. Jane Porter's novels The Scottish Chiefs (1810) and The Field of Forty Footsteps (1828) present an alternative model, emphasizing history as continuity. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) Edmund Burke rests the stability of the nation on correct succession of sovereignty. In contrast, for Porter, the rituals and tales that rehearse past conflict ensure national continuity. Her work necessitates a rethinking of the historical novel.


In this account, while avoiding the excessive sentiment with which Wallace has generally been treated, Baillie concentrates on facts to the exclusion of psychology. What Carlyle wants is a sense of character arising out of the violent circumstances of history, shaped by the density of material relations. Here, this demand leads him to dismiss without remark a number of literary treatments of Wallace, including Jane Porter's The Scottish Chiefs: A Romance (1810). (2) When we examine Georg Lukacs's 1937 seminal work on the historical novel, we find a similar occlusion. For Lukacs, the historical novel comes into existence with Scott, while the authors he connects with earlier forms of the genre are easy to dismiss in this context--he cites Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764) (actually subtitled 'A Story') as the 'most famous "historical novel" of the eighteenth century'. (3) Jane Porter goes unmentioned, despite her claim, made in the 1831 preface to Thaddeus of Warsaw, that Sir Walter Scott 'did me the honour to accept the style or class of novel of which "Thaddeus of Warsaw" was the first:--a class which, uniting the personages and facts of real history or biography, with a combining and illustrative machinery of the imagination, formed a new species of writing in that day'. (4)

These omissions are significant because they are indicative of a certain construction of the historical novel, to which Porter does not conform. Underlying the remarks of both Carlyle and Lukacs is the notion that, in historical fiction, what should be stressed is the importance of history as a force for change. For Lukacs, Scott 'fathom[s] historically the whole of English development to find a "middle way" for himself between warring extremes' (p. 32). In tracing this path, Scott 'exonerate[s] nothing in the development of capitalism' and, despite his acute sense of sympathy, 'display[s] no violent opposition to the features of the new development' (p. 33). In this reading of Scott, despite the misery capitalism brings, adaptation to the new order seems inevitable. And similar notions of 'history as progress; vulgarly Whig history' have been extremely influential in terms of Scott criticism. (5) As Murray Pittock notes, this Whiggish approach to history, although only the 'fictional mode Scott is practising', is something to which critics 'surrender'. (6) In other words, this element of Scott's work is taken as historical truth, and correspondingly the representation of 'history as progress' is accepted as the defining characteristic of the historical novel. (7) Drawing on Lukacs, for example, A. D. Hook gives an even more emphatic reading of Scott's emphasis on progress: 'Scott was possessed by a sharp historical sense, a powerful sense of history as movement, as the matrix of change bringing the past into meaningful relationship with the present'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.