Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

In the Space between History and Fiction -- the Role of Walter Scott's Fictional Prefaces. (Literature)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

In the Space between History and Fiction -- the Role of Walter Scott's Fictional Prefaces. (Literature)

Article excerpt

Sir Walter Scott for a long time had functioned in literary criticism as a novelist who facilitated development of the novel towards its realist form. This is not to say that he was regarded as a great realist writer; on the contrary, his deviations from realism had been frequently pointed to him. On the whole, however, it is valid to say that literary criticism valued him "as an accurate depictor of the past" (Kerr 1989: 1) and ignored those aspects of his novels that undermined the realistic illusion that he had first created. After the invalidation of the realist tradition critics began to notice that Scott's fiction apart from the more or less accurate pictures of the past offers also a self-conscious commentary on the relationship of history and fiction. Contemporary criticism thus focuses on metafictional devices in the novels.

The reevaluation of Scott's novels is accountable by the fact that the distinction between history and fiction has become in the twentieth century as blurry as it was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Historians, literary critics and novelists alike draw attention to parallels between literature and history. Hayden White (1999: 6) argues that "[l]iterary discourse may differ from historical discourse by virtue of primary referents, conceived as imaginary rather than real events, but the two kinds of discourse are more similar than different since both operate language in such a way that any clear distinction between their discursive form and their interpretative content remains impossible" and points to the applicability of literary theory to the study of historical modes of writing. In his seminal study Metafiction (1973) the historian analysed nineteenth-century histories according to "modes of emplotment: Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire" (1973: 7).

The same theme is present in literary criticism. Linda Hutcheon (1991: 105) argues, for instance, that "separation of the literary and the historical ... is now being challenged in postmodern theory and art, and recent critical readings of both history and fiction have focused more on what the two modes of writing share than how they differ". Historiographic metafiction, which is a contemporary variety of the historical novel, emphasises common points of literature and history, pointing to the equal reliance on verisimilitude of the two discourses, their linguistic constructedness and intertextuality (Hutcheon 1991: 105).

The aim of this article is to demonstrate how Scott showed the interplay between fact and fiction in prefaces to the first editions of his novels. What distinguished these prefaces from those written for the reeditions of the Waverley Novels (usually referred to as the Magnum Opus edition) was that they were signed by fictitious personae. The description of the careers of the putative authors of prefatory material will serve to illustrate how leaky the boundaries between textual, paratextual, and extratextual entities are and how broad is the space between reality and fiction. The easiness with which fictitious characters penetrate the boundary between text and paratext and empirical figures assume textual form within a fictional composition seems to be Scott's most vivid commentary on the workability of the rigid distinction between fact and fiction. It points to the intermediary spaces between the two entities, proving that they are but poles of a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive alternatives.

The history of reception of Scott's novels clearly demonstrates that their significance to literature is estimated on the basis of how neatly they fit within the realist tradition, that is that tradition that recognises the nineteenth-century novel as a height of development of the genre and looks upon earlier texts as on its stages. Contemporary critics, however, emphasise that Scott's historical novel may well be "the direct continuation of the great social novel of the eighteenth century", as Luckacs described it (1962 [1989]: 31), and a forerunner of the Victorian novel, but what traditional critics ignored, or considered as its deficiency was a great degree of self-consciousness, most apparent in the prefaces with which Scott supplied most of his texts. …

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