Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820

By Mark Salber Phillips | Go to book overview

Four
History, the Novel, and the Sentimental Reader

HISTORIANS have argued that in the early modern period reading was conceived as an essentially public and active process. Though it seems unlikely that reading habits in all situations and genres followed the same pattern, this view of reading was certainly apt for works of history, and it is no coincidence that the idea of active, public reading is often illustrated by reference to historiographical texts.1 In the latter half of the eighteenth century, however, an important shift took place in the way historical reading was described. History's reference to public matters did not disappear, nor did the reading habits associated with public instruction. Even so, there is evidence that many writers reconceived the reader's engagement with the historical narrative in more inward and sentimental terms. This shift in understanding of reading style had far-reaching implications. It worked against long-held assumptions about the value of historical instruction and so helped to reshape not only the formal but also the moral dimensions of historiographical practice.

One cannot pursue the question of eighteenth-century reading-styles very far without considering important questions of genre and audience—and especially, in this period, of a gendered audience. Contemporary thinking about historical writing relied on a series of contrasts that helped define the genre and set its place in the hierarchy of literatures; that is to say, history was defined by continual reference to other, associated genres—especially biography, memoir, or novel—which in turn derived much of their identity from their relations to history. The same contrastive habit operated with respect to audience, a key element of genre definition. History was defined by its appropriateness to an active, adult, male reader, whose interests and capacities were contrasted to the youthful, female, and private readership ascribed to the novel (and, to some extent, to biography as well). In this setting, the tension between active and sentimental reading I have spoken of was inevitably understood in

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1
On active reading, see Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, “ ‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present 129 (1990): 30–78. Grafton and Jardine do not comment on genre and the ways in which it may condition reading styles, though much of their material in fact concerns historical reading. See also Paul Hunter, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader,” Genre 10 (1977): 455–84. A good recent discussion, with notes to the growing literature on this subject, is Steven Zwicker, “Reading the Margins: Politics and the Habits of Appropriation,” in Refiguring Revolutions: Aesthetics and Politics from the English Revolution to the Romantic Revolution, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Zwicker (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1998), 101–15.

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