The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Representations of Reality in History and Fiction

By Buchanan, David | Transnational Literature, November 2012 | Go to article overview

The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Representations of Reality in History and Fiction


Buchanan, David, Transnational Literature


Brian R. Hamnett, The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Representations of Reality in History and Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2011)

This book revisits György Lukács's The Historical Novel (1937) by considering the historical novel of nineteenth-century Britain, France, and Italy, emphasising key authors such as Walter Scott, Honoré de Balzac, and Alessandro Manzoni, and by discussing development of the historical novel in relation to drama early in the century and realism later. It also extends Lukács's seminal work by discussing the historical novel of nineteenth-century Spain, Germany, and Russia, and the historical novel as it continued and changed into the Modernist period and throughout the twentieth century. The stated aims of the work are to set 'historical fiction in relation to the development of historiography in general' (1); 'to restate the case for historical fiction as a major branch of literary fiction' (2); and to challenge 'the disciplinary compartmentalizing of literature and history, and the containment of both disciplines into particular national straight-jackets' (2). The subject of this wide-ranging work is genre specific and comparatist, interdisciplinary and transnational, with potentially significant theoretical and practical implications for pedagogy and research of the novel, historiography, and history.

Part one, 'The historical novel as genre and problem,' begins with an exploration of the categories 'history,' 'narrative,' 'the novel,' and 'romance.' Such categorisation could provide the basis to better understand the genesis and development of the nineteenth-century historical novel. However, the terms remain vague, along with others such as 'Romanticism.' More particularly, in a work that aims to examine the relationship between historical fiction and historiography, with initial emphasis on the Romantic period in Britain, the inclusion of histories (e.g. Hume's History of England [1754-61]), antiquarianism (e.g. by Percy, Ritson), narrative poetry (e.g. by Scott), national tales (e.g. by Edgeworth, Owenson), dramatisation (i.e. historical and otherwise), and other forms, upmarket and downmarket, would add to the discussion. In the following two chapters, important issues and topics common to criticism of the historical novel are addressed: chapter two, 'History and fiction: the trials of separation and reunion,' reconsiders the 'how much history and how much fiction?' question; chapter three, 'The German Sturm und Drang, historical drama, and early romantic fiction,' builds upon Lukács.1 In chapter four, 'Scottish flowering: turbulence or Enlightenment?,' Hamnett justly locates Scott as a central figure in the development of the historical novel, but given the transnational connections pursued in later chapters it would be useful to more thoroughly relate the immediate and extended impact of the Waverley novels on the novel, publishing, criticism, and reading beyond Britain.2 Of more concern, to describe Waverley (1814) as a novel of 'self-doubt' (80) and 'indignation' (80) or 'political intrigue and disguised identities' (81) as 'the life-blood of Scott's fiction' (81) seems a return to early-twentieth-century notions of Scott as a pure romancer or a genius with costumes and scenery. Similar issues occur in chapter five, 'Romanticism and the historical novel.' For example, Hamnett states, 'The historical novel, with its emphasis on wild scenery and rebels, was ripe for further development by the Romantics' (103). While Hamnett focuses primarily on the nineteenth century, describing the early history of the historical novel in this way disregards the complex historical, political, and sociological portrayals of society in novels during the fifty (or more) years before Scott (e.g. by Reeve, Lee, Porter). 3 Further, the suggestion that the historical novel was developed by the 'Romantics,' a term that does not adequately describe Scott and other historical novelists of the period, may be questioned. …

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