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

December 15, 2011

For a genre that until very recently was seen as marginal at best, and hopelessly dull at worst, the historical novel has been very well served of late by in-depth scholarly analyses. Books by authors such as Richard Maxwell and Alex Davis have considered historical fiction in a range of ways, looking at Renaissance practitioners of a proto-novel form, the genre's European scope, or excavating its origins pre-Walter Scott. The Institute of Historical Research recently hosted its first conference on the topic, and historians are now at least slightly reconciled to its problematic influence on the popular imagination. Clearly, it has been somewhat reclaimed as a suitable object of study, owing as much to academic interest in popular forms of writing as to cultural acclamation (or what might be termed the Hilary Mantel Effect).

In fact, the qualities that make the historical novel so beguiling as a form - the slippery, complex relationship between truth and artifice, the ethical quandary of reader and author, the revelatory quality of prose and its ability to interrogate how knowledge works - have always interested scholars. One of the things that Brian Hamnett's book shares with works by the authors mentioned above is a desire to rehabilitate the form by pointing out that it is not so very different from other types of writing, and at times can be about as good as the novel gets. Similarly, he echoes the arguments of increasingly influential historiographers - notably Paul Ricoeur - in suggesting that history and fiction are merely "a common attempt to portray and understand human experience".

Hamnett's book seeks to comprehend the historical novel as it was manifest and popularised in Europe during the 19th century. Through case studies of key novelists - George Eliot, Alessandro Manzoni, Walter Scott, Gustave Flaubert, Benito Pérez Galdós - he situates the form coherently in certain national and political contexts.

He is interested, too, by the way that historians such as Jules Michelet responded to the fictional flowering of interest in their subject, and his analysis here is quite valuable. The 19th-century novel was a pan-European entity, evolving and developing in strange new ways in different locales, so it is interesting to see how it works when history is also thrown into the mix. Mostly it allows for the expression of a nascent nationalism, and seemingly the crisis in the form comes at the end of the century, when nation states are under threat and the novel itself is no longer able to bear the load, morphing into Modernist critique.

This is a well-resourced account of a relatively familiar story, with some good, close analysis of texts that are still, despite the best efforts of Franco Moretti, generally considered singly or as part of national literatures rather than comparatively in this fashion. That said, a more compelling case for the Eurocentric focus of the book might be made because, in widening the scope of enquiry, this book raises further questions about the global popularity, influence and range of the form. Brazil, the US and Australia would be interesting test cases, for instance.

Although Hamnett's historical analysis is good, his literary work lacks dash. The book presents a set of relatively canonical texts, and can be uninflected in its engagements. That said, there is much to admire here, and as an account of the novel's strange development through the 19th century, it is rigorous and thorough.

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

By Brian Hamnett. Oxford University Press 352pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780199695041. Published 24 November 2011.

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