Mediating Romantic Historical Novels
Mike Goode, Syracuse University
As the historicist and, more recently, global turns in the humanities have
renewed critical interest in historical epistemology and the problems and
politics of historiography, many scholars have looked to the field of Romantic
history-writing for insight into these issues and their historicity. After
all, according to much of the classic mid-twentieth-century scholarship on
the emergence of the idea of history, including Georg Lukács's The
Historical Novel (1937), Robert Collingwood's The Idea of History (1946),
and Friedrich Meinecke's Historism (1959), historicist thought
itself emerged most fully formed in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century
Britain, as did its chief literary outlet, the historical novel. Scholars
may disagree over the precise form and content of these new intellectual
and cultural formations, but the most influential recent monographs on the
subject tend to agree with their intellectual forebears on dating and placing
those formations in Romantic Britain. In fact, according to James Chandler's England
in 1819 (1998), and Katie Trumpener's Bardic Nationalism (1997),
today's historicist and global turns in the humanities really constitute
re-turns to forms of thought already manifest, among other places, in the
period's historical novels, regional novels, and national tales.
This intensified scholarly interest in the Romantic historical novel has
not necessarily been matched, however, by enthusiasm on the part of students
for reading even the most famous instances of the genre. As anyone can attest
who has ever tried teaching one of Walter Scott's Waverley Novels to a classroom
of American undergraduates, you can only sustain student interest for so
long by reiterating the novels' monumental significance to the literary,
intellectual, and cultural histories of Britain and beyond. At the same time,
it is the Romantic historical novel's significance to these histories that
demands that we not abandon the enterprise of teaching the genre simply on
account of its present obscurity and unpopularity among students. Through
the transnational influence not just of British examples of the genre, but
also of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Honoré de Balzac among
others, the Romantic historical novel was the first genuinely global novelistic
genre. Doris Sommers's Foundational Fictions (1991) documents how,
for example, nineteenth-century Latin American historical novelists borrowed
from and rewrote Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, which of course themselves
borrowed from and reworked the formula of Scott's Waverley Novels. Likewise,
the authors of the essays in Murray Pittock's recent collection, The
Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe (2007), chart the genre's influence
in nineteenth-century Europe, particularly over national historical literatures
from Spain to Slovenia. In
what follows, I outline what I take to be the major challenges of teaching
Romantic historical novels, with a particular emphasis on the Waverley Novels,
as well as offer practical classroom strategies to address those challenges.
My emphasis on the Waverley Novels is only partially driven by the fact that
they were the most popular and paradigmatic examples of the genre for Romantic
reading audiences. It also stems from two other factors: first, they are
the Romantic historical novels that appear most frequently on undergraduate
course syllabi, and, second, based on my own experience and the anecdotal
evidence of colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, they are extremely
difficult texts to teach effectively.
The most obvious pedagogical obstacle that Romantic historical novels
that the historical novels of any earlier period present—is that students
by and large need to be familiarized with multiple historical contexts at
once. In addition to the usual work of teaching about the contexts in which
a given text was written and read, historical fiction of course confronts
readers with another past altogether. As Michel de Certeau reminds us in The
Writing of History (1975), all historiography writes to and about at
least two distinct times and places: historiography is literally the relation of
one place to another through writing. While
teaching a Romantic historical novel as part of a broader course on eighteenth
or nineteenth-century culture can suffice to acquaint students with the artistic
and political contexts of the novel's production, it is a rare American undergraduate
who opens the first page of, say, Scott's Old Mortality (1816)
or Woodstock (1826) with much awareness of the histories, respectively,
of the Covenanters in seventeenth-century Scotland or of the Commonwealth
in 1649-53. The problem becomes still more acute in the case of teaching
a novel like Mary Shelley's Valperga (1823), when it is not just
the atypical student but also the atypical Romantic literature professor
who feels adequate command of the cultural intricacies of the story's fourteenth-century
At the same time, this is also probably the least challenging of the pedagogical
problems posed by teaching historical novels. You can acquire a handle on
the historical settings of most of these novels by doing some basic outside
reading. Moreover, in most cases, distilling this reading into a rudimentary
sketch of the sociopolitical backdrop for a given novel's events, along with
a list of names of the key factions and actors, is generally enough to make
the plot of the novel intelligible to students. In my experience, such information
can be conveyed satisfactorily by giving a brief lecture in the class period
just before students begin reading the novel or even by directing them to
a reliable website that concisely and competently summarizes the relevant
history for a generalist audience. When teaching historical novels about
British history, for example, I often direct students to the relevant sections
of the BBC's history website.
Depending on the text at hand, students may also find the extensive resources
at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
and Spartacus Educational
websites helpful for learning about specific historical figures and groups.
Should you wish to acquaint students directly with histories contemporaneous
with whatever historical novel they are reading, the case is more difficult,
though a growing number of online archives offer subscription access to troves
of eighteenth-century British manuscripts and publications, including histories.
Two of the more substantial of these archives are Eighteenth
Century Collections Online and Adam Matthew
Instructors teaching one of Scott's Scottish historical novels might also
consider assigning a relevant excerpt from his Tales of a Grandfather (1828-30)
series, the history of Scotland that he wrote for his grandson, or his Quarterly
Review essay on "Manners, Customs, and History of the Highlanders
of Scotland" (1816). The former can be downloaded as an e-text from
the Walter Scott Digital
and the latter was recently issued as an inexpensive paperback.
A thornier pedagogical problem lies in the fact that every history necessarily
is a history of the present. As Certeau's aforementioned definition of historiography
already implies, all historical representations, and this of course includes
all historical novels, are only ever capable of representing the time of
their production. The problem
of getting students to understand this idea is really twofold. First, they
need to understand the complex concept of mediation—that is,
the idea not just that all representations mediate, or re-present, "reality" (which
itself is nothing other than a mediated and mediating construct) but also
that every representation mediates the historical state of mediation itself
at the time that it is produced. Second, they need to be able to recognize
the historicity of a given novel's mediation of the particular history it
purports to represent. That is, they need to be able to recognize both how
the history the novel relates mediates the historical archive available to
the writer (how the novel's history is both a selection from and a reflection
of the archive) and how the history the novel relates mediates the cultural
contexts in and for which it was written (how the novel produces a history
of a particular past from and for the contemporary historical situation in
which it is producing that history). To
put the problem in more concrete terms, while it may be easy enough to give
a brief introductory lecture on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 that will help
your students understand the plot of Harrison Ainsworth's Guy Fawkes (1841),
it is much harder to get them to see how Guy Fawkes's account of
the Gunpowder Plot selects from and reflects the historical archive that
Ainsworth had available to him in 1841, and, furthermore, how the novel's
history of Britain in 1605 is written from and for—indeed, is inescapably about—Britain
Only slightly less thorny is the problem of genre, or the question of
what "counts" as
Romantic historical fiction and of what relation Romantic historical fiction
bears to the broader intellectual field of history per se at the turn of
the nineteenth century. If, following the lead of contemporary literary historians
and of early-nineteenth-century novelists and reviewers, you suggest to your
students that the historical novel emerged as a genre in the Romantic period,
then of course you necessarily raise the question of what "historical" means
for the purposes of this generic classification. Particularly if you are
teaching Romantic historical novels in the context of a broader course on
the history of the novel, your students will want to know on what grounds
earlier novels set in the past, such as Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the
Plague Year (1722), Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1765),
and Ann Radcliffe's The Italian (1796), should not be, or at least
traditionally have not been, considered historical novels. Many undergraduates
will balk at the claim that not every fiction set in the past constitutes
a historical fiction, citing some combination of common sense, poststructuralist
theory, and a multiculturalist commitment to relativism as their justification.
But insofar as you do call attention to the fact that the period's reviewers
and contemporary critics alike often refer to these novels as instances of
a new "historical" genre of literature—as texts that are
somehow historical in ways that differ from their novelistic predecessors—then
you will need a way to help your students recognize the historicity of the
forms of historical thought and representation that Romantic historical novels
manifest. More specifically, you will need to be able to demonstrate how
historical epistemology was being altered in the period, as well as how Romantic
historical novels' formal properties and broader historical vision reflected
and perhaps helped enact that alteration.
There are ways to overcome these pedagogical obstacles short of giving
students a crash course in historicism. Whenever
I teach Romantic historical novels, I try to collapse the obstacles into
one another as much as possible. Following Chandler's important account
of romantic historicist epistemology in England in 1819,
I see the task of helping students understand the complex historicist idea
of mediation as simultaneously giving them a purchase on one of the key concepts
through which, as Nancy Armstrong would put it, Romantic historical novels "think" about
the problems and politics of historical epistemology and representation. In
other words, I take the understanding of mediation that underpins most historicist
analysis of literature today to be not only one of the things that these
old novels can teach our students but also one of the hallmarks of the novels'
claims to being historical in ways that differ from their novelistic predecessors.
Certainly there are easier paths into teaching the genre. You might simply
ask your students, for example, to try to diagnose what attitudes a particular
Romantic historical novel generates towards whatever cultural shift or political
event it portrays, or to determine what its form might imply about its vision
of the homogeneity or heterogeneity of national identity, or to think about
how it codes national identity in terms of gender, class, sex, and race.
But I would contend that the pedagogical approach I am advocating here has
the potential to enrich these and many other lines of inquiry. For how we
answer such questions undoubtedly should depend in part on how we understand
various Romantic historical novels to be conceiving and navigating the problems
of knowing and representing the past per se, and this in turn depends on
how we understand their generic position in relation to other novels and
other varieties of historiography.
Of course it is one thing to want to produce this kind of understanding
in students and another thing actually to achieve that result efficiently
and effectively. Certainly the difficulties of the task are also going to
vary depending on whether you happen to be teaching a particular historical
novel in the context of a course conceived along historically synchronic
lines, such as a survey of the Romantic period or the Romantic novel, or
in a course organized along more diachronic lines, such as a seminar on the
historical novel, the history of the novel, the history of the book, the
history of history, the history of reading, or some altogether different
kind of history. Regardless of the course, however, giving students some
kind of historical background even before they begin reading the novel you
have assigned can do more than just orient them to the setting for the novel's
events. You can use it as an occasion to remind them that this historical
setting, however unfamiliar now, would already have been familiar in most
instances to the novel's earliest readers before they opened the book. In
the case of Scott's Waverley (1814), I always alert my students
immediately to the novel's subtitle, "'Tis Sixty Years Since," in
order to convey to them that the events it chronicles were no more chronologically
distant from its first audiences than World War II is from us today. In fact,
given the discussion in Waverley's final chapter of how the speed
of cultural changes over time contributes to a sense of historical distance
from the past, the setting of Waverley may well have felt more
historically proximate to many of its first readers than WWII now feels to
many of us. Scott may be right when he notes in Waverley's final
chapter that over the last sixty years of the eighteenth century Scotland
went through an accelerated series of changes that it had taken England the
preceding quarter millennium to undergo. But the extent and rapidity of those
changes pale by comparison to the swift economic and geopolitical transformation
of much of the world in the sixty years since the end of WWII.
The WWII comparison can also prove helpful for introducing the concept
of mediation even before students have begun reading the novel. In my experience,
most undergraduates have seen one or more of the last decade's big-budget
WWII films, such as Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Pearl
Harbor, Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima.
More importantly, these students usually are familiar enough with the war
from sources besides the films (museum displays, history courses in high
school or college, relatives' stories, History Channel documentaries, Ken
Burns's The War) that they are prepared to discuss these films
as mediations. I ask my students what kinds of overarching stories as a culture
we tend to tell ourselves about the historical significance of WWII and then
try to get them to describe for their classmates how they see any of these
films as participating in or revising these stories. Then I ask them why,
as a culture, we might have been telling ourselves these kinds of stories
about the war and why we are not telling them or are telling them differently
now: how and to whom might these stories have been comforting? What has happened
in recent years that might have lead us to revisit and revise some of these
stories? How do these films about the past clearly gesture at the same time
to present events or values? What details or kinds of events in recent WWII
films prove the most impossible to incorporate into the older stories? What
kinds of details and events do these films tend not to depict?
At the very least, by asking these kinds of questions, you draw your students'
attention to the way that a historical fiction—or, really, any historical
representation—reflects, selects from, and even invents or calls into
existence the archive. But more importantly, you also prompt them to think
about ways that the stories we tell ourselves about history are really always
already stories that we are telling about ourselves—that every historical
representation inescapably represents and comments on the culture that produced
it, that every historical representation captures a present-tense relationship
to the past rather than the past itself. After holding these discussions,
you can then remind students that Waverley's early audiences would have
had the ability to have similar discussions about the novel's portrayal of
the 1745 Jacobite rebellion (indeed, according to the evidence of early reviews,
they did have those discussions). Thus, even before beginning the
novel, students will recognize that a crucial, but also difficult, task facing
them will be to figure out how the novel is not really about 1745 but about
the relationship Britain in the 1810s had to 1745—how the novel is
as much a mediation of Britain in the 1810s as it is of the events of 1745.
Having already raised the idea of mediation before students open whatever
historical novel it is that I have assigned, I proceed to use the first class
discussion to raise the issue of the genre's specificity within the field
of Romantic letters. A fledgling genre in the period, historical novels tend
to demarcate their authority within the broader fields of the novel and of
history-writing to the point that it can be instructive to think about how
the histories they tell constitute mediations at least in part of the state
of mediation itself in the period. You can pave the way for such metageneric
thinking by having students examine various Romantic texts that map the generic
fields of the novel and of history-writing. I find Regency caricatures of
novel readers to be an accessible starting point for this project, particularly
James Gillray's Tales of Wonder! (1802), which lampoons four emotionally
overwrought women reading a Gothic novel aloud by candlelight, and George
Cruikshank's Four Specimens of the Reading Public (1826), which
satirically stereotypes readers of historical novels, radical political pamphlets,
erotic memoirs, and feminine romances. These
visual texts not only give students a sense of the array of options open
to the period's readers but also show them evidence of how the historical
novel altered the generic field of the novel, not least of all by regendering
the novel's cultural authority. For, unlike the other readers in the two
images, Cruikshank's stereotypical Waverley Novel reader is an educated,
In this respect, Cruikshank's caricature also makes a nice pairing with
Jane Austen's defense of novels in Volume I, Chapter 5, of Northanger
Abbey (1816), which profiles the array of reading options facing the
Romantic reading public and the kinds of gendered cultural authority invested
in different literary genres; with Austen's letter to Anna
Austen Lefroy of September
28, 1814, in which she professes her wish that Scott had stuck to poetry
and not begun writing novels, "especially
good ones," on account of the fact that he will end up "taking
the bread out of the mouths of other people"; with
the "Introductory" chapter of Waverley, in which Scott
defines his novel's genre by way of negation, describing all of the familiar
Romantic novelistic genres that it does not fit; and with Maria Edgeworth's
October 23, 1814 letter to Scott, in which she implicitly registers some
sense of her fellow novelist's generic innovation by criticizing him for
those moments when Waverley "stoop[s] to imitation." Should
you wish to supplement this discussion with an accessible scholarly account
of the historical novel's masculinization of novels' cultural authority,
you might also assign a few of the opening chapters of Ina Ferris's The
Achievement of Literary Authority (1991), which establishes this point
by analyzing numerous review essays from the period. Another
good way to offer students a quick snapshot of the broader gendered generic
field of the novel in the year of Waverley's publication is to
use the Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research's "British
Fiction, 1800-1829" online database to generate a list of titles
of all of the novels published in Britain in 1814.
Regardless of which historical novel you are teaching, the first chapter
of Waverley can do double-duty for you insofar as it also serves
as evidence of how Romantic writers tried to invest the historical novel
with authority in relation to other genres of history-writing. You can ask
your students to dissect, for example, how Scott's negation of his novel's
membership in other novelistic genres that employ historical settings also
negates those genres' claims to historical authority. Even better suited
to the purpose of elucidating how the historical novel's authority gets positioned
in relation to other kinds of history-writing in the period, however, are
texts that take up that relationship explicitly. Thomas Macaulay's 1828 "History" essay
from the Edinburgh Review, for example, praises the Waverley Novels
for melding social history with the political history that tended to be historians'
primary focus. Assigning
Macaulay's essay, which explicitly characterizes social history as the domain
formerly of antiquaries, gives students a sense of the field of Romantic
historiography as divided between antiquarian treatises and histories proper,
with the historical novel bridging the two genres. It thus can be paired
usefully with Chapters 3-4 of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of
Pompeii (1834), which
keep breaking the forward momentum of the plot in order to offer lengthy
antiquarian treatises on various details of first-century Roman material
culture (while at the same time making nasty remarks about antiquaries),
and with Scott's famous "Dedicatory Epistle" to Ivanhoe (1819),
which takes the form of a letter from a fictitious historical novelist to
a fictitious antiquary defending the historical authority of Ivanhoe.
You can ask students to discuss ways that the Dedicatory Epistle at once
aligns historical novel-writing with and against antiquarian research. On
the one hand, the text celebrates antiquaries' emphasis on studying physical
artifacts, for it talks about historical novel-reading as a form of physical
travel and about historical novel-writing as the act of embodying and reviving
the past. On
the other hand, the Dedicatory Epistle's repeated punning jabs at "grave" and "dryasdust" antiquaries
underscores the threat that a form of historical representation so invested
in the materiality of the past potentially poses to living actively in the
students identify how the Dedicatory Epistle's map of the field of history-writing
raises the issue of what investments history-writing ought to produce in
the present paves the way for discussions in subsequent classes of the politics
of whatever Romantic historical novel you have assigned—whether it
generates acceptance of the course of history, nostalgia for a particular
lost past, or an impulse to counter-nationalist recovery or violence. Should
you wish to supplement class discussion with secondary critical reading on
the generic relationship between the Romantic novel and history-writing in
the period, you might also assign Chapter 4 of Mark Salber Phillips's Society
and Sentiment (2000). Should
you wish to complicate the question of genres of history-writing still further,
you might also have them read William Godwin's essay "Of History
and Romance" (1797),
which also gets discussed in the Phillips chapter. Godwin's essay makes the
case that a romance (a term that Godwin uses interchangeably with novel)
can tell a truer history than an actual history on the grounds that romance-writers
do not have to speculate about the psyche and motives of their characters
in the way that historians do.
Another reason to begin teaching Romantic historical novels with discussions
of the novels' general positioning within the broader field of history-writing
of the period is that they are often as much about contests over modes and
genres of historical representation as they are about past political and
cultural upheavals. Occasionally this metahistorical contestation over the
field of the "historical" is the subject of the novel, such as
in Scott's The
Antiquary (1816). But the contestation surfaces more frequently in
the novel's form, as is the case, for example, in Maria Edgeworth's Castle
Rackrent (1800) and James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions
of a Justified Sinner (1824). Early on in a discussion of Edgeworth's
novel, which tells the story of multiple generations of an Anglo-Irish family
on their financially beleaguered estate, you can have students discuss the
comparative authority of the kinds of history being offered by Thady Quirk,
the novel's uneducated Irish narrator, and the nameless, educated Anglo-Irish
editor who has appended condescending footnotes and a glossary to Thady's
narrative. I often ask students to come to class ready to talk in as specific
terms as possible about how a single footnote or glossary entry of their
choice has the effect of dislocating historical authority from both Thady
and the editor. On the other hand, if teaching Hogg's fascinatingly schizophrenic
novel, then your task will be more to get students to see how its two separate
narratives of overlapping events are not just "both sides of the story" (American
undergraduates' favorite chestnut for talking about competing representations
of a historical conflict) but something more like incompatible metaphysical
worlds. To get them to see this, I generally have students list inconsistencies
between the two narratives that cannot be made compatible with one another
without first rejecting the operative assumptions governing what is possible
within the worldview implied by one of the two narratives.
Clarifying the novel form's relation to historical authority is still
more complex, I think, when teaching a Waverley Novel. Here, the form of
the Waverley Novel itself arguably constitutes the progressive teleological
end of whatever contests over historical authority and modes of mediating
history the novel depicts. Scott tends to portray the development of his
protagonists' historical understanding as a process whereby the protagonists
successively try on different narrative genres to make sense of the historical
situations in which they find themselves. The hero of a Waverley Novel thus
undergoes a literary education as much as a historical one, and the historical
novel itself is the endpoint of both of these educations. Among all of the
Waverley Novels, Rob Roy (1816)
makes this dynamic the most explicit insofar as it presents itself as a memoir
penned by the protagonist in maturity, after he has left behind his adolescent
reading habits and after he has developed an historical awareness that he
lacks throughout the youthful escapades that make up the bulk of the narrative.
Getting students to see this point about Rob Roy and about other
Scott novels can be difficult, however, insofar as most students will be
unfamiliar with some of the literary genres a Scott protagonist reads or,
what is more, with the conventions that identify one of the protagonist's
hermeneutic failures as the function of the predominance of a particular
narrative genre over his historical imagination. When reading Redgauntlet (1824),
for example, students can easily pick up on the fact that Darsie Latimer's
first impressions of the Laird of Redgauntlet derive in part from his reading
of romances since Darsie himself admits as much as he conveys those impressions.
But when reading Rob Roy, they likely will not realize that when
Frank Osbaldistone falsely suspects his Jesuit cousin Rashleigh of trying
to seduce a female pupil, he is emplotting his cousin's actions within the
conventions both of anti-Catholic seduction novels and, anachronistically,
of late-eighteenth-century Gothic romances. To the extent that so many of
these moments of epistemological failure by Scott's heroes involve mistaking
one kind of historical type or character for another (in Frank's case, assuming
that Rashleigh's motives are sexual rather than political), I find it useful
once again to employ satirical caricatures from the period to help students
see the generic conventionality of such epistemological failures. In the
case of Francis's misreading of Rashleigh, any one of the hundreds of eighteenth-century
images depicting lecherous Jesuits will suffice to achieve your purpose.
I often select a few images from Peter Wagner's essay "Anticatholic
Erotica in Eighteenth-Century England" (1991).
Having gotten students to attend to the failures of a given Waverley Novel
protagonist's narrative imagination to represent the plots unfolding around
him, I then try to get them to see how the novel organizes its reader's own
grasp of history less according to a plot taken from other genres of fiction
than to one derived from Scottish Enlightenment history and sociology—namely,
the stadialist model of civilization and economic development put forth by
Adam Ferguson in An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767),
John Millar in The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1771), and
Lord Kames in Sketches of the History of Man (1774). Without going
into the intricacies of these thinkers' progressive model of the four stages
of civilization, you can still get students to recognize how a Scott novel
arranges its plot as a movement through different states of society simply
by having them compare a few of the passages describing the different locations
the hero visits in the novel. In the case of Waverley, for example,
close-reading the descriptions of the scene of his uncle's northern English
manor (Chapter 2), the Baron of Bradwardine's house and surrounding village
(Chapters 8-9), the hideout of the robber Donald Bean Lean (Chapter 17),
and the Highland seat of the MacIvor clan (Chapters 19-20), will inevitably
spark the recognition that the novel codes these different spaces as if each
belongs to a different moment in the history of civilization. Moreover, once
your students realize this, it is easy then to get them to see how the novel
in effect represents the wanderings of its protagonist further away from
England and from metropoles as a kind of time travel. I always draw my students
a map of where these different locations lie in relation to one another in
order to help them see this. Having done so, you can then ask them to start
thinking about what this stadialist model reveals about how the novel might
be trying to get its readers to relate to the course of history. Is it justifying
the destruction of Highland clan culture by portraying that culture as underdeveloped
in relation to the state of British culture more broadly construed? Does
the stadialist model of human civilization imply simply that this destruction
is inevitable even if potentially lamentable? More complexly, how does overlaying
the personal development of the novel's protagonist on top of his movements
across these states of civilization affect our understanding of the terms
of the novel's participation in that stadialist model? And how does the ending
of a Waverley Novel, with the fruition of a cross-cultural marriage plot
between the protagonist and some member of the "uncivilized" culture,
affect readers' understanding of the novel's historical philosophy and vision
of national identity?
Having already spent so much time discussing the Waverley Novel hero's
historical education as a process of finding the right genre through which
to mediate the world around him, you have given your students the tools to
produce some fairly sophisticated answers to these questions. You might encourage
them to think about what generic forms characters other than the protagonist
use in these different stages of civilization to mediate the world around
them: in Waverley, for example, there are Davie Gellatley's ballads
(Chapter 9), the Baron of Bradwardine's antiquarian studies (Chapters 10-11),
the Highland bard's Gaelic oral poetry (Chapter 20), and Flora MacIvor's
theatrical translation of the bard's Gaelic oral poetry (Chapter 22), just
to name a few. On some level, the novel seems to suggest that genuine historical
understanding lies in the ability to gauge not just how successfully a particular
genre mediates the situation it is brought in to make sense of, but also,
at the same time, whether that genre is the best one available to the particular
character employing it at the time and place s/he is employing it. In other
words, the novel encourages us to see Waverley's romance-derived imagination
as irresponsible in relation to his situation because the state of mediation
in the world in which he is brought up renders that imagination an archaism;
conversely, the Highland bard's bellicose historical poetry is not anachronistic
within the context of the "uncivilized" Highlands cultural context
in which it is recited.
Getting students to see this point reveals how Scott tries to set up the
historical novel as training both a metageneric and metahistorical imagination—how,
to put it in the terms I was using earlier, Scott sets up the problem of
historical understanding and representation both as problems of mediation.
By the time that the class arrives at the end of the novel and encounters
a description of a multiply mediated painting of Waverley's Highland campaign
(Chapter 71), they should thus be more than ready to discuss the ways that
the novel both aligns itself with and tries to stand in opposition the painting's
own kind of historical mediation. Should you wish to add extra fuel to this
conversation, you might assign Hugh Trevor-Roper's provocative "The
Invention of Tradition: the Highland Tradition of Scotland" essay from
Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's The Invention of Tradition (1983)
as secondary reading. The
essay examines the invention of the popular imagination of Highland clan
culture, including the implication of the Waverley Novels in that creative
(and ultimately economically driven) process.
Of course not all Romantic historical novels share the Waverley Novel's
stadialist model of history. But in order to get your class to think about
the historical visions that inform these non-stadialist fictions, you can
still use the same approach of asking your students to compare a given novel's
descriptions of different cultural locations and, if possible, to track changes
that occur within a single location in the novel. When teaching Edgeworth's Castle
Rackrent, for example, you can ask students to think about what kinds
of historical progressions, if any, seem to be implied by the changes from
generation to generation in the Anglo-Irish family who occupy and ultimately
end up selling their estate. Does each successive head of household seem
to represent a historically specific character type or a more ahistorical
one? What evidence, if any, does the novel provide that the story of an aristocratic
Anglo-Irish family's supplanting by its Irish servant's own son, a savvy
lawyer and land speculator, might be historically representative in some
way? Does the novel suggest that this supplanting was inevitable? Does it
suggest that this outcome is good or just? How does the presence of competing
narrative voices—Irish narrator and Anglo-Irish editor—influence
how we answer these questions? Such lines of inquiry of course get more complicated
in the case of some of Edgeworth's other historical fictions, such as Ormond (1817),
because, unlike Castle Rackrent and more akin to a Waverley Novel,
they involve changes across more than one cultural locale. Nevertheless,
the relation of those changes to one another is not organized in the manner
of a Waverley Novel, where, according to Lukács's influential argument
in The Historical Novel, the protagonist's movements between and
away from different cultural locales stand in for the course of history
itself. I find that it can still be helpful to summarize (or to have students
read) Lukács's argument about the function of Scott's itinerant "mediocre
heroes" when they come to the end of a Romantic historical novel that
does not fit the Waverley Novel formula. Having
that argument in place can help bring into focus the ways that a wandering
hero like Ormond's Harry Ormond does not necessarily stand in for
the course of history. This in turn raises the question of what in the novel,
if anything, does deliver a sense of history's course or, for that matter,
whether the metaphor of history as something that has a "course" (a
metaphor that implies a kind of organic continuity) is even appropriate to
the novel's particular historical vision.
Upon reaching the end of a Romantic historical novel, you can take the
occasion to remind your students of their initial discussion of WWII films
and suggest that it might be worthwhile to reflect on the significance of
what gets left out of whatever history is represented in the novel they have
just finished. It will likely be up to you to point out the existence of
these omissions, such as the fact that Waverley essentially contains
almost no references to the Battle of Culloden, the bloody and decisive defeat
of the Jacobite army in 1745 that effectively ended their cause forever.
In pointing out such omissions, you can ask how representing the omitted
event (or individual or group or locale) might potentially have complicated
or run counter to whatever vision of history the novel you are discussing
seems to produce. For example, it would be much harder to interpret Waverley as
a novel that tries to lay to rest ongoing Jacobite resentment or that portrays
the course of history as a kind of dialectical moderation of competing political
interests (two standard readings of the novel) had it represented a bloody,
one-sided battle like Culloden. Representing the battle could not help but
have underscored the ultimate dependence of Hanoverian rule's endurance in
the eighteenth century—the "course" of Waverley's
violence and cultural destruction.
Finally, you might also use the moment of closure in discussing a Romantic
historical novel to have students step back from the novel and reflect on
the historical vision or narrative implied by the design of the course itself.
How do Romantic historical novels fit into that vision? How does the course
position Romantic historical novels in relation to the broader fields of
Romantic literature and culture? How does the course relate Romantic historical
novels to the novels, historical novels, historiography, and/or intellectual
developments of other periods? One of the challenges that teaching Romantic
novels in general poses is that the generic field of the novel in the period
is so heterogeneous that teaching these texts cannot help but undermine any
clear sense of the period's periodicity. One of the benefits of teaching
Romantic historical novels as part of the generic field of the Romantic novel,
however, is that, as a genre, they can help train students to reflect on
the politics of what it means to think of culture as a heterogeneous field.
As we continue to integrate Romantic novels into Romantic studies more generally,
it remains to be seen, I think, whether it makes more sense—historically,
theoretically, and pedagogically—to think of the heterogeneity of the
fields of the Romantic novel and of Romantic literature according to the
Waverley Novels' Scottish Enlightenment-derived model of uneven development,
Edgeworth's novels' Raymond Williams-like model of emergent and residual
cultures, Hogg's Confessions'
more jarring vision of culture as a violent and arbitrarily dynamic heterotopia,
or some altogether different model culled from a forgotten corner of the
British Library or the Corvey Collection. Perhaps one of our students some
day can help us figure this out.
Ainsworth, William Harrison. Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder
Armstrong, Nancy. How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism,
1719-1900. New York: Columbia UP, 2005.
Austen, Jane. letter to Anna Austen Lefroy, 28 September 28
1814. The Republic of Pemberley. 19 March 2007. www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/brablt16.html#letter88.
---. Northanger Abbey: and Persuasion. London, 1818.
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Last Days of Pompeii. London
Certeau, Michel de. The Writing of History (1975).
Trans. Tom Conley. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.
Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary
Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1998.
Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of History. Ed. Jan van
der Dussen. Rev. edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946.
Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. London,
Edgeworth, Maria. Castle Rackrent, An Hibernian Tale. London,
---. Harrington, A Tale; and Ormond, A Tale. In Three Volumes. London,
Ferguson, Adam. An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Edinburgh,
Ferris, Ina. The Achievement of Literary: Authority:
Gender, History, and the Waverley Novels. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.
Gillray, James. Tales of Wonder! London, 1 February
Godwin, William. "Of History and Romance" (1797).
in Caleb Williams, ed.
Maurice Hindle. New York: Penguin, 2005. 359-73.
Hamilton, Paul. Historicism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge,
Hayden, John O. Scott: The Critical Heritage. London:
Hogg, James. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified
Home, Henry (Lord Kames). Sketches of the History of
Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel (1937).
Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: U Nebraska Press, 1983.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. "History." Edinburgh
Review, or Critical Journal 47 (1828): 331-51.
Meinecke, Friedrich. Historism: The Rise of a New Historical
trans. J.E. Anderson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
Millar, John. The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. Edinburgh,
Phillips, Mark Salber. Society and Sentiment: Genres
of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820. Princeton: Princeton UP,
Pittock, Murray. ed. The Reception of Sir Walter Scott
in Europe. London:
Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. London, 1796.
Robertson, Fiona. "Novels." An Oxford Companion
to the Romantic Age. Ed. Iain McCalman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 286-95.
Scott, Walter. The Antiquary. Edinburgh, 1816.
---. Ivanhoe; A Romance. Edinburgh, 1819.
---. Old Mortality. Edinburgh, 1816.
---. Redgauntlet. A Tale of the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh,
---. Rob Roy. Edinburgh, 1818.
---. Waverley. Edinburgh, 1814.
---. Woodstock; or, The Cavalier. A Tale of the Year
Sixteen Hundred and Fifty-One. Edinburgh, 1826.
Shelley, Mary. Valperga: Or, The Life and Adventures
of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (London, 1823).
Sommers, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances
of Latin America. Berkeley: U California Press, 1991.
Trevor-Roper, Hugh. "The Invention of Tradition: the Highland
Tradition of Scotland." In The Invention of Tradition. Ed.
Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 15-42.
Trumpener, Katie. Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel
and the British Empire. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.
Wagner, Peter. "Anticatholic Erotica in Eighteenth-Century
England." in Erotica
and the Enlightenment. Ed. Peter Wagner. New York: Peter Lang,
Walpole, Horace. Castle of Otranto. London, 1765.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Rev. edn.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.
in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1998), Part I, and Katie Trumpener, Bardic
Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire (Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1998), Introduction, passim.
Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: U California
Press, 1991), Chapters 1-2.
Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe (London: Continuum, 2007).
Michel de Certeau, The
Writing of History (1975), trans. by Tom Conley (New York: Columbia
UP, 1988), Part I.
Walter Scott, Manners
Customs and History of the Highlanders of Scotland (New
York: Barnes and Noble, 2004).
elaborates this idea most fully in "The Historiographical Operation" chapter
of The Writing
of History, 56-113.
I owe this
formulation of the concept of mediation to Raymond Williams, Marxism
and Literature (Rev ed.;
Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978), 95-101, and Chandler, England in
being said, if you have room in your syllabus for such a crash course, a
text like Paul Hamilton's Historicism, 2nd ed (London: Routledge,
2003) offers an accessible introduction to the history of historicism and
helpfully maps the complex intellectual terrain that contemporary historicist
critics and theorists contest.
How Novels Think:
The Limits of Individualism, 1719-1900 (New Yok: Columbia UP, 2005).
kinds of questions can of course be arrived at profitably by representations
of any other historical event. I privilege World War II on the practical
grounds that most students have seen a WWII film and on the slightly more
suspect historical grounds that the war's events are approximately as close
to us chronologically as the Jacobite rebellions were for readers of Waverley. In
my experience, it is hard for students reading older historical novels to
access any sense of the proximity or distance that the events being recounted
would have had for the novels' early audiences. While I by no means attempt
to assert any kind of political or symbolic equivalence between our relationship
to WWII and Scott's early audience's relationship to the Jacobite rebellions,
I do try to use our current relationship to WWII as a kind of correlative
structure of feeling for the experience of proximity those audiences would
have felt to the events Waverley recounts.
image can be found online in the Tate Britain's online digital collection
it is also the cover art for the Longman Cultural Edition of Jane Austen, Northanger
Abbey, ed. by Marilyn Gaull (New York: Longman, 2004). A black-and-white
reproduction of Cruikshank's print appears in Fiona Robertson's entry on "Novels" in
Iain McCalman, ed., An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (Oxford:
Oxford UP, 1999), 288.
of the letter can be found at: www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/brablt16.html#letter88.
letter can be found in John O. Hayden, Scott: The Critical Heritage (London:
Ina Ferris, The
Achievement of Literary: Authority: Gender, History, and the Waverley
Cornell UP, 1991).
Babington Macaulay, "History," Edinburgh Review,
or Critical Journal 47 (1828): 331-51.
Scott, "Dedicatory Epistle
to the Rev. Dr Dryasdust, F.A.S., Residing in the Castle-Gate, York" (1819),
in Ivanhoe; A Romance, ed. Graham Tulloch, Edinburgh Edition of
the Waverley Novels (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 7.
Salber Phillips, Society
and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820 (Princeton:
Princeton UP, 2000)
essay, unpublished in his lifetime, is reproduced as an appendix in both
the Penguin and Broadview editions of Godwin's Caleb Williams (London,
Erotica in Eighteenth-Century England," in Erotica and the Enlightenment, ed.
by Peter Wagner (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 166-209.
Trevor-Roper, "The Invention
of Tradition: the Highland Tradition of Scotland," in The Invention
of Tradition, ed. by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1983), 15-42.
Lukács, The Historical
Novel (1937), trans. by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Lincoln: U Nebraska
Press, 1983), Chapter 1.