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A Novel Approaches Prelude (2): Theories of historical fiction


Georg Lukacs

The Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukács is generally regarded as the most influential critic of historical fiction and his work the basis from which later literary theorists begin their theoretical paradigms. His thesis entitled The Historical Novel (1955) saw (unsurprisingly) the development of historical novels in the nineteenth century as a product of social forces. Lukács argues that Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was the first to bring the‘specifically historical’ to the novel format and is therefore to be considered the founder of the historical novel. By this Lukács is referring to Scott’s use of history as a means to understand individuals historically:

“The so-called historical novels of the seventeenth century (Scudéry, Calpranéde, etc.) are historical only as regards their purely external choice of theme and costume. Not only the psychology of the characters, but the manners depicted are entirely those of the writer’s own day. And in the most famous ‘historical novel’ of the eighteenth century, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, history is likewise treated as mere costumery: it is only the curiosities and oddities of the milieu that matter, not an artistically faithful image of a concrete historical epoch.” (Lukács, p. 15)

In other words Lukács argued that ‘historical novels’ before Scott were anachronistic in their depictions of the past. The Marxist agenda that underlies Lukács’ appraisal of the historical novel focuses very much on how a sense of history emerged out of the Enlightenment, the emergence of a sense of nationalism, and more specifically the French Revolution. Lukács claims that economic and social tumult resulted in, as Groot has recently described, ‘a dynamic sense of progress and, most of all, of history as process’ (Groot, p. 25). In essence Scott’s novel is seen as the result of a new historical consciousness that had emerged in the nineteenth century; it is as much an attempt to connect with the past as it is an account of it. In Lukács words:

“What matters therefore in the historical novel is not the retelling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality.” (Lukács, p.42)

Lukács believed that the ‘smaller…relationships’ of individuals gave meaning to the ‘great monumental dramas of world history’.
Next week I will focus on the “first” historical novel (which, I have found was not the first at all) from which Lukács and other literary theorists begin their investigations – Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley published in 1814.
Jerome de Groot, TheHistorical Novel (Routledge: Oxon, 2010).
Georg Lukács, TheHistorical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Penguin:Harmondsworth, 1962)
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