|Madame de Lafayette (1634-1593)|
Richard Maxwell, author of the 2009 study The Historical Novel in Europe, 1650-1950, argues that Madame de Lafayette, author of Princess of Montpensier (1662) and Princess of Cleves (1678) can be accredited as the beginning point in a line of works that led to Scott. Although some have argued that there were limited connection between Lafayette and Scott in terms of their methodology, Maxwell claims that the key ‘signature device’ claimed by literary scholars as Scott’s was actually borrowed from the former; that is, the embedding of a historical protagonist into a fictive story whilst insisting on the moral and ontological distance between these two takes.
The state of French historiography in the seventeenth century helps to explain the emergence of historical fiction. ‘French history and French fiction’ Maxwell tells us, ‘were hard to tell apart’ (Maxwell, p. 11). By the end of that century intellectual circles began to distinguish between the real and the fictional: ‘history was about what happened, fiction about what should have happened’ and ‘history gave priority to the demands of knowledge, fiction to the demands of narrative’. There was nonetheless a concern that fictive and factual mixtures created an undesired discord when it came to writing about past events. Or so the discussions ran and, by the very existence of the IHR’s upcoming conference, appear still to run.
Men such as the French philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) and later the Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) and American literary critic and author Henry James (1843-1916) viewed historical fiction as somewhat useless as it was by nature unable to separate the real from the mythical or fictional. Historical fiction failed as a written form because of its hybridity ‘lost between literature and history’. Nonetheless it proved relatively popular and its relationship to History proper formed the core from which Lafayette, Antoine Préost, César de Saint-Réal and other writers of historical fiction forged their tales.
French historiography in seventeenth and early eighteenth century discourse focused on two competing strands other than the well-established universal history; Particular history and Secret history. Particular history, as Maxwell describes traced ‘the life of a town, a country, or especially a renowned figure, often reproducing original documents too specialised for the purposes of general or universal history’ (Maxwell, p. 13). In short it used the particular or smaller focus to understand the process of large scale events. Secret history focused on the ‘use of hidden personal motives or characteristics to clarify the meaning of conspiracies or other struggles for political and military power’ (Maxwell, p. 14). Secret history therefore relied on understanding the psychology of individuals and gave emphasis to individual action and peculiarities as having a significant and instrumental influence on historical events and occurrences. Secret history gave power to the individual to enact on historical causality.
The prevalence then of debates and interest by historians in the concepts of Particular and Secret history in seventeenth century France gave form to the emerging nouvelle historique. Although Lafayette’s second historical fiction, The Princess of Cleves, was the most esteemed and best-remembered historical novel of its generation it was not the first be given that sub-title. That accolade went to César de Saint-Réal author of Don Carlos (1672). More on that this coming Wednesday.
Richard Maxwell, The historical Novel in Europe, 1650-1950 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2009).
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