|Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge by
In the eighteenth century historical fiction was a familiar genre predominantly in France but soon to move over to England as well in the form of translations. It was, however, often considered a slightly disreputable form of reading. As I have discussed in previous posts, it was Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels that helped transform the beleaguered genre into something more respectable and interesting. Scott may not have been the first by any means to write historical fiction, but he was nonetheless the one who gave it credence and popularity.
Jerome de Groot and other literary theorists view the nineteenth century as bringing with it a second wave of historical fiction that held a distinctive voice. What was that voice? And what made it distinctive from what had come before?
Summarising Georg Lukács who, in 1955 wrote his detailed appraisal of historical fiction, de Groot brings us closer to understanding the specifics of the second wave of historical fiction:
“It represents historical process, and in doing so gestures towards actual historical progress. The realism of the novel allows the reader to engage with and empathise with historical individuals and thence gain a sense of their own historical specificity. It is able to communicate to people a sense of their own historicity, and the ways that they might be able to construct historically inflected identities for themselves. The historical novel has a humanist impulse to teach and educate, and this pedagogical element is crucial for Lukács; it is the movement to historicised revelation and understanding which is the point of the exercise.” (de Groot, p. 29).
So historical fiction was to, in part, educate; to help readers better understand past events, societies and customs. This element of nineteenth century historical fiction is perhaps best known today through the works of Charles Dickens. The detailed, often horrific and darkly violent stories that make up the Dickens collection is testament to his work to reveal and make known the social abuses and prejudices of his own times and, at the same time, act as a warning of how governments should not act.
In his first historical novel, Barnaby Rudge (1841), Dickens intertwines the private (generally fictive elements of his story) with the public (historical fact) to tell a story about the anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780. The attack on Newgate prison and the various narratives of mob violence warns of the consequences for society of intolerance and becoming caught up in the mob mentality. Oliver Twist (1837) whilst focused on a contemporary tale of poverty and workhouse treatment is perhaps one of Dickens most successful stories for causing social outrage and eliciting social reform. The historically based A Tale of Two Cities tells a story at the time of the French Revolution with a particular focus on the plight faced by the ordinary peasantry.
With the Novel Approaches conference now winding up we are about to fully begin our Novel Approaches virtual conference. My history of historical fiction blog posts will now go daily for the duration of the conference so look out tomorrow at 3pm for my investigation of nineteenth century nationalism and desire as part of the rising up of the Historical Novel genre.
Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1962)
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