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The Historical Novel

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Our genre for the lesson is the historical novel. The one name that comes to mind when we think of the historical novel is Walter Scott. Walter Scott’s fiction documented the transformations of the Scottish gentry, its agricultural practices, its landscape as in topography, class divide, the Jacobite rebellions. He did all this with a degree of realism that made it extremely popular. In fact, one of the largest selling authors of the time has been Walter Scott. It is also important to understand that Walter Scott is used as a standard example of the historical novel, as a prototype of the genre, by very distinguished critics on the genre such as George Lukacs, about whom in a short while. But was Walter Scott only writing historically realist novels? This realism in Scott was tinged with a fair amount of romanticization. There were some obvious reasons. After all, he is writing fiction not history. There was interest in history in terms of artifacts, settings, documents, books, material evidence… But there was a second form of interest in history, one that emerged in the nostalgia and sentiments expressed by characters towards their past. So, you, on the one hand, see a very heavily documented, detailed account of artifacts, documents, books, places, material evidence, one kind of history. And then there is the nostalgic view of their pasts by characters in Scott. As a genre, Scott defined the historical novel, not just in his fiction, he wrote numerous prefaces starting with Waverley in 1814 where he sought to define what he was trying to do. It is a bit of programmatic criticism, as you can imagine, when an author defines a genre using the example that he has produced, as in, you show that there is the theory of the novel and use your own novel to demonstrate the theory. So, you are not quite sure where Scott’s prefaces are theoretical works and where his novels are just novels. They actually interbreed. (Refer Slide Time: 2:31) The genre of the historical novel is often marked by social realism as we have already noted and may be linked to the great social realist texts of the 18th century, most notably Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett and Samuel Richardson. It is marked by a very close attention to detail especially in terms of the routine, the language, complete with idiomatic expressions and slang. It is set in specific places, Scotland, which is Walter Scott’s primary base and captures the everyday life of people. The characters may be real-life ones and there is a certain amount of fictionalizing or romanticizing around these characters. There is an attempt to show how the characters are the products of their age, thereby showing us how individuals emerged. (Refer Slide Time: 3:20) There are significant issues in the genre, features of the genre that we will now explore. The historical novel, like I just said, made use of identifiable characters but portrayed them slightly differently. So, Scott, when he used men and women who had real names in the records of the times gone by, he generalized the portraits so that they could still seem on the whole productions of fancy, though possessing some resemblance to real individuals. This is actually Scott himself saying, that is, he generalized the portrait so that “they should still seem on the whole productions of fancy though possessing some resemblance to real individuals”. Scott rearranged facts, even the indisputable ones, in ways that would appeal to the reader. So there is this very complicated mix between the social realism and the romance which comes together in Scott and actually contributes to his popularity. So, the historical novel did deal with real life but this was often complicated by the problem that it was not always possible for a novelist to recreate the past with complete fidelity to the facts. If, for instance, you are writing about Richard, the Lion heart, which is a subject of Walter Scott’s fiction, or, say, the Crusades, to recreate it with exactitude is an almost impossible request. As the critic, Harold Orel notes, the problem was: if the novelist steeped himself or herself in the past, they ran the risk of losing their historical distance and perspective. As in, if you become so attached to the past in your attempt to recreate it, you will not be able to detach yourself from it enough to be able to write about it without just being nostalgic and, you know, steeped in sentiment. But if they did not attach themselves to the past, they ran the risk of having counter-interpretations of the events. Historical writing assumes objectivity of events with respect to those who try to get to know them at a later point in time. But it also assumes that history in its various forms involves an engagement with past realities that are believed to have existed outside of latter day interpretations and representations of them. That is, history in its various forms involves an engagement with past realities that have existed outside our representations of them which we cannot really know. There is no real transparent access to the past. Our access to the past is mediated in many ways. (Refer Slide Time: 5:44) The problem was summarized in a very pithy phrase by Alexander Manzoni in his work on the historical novel. He said that the novel, the historical novel genre, calls for a combination that is contrary to its subject matter and a division contrary to its form. That is, the historical novel has to be true to history in a form given to fictionalizing. How can you do that? The historical narrative has a certain representational strategy or set of strategies and the novel as a form is given to fictionalizing. How do you merge them? How can you be true to history and put it in a fictionally acceptable form? “Historical” implied that the past as it actually was. The novel indicates the past as it is fabricated. Can you bring them together? Can you, in short, make a romance out of historical reality and still make people believe in it? So, you needed to make people believe in a historical past, you needed the people to be also entertained by the historical past. Now, we do know, since we have all gone to social studies classes in school, that historical narratives when cast as textbook lessons are boring. But suppose you put them in a novel form, they are more interesting. The problem is if they are put in a novel form, would you believe in it? Because the tendency is to say that a novel form by definition is fiction and fabricated. So, it is not really speaking a historically real novel as in real in the historical sense. So, how do you do this? So, the historical probability reaches a certain level after which it changes so you bring it up to a point where it is historically believable and then because you need to also entertain and become popular, you have to do something more with it. In Scott’s Waverley, he writes a novel where the probability of the historical event is retained but it is delivered in a fashion where you believe it ought to have happened. So, there is a distinction between the author recreating the past and the author recreating the past as it ought to be in terms of entertainment values. Alright? (Refer Slide Time: 8:01) So, we have to assume a referential level of analysis for historical narrative. What do we mean by this? You need to be able to say that point number 1, about Richard, the Lion Heart or Robin Hood, can be verified. As in there is a referential level where you can say such a character really did exist in history but this also means you cannot deny that is the feature of the fictional narrative. In the sense, a novel need not refer to a historically real character but the historical narrative must. So, you have two kinds of analysis we are talking about here. In the case of historical narrative you will have a referential level of analysis where you will say this is historically real because it is historically verifiable. In the case of a novel you cannot say that it must be historically verifiable. By definition, it is a work of fiction. And if you recall, the legend written by all authors, this is a work of fiction, any resemblance to characters and people real or alive is purely incidental. You cannot ask are there really Harry Potters. Does Harry Potter really exist? Show me a Harry Potter. You cannot say that because it is a work of fiction. On the other hand, you can say that: show me Winston Churchill, show me Alexander the Great. Because they are a part of historical narrative we seek, claim and demand a referential level of analysis. This is the tension between the historical and the fictional. As people like Hayden White have argued throughout the work, even historical writings take recourse to aesthetic and moral codes of narration. That is, people like Hayden White have noted that whether you are writing a historical chronicle or a historical narrative, and whether you are writing fiction, both require representation. Both require specific modes of language use. Toby Litt writes of the historical novel: The first word is the element of facticity, what was of the world; the second element is the transcendence of that particular world. And he says, to yoke the two words together, historical and novel is to create an oxymoron. There is no such thing as historical novel. Historical fiction is neither historical nor fiction. (Refer Slide Time: 10:24) The problem also involves questions of language and representation. Historical representation is dependent on the practice of representability of events not on their reality. What do we mean by this? That is, for you to be able to historically represent something has to do with a language of your representation not on whether Alexander the Great existed or not. In other words, it is not the real or falsehood of Alexander existing as a person. The problem and the question is what is the language in which you can represent this. Alright? So, you need to be aware of the fact that we are looking at questions primarily of language. (Refer Slide Time: 11:02) In one of the most sustained studies of the genre, George Lukacs attributed Scott with discovering the true nature of the historical novel. As Lukacs put it, “the derivation of the individuality of characters from the historical peculiarity of the age”, that is his famous definition. The derivation and I am reading it again, “the derivation of the individuality of characters from the historical peculiarity of their age”. Lukacs argued that modern historical writing began with a struggle against absolutism. Enlightenment thinkers endeavored, he said, to portray the unreasonableness of absolutist rule. I quote now George Lukacs. “The history writing of the Enlightenment was, in its main trend, an ideological preparation for the French Revolution. The often superb historical construction with its discovery of numerous new facts and connections, serves to demonstrate the necessity for transforming the unreasonable society of feudal absolutism. And the lessons of history provide the principles with whose help a reasonable society, a reasonable state, may be created. (Refer Slide Time: 12:06) Before Walter Scott, George Lukacs argued historical novels contain no true historical consciousness. It was merely the projection of contemporary attitudes back in time. History, as he puts it, was mere costumery. Here is Lukacs coming up on your slide. This is Lukacs’ famous text, an excerpt from his famous text The Historical Novel. (Refer Slide Time: 12:27) The true historical novel emerges with the work of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels of the Scottish clans portray the disintegration of archaic social forms in the face of capitalist transformation. Scott went beyond dressing modern characters in kilts, and instead drew his characters in such a fashion that the various details of their personalities were linked with the basic conditions of their existence. The varied experiences of the protagonist across the social landscape in Scott creates a portrait of social forces. Then, by the time major figures such as kings and the like appear, it is clear that their importance arises not from their extraordinary personal characterization in abstract, but from the way they represent the important forces of the day. He uses mediocre heroes because they serve as a perfect instrument to presenting the totality of certain transitional stages of history. (Refer Slide Time: 13:17) These definitions from George Lukacs alert us to two further points. The relation to this past, that is history’s distinction of memory and the empirical reality of the events on which the narratives are based. Scott himself would say that romance is part of history writing. In the postscript to Waverley, one of his most successful novels, Scott would say this and I quote: The most romantic parts of this narrative are precisely those which have a foundation in fact. I quote again: The most romantic parts of this narrative are precisely those which have a foundation in the past, in fact. It is always possible, what Scott is saying, to find a disjunction between the relevance of historical facts and the presentability of these facts. That is the distinction made by Ann Rigney in her work on the historical romance and what is now called Romantic Historicism. To find a disjunction between the relevance of historical facts and the presentability of these facts. In texts like Waverley and Guy Mannering, Scott mapped the slow collapse of Scottish gentry, their ways of life with the advent of, of course, modernization and industrial culture. Traditional values were eroding as a result. James Chandler, the distinguished critic who wrote this book, England 1819, where he articulated the idea of a Romantic Historicism, he has argued that in Waverley, Scott raises the derivation of the eponymous hero as a passage of an uncharactered character, a kind of cipher through various forms of inscription: romance, highland oral song, newspaper report, courtroom argument et cetera. (Refer Slide Time: 14:56) Scholars such as James Chandler have argued, along with Ann Rigney, have argued that in the Romantic era, the authors saw themselves as participating in history. That is, the poetic texts (and Chandler is reading Percy Shelley here) not only situate itself as a part of history but also commemorates its larger identity as history; that the novel is history, the poetic text is history. This is Romantic Historicism as people like James Chandler read in Walter Scott. So, the individual novel or text is a case, a sort of documentary indicator of abstract principles but the case then seeks to explicate causes. So, much of the literature of England in 1819, writes Chandler, is concerned with its place in England in 1819. In the 20th century, you can think of Hilary Mantel’s work as marking a revival of the genre. (Refer Slide Time: 15:47) So, what do we take away at the end of this particular session on the historical novel? What you need to understand is that all questions of history, all questions of fiction, are actually questions of representation and representability. So, it is not a question of whether a fact reported in novel is a fact in real life. The question is how does the fact get reported? What are the representational strategies by which facts are reported? So, if you look at the work of someone like Hayden White who is being constantly talking about the use of narrativity in the representation of history, he will tell you that ultimately these are exercises in language. Thank you.