Mediating Romantic Historical Novels

Mediating Romantic Historical Novels

Mike Goode, Syracuse University

  1. 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.[1]

  2. 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

  3. The most obvious pedagogical obstacle that Romantic historical novels present—really, 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.[4] 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 Florentine setting.

  4. 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 Publications. 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 Archive, and the latter was recently issued as an inexpensive paperback.[5]

  5. 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.[6] 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).[7] 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 in 1841.

  6. 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.

  7. There are ways to overcome these pedagogical obstacles short of giving students a crash course in historicism.[8] 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.[9] 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?[10]

  10. 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.

  11. 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.[11] 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, modish gentleman.

  12. 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";[12] 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."[13] 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.[14] 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.

  13. 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.[15] 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.[16] 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 present.[17] Having 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).[18] 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.[19]

  14. 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.

  15. 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).[20]

  16. 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?

  17. 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.

  18. 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.[21] 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.

  19. 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.[22] 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.

  20. 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 particular history—on violence and cultural destruction.

  21. 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.

Works Cited

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason. London, 1841.

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.

---. Northanger Abbey: and Persuasion. London, 1818.

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Last Days of Pompeii. London , 1834.

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, 1722.

Edgeworth, Maria. Castle Rackrent, An Hibernian Tale. London, 1800.

---. Harrington, A Tale; and Ormond, A Tale. In Three Volumes. London, 1817.

Ferguson, Adam. An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Edinburgh, 1767.

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 1802.

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, 2003.

Hayden, John O. Scott: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1970.

Hogg, James. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. London, 1824.

Home, Henry (Lord Kames). Sketches of the History of Man. Edinburgh, 1774.

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 Outlook (1959). trans. J.E. Anderson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Millar, John. The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. Edinburgh, 1771.

Phillips, Mark Salber. Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Pittock, Murray. ed. The Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe. London: Continuum, 2007.

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, 1824.

---. 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, 1991. 166-209.

Walpole, Horace. Castle of Otranto. London, 1765.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Rev. edn. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.


[1] James Chandler, England 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.

[2] Doris Sommers. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: U California Press, 1991), Chapters 1-2.

[3] Murray Pittock, ed., The Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe (London: Continuum, 2007).

[4] Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (1975), trans. by Tom Conley (New York: Columbia UP, 1988), Part I.

[5] Walter Scott, Manners Customs and History of the Highlanders of Scotland (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004).

[6] De Certeau elaborates this idea most fully in "The Historiographical Operation" chapter of The Writing of History, 56-113.

[7] 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 1819, Chapter 4.

[8] That 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.

[9] Nancy Armstrong, How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism, 1719-1900 (New Yok: Columbia UP, 2005).

[10] The same 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.

[11] Gillray's 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.

[12] The text of the letter can be found at:

[13] Edgeworth's letter can be found in John O. Hayden, Scott: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1970).

[14] Ina Ferris, The Achievement of Literary: Authority: Gender, History, and the Waverley Novels (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991).

[15] Thomas Babington Macaulay, "History," Edinburgh Review, or Critical Journal 47 (1828): 331-51.

[16] Walter 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.

[17] Ibid., 7, 9

[18] Mark Salber Phillips, Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000)

[19] Godwin's essay, unpublished in his lifetime, is reproduced as an appendix in both the Penguin and Broadview editions of Godwin's Caleb Williams (London, 1794).

[20] Peter Wagner, "Anticatholic Erotica in Eighteenth-Century England," in Erotica and the Enlightenment, ed. by Peter Wagner (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 166-209.

[21] Hugh 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.

[22] Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (1937), trans. by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Lincoln: U Nebraska Press, 1983), Chapter 1.