Session 2D: Romantic History and the Passing of the New

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2D. Romantic History and the Passing of the New

Justin Baird (Western Ontario): "Causeless Aversion: Godwin, Hume and Traumatic History"
Michael Macovski (Fordham): "Cuvier, Hume and Historiography: Romantic Modes of Retrieving the Past"
Mark Canuel (Illinois-Chicago): "Keats, Sectarianism and the Art of Obsolescence"
Michael T. Williamson (Indiana U of Pennsylvania): "Felicia Hemans's Elegiac Poetry and the Contaminations of New Grief"

"Causeless Aversion: Godwin, Hume and Traumatic History"
Justin Baird
University of Western Ontario

This essay will approach William Godwin's representation of Seventeenth-Century history from the perspective of contemporary discussions of traumatic history. As a representation of the past, Godwin's Mandeville . A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England (1817) has not been appreciated for its unique thematization of the relationship between trauma and historical experience. For instance, to John Gibson Lockhart, the reviewer of Mandeville for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Godwin fails as a properly 'historical' novelist precisely because, like Byron, he distorts the events of another age by inserting an ahistorical and essentially Byronic hero into the course of seventeenth-century events. To Lockhart, Godwin's protagonist, concerned only with "his own gloomy thoughts" and "the recesses of his own disordered spirit," contributes nothing to a proper study of history's causes and effects: "A causeless aversion preys upon his soul," notes Lockhart (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 271). In a similar vein, James Mackintosh, wrtiting for the Edinburgh Magazine, complained that ...[Godwin's] 'Tale of the Seventeenth Century', is, in short, a tale of any century, or exposition of a mind radically diseased, and only ever so slightly acted on by any peculiarity of outward circumstances" (Edinburgh Magazine 60).

In this paper I would like to suggest that Godwin's novel is concerned with a different form of historical enquiry than that expected by his contemporaries; in short, the novel thematizes the relationship between trauma and historical experience. In both Mandeville and its discarded but fascinating beginning, "Fragment of a Romance," the narrator is a survivor of a traumatic massacre, and Godwin invites us to experience history--repetitively and claustrophobically-- through a pathological perspective. To explore the wider significance of Mandeville, both to the beginnings of the historical novel and to discourses of history contemporary to Godwin, I would like to read Godwin alongside Hume's History of England and "Essay on Tragedy." The History of England recounts the events surrounding the Irish uprising of 1641, the historical trauma of which Godwin's Charles Mandeville is a survivor. Furthermore, it is here that Hume's aversion to explaining the massacre of civilians threatens what for him is the central aim of the historian: the study and elucidate the "usual motives" of human behaviour. For Hume, as he theorizes in his "Essay on Tragedy," historical narrative must be written aesthetically, and those elements that are inappropriate, obscene, or outside the ordinary motives of human behaviour, must be put aside, mentioned but not incorporated within narratives of explanation and understanding. While Hume resists the tempation to explain atrocity, and Scott's Edward Waverley (as Everett Zimmerman has recently argued) works through horror, but does so (I would argue) hurriedly and prematurely, Godwin's protagonist does not escape it; his life and his recounting of history are governed by the repetition of the event that he "cannot yet...hold [his] pen to relate" (309).

As a reading of Godwin's novel Mandeville. A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England (1817), this paper will explore one Romantic renewal of the past, the seventeenth-century juncture that Godwin, who had Republican sympathies, valorized as the most significant moment in English history. It is significant that Godwin's visitation of this social juncture would be an exploration of its dark side. Yet this paper will also return to the 'beginnings' of the English historical novel to uncover the possibilities of other forms of historical discourse, forms that have been traditionally overlooked when Sir Walter Scott was seen as the originator of true historical fiction, but which may be revisited with renewed insight following recent critical discussions of traumatic history. This paper borrows the psychoanalytic concept of trauma from Freud and from more recent explorations (in a romantic context) by Cathy Caruth. However, this paper will expand the concept the concept of trauma by exploring the extent to which, in Enlightenment and Romantic representations of history, it achieves social and cultural significance.

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Last updated May 24, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell


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