An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

November 17, 2010

de Groot, The Historical Novel

Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (London and New York: Routledge, 2010)

Reviewed by Lesley A. Coote (

This small volume is part of Routledge’s ‘New Critical Idiom’ series.  The general introduction to the series states that it seeks to extend the lexicon of literary terms in view of ‘radical changes in the study of literature in the last decades of the twentieth century’.  This, of course, is hedging one’s bets in the manner which is customary for such statements; the idea of ‘a lexicon of literary terms’ suggests the imposition of parameters which might clash with the stated ideal of radical approach.  This results in a collection of ‘bolded’ terms in the main body of the text, which are then explained in a glossary at the end.  It implies the selection of some ideas as canonical:  why do established terminologies stand out, and not newer, arguable more interesting ones such as ‘glocalisation’, a term attempting to describe the localised narratives with transnational qualities of writers such as Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk?  However, this does not detract overmuch from the real quality of the volume, in which the author interprets the series brief in his own way, thereby fulfilling the other, more interesting and useful, series aims – clarity of exposition, adventurousness of perspective, breadth of application and the opening up of many possible avenues of investigation.  In this case, the last of these aims is not confined to the apparent generic boundaries of this particular volume.  The book raises many interesting questions, offering some possible answers, but it is also humbly written, acknowledging that these are only one set of ‘possibles’ whilst allowing for the reader to seek and offer more.  The series as a whole offers insights into a variety of very useful topics, and is entirely to be recommended, but this book is, for me, one of its highlights.

Jerome de Groot begins by asking a question: why is fiction set in the past enjoying such popularity in mass media culture at the moment?  Having acknowledged that he will be concentrating on the ‘romance’ narrative rather than more psychological forms of historical fiction such as the novels of Jane Austen, he begins a chronologically-based (narrative?) exposition of the genre, of its development, its construction and meanings.  In the light of this, he also touches upon issues of audience response, although there is still much to be done here, and in most of the areas he opens up.  He might have added that he is also not dealing with ‘edutainment’, raising more questions about how far works such as Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to the Middle Ages or Channel 4’s Time Team are actually ‘historical factual’, ‘historical fiction’ or at least ‘historical narrative’ by comparison with the novels he describes.  What are the quantative and qualitative differences between an established academic such as Ian Mortimer or Robert Bartlett and a highly-informed entertainer-presenter such as Tony Robinson or Terry Jones, or any number of ‘expert talking heads’ in the minds of their television audiences?  When de Groot then discusses the idea of the ‘levelling’ and hybrid generic qualities of the historical novel from Waverley to Wolf Hall, the subject becomes even more absorbing.  Are these qualities illustrative of a tendency towards anti-intellectualism, or are they semi-intellectual, pan-intellectual or even pseudo-intellectual?  And what does this tell us about our society, on its own and in relation to its forbears, and to other societies?  As de Groot points out, we must look behind, forensically examine even, the idea that to read historical narrative fiction is to be somehow ‘duped’ by a fabricating author.  He examines this idea in relation to Sir Walter Scott, pointing out that Scott was dogged by the ‘masculine’, rational and scholarly reading and writing of history, which marked the reading and writing of narrative fiction as feminised, hysterical, corporeal and, above all, false. By creating Waverley as a form of bildungsroman, in which the hero journeys into, and flirts with, Scotland’s backward-looking Jacobite past, but learns to grow up, be a man of reason and a forward-looking  modern subject (in all senses of the word) of imperial Britain, Scott did much to reclaim the respectability of the genre, and to enable future, male-orientated, historical narratives whilst retaining the past as romance.

The chronological nature of the book is logical, although it does tend to separate some subjects from interesting ideas which might be applied to them.  For example, the issue of Scott’s nationality and any feminised associations resulting therefrom is raised in a later part of the narrative: ideas have to be related back and forth due to the quandary of where precisely to mention them.  This is, however, worth the effort. The idea of Horace Walpole writing The Castle of Otranto in order to be free of the Enlightenment, and to indulge in irrationality, sensuality and horror by imagining the past as savage, mysterious, sexual, Catholic, chaotic and dangerous, is one which can be applied to much later Gothic fiction, and also to the world of neo-medieval gaming, with some profit – even if it is not the whole story.  De Groot traces this idea back to Cervantes’s Don Quixote, in which a romanticized idea of the past leads to madness.  He might also have added some seventeenth-century examples, much closer to his assessment of Walpole, in particular the ‘secret memoir’ phenomenon and the work of Daniel Defoe within it. In the early days of the genre, the novel was a source of anxiety, in that it might excite the immature female reader, and emasculate the immature male one.  This argument also raises what de Groot refers to as the ‘popular’ idea of history as process, and as progress.  If the past was like this, we must be better (more scientifically advanced, more rational) than them.  In other words, the past is an Other against which the readers of the novel (as a mass medium, therefore most people ) want to define themselves.  Again, this issue of individual and mass identity is more of a question than an answer...

Another powerful idea put forward for discussion is how the readers of historical narrative fiction have, and do still, view the past.  The novel (and one might add, many other media and genres) collapses the distance between the past and the present, by making what is very different seem more familiar, and approachable.   Fiction, film, television, and in a more stylised manner, video games offer feelings of live contact with the past, with characters from the historical past, or ‘living’ in a historical setting.  Whilst stating that modern mass market audiences usually prefer this contact to be untroubled by epistemological concerns, de Groot also raises issues inherent in such past/present mediation.  He discusses ‘mainstream’ historical fiction for women, and for men, since the 1950s, and notes some of the major, gendered differences between them.  Novels with a female target audience prefer stories about relationships, sex and love in a marginal, social setting, whilst those with a male trajectory indulge in female stereotyping, conventionally heroic behaviour, with highly individualised role models in political settings.  Interestingly, there is a class-based character to this – the heroes are usually lower or middle class, frequently taking an important yet marginal part in great political events.  Many examples are given (the book is a goldmine of references for those beginning study in this field), with some interesting descriptions and analyses, from Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer to Bernard Cornwell, from Regency belles to Sharpe.  There is a section on writings about Anne Boleyn.  I would add that much recent ‘bestseller’ writing tends to take up conservative positions with regard to history: is there much difference in general overall outlook between Children of the New Forest and The Devil’s Whore?  Both are of the understanding that tradition, order and royalism are generally good things and to be preferred to republicanism and revolution.  De Groot’s question is, therefore, a VERY apt one – does this type of fiction make history more accessible, or does it close it off? 

In a section on postmodernity and the historical novel, which actually invites us beyond postmodernity, de Groot deals with the transgressive nature of the genre.  Even novels which take up generally conservative positions offer what he terms ‘a challenge to history’.  He notes how later twentieth-century writers offer challenges to traditional social structures and ideas about them, Catherine Cookson’s challenge to the position of women and the poor in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century society, for example.  The very use of marginal characters such as females, children/young adults and lower- or middle-class males (often feminised or marginalised in ‘official’ historical accounts or early romance writing) as heroes is a challenge to traditional means of telling ‘history’.  It, too, is writing in – and sometimes from – the gaps of history.  Marginalised individuals and societies have recently discovered the benefits of storytelling from these gaps, and de Groot’s book has a section on these.  He includes women’s writing, colonial and ethnic minority writing, as well as discussing the drawbacks and benefits of contrafactual history such as the Nazi victory in the Second World War which forms the backdrop to Robert Harris’s Fatherland.  An analytic account of historical novels which exploit the epistemological issues and tensions of the space between author and historical events, author and audience includes work from Orlando to Atonement, in which the author questions the trustworthiness not only of the author’s account, but of ‘history’ itself.  The discussion includes a section on historical detective fiction which, de Groot maintains, arises from an awareness of the mediation of history across different spaces of historical time. Umberto Eco is a seminal figure in these developments, of course, and de Groot has – predictably but nonetheless very good for all that – a small section on The Name of the Rose.

Of course, when history is challenged it has a tendency to challenge us back.  One of the phenomena noted in this book is the tendency, the necessity maybe, of writers to insert contemporary characters into the past, in order to avoid audience alienation and to make the hero more plausible.  Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart would strain the credulity of a Victorian middle-class girl, and – to use a really up-to-date example – Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar has to be inserted into twelfth-century England with a heavy dose of belief suspension.  Jerome de Groot notes that for George Eliot, a middle-class woman who really lived in the historical straightjacket provided by society for women, the social ending was ‘almost a tragedy’.  These tendencies to modernise, indeed to colonise, the past, lie just beyond the scope of de Groot’s little book, but they form a logical codicil to it.  Maybe, ultimately or at least for now, they lie outside the written or printed page, and on the screen, or the monitor.  Arguably, up to now the mass market has rejected the influence of postmodernity, but recent work commissioned and promoted by the BBC has embraced it.  Not only that, but programmes such as Bleak House, Desperate Romantics, Jekyll and Sherlock – not to  mention (and who wouldn’t?) the cult classic Doctor Who, which enacts this colonisation – have also proved highly popular with their British audiences.  It may be that what is dangerous historiographically is seen to be ‘safe’ and acceptable from such a traditional, institutionally stable, broadcaster.  Is all historiography really colonisation, and is history postcolonially defying and reshaping us?

There is, of course, an obvious elephant in the room (or the book), a heavily implied, unasked and possibly unanswerable question: does it matter?  When reading The Death Maze, for example, it matters very much to me (knowing what I do about Gothic and Edward III) that a twelfth-century building is described as having a fan vaulted ceiling, or that the arms of Henry II are said to be quartered with the fleur-de-lys of France, but for others those are uninteresting if important details.  Their importance lies in the fact that there IS detail, and that it seems plausible within the context of what is ‘known’ culturally about the European Middle Ages.  Such plausible detail is seen by the ‘general’ reader to be the seal of authenticity, of realism. But that leads into another avenue. Jerome de Groot is a gifted reader, a very good critical analyst and writer.  I hope that this review has demonstrated some of the inspirational quality of his book. Its subject is historical novels of the ‘romantic’ kind, but its implications go far beyond that. And, like many of the examples which are the objects of this study, it’s a really good read.

Lesley A. Coote
University of Hull