‘The past is a foreign country.’ L.P. Hartley The Go-Between
‘History is other.’ Jerome de Groot The Historical Novel
As the quotations above testify, discussions of historical fiction and historiographic theory revolve around the indissoluble otherness of the past. Attempting to articulate historical events, authors of historical and fictional narratives and historiographic theory find themselves grappling with a protean discourse that will not easily be pinned down, changing shape depending on the angle from which it is approached. Moreover, pace Hayden White, the distinctions between history and fiction are increasingly porous, rendering issues of ‘truth’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘objectivity’ highly charged. As part of its ongoing exploration of the topic of otherness, the Centre for Studies in Otherness has devoted a special journal issue to the topic of Contemporary Historical Fiction and Historiographic Theory. This latest e-journal issue, Otherness: Essays and Studies 2.1, seeks to clarify the promise and pitfalls in writings about past times.
Writing the past signals a rupture in the contemporary world, expressing a utopian desire for escape from an unsatisfactory present or a wish to illuminate the occurrence of past wrongs. From the nostalgic postmodernism of Neo-Victorian fiction to the political urgency of the postcolonial rewrite, novels that situate their diegetic world in past times reveal as much about the moment of inscription as they do about the specific historical period they wish to elucidate. This journal issue explores contemporary fictional attempts to render that ‘other time’ of the past and asks what is at stake in fictional representations of historical contexts. Insights from the field of New Historicism probe the borderline between history and fiction, recognising, in Montrose’s formulation, ‘the textuality of history, the historicity of texts.’ In openly acknowledging a debt to both, mapping the location of the historical novel in relation to these distinct but related disciplines becomes an intriguing challenge for scholars.
The contributors to this journal have adopted various approaches to the topic of historical fiction and historiographic theory. Samantha Young opens our discussion by charting the evolution of the historical novel and concurrent historiographic theory. Mapping the development of the historical novel from its popular form in the nineteenth-century Romantic period through to the contemporary and more sceptical postmodern mode, this article argues the merits of historical and fictional narratives in providing access to the past. Frans Weiser explores Horacio Castellanos Moya’s 2004 novel Insensatez (translated in 2008 as Senselessness) in the broader context of the testimonial literature written by members of marginalized groups in Central and Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s. Through a careful unpacking of contemporary theoretical positions Weiser discusses the power of fictional narratives to dramatise the moral conflict facing individuals and communities. Yasmin Y. DeGout examines various representations of 1848 emancipation in the Danish West Indies in both fictional and non-fiction narratives. Drawing attention to the ‘mutations’ that this historical moment has undergone in these accounts, DeGout highlights the shaping ideological motivations of the author historian.
John Cameron’s article foregrounds the evident fascination with forgeries in the historical fiction of Umberto Eco. While illuminating a tradition of ‘lies’ that form the basis for false histories, this study pertinently argues that scepticism and revisionism cannot necessarily guarantee surer footing. In a reading of Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, Sucheta M. Choudhuri argues that the novel’s vigilante plot operates within a state of eternal regression, a cycle of causality that withholds the promise of closure. Frustrating the end-directed drive of revenge narratives and the linearity of historiography, the novel challenges conventional understandings of history and of literature.
In the marketing of Neo-Victorian fiction as a product for a consuming public, Maciej Sulmicki’s presents the writer’s choice as being between on the one hand, pandering to a passive nostalgia and on the other, entering into a critical dialogue with the past. His comparative reading of Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen against Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White challenges the assumed binaries of high art and popular culture, analyzing the market forces that shape literary production. Heidi Hartwig’s reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day moves from conventional readings of the novel’s historicism to focus on the affective qualities of the text. Highlighting the novel’s subtextual and intertextual relation to the sentimental novel genre, Hartwig argues that this surfeit of affect distinguishes the text from other works of postmodern British fiction.
Melissa Sande’s article on the 2009 English translation Marie Chauvet’s Haitian trilogy Love, Anger, Madness invites the reader to find parallels within three historical moments in the Haitian nation. For Sande, Chauvet’s veiled critique of the 1960s Duvalier regime in a novel ostensibly set in 1939 (in the years after U.S. occupation) is resonant in the political present of Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake. Writing on the inscription of the historical in the fiction of Michelle Cliff, Rajeswari Mohan’s article explores the novelist’s complex recuperation of silenced traditions of exploitation and resistance in Jamaica and the U.S. For Mohan, Cliff’s counter-hegemonic excavation of the past recognizes the fallibility of and potential of projects of historical reconstruction.
Robin Runia reading of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe highlights the novel’s intertextual relation to the plots of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Roxana (1724). Runia argues that the novel’s dialogue with eighteenth-century discourses of prostitution inculcates readers with ‘feelings of responsibility for coerced agents’. In a reading of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Daniel Baker argues that contemporary historical fiction’s use of history as a fictional device sees historical reconstruction supplanted by historical creation. Baker argues that the text’s vacillation between historical fiction and fantasy offers a subversive reading of history as a dark fantasy awaiting the opportunity to break through.
The articles included here offer valuable insights into discourses of historical fiction and historiographic theory. Their diverse scope and broad range of perspectives do not aim to provide an exhaustive survey of this topic, but instead contribute to and participate in wider discussions in the field, as well as offering up fresh avenues of investigation for exploring the forays into the past undertaken in our present.