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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: January 2012

4 - Novelistic history

Summary

. . . all historians ought to be punctual, candid, and dispassionate, that neither interest, rancour, fear, or affection may mislead them from the road of truth, whose master is history, that rival of time, that depository of past actions, witness of the past, example and pattern of the present, and oracle of future ages.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605), trans. Tobias Smollett (1755)

England's seventeenth-century intellectual revolution is often taken to have launched a revolutionary approach to the truth that led, by the time of the eighteenth century, to the new genre of the novel. So far as it goes, that account cannot be gainsaid: new methods, based either on direct observation or on inference from statistical regularities, introduced a novel language and tonality for approximating the truth. Literary imitations of personally verified truth and of “political arithmetic” followed in due course: Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) illustrates both at once. A new “culture of fact” did indeed raise the threshold of credibility in many quarters. Who can doubt that the eighteenth-century emergence of the novel registered the adaptation of older literary genres, especially epic and romance, to a new standard of fact-like plausibility? This accommodation to probable characters and plots, however, by no means exhausts the variety of possible relations in the eighteenth century between narrative history and narrative fiction. Rendering the past in eighteenth-century fiction goes far beyond the novel's mimicry of eye-witness authority or political arithmetic. To take these visible elements as the essence of the early novel's treatment of matters historical serves only to eclipse its striking engagement with the methodology of writing history – in short, with historiography.

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