Archive Spotlight: The changing reception of historical novels in periodicals

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Today in the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series, we’re delighted to present a post about the changing reception of the historical novel genre across the nineteenth century. Jonathan Taylor and Helen Kingstone have reviewed and studied the periodical reviews of Proquest’s British Periodicals database to explore how attitudes to the qualities of the historical novel genre shifted over time. We’re delighted to share with you their fascinating findings below, discussing, for example, the significant of Sir Walter Scott and how frequently the reviewers commented on historical fidelity. Enjoy!

View the other posts in the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series here.

Archive Spotlight: The changing reception of historical novels in periodicals by Jonathan Taylor and Helen Kingstone

Hybrid, transformative and difficult to define (or even name) without contention, the historical novel or historical romance is a quintessentially Romantic genre. Indelibly associated with Sir Walter Scott, whom many nineteenth-critics erroneously credited with inventing the form, the historical novel has a far longer Romantic history, which Fiona Price has traced back to the middle of the eighteenth century.[1] The historical novel has also enjoyed remarkable longevity, and the immense popularity which Scott bequeathed the genre is a Romantic legacy that has ensured that historical fiction continues to be written, and read, in the twenty-first century. However, historical novels have never been without their detractors. The genre’s fortunes altered subtly, and sometimes dramatically, during the course of the nineteenth century.

Our current project aims to nuance the story of the historical novel’s ‘rise and fall’ by investigating how periodicals’ reception of the genre changed across the century. We ask: on what grounds was it endorsed or condemned by reviewers? And what kinds of truth was it seen as able to offer? Previous scholarship has tended to focus understandably on the work of the novelists themselves, and commentary by eminent writers of various kinds.[2] Our project starts from the other end of the process, focusing on reception and looking systematically at the role of periodical reviews.

We have used ProQuest’s British Periodicals database to systematically code how over 1,300 nineteenth-century reviews of historical novels responded to particular historical novels and the genre as a whole in relation to particular reviewing criteria. We have covered all reviews of historical novels that include the terms ‘historical novel’, ‘historical romance’, ‘historical fiction’ and ‘historical tale’ (plus the variant ‘historic’). Over 400 of the reviews fall between 1801 and 1840, and our data is beginning to yield valuable insights into changing perceptions of the historical novel during the Romantic period.

The historical romance before Scott

The two most common criteria against which historical novels are reviewed, in our data, are quality of writing and of research. It is unsurprising to see fiction being judged on how well-written it is. However, we have been surprised to find that in the years before Waverley (1814), reviewers were already pervasively concerned about the quality of research in historical romances. In the 1800s decade, 22% of reviews expressed praise for what they saw as good research in the novel they reviewed, whereas 44% expressed criticism of perceived bad research. (Equally surprisingly, at this time there was relatively little concern with the writing quality in these novels: only 13% voiced that criticism in that decade, compared to 26% of reviews the following decade.)

In the years before Walter Scott joined the scene, the genre was also discussed more precisely as a genre (one that was tangled up with gothic and the ‘romance of history’) than it was for several decades afterwards. For example, in 1796 the Monthly Review commented that ‘We have often expressed our dislike of the mixture of history with romance, as a practice tending to perplex and pervert the Evidence of Facts, and thereby greatly to prejudice the Cause of Truth’. An 1810 review referred to ‘the objections which are invariably made to all heterogeneous mixtures of history with fiction’.[3]

By contrast, once the genre became more diverse and popular in the wake of Scott’s success, there came to be more focus on individual novels. It seems that in fact, a second tier of novels gradually developed that became the new butt of criticism, instead of the genre as a whole. There seemed to be a feeling that the genre itself could not be lambasted when it had produced such a hero as Scott!

Dominance of particular periodicals

Our data shows that, at different points during the century, different periodicals came to dominate the act of reviewing historical novels. Though this trend is less pronounced between 1800 and 1840 than later in the century (when a single periodical was sometimes responsible for a third of all such reviews during a decade), in the 1830s The Literary Gazette and The Athenæum alone account for 33% of reviews of historical novels (16% and 17% respectively). This raises an important question: are swings in our data indicative of general shifts in attitudes towards the historical novel, or are they the result of views propounded by one or two dominant periodicals that gained a sort of ‘market dominance’ during a particular period? 

A case study of The Literary Gazette demonstrates just how significantly leading periodicals might produce trends in the data. For example, between the 1820s and 1850s, when it accounted for 11%–17% of all reviews of historical novels, the Gazette correlates closely with the overall data for the percentage of reviews that are positive about their novels’ historical accuracy, but has consistently fewer negative responses on this score. Inevitably, this positive weighting disproportionately contributes to the gulf between positive and negative responses to historical accuracy that develops during these decades (particularly in the 1820s and 1830s). And that remains the case even though the Gazettewas less focused on historical accuracy than most (49% of the Gazette’s 1830s reviews of historical novels mention accuracy, compared to 58% of all reviews during the decade).

The Gazette also offers an instructive example of how periodicals enjoying a large market share could give individual reviewers – not just the magazines themselves – disproportionate influence over trends. Between its launch in 1817 and his retirement in 1850, the Gazette was edited by the Scottish journalist William Jerdan, who is now best known as the exploitative patron, mentor and lover of Letitia E. Landon. Jerdan is a particularly helpful case study of the influence of an individual reviewer because, in contrast to the many critics whose identities have been hidden or rendered uncertain by the culture of anonymous reviewing, we know that he wrote the vast majority of the Gazette’s reviews. During the three full decades that he edited the Gazette, Jerdan was remarkably consistently positive about historical novels: 88-89% of the comments he made (across all reviewing criteria) were positive. 

However, after Jerdan was replaced with a new reviewer (or reviewers) in 1850, the Gazette’s attitude to the genre altered significantly. In the subsequent ten years, the percentage of positive responses fell to 70%, with negative responses rising from 12% to 30%. The magazine’s reviewing priorities and attitudes also shifted significantly with the advent of the new regime. Jerdan’s successor(s) were both more interested in the question of historical accuracy generally (commenting on it in 70% of reviews as opposed to Jerdan’s 47% the decade before) and more condemnatory of novels for lacking historical accuracy (23% of the Gazette’s 1850s reviews censured novels’ historical accuracy, compared to 6% in the 1840s). The Gazette’s staff changes, sizeable contribution (14%) of all reviews of the genre in the 1850s, and newfound willingness to censure departures from the historical record certainly played a role in narrowing the gap between positive and negative responses to historical novels’ historical fidelity.

Analysing these undercurrents in the data gives us insights into the role that individual periodicals and reviewers played in shaping wider attitudes towards the historical novel. It seems probable that, by dominating the conversation about the genre at particular times, periodicals such as The Literary Gazette not only may account for some of the major shifts in our data, but may have influenced other periodicals and their reviewers to adopt similar attitudes, accelerating some of the trends we have observed.

Read more about the Victorian-period findings of this project on Journal of Victorian Online.

Dr Jonathan Taylor is a Research Assistant at the University of Surrey’s School of Literature and Languages, where he is assisting Dr Helen Kingstone to map the changing reception of the historical novel during the nineteenth century through a systematic analysis of periodical reviews of historical novels. He has published articles on Robert Southey’s revolutionary politics in Romanticism and eighteenth-century and Romantic responses to Homer’s hero Achilles in Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies. He is the 2020 BSECS Georgian Papers Programme Fellow.

Dr Helen Kingstone is a research fellow at the University of Surrey. She is author of Victorian Narratives of the Recent Past: memory, history, fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and currently writing a book From Panoramas to Compilations, about the ways that nineteenth-century writers sought a sense of overview on their contemporary history. She co-leads a Wellcome Trust-funded network on Generations: what’s in the concept and how best should it be used?

[1] Fiona Price, Reinventing Liberty: Nation, Commerce and the Historical Novel from Walpole to Scott (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

[2] A flowering of work in the 1970s includes Avrom Fleishman, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971); James C. Simmons, The Novelist as Historian: Essays on the Victorian Historical Novel (The Hague: Mouton, 1973); Andrew Sanders, The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840–1880 (London: Macmillan, 1978).

A second wave around ten years ago includes Jerome De Groot, The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2010); Richard Maxwell, The Historical Novel in Europe, 1650–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Brian Hamnett, The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Representations of Reality in History and Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Other work on the historical romance, which mostly focuses on the twentieth century, includes Helen Hughes, The Historical Romance, 1890-1990(London ; New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 1 online resource (173 p.); Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Reading Historical Fiction: The Revenant and Remembered Past, ed. by Kate Mitchell and Nicola Parsons (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 1 online resource (256 p.).

[3] ‘Henrietta, Princess Royal of England. An historical novel’, Monthly Review (November 1796), p. 347. ‘Anne of Brittany; an Historical Romance’, The Critical Review (August 1810), p. 442.