In Victorian Narratives of the Recent Past: Memory, History, Fiction, Helen Kingstone analyses the way that Victorian writers responded to the unique challenges of representing recent history. Although the period within living memory was often shunned by the nascent field of professional historiography, Kingstone finds an engagement with recent history ‘diffused and displaced into genres including autobiography, biography, and the novel’ (p. 3). The monograph examines, in alternating chapters, writers’ responses to two parallel historiographical problems: the ‘temporal continuum’, the question of when or even whether to delimit history from the present; and the ‘social continuum’, the question of whose experiences count as historical (p. 2). Kingstone focuses on texts originating in the period between the failed Chartist revolution of 1848 and Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, many of which are themselves interested in two historical nodes, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the Great Reform Act of 1832. Kingstone argues that Victorian anxieties about writing recent history are related to larger concerns about ‘multiplicity more generally’, or how to manage the ‘horror of too many details’ (p. 15). After an Introductory chapter, Chapter 2 focuses on the way that Victorian historiography negotiated the temporal continuum. Through an illuminating contrast between historians William Stubbs and J. R. Seeley, Kingstone documents that the professionalization of History as a discipline encouraged a self-conscious detachment that eschewed connections between past and present or an engagement with still-relevant political issues. Such an approach was inherently easier to apply to the distant past, such that professional historians often concluded their surveys of British history in 1688. Chapter 3 turns to the social continuum, tracing the way that Victorian history writers responded to the potentially historical nature of all individuals by consistently blurring the line between heroic and representative figures. Kingstone examines two popular tropes for theorizing the relationship between the individual and history, the ‘spirit of the age’ and the ‘social body’. She notes that by the century’s end, the ascendant academic historiography rarely engaged with people below royal rank, reflecting a retrenchment from the wider, more democratic scope of amateur historians earlier in the century. The professionalization of history also resulted in the discrediting of modes of history writing that had earlier been considered part of the discipline, as Kingstone documents in Chapter 4. She argues that antiquarianism and the historical novel, modes influenced by Romantic historicism, were increasingly gendered as female and thus marginalized as the century progressed. The distinction between professional historiography and these other modes lies in their respective conceptions of the relationship between the general and particular, although as Kingstone demonstrates, such distinctions were ultimately subtle. Part 2 analyses the work of three historians, poised between amateur and professional, who bucked the trend and wrote about recent history. In Chapter 5, Kingstone argues that Harriet Martineau’s History of England During the Thirty Years’ Peace (1849) and J. R. Green’s Short History of the English People (1874) oscillate awkwardly between immersion and overview, while Sir Spencer Walpole’s History of England from the Conclusion of the Great War in 1815 (1878–1886) more consistently maintains an externalized viewpoint, ‘at the cost of much of the vibrancy that enlivens’ Martineau’s and Green’s works (p. 107). Chapter 6 documents how Martineau, Green, and Walpole each attempted, with mixed success, to tell the history of a wide range of individuals spanning social classes. Kingstone contrasts the radicalism of these texts with the conservatism of Charlotte Yonge’s The Victorian Half Century (1887). Kingstone’s fascinating reading shows that Yonge prioritizes the domestic over the political by both drawing tenuous connections between court life and the outside world, and paradoxically by obscuring relevant connections between them. The chapter closes with a consideration of how the concept of ‘the nation’, which seemed a socially and temporally inclusive way to draw connections across historical time, was actually an increasingly contested term that prioritized the middle classes over those at the top and bottom. Part 3 turns finally to ‘a particular sub-genre’ of mid-Victorian provincial novels set in the recent past (p. 144). After reviewing the way that the historicity of these novels is often neglected, Chapter 7 argues that Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘My Lady Ludlow’ (1858–1859), and George Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866) and Middlemarch (1871–1872) each follow the example of Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) in presenting history as both progress and decline (p. 144). Kingstone’s readings bring out each text’s highly particularized historical setting and the way that each incorporates multiple voices along with an ironic narrator to suggest that the recent past is contested and multiple. Chapter 8 explores these novels’ attempts to represent ‘unhistoric’ individuals, again following the example of Scott. Noting the way that the category of the ‘unhistoric’ was implicitly gendered and classed, Kingstone discusses the texts’ representations of women, and, to a lesser extent, working-class men, many of whom are frustrated in their ambitions. The final reading of Dorothea unpacks many ironies in Eliot’s famous characterization of her as ‘unhistoric’, and suggests that the example of Dorothea may have influenced the development of social history in the twentieth century. A brief conclusion reviews the book’s claims and touches on the unexpected turn towards the utopian in accounts of recent history at the century’s end. Kingstone also places the work in the larger discussion of whether and how social history or fiction can write into being the lives of people who left no trace in the historical record. Kingstone’s meticulously researched and engagingly written monograph makes a significant contribution to the study of Victorian historical consciousness by shedding light on the frequently neglected place of the recent past in Victorian historiography, as well as, in dialogue with Ruth Livesey’s new book, the often-overlooked historicity of Victorian novels of the recent past. Kingstone understands the challenges of representing the recent past as essentially constant, with the boundaries of what constitutes the recent defined by the human lifespan. This is ironically a somewhat ahistorical conception of the subject, and Kingstone might have theorized a bit further about why certain events or moments could seem more recent than others. In Part 2, Kingstone switches rapidly back and forth between the three historians discussed, a structure that allows for close comparisons, but one that necessitates frequent shifts and occasional repetition. For example, the same long passage from Walpole is quoted and analysed twice. A similar structure governs Part 3, such that Kingstone’s readings of the individual novels are split up and her insights about the same text are diffused over multiple chapters. This minor structural quibble aside, this monograph suggests new avenues of research and will be essential reading for those interested in philosophy of history, intellectual history, and popular historiography in nineteenth-century Britain, as well as scholars of the provincial and the historical novels. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 20, 2017
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