Reading in Genre: Historical Fiction


Why were 20th-century writers so fascinated by the early modern period, in particular by the English Civil War, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution? Why do so many historical novels, plays, and essays return to the beginnings of modernity, as if to reflect on its trajectories, its implications, and perhaps also on its missed opportunities? Is it the past that we rediscover in this return, or are we always mired in our contemporary concerns, which cannot but shape our understanding of the past? 

In this course, we will examine the sense of affinity that T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, David Caute, Caryl Churchill, Jeanette Winterson, Rose Tremain, and Iain Pears intimated between these distant periods that bookend Western modernity. We will show how, in anatomizing the seventeenth century – the world, melancholy, the human body, or the idols – these twentieth-century writers also anatomize their own history as it unfolds, seeking to offer meaningful cultural diagnoses. The seminar will unfold in three parts: I. Modernism and its favorite poets: the 1920s; II. Revolutions: 1649/1789/1960s; III. Anamorphic history: the Restoration and the Thatcher/Reagan era (1660/1980s).

Our first contact with the sensibility of the seventeenth century will take place in the medium of poetry: we will read selections from the work of Milton, the Cavalier and the Metaphysical poets, as well as T. S. Eliot’s essay introducing the latter to his contemporaries (1921), Rose Macaulay’s beautiful historical novel They Were Defeated (1932), and Virginia Woolf’s time-travel narrative Orlando (1928).

Part two will shift attention to the 1960s, when some writers signaled affinities between the revolutionary energies mobilized in contemporary social liberation movements and the utopian dreams of the English and French revolutions, generating public debates about commitment in literature and the arts. The novel and film Winstanley (1961, 1975), Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade (1964), Caryl Churchill’s Brechtian play Light Shining… (1976) will occasion investigations into the enclosures (Thomas More, Winstanley, Foucault), the conflicting historical accounts of the English Revolution (or “unrevolutionary England,” depending on who you ask), and the countercultural tendencies of the 1960s (hippies and anti-psychiatry, the rise of the New Left, critiques of rationalization and scientific method).

Part three will examine the striking resurgence of interest in the Restoration period (1660-1688) during the Reagan/Thatcher era: as we shall see, Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry(both 1989), Steve Davies’s Impassioned Clay (1999) and Iain Pears’ engrossing An Instance of the Fingerpost(1997) are novels that blur the distinction between historical record and stories, myths, and apocryphal anecdotes, novels in which the characters are both “pious descendants of time”  and our contemporaries.

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