From Progress to Catastrophe

Perry Anderson on the historical novel in the LRB:

Within the huge multiverse of prose fiction the historical novel has, almost by definition, been the most consistently political. It is no surprise that it should have occasioned what is still probably the best-known of all works of Marxist literary theory, Lukács’s The Historical Novel, written in Russian exile in the 1930s. Any reflection on the strange career of this form has to begin there, however far it may then wander from him. Built around the work of Walter Scott, Lukács’s theory makes five principal claims. The classical form of the historical novel is an epic depicting a transformation of popular life through a set of representative human types whose lives are reshaped by sweeping social forces. Famous historical figures will feature among the dramatis personae, but their roles in the tale will be oblique or marginal. Narratives will centre instead on middling characters, of no great distinction, whose function is to offer an individual focus for the dramatic collision of opposing extremes between whom they stand, or more often waver. What Scott’s novels then stage is a tragic contest between declining and ascending forms of social life, in a vision of the past that honours the losers but upholds the historical necessity of the winners. The classic historical novel, inaugurated by Waverley, is an affirmation of human progress, in and through the conflicts that divide societies and the individuals within them.

It follows from Lukács’s conception that the historical novel is not a specific or delimited genre or subgenre of the novel tout court. Rather, it is simply a path-breaker or precursor of the great realistic novel of the 19th century. A generation later, Balzac – for example – essentially adapted Scott’s techniques and vision of the world to the present instead of the past, treating the France of the Restoration or the July Monarchy in much the same way that Scott had represented mid-18th-century Scotland or 12th-century England. Balzac’s great successor, for Lukács, was the towering figure of Tolstoy, whose War and Peace represents a peak simultaneously of the historical and of the realist novel in the 19th century. In societies more advanced than Russia, on the other hand, the development of capitalism had by this time pitted a revolutionary working class against a bourgeoisie that no longer believed it bore the future within it, and was intent on crushing any sign of an alternative to its rule.