The classical-historical novel in nineteenth-century Britain

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Date

2001-08

Authors

Walker, Stanwood Sterling

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Abstract

The Classical-Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Britain analyzes the development of the novel set in late antiquity (the "classical-historical novel") over the course of the nineteenth century. The novels are first considered collectively in light of the nineteenth century's complex view of late antiquity. This analysis outlines the particular form in which late antiquity was available to novelists, and identifies the ways in which the late-classical setting appealed to both novelists and readers. The remainder of the study is devoted to detailed analyses of four of the most popular and/or influential British classical-historical novels of the period: John Gibson Lockhart's Valerius (1821), Edward Bulwer's The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), Charles Kingsley's Hypatia (1853) and Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean (1885). In these individual analyses, each novel is situated in two further contexts. For the first of these contexts, the discursive one, the examinations start with the pervasive influence of Walter Scott's Waverley model for historical fiction, then expand outwards to consider the relationship of that model to the novels' other discursive appropriations. These examinations offer another challenge to the "still monolithic 'Scott legend'" by expanding the definition of historicism on which that "legend" has been based. The individual analyses then shift to the novels' contemporary cultural context, and demonstrate how anxieties over such issues as class, race, empire, and the relationship between religion and science shape each novelist's handling of his "historical" subject matter. The portrait of the classicalhistorical novel that emerges from these analyses is of a genre that, like the emergent "historical consciousness" that gave rise to it, is fraught with tensions: a conservative impulse to return to the birthplace of the Christian faith clashes with a growing awareness of the historical "otherness" of that faith and of the period that gave birth to it, and with the period's spectacular appeal, an appeal that with the increasingly sophisticated modes of visual representation available to the stage (and eventually the cinema) exerted a stronger and stronger pull as the century advanced.

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