Forster’s Synchronism and 18th-Century Studies

In the preface to The Rape of Clarissa, Terry Eagleton embraces, under the sign of Benjamin, a strategic presentism (though this is not his phrase) that understands the work of criticism to be a kind of textual recovery.  Literature long thought unreadable can, under the critic’s care, be revived for a new readership if we can only see how it speaks to the politics of the present moment.  This is what I take Eagleton to mean when, writing in 1982, he claims, “we may now once again be able to read Samuel Richardson.” [1]

Eagleton’s “we” who are newly able to read Richardson surely refers not to scholars of the eighteenth century—who had, of course, been reading Richardson all along—but to a more capacious, perhaps even a non-academic readership.  And “read” means something bigger, too.  Again, eighteenth-century scholars had been reading Clarissa, but not in a way that took its project seriously, not in a way that understood its urgency.  In bringing Clarissa back from the dead, Eagleton opposes his method to a conservative historicism:  “I entirely lack what would appear to be one of the chief credentials for discussing the eighteenth century,” he writes, “namely a nostalgic urge to return to it.” [2]

Eagleton can seem almost prophetic now:  he either divined correctly that the world was ready again for Clarissa or, along with Terry Castle and, not much later, Frances Ferguson (among others), he made it ready.  But I begin with him not because I see him as the first to release this salvo but because I want to suggest that there has long (perhaps always) been an eighteenth-century studies that has situated itself against a more conservative, historicist eighteenth-century studies.  This is perhaps why many of us were so thrilled to read the V21 Manifesto when it was published:  we greeted its writers less as provocateurs than as fellow-travelers.  I offer a capsule pre-history of strategic presentism not to suggest that it has run its course but to propose what I hope we might consider as a friendly competitor in the push against the kind of conservative nostalgia Eagleton names.  If, as the manifesto claims, “the variations of and alternatives to presentism as such have not yet been adequately described or theorized,” I hope to offer an early step toward that effort here.

Rather than (or perhaps alongside of) strategic presentism, I’ve been thinking lately about a model of synchronism (maybe even a naïve synchronism) that would allow for connections between moments of historical time without even the minimal historical apparatus that presentism requires.  In one of the early responses to the V21 Manifesto, David Kurnick urges us to revisit old formalisms before we craft new ones, and, in that spirit, I want to suggest that one valuable old formalist contribution to our present critical conversation is E. M. Forster’s curious synchronous thinking about the novel’s form. [3]  Here’s a brief passage from a part of Aspects of the Novel that no one really reads:

We are to envision the English novelists not as floating down that stream which bears all its sons away unless they are careful, but as seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British Museum reading-room—all writing their novels simultaneously. They do not, as they sit there, think, ‘I live under Queen Victoria, I under Anne, I carry on the tradition of Trollope, I am reacting against Aldous Huxley.’  [4]

Forster imagines the British Museum reading room as populated by the great authors of the English novel, paired at tables in a kind of formalist buddy system.  The pairings that Forster conjures with his thought experiment (Richardson and James, Dickens and Wells, Sterne and Woolf) may strike us as rather obvious, but the experiment itself is not.  Our understanding of novel theory has, perhaps since its inception, been inextricably linked to an historical account of the novel’s emergence and development, however contested the parameters and particulars of that history may be.  Consider the ubiquity of the pairing “the history and theory of the novel” in both our scholarship and teaching, or the subtitle of the most commonly assigned anthology in the subfield:  Michael McKeon’s The Theory of the Novel:  An Historical Approach.

While much new formalist work on novel theory has advocated either for new histories or for a strategic presentism that simply runs history in reverse, Forster offers a formalist literary history without the history.  Forster posits a view of the English novel as simultaneously generated—a flattening not of character but of time.  It subordinates temporality as such to the spatial, enabling, I think, what Anna Kornbluh has called, “enhanced attention to the worldmaking project of fictional space and to literary realism as the production of possible spaces rather than the document of existing places.” [5]  (Indeed, I suspect that Forster’s model might do this better than presentism).

In writing at a table alongside Forster, I’m not claiming to invent anything, but I do want to connect and elevate work as diverse as that of Susan Sontag (see “Notes on Camp”:  especially her use of lists that can commingle, for example, Walpole, Wilde, and “stag films seen without lust”), James Chandler, whose An Archeology of Sympathy pings from Frank Capra to Laurence Sterne to I. A. Richards, and Scott Black, whose writing on romance and anachronism takes up what he has called “a looser sense of history.”  The affordances of synchronism are, in brief:

1.)  it offers a less abashed formalism.

2.)  it opens up the potential for a kind of cross-period collaboration that is truly rare in our discipline.

3.)  it leverages so much of the work that we already do, in our classrooms especially, but also in the kind of irreverent, energetic (semi-)public writing that is flourishing at the moment, both in venues like The Hairpin (RIP), The Toast (RIP), and the LA Review of Books but also ABOPublic and The 18th-Century Common.  And this is perhaps especially true for our colleagues in the precariat, our graduate students and adjunct faculty, who are constantly being called to extend outside of narrow training, to bring their expertise to bear more broadly than ever.

In sum, I want to suggest that Forster’s synchronism offers a model for thinking about the novel without the silos of periodization, at a moment when we’ve largely embraced formalist methodology only up to the limits of established, field-based historical parameters.  It doesn’t encourage us to abandon the eighteenth century, but instead offers us an eighteenth century not just for the present, but for all time and all possible futures.


[1]  Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa:  Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson.  (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1982), xii.

[2]  Eagleton, xiii-ix.


[4]  E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927).  (New York:  Harvest Books, 1955), 9.

[5] Anna Kornbluh, “Present Tense Futures of the Past,” in “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism,” Victorian Studies 59.1 (Autumn, 2016):  98-101.

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.

British Historical Fiction Before Scott

The eighteenth century has served as the backdrop for some of the greatest historical novels, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992) and Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon (1997).  But the century also produced a large number of historical novels, many of which are less well known.

Conventional literary history for a long time credited Sir Walter Scott with inventing the genre of the historical novel with his Waverley Novels (1814-32) — a myth that Scott helped to promote. The Waverley Novels were indeed groundbreaking, with record-breaking sales and international influence. The success of Scott’s gripping tales of Scottish history (among other things) inspired other novelists to try their hand at mixing history and fiction, leading to great 19th-century works like Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (1825), Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869).

Despite Scott’s influence and popularity, he wasn’t the first historical novelist. It’s always hard to identify “firsts” of any sort, for no writer exists in a vacuum. In the case of the historical novel, you can find precursors and models for the historical novel going all the way back to antiquity. And I mean all the way back — Homer was a historical novelist of sorts, though he wrote in verse.  Closer to the modern era, 17th-century French writers such as Mme de Lafayette intermingled fictional and historical characters and events in her great historical novel La Princesse de Clèves (1678).

In the last few decades of the 18th century, historical fiction became very popular with British readers. The novels of the middle of the 18th century tended to be sentimental or comic tales set in contemporary England, modeled after the two leading figures of the day: Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. But beginning in the 1760s, the dominance of Richardson and Fielding began to wane, and novels set in different historical eras and geographic locales began to compete for readers’ attention. Dozens of popular novelists produced historical fictions of varying sorts in the half century before Waverley. A few of these writers, such as William Godwin and Maria Edgeworth, are well known to people who study 18th-century literature, but the majority of these novels are by forgotten or even anonymous writers.

The reason for this increase in the production of historical novels, and novels more generally, in the last third of the 18th century, has to do with the growth in popularity of circulating libraries throughout Britain. Circulating libraries were lending libraries, where anyone, for a fee, could borrow volumes of the latest publications. They flourished especially in big cities like London and Edinburgh and in fashionable spa towns like Bath and Cheltenham. Books were very expensive in the 18th century, and public libraries didn’t yet exist, but circulating libraries allowed middle-class readers access to a wide array of publications. Three-volume novels (which could be loaned out simultaneously to three different readers, a volume at a time) were especially popular, and as libraries expanded the demand for new titles grew.

My book British Historical Fiction before Scott (2010) examines the popular historical novels of this era. In it, I look at 85 novels published between 1762 and 1813 to explore how the conventions of the historical novel took shape during this period, how the genre grew out of but eventually branched off from the Gothic tradition, and how it was received by readers and reviewers. These novels show a tremendous amount of variety in setting, style, and quality. The settings can range from the ancient world in Alexander Thomson’s Memoirs of a Pythagorean (1785) to 17th-century France in Ann Yearsley’s The Royal Captives (1795), an early take on the man in the iron mask story. Stylistically these novels range from sentimental weepies like the anonymous Lady Jane Grey (1791) to boys’ adventure tales in James White’s The Adventures of King Richard Coeur-de-Lion (also 1791).

The earliest historical novels I look at are also important texts in the history of the Gothic novel. Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl of Salisbury (1762), Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), and Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1777) often feature prominently in histories of the Gothic novel. All of these texts are set in the Middle Ages and draw upon features of the medieval romance: women in peril, creepy castles, young heroes with mysterious origins, and often supernatural occurrences. At the same time, these Gothic romances also highlight aspects of their historical settings — the Crusades in the case of Walpole, the Barons’ War in the case of Leland, and details of medieval customs in the case of Reeve.

Sophia Lee’s novel The Recess; or, a Tale of Other Times (1783–85) illustrates the intersections and the common origins of Gothic and historical fiction. Critics continually face difficulties in labeling her remarkable novel: it seems to be a Gothic fiction because of its use of conventions such as secret passages and persecuted maidens and its atmosphere of gloom and terror, yet it lacks what has come to be seen as the defining feature of the Gothic, the supernatural. Lee does employ many of the features of the historical novel: the story takes place at a particular historical moment (the late 16th and early 17th centuries), depicts real historical figures (Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, the Earl of Essex, James I, and many others), and features major historical events such as Essex’s campaigns in Ireland and Mary’s execution.

After the success of The Recess, the histories of the historical novel and the Gothic novel begin to part ways.  In the 1790s especially, the “Gothic” branch of this tree emphasized the supernatural, suspense, and shocks. Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), for example, features a historical setting (the Spain of the Inquisition), yet historical backdrop is subordinate to scenes of horror. In contrast, a different subset of novels aimed to depict scenes from the past, featuring subtitles such as “A Tale, Founded on Historical Facts” (Henry Siddons’s William Wallace, 1791), “A View of the Military, Political, and Social Life of the Romans” (E. Cornelia Knight’s Marcus Flaminius, 1792), and “Anecdotes of Distinguished Personages in the Fifteenth Century” (The Minstrel, 1793) that highlighted the historical source material for the novels and their didactic function.  Sites like the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, The Hathi Trust, and Google Books have made many of these early historical novels freely available online and to download, so interested readers can now easily explore this corner of literary history.