History in fiction

James Acheson, Robert L. Caserio

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The protagonist of Anthony Burgess's A Malayan Trilogy (1957-9) nastily formulates a relation between history and books. “'History,' said Crabbe…'The best thing to do is to put all that in books and forget about it. A book is a kind of lavatory. We've got to throw up the past, otherwise we can't live in the present. The past has got to be killed.'” As soon as Crabbe makes his declaration, however, the narrator adds that “he reverted to his own past, and pronounced the very word in the Northern style… of his childhood” - a style that makes past sound like pest. Pestilent or not, emetically or not, history has been put into the twentieth-century English novel with a vengeance. It has occurred in a persistent idiosyncratic form: historical fiction by a single author about characters whose stories proliferate in multiple volumes. Burgess's trilogy is a mere mini-example of what might be called historical “series novels.” Tetralogies and five- or six-unit sequences abound; some stretch to a dozen and more. Does so much reference to the past make living in the present easier? Some novelists write about the present as a product of the past or as itself epochal. Does seeing the present as historical also have vivifying effects? Or is it just a matter of profits for writers and publishers whose readers can be captivated by characters with whom, repeatedly, they “live”? Whatever the immediate material determination of the series form, historical crises suggest a motive. A culture undergoing actual transformation from an empire into an island might want to absorb the shock by reading about it, perhaps endlessly. The American title of Burgess's trilogy is The Long Day Wanes, a reference to the setting sun of Empire. As if in compensation, as the day wanes, the fiction waxes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781139002516
ISBN (Print)9780521884167
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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