MID-CENTURY ROMANCE: MODERNIST AFTERLIVES OF THE HISTORICAL NOVEL

John T. Connor, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

The middle decades of the twentieth century witnessed a revival of the historical novel that has gone unremarked in accounts of the period and of the genre. “Mid-Century Romance: Modernist Afterlives of the Historical Novel” corrects this omission, reclaiming the genre to realign the period. Reading historical novels by the Bloomsbury Modernist Hope Mirrlees, by members of the British Communist Party, and by the Welsh repatriate John Cowper Powys, I reconstruct a moment in the history of the modern novel marked by the recirculation of Romantic political languages, cultural energies and narrative options. In its nineteenth-century moment a remarkably successful technology for naming and containing historical change within the framework of the new nation-state, the historical novel recommended itself to the mid-century Left as a means to explore patterns of individual experience, popular agency and political destiny on the field of history. Complementing recent work on the cultural nationalism of British Late Modernism, the mid-century turn to a Romantic-era genre and the transmission of this genre along the international circuits of Communist cultural influence complicates its historical and geographical coordinates. If the populism and deep historical consciousness of mid-twentieth century political culture requisitioned the historical novel as a genre adequate to its revolutionary Romanticism, I show in turn how the genre trained radical historians and novelists in forms of speculative reconstruction, historical empathy and concern for the materials of popular culture whose outcome I trace to the practices of magical realism and history from below. Reflection on the generic solutions installed by Sir Walter Scott at the heart of the novel’s narrative repertoire prompted intellectuals working at the intersection of radical politics and cultural anthropology to leaven their investment in history’s losers and lost political causes with a faith in the culture-forming power of the national-popular. And though we may now question the political commitments of this historical moment, we may also find that our own best historical practice owes something to the historical novels and novelized histories that carried, in their Romantic grammar of motives, the utopian ambitions of the mid-twentieth century.