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History and the British Novel

What is the significance of the historical novel and/ or representations of history in the post-war British novel?
Literature Essay

  • Assessment: essay
  • Mark: A
  • Year: 2006
  • Wordcount: 3083

After the Second World War, Britain saw extensive social and political changes. The gradual loss of Britain’s colonies, the growth of the Welfare State, followed by its erosion from the 70s onwards and the anxieties linked to the Cold War, were just some of the developments that resulted in a change and redefinition of Britain’s intellectuals’ attitudes towards history (Connor 2002: 3). Conner (2002: 3) argues that “Britain seemed progressively to lose possession of its own history” because it has lost its belief “that it was the subject of its own history”. This new understanding of history is reflected in the literature of this time. Many post-war writers perceived history as a “matter of gaps, absences and enigmas” (Connor 2002: 134) rather than a progressive ‘grand narrative’.
Since the bases for “historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts” (De Man 2004: 493), many post war writers assumed that “both history and fiction derive from and produce texts” (Scanlan 2005: 155). Thus several post war novelists regarded their art as a way in which “history is made, and remade” (Connor 2002: 1). In this essay I will look at two post war novels that are both a response to English history and also a critical investigation of the “possibility under which history may be narratable at all” (Connor 2002: 133). In discussing John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, this essay will examine what impact the change in the perceptions of history had on post war novelists and how this affected their writing. In addition, I will outline the ways in which these texts expose the process of history making and therefore exemplify the post war authors’ complex historical understandings (Deistler 1999: 97).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in the Edinburgh of the 1930s and as such “directly related to the history of fascism and the aftermath of war” (Cheyette 2005: 369). ...

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