The Boundaries of Fiction: History and the Eighteenth-Century British Novel.
The Boundaries of Fiction starts from an observation of the 'commitment' of eighteenth-century novels to the historical as 'a relevant category for understanding their fictional achievement'. Unlike the poetry of the period, which based its truth-claims on a universal or exemplary presentation of life, novels, it is claimed, maintained a perverse and often parodic insistence on their proximity to authentic history. From this observation, Zimmerman proceeds to an ambitious, and sometimes bewildering, series of analyses of historicity in the novels of the period. This is not, in any sense, a book about historical narrative as such, and it is more exclusively engaged with the internal logic of fiction than the title implies. The choice of texts, from Bunyan and Defoe to Mackenzie, Godwin, and Scott, is somewhat conventional, but the mode of analysis yields original and arresting insights. Zimmerman's fidelity to the multiple interpretative possibilities offered by his chosen novels produces an account of his subject which seems to proliferate in all directions (like the Swiftian Moderns in his third chapter); but the insights and the local readings of Tom Jones, for instance, or, Tristram Shandy, earn this book a place in the 'difficult but rewarding' category.
Zimmerman begins with a chapter on what he calls 'skeptical historiography', which is to say, the discovery by late seventeenth-century writers of the epistemological incompatibility of textuality and presence. This idea is well contextualized in terms of contemporary theological debates about miracles, and is also superfluously, though repeatedly, linked to Foucault's idea of a 'Classical Episteme'. This leads, by way of a rather unproductive engagement with the work of Michael McKeon and John Bender, to a persuasive analysis of the intersection of figural and referential understandings of narrative language in Bunyan and Defoe. A third chapter, on the ancient-modern debate and the birth of the historical archive, produces an unsurprising reading of Swift's Battel and Tale as parodies of modern textual over-production. More successful and open-ended is the discussion of Clarissa in relation to Richardson's authorial fiction of archival reconstruction of the life story of his heroine.
The book seems to gain confidence and clarity in the next two chapters on Fielding, Godwin, and Sterne. Zimmerman approaches Tom Jones in terms of Fielding's various rationalizations of his authorial technique. He argues that these should deter us from reading the novel as a fictional enactment of providential history, and links it instead to his idea of a sceptical, negotiable historical epistemology: Fielding is, as he told his readers, a Whig, rather than a 'jure divino Tyrant', who grants his readers the privilege of consenting to or modifying the authorial interpretation of events. This kind of scepticism becomes, in Tristram Shandy, a creative principle. Zimmerman argues effectively that Sterne exposes rather than covers the seams in his narration, in a doomed attempt to hypostatize and extend to his readers a transient moment of self-consciousness. After discussing Sterne's radical historical scepticism, Zimmerman describes, in a final section, Walter Scott's attempts to repair the boundary between history and fiction. This, he argues, was so successful that the two kinds of narrative remained united until, later in the nineteenth century, scientific history detached itself from fiction, and fiction finally passed into the territory of the purely aesthetic. This last strand of argument is, despite its theoretical polish, tired and conventional, and has, on several occasions, been successfully challenged by recent critics of early nineteenth-century historical writing.
A 'coda' on eighteenth-century theoretical discussions of history, including works by Hume, exposes the book's limitations as a broad analysis of the categories of 'history' and 'fiction'. Zimmerman is not well informed about the narrative practice of eighteenth-century historians, and seems to think that their major discovery was the 'narrative constructedness of history' (didn't Thucydides spot this point?). Despite the undoubted breadth of his eighteenth-century research, Zimmerman is overly reliant upon the 'post-modern' understanding of history as the 'emplotment' of 'traces' for the purpose of creating an absent past. If this is, indeed, what eighteenth-century writers thought, then no wonder they could not tell the difference between history and fiction. It is more probable, as Zimmerman concedes at one point, that the dominance of history as a cognitive category during this period was owing to the general theoretical under-mapping of fiction. Moreover, although it is undoubtedly true that fiction tended to articulate its literary identity in relation to history, the history to which novelists deferred generically was, more often than not, closer to classical biography than to the sophisticated history of Hume or Gibbon. The 'almost insouciant near-conflation of the fictional and the historical' which Zimmerman ascribes to Hume says more about modern theoretical priorities than it does about philosophy and narrative in the eighteenth century. All this need not detract from the strength of this book as a study of narrative strategies and feigned historical referentiality in eighteenth-century novels.
KAREN O'BRIEN University of Wales, Cardiff
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1998|
|Previous Article:||The Conversational Circle: Re-reading the English Novel, 1740-1775.|
|Next Article:||The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual, vols. 7-8.|