Rosemary Mitchell. Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image 1830-1870. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000. xii + 314 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-820844-0.
Reviewed by Miriam Elizabeth Burstein (Department of English, State University of New York, College at Brockport)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2001)
Imaging History in the Nineteenth Century
Imaging History in the Nineteenth Century
In 1858, a contributor to the Saturday Review suggested that the historical novel was ^Óthe most ambitious and the most difficult, because the most complete, manner of solving the historical problem.^Ô The problem lay in the seemingly disconnected nature of much political history; the answer lay in constructing a more complete ^Ópicture.^Ô One might be tempted to dismiss ^Ópicture^Ô as a mere turn of phrase, were it not that the Victorians constantly invoked it and its cognates when it came to discussing both historical fiction and the difficulties of historiography. Whether such ^Ópicturing^Ô was a good thing or a bad thing was a different matter. For another critic, ^ÓScott^Òs influence^Ô had resulted in ^Óthe substitution of life-like portraiture and clear, intelligible description, for philosophical comparison and analysis.^Ô Thus visual language^×-pictures, paintings, portraits^×-pointed both to history^Òs goal and its potential downfall. If historical ^Ópainting^Ô created a sense of immediate presence, constructing the reader as a kind of virtual witness, it also posed the danger of superficiality. At the extreme end of ^Ósuperficiality,^Ô of course, was the dreaded costume novel^×summed up for many readers today by the works of novelists like W. H. Ainsworth and G. P. R. James.
As Rosemary Mitchell reminds us, however, ^Ópicturing^Ô was not simply a metaphorical way of speaking about the historian^Òs craft. Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image 1830-1870 argues that any account of Victorian historical theory and practice must take into account Victorian historical illustrations. Mitchell is particularly concerned with the interplay between the kind of metaphorical ^Ópicturing^Ô discussed above and the literal pictures that dotted Victorian histories. She focuses on what she calls, following Victorian practice, ^Ópicturesque history^Ô: a mode that emphasized a ^Óspecific national past,^Ô a ^Óhighly particularist and localized^Ô ethos, an interest in ^Óunderdogs,^Ô ^Óthe accumulation of historical evidences...and the practice of empathy as a pathway to historical understanding.^Ô And of, course, picturesque history stressed pictures, trying to realize the past in visual form through illustrations and word-paintings of ruins and other significant physical embodiments of national time (pp. 15-17). Moreover, Mitchell points out, the historical novel was crucial to picturesque history (p. 17); indeed, as I have suggested above, for many Victorian critics the historical novel was picturesque history.
While Mitchell does her best to evade the professionalization thesis, in which popular history vanishes off the face of the planet as a viable approach once academics begin writing good history, she does insist that so-called ^Óscientific^Ô history undercut picturesque history^Òs authenticity. Moreover, she also tracks shifting attitudes to the use of illustration in historical texts. Here, Mitchell borrows Stephen Bann^Òs useful distinction between ^Ómetaphoric^Ô and ^Ómetanymic^Ô illustrations: the metaphoric illustration provides a ^Ócomparative version of the text^Ô (i.e., illustrating an event or anecdote) whereas the metanymic illustration singles out one element of the text (i.e., a person) (pp. 24-25). Mitchell argues that as scientific history came to the forefront, histories increasingly shifted from metaphoric to metanymic illustration, banishing the metaphoric illustration to the realm of fiction and children^Òs history.
Picturing the Past pursues this argument through a series of interlocking case studies, drawing on such examples as Victorian editions of Hume^Òs History of England; children^Òs textbooks, particularly those by the indefatigable Mrs. Markham; W. H. Ainsworth, in successful and unsuccessful modes; the popular historian Charles Knight; histories of women; the Catholic historian John Lingard; W. M. Thackeray and Punch; and novelists like Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. As this outline suggests, Mitchell moves with ease between canonical and non-canonical texts. In each case, she both analyzes how illustrations work with or, on occasion, against the text, and how authors, publishers, and illustrators collaborated on historical texts or, on occasion, wound up at each others^Ò throats.
Readers will find much of value here. Mitchell accomplishes something I would have previously considered impossible: she actually finds a way to say interesting things about W. H. Ainsworth, even unspeakably bad W. H. Ainsworth. Indeed, the term she applies to his heavily picturesque work, ^Óconservationism^Ô (p. 97), could usefully be extended to other costume novelists, particularly those of the ^Óallow me to stop the narrative while I give you ten pages on the history of Warwick Castle^Ô school. Her discussion of early women^Òs history helpfully discusses some of the concrete issues at stake in getting such texts illustrated, including some of the gender politics behind women negotiating with their publishers. She is also one of the few people to remember the existence of Hannah Lawrance, the woman whose Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England (1838) just beat Agnes Strickland^Òs Lives of the Queens of England (1840-48) into print. Mitchell treats her as one of the key women historians during the Victorian era, a long-overdue act of consideration. The book is informative throughout concerning the kinds of illustrations available, the role of authors and publishers in deciding whether or not a particular illustration might be used, and, of course, how illustrations underlined or undercut textual meaning. In her discussion of how publishers approached Hume^Òs History of England, for example, she shows how shifting attitudes to historical place affected the illustrations (pp. 49-50). I was particularly interested in Mitchell^Òs accounts of how various illustrations became ^Ócanonical,^Ô as it were, with certain portraits utilized over and over again^×-not to mention how, on occasion, the same illustration might pop up to represent an entirely different event. (Presumably, this explains why the illustrations in my copy of Mrs. J. B. Webb^Òs evangelical historical novel, Julamerk; or, the Converted Jewess, set in Turkey, toggle bizarrely between characters in vaguely oriental dress and characters who appear to have stepped out of an eighteenth-century English romance!)
Along the way, Mitchell points out some important problems in the history of Victorian historiography. Her chapter on the popular historian Charles Knight, for example, brings up two key issues: the complex question of writing ^Ósocial history,^Ô a problem that Victorian critics found vexing; and the relationship between history and the historical novel. In the first instance, Mitchell shows how Knight^Òs attempt to write a history of ^Óthe people^Ô ultimately founders, ending up instead as a political history that, by intellectual sleight of hand, becomes a ^Óhistory of the people^Ô (pp. 129-32). In the second, she demonstrates Knight^Òs fundamental antagonism to the historical novel: despite the historical novel^Òs claims to offer up something like the ^Óhistory of the people^Ô Knight desired, he felt that the form promoted conservative politics in its emphasis on the ruling classes instead of the ruled (pp. 128-29). If Knight^Òs problem with social history brings up some important questions regarding Victorian historical methods^×-there were no viable models, as yet, for writing a fully integrated study of ^Óthe people^Ô^×-his problem with historical fiction usefully reminds the reader that one cannot assume that various popular genres happily co-existed.
Mitchell has largely mastered the relevant literary criticism. The illustrations are clear and the book as a whole is remarkably free from the typographical errors plaguing many university press books in recent years. My quibbles are minor. On occasion, she misses some opportunities to bring the question of generic conflict into even greater clarity. For example, I wanted to hear more about the antagonism to representing war and politics in children^Òs textbooks (p. 62), because this antagonism became part of the justification for writing women^Òs history^×-which in turn threatened to appropriate the ^Ódomestic^Ô realm otherwise claimed as the province of the historical novel. On a terminological note, I wasn^Òt sure that ^Óscientific history^Ô was the term Mitchell wanted: most Victorians between 1830 and 1870 understood it to mean the quest for historical ^Ólaws,^Ô à la H. T. Buckle, whereas Mitchell here uses it to mean ^Ócritical^Ô history, à la Langlois and Seignobos. Similarly, I would also have been interested in a coda dealing with the later transmutations of ^Ópicturesque history.^Ô When, in 1897, Mandell Creighton assumed that ^Ó[w]e may agree that history should be made as picturesque as possible; but picturesqueness cannot be applied in patches,^Ô was he referring to a different kind of ^Ópicturesque^Ô ^×-and was he assuming that ^Ópicturesque^Ô must also be ^Ópopular^Ô? Finally, one might ask if scientific (or critical) history really killed off the historical novel qua history. Victorian critiques of historical fiction, to the extent that they equate historical fiction with history, usually fudge the question of the knowledge historical fiction produces. Authors claimed one thing; their critics another. And one might well read shifting attitudes to the historical novel as not a ^Ódecline^Ô but, rather, a reorientation, in which critics become increasingly interested in the historical novel as literature.
None of this, however, is to quarrel with Mitchell^Òs overall achievement. Picturing the Past is an important addition to the growing scholarly literature on nineteenth-century popular historiography, one that will be of great interest to historians and literary critics alike.
. ^ÓHistorical Romance,^Ô The Saturday Review 6 (Sept. 11, 1858): 251.
. ^ÓWalter Scott^×Has History Gained by His Writings?,^Ô in A Victorian Art of Fiction: Essays on the Novel in British Periodicals. Volume 1, 1830-1850, ed. John Charles Olmsted (New York: Garland, 1979), p. 556.
. Cf. another helpful case study of such rhetoric in Virginia Blain, Caroline Bowles Southey, 1786-1854: The Making of a Woman Writer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), pp. 74-88.
. Knight^Òs critique was echoed positively on the opposite side of the political fence: several conservative critics cited Sir Walter Scott^Òs reinvention of British history as key in sustaining national identity during and after the Reform Bill crisis. See, for example, Archibald Alison, ^ÓThe Historical Romance,^Ô in Olmsted, p. 495; ^ÓLife and Writings of Sir Walter Scott,^Ô The British Critic and Theological Review 48 (1838): 473.
. Mandell Creighton, ^ÓThe Picturesque in History,^Ô in Historical Lectures and Addresses, ed. Louise Creighton (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1967), p. 264.
 For an example of just such a reorientation, see George Saintsbury, ^ÓThe Historical Novel,^Ô Macmillan^Òs Magazine 70 (1894): 256-64, 320-30, 410-19. This is not to say that late Victorians would altogether object to the ^Ódeath by critical history^Ô thesis; see, e.g., Augustine Birrell, ^ÓThe Muse of History,^Ô The Contemporary Review 47 (1885): 770-80.
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Miriam Elizabeth Burstein. Review of Mitchell, Rosemary, Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image 1830-1870.
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Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.