- Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction
Not so very long ago, the historical novel seemed a dated genre, surviving on the margins of respectability, where Taylor Caldwell and Frank Yerby created sex lives for the apostles. Novelists, however, especially in Britain, continued to write historical fiction, often breaking with nineteenth-century conventions of the genre. Perhaps inevitably, postmodern theory's distrust of "master narratives" and its preoccupation with the indeterminacy, instability, and unknowability of the past assured that critics would prize ironic and debunking works: J. G. Farrell's Empire Trilogy, for example. Along these lines, Linda Hutcheon has devoted much of her career to discussing "historiographical metafictions," such as D. M. Thomas's White Hotel, which subvert the belief that we can recover the past whole, making the central question how we produce meaning in history and fiction. But as Suzanne Keen notes in her important new book, this postmodern or deconstructive model fails to explain many current historical novels. In the 1980s and 1990s, writers, both popular and literary, developed what she calls "romances of the archive" that "restore to history its glamorous, consoling, and admonitory powers" (61).
Keen defines a "romance of the archives" as a novel in which a researcher, usually a novice, tracks down the material traces of the past in a literal archive, which might be a library, museum, or stately home. This "researcher quests for a truth that not only fascinates but . . . yields tangible benefits" (42). Though the researcher as "action hero" may seem an unlikely figure (29), Keen traces him, or [End Page 501] her, through such popular fantasies as the Indiana Jones films and more literary works such as A. S. Byatt's Possession. The past in such romances is "approachable . . . mapped onto recognizable places" (130); figures of the past are linked to the researcher by continuities as indisputable as evidence of "mitochondrial DNA" (207). This healthy dose of sameness, then, enables a lesbian researcher equipped with the right knowledge and empathy to restore a suppressed episode of lesbian history, and it equally enables Barry Unsworth's Sugar and Rum to restore the true history of Liverpool's role in the slave trade.
As these last two examples suggest, the romance of the archive is not necessarily a work of political reaction, though Keen notes many examples that reinforce Tory agendas. She sees the genre taking off after the Falklands invasion, noting its relationship to debates in Britain over the heritage industry and the history curriculum for national schools. In particular, she stresses response to a pervasive fear that disrespectful postcolonials would take over the writing of British history. In her view, Byatt, Peter Ackroyd, and Robert Goddard, offered a choice between a history that evokes guilt and one that evokes pride, opt for the feel-good alternative every time. Even writers who excoriate the British past "contribute to nostalgic fantasies about the uses of the past. . . . [T]he endogamous Englishness of the past discovered within romances of the archive can add to a celebratory narrative of homogeneity, continuity, native virtues, and cultural survival." Few use the recovered past to reconsider "the national identity" (215).
One of the strengths of Keen's book is her interest in the "wellsprings" of the romance of the archive in literary classics (The Faerie Queene, The Aspern Papers) and popular genres, such as the Gothic, sci-fi, alternative history, fantasy, and detective fiction. Her discussion of "hyper-consequence" in the Gothic world, for example, neatly demonstrates the importance of secret documents with deadly potential that the hero must destroy to avert catastrophe (72). Spy and detective fiction similarly attach great importance to the production of evidence, the reconstruction of what happened in the interests of punishing the guilty. Since historical knowledge plays such a critical role in justice, the question of who knows or has a right to know becomes critical, a point Keen takes up in her sixth chapter, "Custody of Truth." In one of her strongest analyses, Keen demonstrates how Margaret Drabble's The Gates of Ivory uses...