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  • The Spectacular Past: Popular History and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century France
  • Michael Tilby
Samuels, Maurice. The Spectacular Past: Popular History and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century France. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. 280. ISBN0801442494

In this lively and exceptionally well-written study, the product of both extensive research and an admirably clear vision of the ramifications of its central thesis, Maurice Samuels situates himself at the gravitational centre of contemporary nineteenth-century French studies through his interrogation of the intersection of literature, history and popular culture. Starting from a neglected passage in Le Colonel Chabert, in which the clerk Godeschal is led to define "spectacles" as things "that one sees for money," he convincingly argues, firstly that the representation of history in the early part of the century was a spectacular commodity and, secondly, that the Realist novel went on to challenge both the naive belief in the power of the visual image on which such representations were based and the implication that the recent, difficult past could in the process be made present and thereby "known and mastered." The Realist attitude towards history is duly defined by him as "a view of the past as an alienating and destructive force, a false model leading the plots of the characters awry."

Samuels's richly informative illustration of his thesis takes us into the epistemologically related worlds of the phantasmagoria; the panorama; waxwork displays (Chabert, we are reminded, is compared by his creator to a figure in Curtius's wax display); boulevard theatre (twenty-nine new plays about Napoleon were staged in Paris in the 1830-31 season); the historical novel à la Walter Scott (the visual poetics of which represent an attempt to cross the divide between word and image); history book illustration; and Romantic historiography, which is, provocatively, shown by Samuels to possess a "complicity" with the spectacular historical entertainments of the period.

The analysis includes much pertinent and unfamiliar detail from early nineteenth-century popular culture. Samuels is particularly good on the cult of Napoleon and its political significance. He also nicely updates accounts of the reception of Scott in France and makes splendid use of both Nettement's series of articles in 1836 attacking the new trends in historical writing and a Napoleon novel for children written by Soulié two years later. But he is also concerned to understand the causes behind the new, naturalistic representation of history and shows due readiness to pose questions of a theoretical nature, with regard, for example, to the ways in which a novel can "envision" the past. He is attentive to the shift, post-Scott, in the gender of French authors of historical fictions, and, suggestively, allows the work of Debord and Baudrillard to inform his wider understanding of the fundamental objections to any "society of the spectacle."

In the first of two chapters devoted to single authors, Samuels provides fresh and insightful readings of Les Chouans and "Adieu" as well as Le Colonel Chabert. Although he is not the first to have stressed Balzac's emphasis on vision in the first of these texts, it has hitherto escaped attention that the author's presentation of various scenes owes much to the new optical technology that was placed at the service of popular historical [End Page 158] representation. (He evens detects in this novel an echo of the waxworks.) Original, too, is his equation of Philippe de Sucy (in "Adieu") with a "Romantic historian." The chapter on Stendhal, while perhaps less striking in its insights, nonetheless succeeds well in relating Le Rouge and La Chartreuse to the central argument.

On the other hand, it might be objected that Samuels accepts a little too readily the canonical view of Les Chouans as a straightforward attempt to emulate Scott, and that it is this that allows him to make an overly clear-cut distinction between it and the allegedly more parodic "Adieu," published the following year, whereas the earlier text can in fact already be shown to display much self-conscious detachment from the Scottian model. The footnote on Balzac's early pseudonymous fictions is both inadequate and misleading. In another note, Samuels appears to conflate...


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