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  • Forging Literary History:Historical Fiction and Literary Forgery in Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • Anne H. Stevens (bio)

In his article "History's Greatest Forger: Science, Fiction, and Fraud Along the Seine," historian of science Ken Alder purports to have discovered a letter in a French archive by Denis Vrain-Lucas, a notorious nineteenth-century forger who made a fortune selling letters he claimed to have discovered in a hitherto-unknown casque of papers by such luminaries as Galileo, Alexander the Great, and Mary Magdalene (all written in French!). By creating his own invented letter to serve his larger intellectual purposes, Alder revisits Vrain-Lucas's acts of forgery, employing the familiar eighteenth-century framework of the discovered manuscript in order to muse theoretically on the nature of historical knowledge, and call for "a more expansive view of what counts as a credible account of the past." Both Alder the supposed translator of this letter and his alter-ego Vrain-Lucas discuss the creative element present in all acts of historical reconstruction. In his "translator's" introduction, Alder argues,

If a narrow descriptive facticity cannot exhaust the plenitude of nature, why should the plenitude of the human past be more easily encompassed? Yet many historians continue to represent the past in as positivist a mode as any scientist, and they continue to do so using literary technologies—both [End Page 217] forms of writing and the presentation of evidence—that historians borrowed back from the natural sciences in the nineteenth century.

Speaking in the voice of Vrain-Lucas defending his acts of forgery within his invented letter, Alder makes a related point: "Only when historians are obliged to work between the documents and fill in the gaps—for there are always gaps—do the imaginative faculties become engaged in storytelling, and only then can we paint the true picture of an age."1

Alder characterizes the dominant mode of contemporary historiography as positivistic, exhibiting a "narrow descriptive facticity" that misses the forest for the trees, ignoring larger truths about the past in favor of antiquarian details. In contrast to this scientific attitude towards the past, Alder celebrates the historian's work as an artistic endeavor, likening it to both literature ("storytelling") and the visual arts ("paint the true picture of an age"), in a manner reminiscent of postmodern theorists of historiography such as Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur. In reaction to positivistic, scientific models of historical investigation, many postmodern critics react skeptically, doubting the possibility of actually recovering the past on its own terms.2 Alder's work of historical fiction couched as forgery, in contrast, takes this skepticism and channels it in a much more optimistic, even celebratory, direction in regards to the creative and imaginative dimensions of historical reconstruction.

In this essay, I wish to explore a similar dialectic of historical positivism and skepticism in eighteenth-century Britain. Over the course of the century, but particularly in the second half, new and more scientific standards of historical investigation developed, with practitioners expressing a greater confidence about their ability to know the past. During these years, a series of monumental achievements in historiography appeared: David Hume's History of England (1754–62), Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), and William Robertson's History of Scotland (1759), to name just three of the most celebrated. As part of this increased interest in the past and increased optimism about the ability to understand earlier historical periods, a range of new types of writing about the past proliferated, such as antiquarian studies, social and cultural history, literary history, universal history, and conjectural history.3 While the study of history was developing much more rigorous standards of investigation and historical works were among the bestselling titles of the century, a strain of historical skepticism was gaining force, often finding expression in the writings of the very same people who were doing the confident historical investigation. This philosophical skepticism is perhaps most [End Page 218] dramatically illustrated in the writings of major historians such as Hume and Robertson.4 The works of these philosophical historians were steeped in skepticism about both individual historical details and the possibility of achieving any kind...


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