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  • Why Dryasdust? Historians in Fiction
  • Beverley Southgate (bio)

Dryasdust is the archetypal literary representation of a historian: a tediously pedantic scholar who, as Walter Scott describes in the Dedicatory Epistle to Ivanhoe (1819), gleans material from “the dust of antiquity,” and utilizes “musty records . . . the authors of which seem perversely to have conspired to suppress . . . all interesting details.” That negative assessment is confirmed by both novelists and renegade historians throughout the 19th and even 20th centuries. Why has such a distressing view of history and historians prevailed for so long?

Scott was not the only historian who rebelled against the orthodoxies of his own discipline. Thomas Carlyle, too, adopted the model of Dryasdust as an ideal opponent, referring in a similar manner in 1845 to “dreary old records,” which convey no living voice from the past, but rather “a widespread inarticulate slumberous mumblement, issuing as if from the lake of eternal Sleep.” “Alas,” as he laments elsewhere, “what mountains of dead ashes, wreck and burnt bones, does assiduous Pedantry dig up from the Past Time, and name it History!”1 Henry Thomas Buckle complained in 1861 about how “the vast majority of historians fill their works with the most trifling and miserable details,” including, worst of all, “long accounts of [military] campaigns, battles and sieges,” which were, no doubt, all “very interesting to those engaged in them, but to us utterly useless.”2 Jacob Burckhardt described contemporary scholars, in similarly negative terms, as digging a hole in the mountain of history, creating “a pile of rubble and rubbish behind themselves,” and then dying.3

Novelists and dramatists conveyed such attitudes to a wider public. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72), Mr. Casaubon is represented as a meticulous scholar, who burrows away in the archives for many years making his notes, but who finds it hard ever to draw his researches to any sort of conclusion or to offer any practical justification for them. His empirical procedures, as he endlessly collects his data, may be impeccable, but they come at the cost of any imaginative input—either into his work or into his personal life. He appears as a sad figure who, on honeymoon in Rome, abandons his younger wife Dorothea while continuing his (to him) essential research in the Vatican archives. It may be a more general occupational hazard for historians, but Casaubon himself comes to recognize that he lives “too much with the dead.”4

Another deeply unflattering representation of an academic historian is Ibsen’s character Jörgen Tesman in Hedda Gabler (1890). Tesman, an “indefatigable researcher,” is shown similarly as having just returned from a honeymoon that had been, for him, “a kind of research tour . . . with all those old records I had to hunt through,” while his glamorous wife Hedda meanwhile had been “excruciatingly bored.”5 Tesman’s research topic was “domestic crafts in Brabant in the Middle Ages,” a subject as esoteric as that of Jim Dixon, Kingsley Amis’s representative historian in Lucky Jim in the mid-20th century, with his article “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450–1485.” Dixon is shown as conscious of his own work’s “niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawning enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems,” and of how it may have contributed to a perception of the historical discipline as, in his friend’s words, nothing better than “a racket.”6

In other cases, where they do assume more positive characteristics, historians are shown as themselves rebelling against the orthodoxies of their own profession, one early example being Michel in André Gide’s The Immoralist (1902). Michel describes how, before experiencing an epiphany that led him to renounce history as conventionally practiced, he used to take pleasure in the “very fixity [of the past], which enabled my mind to work with precision; the facts of history all appeared to me like specimens in a museum, or rather like plants in a herbarium, permanently dried.” That “immobility,” that “terrifying fixity,” is what makes the historian’s work easier, or even possible; it is just there, as a proper object of his study. But for Michel’s reformed self, it...


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pp. 12-13
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