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  • Historiography and the Material Imagination in the Novels of Sarah Waters
  • Katharina Boehm

The works of British author Sarah Waters have significantly shaped the "extremely active sphere of argument about history and the rediscovery of its elided potentialities" (Middleton and Woods 1) in contemporary literature. Garnering both critical and commercial success, Waters has published five novels to date—three set in the nineteenth century, two set in the 1940s—all of which have won or been nominated for major British book prizes. Scholarly attention has so far concentrated on Waters's neo-Victorian works. The experimental narrative structure and rich intertextual references of these novels define for many critics (e.g., Kohlke 155; Llewellyn 196-97; Kaplan 111-15) some of the characteristic traits of postmodern historiographic metafiction. 1 Building on poststructuralist theorizations of history's textual and discursive nature, Linda Hutcheon has defined historiographic metafiction as a genre that draws attention to the narrativity of the past by exposing "both history and fiction [as] discourses, human constructs, signifying systems" (93). Although critics have begun to investigate the limitations of Hutcheon's influential concept, historiographic metafiction continues to supply a powerful rubric for the interpretation of the contemporary historical novel. As a consequence, research in this field is still dominated by debates that hinge on history's textuality and on the multiform intertextual devices that the historical novel concocts in order to explore this epistemological quandary (see Arias and Pulham, Heilmann and Llewellyn, Mitchell, and Wallace Wolfreys).

In this essay, I suggest that approaches that regard the past as a purely textual event run the risk of ignoring the historical novel's rich potential to explore questions concerning the materiality of history. I read three novels [End Page 237] by Waters—Affinity (1999), The Night Watch (2006), and The Little Stranger (2009)—in order to trace an important shift in her literary engagement with the past, arguing that her two latest novels move away from a mode of historiographic metafiction that is centered on history's textuality and towards an approach that concentrates on the affective and disruptive ways in which tactile encounters with architectural places and material objects shape our investments in the past. 2 The essay demonstrates that debates about history and historiography in the contemporary novel can be enriched by being opened both to recent theoretical developments in the fields of object studies and material culture, and to Michel de Certeau's theorization of the nexus between historiography, haunting, and materiality. In a second step, the essay addresses narratorial questions about the possibilities and limits of realism in historical writing that are raised by Waters's representations of the object world.

The Prison-House of Historiographic Metafiction

The contemporary historical novel has inherited from poststructuralist debates a keen concern with the relationship between historical and literary discourses. In the late 1960s, Hayden White, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and others started to give attention to a question that Barthes outlined as follows:

is there in fact...any linguistic feature by which we may distinguish on the one hand the mode appropriate to the relation of historical events—a matter traditionally subject, in our culture, to the prescriptions of historical 'science', and by the principle of 'rational' exposition—and on the other hand the mode appropriate to the epic, novel or drama?


Barthes, like other poststructuralists, has answered this question in the negative. The influential assumption that these critics share is that history is a discursive construct, characterized by narrativity and fictionality. "History invoked as ultimate reality," Jonathan Culler argues, "manifests itself in narrative constructs, stories designed to yield meaning through narrative ordering" (129). According to White, historiography is centrally shaped by "emplotment"—narrative and linguistic strategies "by which a sequence of events [is] fashioned into a story" (Metahistory 7). These strategies can be analyzed by subjecting historical texts to a formal analysis that operates in ways similar to literary analysis. White distinguishes between "four principal modes of poetic discourse" in historical texts: "the tropes of Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Irony" (Metahistory 426). The New Historicist focus on "the historicity of texts and the textuality of history" (Montrose 20) continued this line of inquiry...


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