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  • The History of Secret Histories
  • Brian Cowan (bio)
Rebecca Bullard and Rachel Carnell, editors The Secret History in Literature, 1660–1820 cambridge: cambridge university press, 2017 xii + 282 pages; isbn: 9781107150461
Peter Burke Secret History and Historical Consciousness: From Renaissance to Romanticism brighton, u.k.: edward everett root, 2016 ix + 259 pages; isbn: 9781911204381

the history of "secret histories" is no longer much of a secret. The last two decades have seen a growing body of historical and literary scholarship devoted to detailing the growth and the significance of this particular genre. The history of secret histories appeals for many reasons. The secret history stands at the intersection of several different modes of fiction and nonfiction writing, and it became prominent at roughly the same time that other well-known genres emerged, especially the fictional novel and new forms of factual narratives that attended to the problems of proof needed to persuade readers they were "true." It appeared at the boundaries between fact and fiction, and between public and private worlds. If, for an earlier generation of scholars, this generic and epistemic uncertainty made these stories appear unsettling, not easily categorizable, and hence best dismissed as unreliable or confidently ignored as unimportant, they now fascinate scholars who are interested in exploring such liminal texts. Just as attention to the historical contexts in which literature was created and received has become largely uncontroversial in literary studies, a reciprocal awareness of the constructedness of historical narratives has allowed [End Page 121] historians to appreciate that the boundaries between fact and fiction are never clear-cut, especially before the "rise of fictionality" in the later eighteenth century.1

The recent publication of two collections of essays affords a window into the ways in which both literary and historical scholars have approached secret histories. Although such studies depend on the work of scholars from both fields, there are some striking differences between literary and historical approaches. While it might be an exaggeration to say that there are two distinct histories of the secret history, there seem to be at least two styles of writing about it. The first is literary, and this tradition is best exemplified by Rebecca Bullard and Rachel Carnell's remarkably wide-ranging and insightful collection of essays, The Secret History in Literature, 1660–1820. The second is political, and Peter Burke's Secret History and Historical Consciousness introduces some of the concerns of this style. An interest in the historical significance of the form is particularly prominent among political historians of early modern England and France.

What was a secret history? Literary and political historians tend to have slightly different understandings of the term, and this may account for their distinct approaches. In Bullard and Carnell's volume, as in literary history more generally, it is treated as a particular form of historical storytelling anchored by notions of authorship, canon, and genre. These scholars trace the emergence and development of the secret history genre by studying the reception and adaptation of certain key texts. Although they disagree about precisely which texts are "key" to the canon, scholars who treat secret histories as literature generally take this approach. Perhaps paradoxically, literary accounts tend therefore to be more "historical," in the sense of being rooted in a particular place and time, than the studies produced by political historians. Thus Rebecca Bullard elsewhere defines the genre as "a polemical form of historiography that flourished during the last decades of the seventeenth century and the first decades of the eighteenth."2

By contrast, political historians of secret histories tend to see them as part of a certain style of political thinking, something akin to what Richard Hofstadter identified in the American context as a "paranoid style."3 This stylistic approach sees such stories as the product of a view of politics that is above all suspicious. Secret histories [End Page 122] are obsessed with duplicity and dedicated to unmasking the disguises adopted by political actors—not only the deceitful actions of those in government but also the ruses adopted by those seeking to undermine an established regime. They see people as naturally inclined to deception and tending to corruption. This view of human nature...


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pp. 121-151
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