- Alternate Histories and Nineteenth-Century Literature: Untimely Meditations in Britain, France, and America by Ben Carver
In Alternate Histories and Nineteenth-Century Literature: Untimely Meditations in Britain, France, and America, Ben Carver describes his book as a study of the “nineteenth-century imagination of worlds that history might have produced” (1). Specifically, he analyzes the writing of “alternate histories” and identifies the wider contexts that produced them. Carver defines “alternate histories” as literary works wherein an author identifies a single point of historical divergence (example: Napoleon’s decision to begin his retreat from Moscow in September rather than October of 1812) and from this point imagines all subsequent history evolving in a new direction as a result of this change. (By leaving Russia earlier, the Grande Armée avoids decimation by the Russian winter, and Napoleon remains undefeated and rules over a massive French empire until his death from old age.) Carver contends that a wide variety of nineteenth-century authors—including British journalists, French philosophers, and American housewives—engaged in imaginative rewritings of history not only in order to imagine alternate “forms of society” or “the history of nations that might have followed,” but also as a means of “working with and often testing ideas about cycles of cause and effect that had produced the world they lived in” (5). Nineteenth-century alternate histories thus represented an important medium that allowed reflection on how new forms of knowledge, such as archaeology, astronomy, or the natural sciences, “altered the understanding of the past” (1).
Carver’s book is one of several recent works interested in analyzing the production, content, and meaning of fictional histories, with Catherine Gallagher’s Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction (2018) being the most notable among them. Indeed, it is difficult to assess Carver’s study without comparing it with Gallagher’s, and Carver himself notes some important affinities between their [End Page 688] two studies. This includes their shared preference for the phrase “alternate history” as opposed to “alternative history,” the first strictly referencing “a narrative set of circumstances that history might have produced” while the second also potentially encompassing nonfictional accounts which “offer marginal perspectives normally excluded from histories of a subject” (11).
Carver’s definition of what constitutes an “alternate history,” however, is more fluid and inclusive. While Gallagher draws clear distinctions between “alternate histories,” “alternate history novels,” and “counterfactual histories” on the basis of both their formal elements and contents (Gallagher, Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction [The University of Chicago Press, 2018], 5), Carver argues that the “boundaries between alternate and counterfactual histories are hard to establish.” Such distinctions, he contends, are “anachronistic” to the study of nineteenth-century “historical imaginaries” because none of these styles had “solidified into a form that [contemporary] writers and readers were conscious of” (12).
Despite these differences of definition, Carver and Gallagher analyze many of the same works, including Louis Geoffrey-Château’s Napoléon et la conquête du monde [Napoleon and the Conquest of the World] (1836), Charles Renouvier’s Uchronie [Uchronia] (1857), Auguste Blanqui’s L’éternité par les astres [Eternity According to the Stars] (1872), Edward Everett Hale’s Hands Off (1895), and Edmund Lawrence’s It May Happen Yet: A Tale of Bonaparte’s Invasion of England (1899). These varied works are united not only by their presentation of fictional histories but also by their relative obscurity and the rarity with which they have been utilized by other scholars; the same might be noted about most of the other texts Carver examines, including Richard Whately’s Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte (1819), Benjamin Disraeli’s early novel The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), an essay on astronomy and the plurality of worlds by Thomas De Quincey (“System of the Heavens As Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes” ), and Mary E. Bradley Lane’s feminist utopia Mizora: A Prophecy...