Temporal Systems in Representations of the Past: Distance, Freedom and Irony in Historical Fiction



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Book Chapter

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Reading Historical Fiction: The Revenant and Remembered Past, edited by Kate Mitchell and Nicola Parsons.

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A common response to the historical novel’s blurring of the boundary between history and fiction is to search for something that distinguishes the two. A concept sometimes invoked is the idea of ‘distance’ — a spatial metaphor that names the conceptual separation between past and present assumed to be a precondition of historical understanding. Disciplinary history, the argument goes, depends on respecting the distance between the current-day researcher and his or her objects of inquiry. Fiction, by contrast, breaks that distance down, creating a seductive but disabling illusion of immersion in a past world. As a way of defining the difference between modes of representation, temporal distance affirms the superiority of professional history and dismisses the historical novel as entertaining, but epistemologically misguided. Yet the idea that history and fiction can be distinguished like this occludes the ways that temporality is constructed textually. As Mikhail Bakhtin argues, time is not an abstract medium within which stories happen, but is produced in the course of narrative, and can take forms substantially more complex — and with more significant aesthetic and ideological implications — than the binary between distance and proximity allows (1981, 84–5). This essay examines the construction of temporal distance in historical novels.


temporal system, temporal distance, hinge point, documentary source, public history