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The Historical Novel and the French Romantics

Once the Romantic Movement had reached France, writes J.H.M. Salmon, many writers, inspired by the Waverley novels, began to look for exciting subjects in the scenes of French history.

Not many historians admit to a liking for historical novels, and the few that do so are usually shamefaced about it. This is not surprising, for the genre suggests a combination of opposites: fiction and truth, imagination and reality. The authors of the most acclaimed historical novels of the French Romantic period, Vigny, Merimee and Hugo, speculated about these contradictions and concluded that the novel could be a more plausible method for conveying a certain kind of historical truth than plain history.

Among the reasons for their success were the simultaneous development of historical drama, the popularity of Sir Walter Scott in France, and the fact that they received encouragement, rather than hostility, from the historians of the day. All of these things were part of the climate of public opinion that bred the Romanticism of the 1820s.

After the tumultuous events of the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, the restored Bourbon monarchy could not return to the Ancien Régime. The eighteenth century seemed as remote as Cathay, and suddenly it became possible to see in earlier ages forces of change that made affairs since 1789 more understandable. Historians came to recognize that every era should be seen in its own light, that social conflicts were ultimately more important than the politics and pleasures of the elite, and that the assumptions of the Enlightenment about human behaviour were suspect and fallible.

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