Literature as a Historical Source

3rd March 2014: Literature as a Historical Source


The Last Chapter (Robert Martineau, 1863)
View the pod-cast by Linda Friday and John Sutherland, then think about the following two quotations from Prof. Ranald Mitchie’s lecture, The City of London in Literature: Place, People and Pursuits, and discuss the following questions.

‘Novels provide a glimpse of the opinions of contemporaries which cannot be captured from facts and figures. Novels are also powerful opinion formers capable of generating perceptions that last over successive generations. Consider how the work of Dickens still shapes opinion regarding Victorian Britain, compared to copies of yesterday’s newspapers or the even more ephemeral outpourings found on social media. However, as a source for historians novels must be treated with a great deal of care.’ QU. Are novels useful in helping us ‘to understand the world about us better’ and our understanding of our past?

‘Novelists writing about the City based their work on personal experience, evidence provided by friends and relatives, and the information and views expressed in contemporary newspapers and other media. They then added in their own prejudices, biases and opinions. Novelists also had to meet the practical requirements of producing a work of fiction and responding to the demands of the book buying public. A novel is not a factual report but a literary creation produced in the expectation of sale, and so must be treated as such. The novel is a product of the imagination conditioned by the world in which the writer lived.’ QU. Think of a novel that has shaped your understanding of the past, is it a useful source, and why?

Consider the following quotes regarding the Victorian novel and discuss the following question;
‘the Victorian Novel participated energetically in the construction of individual and national identity’. 1
‘Victorian Novels […] present themselves as realistic, that is, as representing a social world that shares the features of the one we inhabit.’2 QU. Select one of the following Victorian novels or one you are familiar with, discuss how it might shape your understanding of the era; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847), Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1854-55) Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860-61), Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Works cited;
Mitchie, Ranald, The City of London in Literature: Place People and Pursuits a lecture 16th May 2013,

  1. David, Deidre, (ed.), ‘Introduction’ (2001), in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel.  Cambridge: CUP.  p.2
  2. Robson, Catherine, and Christ, Carol T. (eds.) ‘The Victorian Age 1830-1901’ (2012), in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. E: The Victorian Age, 9th edn. New York & London: Norton. p.1036