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Published June 2012 | Published
Journal Article Open

The Difficulty of Historical Work in the Nineteenth-Century Museum and the Thackeray Novel


This essay suggests that conservation debates occasioned by the democratization of the nineteenth-century museum had an important impact on William Makepeace Thackeray's reimagination of the historical novel. Both the museum and the historical novel had traditionally made it their mission to present the past to an ever-widening public, and thus necessarily to preserve it. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, the museum and the novel also shared the experience of seeming to endanger precisely what they sought to protect, and as they tried to choose how aggressive to be in their conservingmeasures, they had to deliberate about the costs and benefits of going after the full reconstruction (the novel) or restoration (the museum) of what once had been. The first part of this essay shows how people fretted about the relation of conservation, destruction, and national identity at the museum, in The Times and in special Parliamentary sessions alike; the second part of the essay traces how Thackeray drew on the resulting debates in novels including The Newcomes (1853-55) and The History of Henry Esmond (1852), as he looked for a way to revivify the historical novel after it had gone out of fashion. He invoked broken statues and badly restored pictures as he navigated his own worries that he might be doing history all wrong, and damaging its shape in the process.

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© 2012 The Regents of the University of California.

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