When Natalie Zemon Davis wrote Fiction in the Archives (1987), she was interested in fiction for the insights it gave into sixteenth-century French culture. Her focus was on the way her historical subjects told stories: ‘what they thought a good story was, how they accounted for motive, and how through narrative they made sense of the unexpected and built coherence into immediate experience’ (p. 4). She believed these things would give her a unique window into the sensibilities and habits of the time.
Davis is just one of many historians interested in stories and the telling of them, both for the view they offer of a culture and for the effects they have upon it. According to Sarah Maza, there is also a more specific subset of historians who are interested in ‘cultural narratives’. By this, she means stories which generate an extraordinary amount of interest in a given historical period, and/or prominent ways of arranging material into narratives within a particular culture. In her work Private Lives and Public Affairs (1993), Maza herself is interested in the fact that eighteenth-century French barristers drew on the narrative conventions of melodrama when presenting court cases to the public. And in City of Dreadful Delight (1992), Judith Walkowitz was concerned with narratives of sexual danger: with William Stead’s story about the day he bought a young virgin from the back-streets of London in 1885, and other stories about rapist/murderers such as Jack the Ripper in late-Victorian London.
As Davis’ opening comments in Fiction in the Archives suggests, historians’ interest in storytelling and ‘cultural narratives’ has largely been about the ways that different cultures ‘build coherence into immediate reality’. Even Walkowitz, who is keen to stress the multiplicity of ways in which narratives of sexual danger were interpreted and used, is concerned nonetheless with the molding and shaping of various aspects of late-Victorian London and public consciousness according to recognisable structures. For example, she noted the role played by melodramatic conventions in Stead’s ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Bablyon’. As in Maza’s work, her ideas here were influenced by Peter Brooks, who insisted that melodrama was a ‘certain fictional system for making sense of experience’, aimed at giving ethical order and aesthetic shape to the universe in modern society (p. xiii).
Given this interest in melodrama as an example of a fictional system for ‘making sense of experience’, it’s worth noting that there were other popular theatrical genres which rejected notions of narrative coherence in the nineteenth century. Farce, for example, was a theatrical genre based on the absence of an orderly plotline. It attempted to create humour by presenting audiences with wild non-sequiturs, seeking to amuse them through nonsense and absurdity. Burlesque was more concerned with the ridicule of cultural icons, events, attitudes or values rather than the telling of a story. True, burlesques such as Little Jack Sheppard or Ixion had some semblance of a storyline, but the flimsiness of their plots and their routine incorporation of songs with little or no relation to the action was characteristic of the genre. The stump speech in blackface minstrel or other variety line-ups also relied on incoherence. Stump speeches turned oratorical conventions on their head, making boldly meaningless statements and then following them with radically unrelated claims, full of malapropisms and silliness, in order to draw mocking laughter.
It seems to me that what’s called for here is a consideration of the lack of cultural narrative evident in many Victorian theatrical forms – their determination to make nonsense rather than sense out of immediate experience. What insights does this gives into popular sensibilities, and what effects did it have on them in turn? This is something I need to develop further as I (finally) begin writing my book on the relationship between Australian theatre and the larrikin classs in the 1870-1920 period. If anyone has any ideas or views on this notion of Victorian anti-narrative (and indeed on whether that is the right name for burlesque or farcical forms), I’d be keen to hear about it…
Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976).
Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).
Sarah Maza, ‘Stories in History: Cultural Narratives in Recent Works in European History’, American Historical Review 101.5 (December 1996), pp. 1493-1515.
, Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Celebres of Prerevolutionary France (Berkeley: California, 1993).
Judith R Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).