The long-standing British interest in continental literary theory might well be dated from 1962, the year in which Hannah and Stanley Mitchell published their translation of Georg Lukács’s The Historical Novel. There are many reasons why Lukács’s treatise on the works of Scott, Chateaubriand, and others was quickly overshadowed—the early Lukács of History and Class Consciousness and Theory of the Novel certainly chimed better with the political and aesthetic interests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in any case Lukács was seen as representative of whatever kind of Marxism was being rejected, a Stalinist to some, a humanist to others. A contributory factor to the relative neglect of The Historical Novel, however, must have been the almost total absence in contemporary English writing of anything that could be thought of as a historical novel in the Waverley Novels sense, even if popular historical fiction, usually in the romance mode, has continued to flourish, though little studied.

Over the thirty years since that translation of The Historical Novel appeared, two significant shifts have taken place. The English novel of the nineteenth century has been read as much more of a historical novel than previously, witness both to the growing sophistication with which the notion of historicity has been used by critics, and to critical willingness to pay more attention to any text’s imbrication with the discourses contemporary to it: a string of books reading Jane Austen in this way provides the archetypal example. Second, though little observed by metropolitan critics, at least until recently, the contemporary novel in English written outside England has had the experience of colonialism, historical and otherwise, at its centre. Arguably The Historical Novel has not had great relevance to either of these developments, though questions of fictional representation have never been entirely able to escape the typological system that Lukács outlined, and practitioners of the historical novel have usually worked within the kinds of boundaries defended by Scott and taken as axiomatic by Lukács.

Sacred Hunger, which shared the 1992 Booker Prize, puts ‘history’ back into the English novel with a vengeance.footnote At least part of the power of Barry Unsworth’s novel comes from the sense that he is not, like Scott or Chateaubriand, undertaking the task of romanticizing the losers in the historical process while explaining why their loss was necessary, but rather confronting issues that have never even been accorded the dubious justice of fictional ‘settlement’. At the beginning of his long voyage, Matthew Paris, one of Unsworth’s two central characters, lies sleepless on his bunk, ‘trying out versions of the past that might be tolerable to his imagination’ (p. 159). Even to those for whom Whigs and Hunters provides the image of England in the eighteenth century, and despite the substantial work in slavery and slave-trade studies over recent years, the connections between the wealth of this country and the facts of the slave trade have remained stubbornly intolerable to our cultural imagination: Paris, too, fumbles ‘for some grasp of the complex chain of transactions between the capture of a negro and the purchase of a new cravat by Erasmus Kemp, his cousin’ (p. 266).

In his earlier novel, Sugar and Rum, Barry Unsworth offered a comical self-portrait in the figure of Clive Benson, who is trying—without much success—to write a ‘complex and ambitious new novel set against the background of the Liverpool slave trade’.footnote1 Benson presses historical tidbits onto friends and acquaintances, most of whom couldn’t be less interested; he quotes some paragraphs of his writing which now recognizably relate to Sacred Hunger; he speaks of the research he’s doing into the period, reading Gomer Williams on the Liverpool privateers and Mannix and Cowley’s Black Cargoes; and he reflects with growing disbelief on the import of his calculations:

The only reliable figures he had were for the decade 1783–93. In that period Liverpool had delivered a total of 303,737 slaves to the West Indies, which of course didn’t include those who had died on the way, say three in ten. Getting on for half a million. Then there were the deaths inflicted in the process of capture, the deaths through tribal conflict caused by misery, imported diseases, the destruction of the economic bases of life. Beyond calculation. The familiar sensation of bafflement and wonder came to him, the suffocating sense of the enormity of it. This was just Liverpool, just ten years.

Among all those who had practised it, the seamen, the skippers, the merchants, he had not so far found a single questioning voice. Protest there had been, but not among those in receipt of the profit. . .We would do it again, he whispered in the silence of the room. I know we would do it again. This had been no mere aberration, it had gone on too long. Worst of all,impossible to resist, attacking him now with the usual horror, was the knowledge that it had never really stopped. . .(pp. 150–1)

Sugar and Rum pays its dues to the contemporary moment—Benson doesn’t finish his novel and gets involved in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots—but never convincingly integrates the historical material Benson is researching. Indeed, taken on its own, Sugar and Rum might suggest the sheer impossibility of finding a way to write that material out in fictional form. In retrospect, however, the earlier book serves to show how Unsworth solved the problem, inventing a character who, though deeply implicated in the slave trade as doctor on a slave ship, is allowed through his previous history to adopt a marginal position as eye-witness and critic and, eventually, mutineer. Exactly, as it happens, Scott’s strategy in the creation of Waverley, that accidental rebel.

Matthew Paris, however, is far removed from the vacillations of Waverley. The writers whose books he chooses to take with him on the sea voyage—Pope, Maupertius, Hume, and Voltaire—mark him as a rationalist and free-thinker even more clearly than his own unfinished translation of Harvey’s Treatise on the Movement of the Heart & Blood. His activity as an East Anglian intellectual has led him into prison and into the deep guilt he feels over the death of his wife. This explains his willingness to involve himself in the slave trade—for him it is merely a correlate to his own lack of self-esteem (‘a commerce he had every reason to believe degraded, and suitable therefore for such as himself’ [p. 32]). Nevertheless, when his eyes are opened by the brutal reality he witnesses, he has the inner resources to make common cause with the African slaves.