Over the course of the twentieth century, historical fiction in Britain pushed beyond the boundaries of the nation state to engage with transnational flows of capital and anti-colonial revolutionary movements dispersed across several continents. This change in narrative scale represented a significant departure from the classical historical novel, which—though incorporating elements of epic, romance, fable, national tale, legend—was a predominantly realist genre typically located within the parameters of a single national state. In the hands of Walter Scott, Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, James Fenimore Cooper and others, this patchwork of generic material was shaped into narratives that charted transitions from feudalism to capitalism, or from clan culture to the bourgeois nation state. Georg Lukács’s The Historical Novel (1937), which remains the most influential study of the genre, argued that the form reached its high point in the half century after the French Revolution, when industrialization and emerging modes of national sentiment merged to produce a new consciousness that modern social forms were the product of popular historical struggles. During this period, its major exponents produced works that combined high literary quality with broad popular appeal. But, Lukács contended, in the latter half of the nineteenth century the historical novel receded from this peak into a populist, mass-market, reified costume genre.

Arguably, however, the genre did not merely harden into formulaic plots of modest literary quality. As the twentieth century dawned, in Britain a new strand of historical novel began to develop alongside these period novels which took the geographies of empire and the world-system of capital as its typical point of reference. While the older canon had sought to represent great conflicts within single nation states—struggles between Scottish Highland clans and bourgeois civil society in England, American settlers and Indian tribes, French peasants and revolutionary armies, Russian troops and Chechen warriors—out of which emerged the modern United Kingdom, United States, France and Tsarist Russia, in this new world-historical variant inter-imperial struggles moved into the foreground. The international theatre of great power politics became a direct object of narrative reflection, with regional struggles conceived in the light of wider continental dynamics. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said proposed that in the heyday of empire the British novel tended to occlude imperial geographies and was instead principally concerned with domestic society. But by the end of Victoria’s reign the development of new technologies and communications media, the spread of democratic and socialist ideologies, and the growth of militant campaigns for independence in the colonies were all placing new strains on imperial governance, while Germany, Japan and the United States were a growing threat to global hegemony. Britain could no longer assume that it was the fixed centre of the world-system. As a result, the world beyond its shores began to make itself felt more powerfully in its literature, generating new means of writing about empire and global capitalism.

As with its classical predecessor, the ‘world-historical’ novel developed out of the ‘novelization’ of other genres. While nineteenth-century realism had largely confined itself to the metropolis and its hinterland, imperial romance and adventure novels had looked further afield—rehearsing tales of heroic masculinity in which the protagonist struggled with foreign landscapes and native adversaries, securing outrageous fortunes on the periphery of the world-system. These settings were imagined as largely ahistorical spaces of the kind Hegel termed the ‘land of childhood’, beyond the temporalities of the modern West: ‘Life consists there of contingent happenings and surprises. No aim or state exists whose development could be followed; and there is no subjectivity, but merely a series of subjects who destroy one another’.footnote1 By the 1890s however, such ahistoricity was challenged by what became known as the Ruritanian romance, named after the fictive country in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and Rupert of Hentzau (1898). Typically set in Central or Eastern Europe, the Ruritanian romance was also projected into the post-Bolivarian republics of South and Central America, in works like O. Henry’s Cabbages and Kings (1904), which—in recounting the political and economic fortunes of the troubled backwater of Anchuria—coined the term ‘banana republic’. In this new mode, the timeless spaces of romance began to fill up with particularities of modern politics and commerce. Railways and rubber merchants, battleships and cash crops, military dictators and aristocratic coteries increasingly displaced the remote islands and buccaneering quests for treasure. The newly globalized technologies of modernity began to make their way into popular works of adventure—witness Jules Verne’s deployment of a globalized telegraph system, railway network and the Suez Canal in Around the World in Eighty Days (1889)—while political upheavals rife with intrigue, treason and betrayal became mainstays of the form.

Nowhere did this reconfiguration yield more striking results than in the work of Polish émigré Joseph Conrad. His sprawling mid-career work Nostromo (1904) depicts the geopolitical machinations of global capitalism in a form still pervaded by the popular imperial genres. Set in Sulaco, the coastal province of the ‘imaginary (but true)’ South American republic of Costaguana, its analeptic narrative loops back and forth from the time of Bolívar to the early twentieth century, when the United States started to replace Britain as hegemon of the region. The novel largely focuses on a global capitalist class of financiers, industrialists and workers, alongside a national military elite, with the local and indigenous population largely unrepresented. Its central events take place in May 1890, when its ‘president-dictator’, Don Vincente Ribiera, is challenged by a popular military leader, General Montero, who attempts an overland invasion of Sulaco to secure the fortunes of its silver mine. To prevent this, Charles Gould—the British owner of the mine and a backer of Ribiera’s regime—enlists his Italian foreman Nostromo, along with a partisan of Sulacan secession, Martin Decoud, to ship the silver out under cover of darkness. Catastrophe strikes when their lighter collides with the invading ships of another renegade military officer, Colonel Sotillo, leading the duo to stash the silver on a nearby island. While Decoud waits alone on the Great Isabel, Nostromo returns to the chaos of the rebel-controlled mainland to discover that the silver has been given up as lost. Rather than correct this falsehood, Nostromo resolves to stealthily become rich, betraying those he had once served.

Industry and commerce, history and revolution—alongside treasure and adventure. Conrad was ultimately struggling to find a form to accommodate what Trotsky, one year later, would term uneven and combined development. Costaguana is represented on the one hand as a modern society, the narrative recounting the building of railway lines and other infrastructure financed by flows of global capital into Sulaco’s mining economy. But this coexists with much older social relations, inherited from a precolonial and colonial past, generating an ‘amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms’ of economic and social life.footnote2 For Conrad, these were not simply political or historical phenomena. They posed an artistic challenge. By what means could the novel represent this non-synchronous social space?

Nostromo famously opens with a panorama of the mountainous coastline of Costaguana and the tranquil bay of Sulaco, as viewed by a traveller approaching the country from the ocean. The description emphasizes the features that have determined the region’s changing status. For centuries Sulaco had remained a backwater because of its sluggish bay and torpid tides, but as steam power takes over from sail, it will no longer be so disadvantaged—it can now find its place in inter-continental trading networks. Immediately, however, this is enlivened by a rather different form of description:

The poor, associating by an obscure instinct of consolation the ideas of evil and wealth, will tell you that it is deadly because of its forbidden treasures. The common folk of the neighbourhood, peons of the estancias, vaqueros of the seaboard plains, tame Indians coming miles to market with a bundle of sugar-cane or a basket of maize worth about threepence, are well aware that heaps of shining gold lie in the gloom of the deep precipices cleaving the stony levels of Azuera. Tradition has it that many adventurers of olden time had perished in the search.footnote3