Since I’m teaching some 18c novels alongside Roy Porter’s social history this term in my undergrad course, I’m always thinking about ways to teach students the distinct uses of literary and historical evidence in thinking about our period, since both constitute indispensable sources of information about the past. In my institution, students typically come to my courses without any prior introduction to either the novels or the history that I teach, so I’m always puzzling over the sequencing of contexts and information. [people might recognize some of these issues from our discussion of MH’s course earlier this year]
Here’s a quote from F.A. Ankersmit’s Introduction to History and Tropology, where he discusses the possibility of reading Zola’s novels, as opposed to the historian Zeldin, to gain a picture of social life in France under Napoleon III:
The cycle [of novels] would require a specific kind of reading: we would have to read the cycle in such a way that the relevant knowledge could be deduced from the cycle–whereas it is the pretension of history books to present their readers with that kind of knowledge in a straightforward way. The difference is analogous to that between the clue for a word in a crossword puzzle (the novel) and the intended word itself (history). And naturally this difference must have its consequences for the narrative organization of either novel or historical text (5-6).
And, I would add, consequences for the narrative organization of a course in the novel.