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    Review of:
    Suzanne Keen. Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001.

  1. "Understanding, which separates men from brutes," writes Suzanne Keen of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, "amounts to an enumeration of debts" (69). This statement asserts that in Spenser's narrative world, comprehension of a state of social reality is possible through something called "understanding"; that such understanding results from uniquely human processes of ratiocination; and that this understanding can be produced only through a comprehensive training of the intellect that includes the study of history, defined as knowledge of the wisdom and ethical questing of previous human generations who have shaped the present. Examining the importance of historical knowledge to Spenser's work is hardly shocking in the context of Early Modern studies, but encountering a critic who takes Spenser's position as a starting point for a study of the post-imperial moment in British fiction gives one whiplash. Keen's Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction does just this: it asserts that Spenser's romance begins a tradition that, despite postmodernist countercurrents, remains vigorous and has even gained cultural force in the novels of the last few decades.

  2. This is a (sub)genre study: the genre is the novel, the subgenre is detective fiction (with traces of the historical novel), and the sub-subgenre is the "romance of the archive." Keen defines seven characteristics of the romance of the archive: it contains character-researchers, endowed with the corporeality and round psychology of the realistic novel; romance adventure stories, in which research features as a kernel plot action, resulting in strong closure, with climactic discoveries and rewards; discomforts and inconveniences suffered in the service of knowledge; sex and physical pleasure gained as a result of questing; settings and locations containing collections of papers; material traces of the past revealing the truth; and evocation of history, looking back from a post-imperial context (63).

  3. The book's thesis is that there has been a resurgence of interest in sleuthing in contemporary British fiction, but that this sleuthing has taken a special form: academic and non-professional researchers ("questers") are main characters of novels, and the goal of these characters is to investigate the past through archival research. Their objective is to arrive at some truth about the past, and more often than not, after doing investigative research in libraries or private collections, they do indeed find this previously hidden truth. These "romances of the archive" thus are a traditionalist narrative rejoinder to the proliferation of mid- and late twentieth-century postmodernist experimental fiction. Keen complicates this thesis by arguing that these books form a conservative sub-genre that reflects the need to assert British heritage in the face of England's traumatic loss of imperial and colonialist status in the late twentieth century. The romance of these novels--their construction of the researcher as "questor" and their frequent assertion through plot construction that it is possible to "seek and find solid facts, incontrovertible evidence, and well-preserved memories of times past"--is what links them to the Spenserian tradition of romance, as well as to detective fiction, gothic fiction, and conspiracy thrillers (à la John Le Carré).

  4. Keen approves of these novels; it is clear throughout the study that she is not sympathetic with postmodernism's insistent interrogation of cultural metanarratives. She is also distrustful of much recent "theory": this is not a book participating in the (increasingly self-referential) theoretical conversation about postcolonialism and globalization. In this book, Keen does not feel compelled to make sweeping claims about British culture or global capitalism. She focuses her analysis on specific novels, and while working out the whys and wherefores of this fiction, she keeps theoretical musings to a minimum. The book is tightly focused on literature itself, making claims about literary history and using historical context to reveal rationales for literary construction.

  5. However, Keen avoids being hermetically sealed within a formalist method, for she historicizes this British fiction in the context of post-Suez and post-Falklands political anxiety, debates about the teaching of history in British schools, and the real-world attitudes of contemporary British writers toward their homeland, toward history, and toward narrative. In her analysis of Peter Ackroyd's work, she quotes from his papers, housed at the Beinecke Library at Yale University; when making claims about British history as an area study today, she quotes from documents relating contemporary controversies in England concerning the National Curriculum for History. Her twenty-one page bibliography attests to her fastidious research. Clearly, Keen has the kind of archival sensibility that she identifies in her subject. Romances of the Archive is itself a "romance of the archive" in many ways, a tour de force of literary criticism that assumes that answers can be found through the practice of rational critical investigation.

  6. Keen recognizes that "even the fluffiest romances of the archive" are freighted with "political visions of contemporary Britain and its relation to its past" (60). While novels such as Barry Unsworth's Sugar and Rum and Sacred Hunger complicate and criticize the British past, novels such as Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton reveal "a fundamental romanticism" about history that values connections between the present and the past. At the other side of the continuum, a novel such as A.S. Byatt's Possession defends British heritage against a postmodern attack on history. Thus these romances of the archive run the gamut from postmodernist critique to neo-conservative assertion of nationalist history. These

    romances of the fictional characters endeavouring to come to terms with a British past unexpurgated of its rough patches. Gravitating to the gaps in school history, revisiting glorious episodes with a critical eye, and attempting to recuperate heritage sensations from periods rendered inert or shameful by academicians, romancers of the archive enact and criticize their culture's fascination with the uses of the past. (109)

  7. Yet in the final analysis, Keen asserts, many of these contemporary British novels are epistemologically traditionalist, overtly supporting modern humanist values and repudiating the supposed "crisis in history": "they unabashedly interpret the past through its material traces; they build on a foundation of 'documentarism,' answering the postmodern critique of history with invented records full of hard facts" (3). In addition, these novels often are politically conservative, reviving a Whig interpretation of history and rebuilding a nationalist pride in Britishness. While she has sympathy with their support of modern rationalism, Keen is much more skeptical and critical of these novels' defensiveness about the British national past. With touches of acerbic wit, she often points out their ideological contradictions. For example, when discussing Byatt's Possession, which pits theory-sodden and status-seeking American academics against English amateur researchers in a race to find valuable historical documents, she notes that Byatt writes as if British heritage were at stake: the amateur British sleuths represent pure, disinterested research that will serve as the basis of true British history and autonomy, both threatened by American materialism and cultural imperialism. Byatt therefore "plays the heritage card in defence of literary history. When she invokes the competing literature of American and postcolonial writers, Byatt places Britain and British writing in the sympathetic role of underdog. The fact that British libraries and museums still contain treasure troves gathered from around the world lies concealed, for Byatt does not invite closer scrutiny of the imperial history of collecting and acquisition" (60).

  8. Keen is right to note that the Right's attitudes toward the "postmodernists" closely resemble those found in romances of the archive: that is, they construct a new arena for the ancients vs. the moderns debate, pitting postmodernism against the keepers of the culture (what Keen would call the heritage preservationists). While in the 1980s this conservative contingent railed against secular humanists in the academy, in the 1990s and later they tended to decry the ascendancy of the "postmoderns," who strip secular humanism of its utopian social action agendas and even of its basic assumptions about human agency, reality, truth, and meaning.

  9. What Keen doesn't consider as deeply is that these novels critique and re-present not just a politically conservative need to assert British heritage over academic history, but also the turn toward history and archival research in academic theory since the 1970s. Great Britain played a large role in the genesis of this trend. Fueled by the events of 1968, the turn to history was indebted to an influx of ideas from outlets such as the New Left Review; the growth of cultural studies at the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (founded in 1964) under the influence of, first, social science inquiry and then, later, the Marxist work of Louis Althusser and the cultural studies work of Stuart Hall; and the cultural materialist work of Raymond Williams. Combined with the development of New Historicism and neo-Marxist (or poststructuralist Marxist) theories in the U.S. and the general "crisis in history" perceived in all disciplines but especially in history, the post-1960s academy on both sides of the Atlantic has fueled ferocious debates about history and repeatedly advocated that we return to it as the wellspring of understanding. In its poststructuralist forms, this theoretical return to history has implied that we can get some "truth" about history from our archival research, even if that truth is the truth about historical contingency. For Marxist theorists, this is not an implication but an imperative: Fredric Jameson's injunction to "Always historicize!" asserts that there is a point to historical research, that digging in the archives leads to some real revelation about the past that is provisional only in the sense that it may be incomplete.

  10. Keen is justifiably skeptical about the ultimate significance of what transpires in the arcane world of academic theory. But this turn to history in influential British academic centers such as the Birmingham Center clearly needs to be credited with a certain real impact, not only in Britain but in universities throughout the world. And it needs, as well, to be differentiated from the "postmodernist perspectives on history" that Keen constructs as the antithesis of archival romance.

  11. As the notion of an acting self was increasingly attacked by the notion of the constructed subject in post-1960s linguistic and Foucauldian theories, Marxist and other social justice theories scrambled to find a way to repudiate or modify the idea of social determinism of the psyche without relinquishing the idea of the economic and/or cultural determinism of lived experience. As the century drew to a close, even the more linguistic or seemingly formalistic strains of poststructuralism had turned back to the problem of self and ethics, worrying the paradox of (historically situated) ethical action in the face of subject construction. The Left was turning to history with a vengeance and puzzling out its own theoretical self-contradictions as a result. The confusing result was often that both the Left and the Right attacked postmodernism as the bogeyman of history and social justice (the Left calling it fascist and the Right calling it nihilist). Postmodernist theory became the Other to both sides of the political spectrum in the "theory wars." The relationships among the turn to a traditional belief in history in romances of the archive, the coterminous return to a belief in historical research in academic Leftist theory, and the demand for a return to history by the conservative Right on both sides of the Atlantic could be elucidated a good deal more clearly in this study.

  12. Keen's book, however, not only gives useful readings of specific works of fiction but also posits a social significance for the rise of this particular subgenre at this particular moment in British history. Keen discusses fiction by Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Penelope Lively, Barry Unsworth, Peter Ackroyd, Kingsley Amis, Lindsay Clarke, Lawrence Norfolk, Nigel Williams, P.D. James, Robert Harris, Peter Dickinson, Margaret Drabble, Alan Hollinghurst, Adam Mars-Jones, Robert Goddard, Stevie Davies, Derek Walcott, Keri Hulme, Amitav Ghosh, and Bharati Mukherjee. A dual focus on technique and thematic subject leads her to interesting linkages. For example, she links detective fiction to romance through their shared "questing for truth," a claim that runs counter to many studies of detective fiction that regard it as the genre most aligned with realism and modernity, particularly in its assumptions that deductive logic and humanist values can solve the puzzles of the universe. The romance of the archive incorporates detective fiction's rationalist questing but adds to it romance's "theological, political, and personal frames of reference for making moral and ethical judgments about human behaviour" (157). For example, in her chapter "Envisioning the Past," Keen discusses novels that scrutinize the archival past to re-evaluate expectations of gender roles and sexual orientation and concludes that these novels tend toward the uncanny and a libidinal narrative experimentation. In the last chapter, "Postcolonial Rejoinders," she unflinchingly discusses how English writers often display a "nostalgia, defensiveness, and anxiety" about British colonial history that includes "regret about Britain's decline in global status and annoyance at the complaints of postcolonial subjects" (215). These writers, she believes, attempt to manage the anxieties of the post-Falklands decades by offering a "reassertion of British glory" (230).

  13. Keeping her focus tightly trained on realist literature and British literary history, Keen observes the psychology of contemporary British writers often ignored by critics trained on avant-garde or postcolonial fiction. Keen offers a study of the British realist novel in a post-imperial age, a discussion of the mainstream center rather than the postcolonial border. Her book is written clearly (this is a critical study that undergraduate students could actually read and understand) and could be used as the basis for a special topics course on contemporary British fiction, particularly in this subgenre. Romances of the Archive is a nuanced account of contemporary British fiction that analyzes the way that romances of the archive are indeed romances, incorporating presentism, antiquarianism, and humanist (even theological) values. What Keen's own archival and critical quest has revealed--essentially, a new mode of literary nationalism--certainly deserves our further attention.

    Department of English
    University of Tennessee

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