I am working on an honors history thesis, to be completed by this December. My thesis compares depictions of Oliver Cromwell in nineteenth-century historical fiction to discussions of Cromwell in nonfictional sources from this time period. I hope to determine if and how individuals used the medium of fiction to advance their views of a highly controversial individual in ways not possible in nonfictional writing. However, my primary goal is to examine how individuals used Cromwell to support political beliefs and express ideas regarding British values and national identity. For example, after examining 80 works of historical fiction, I am struck by the authors’ overwhelming condemnation of religious fanaticism and their belief that Cromwell should be praised for elevating England on the world stage, themes that I have discovered in works both praising and condemning Cromwell.
During my time in the archives of the British Library, I accessed sources that allowed me to better understand how nineteenth-century individuals thought of historical fiction, rather than solely analyzing these works using the terms found in modern scholarly texts. Furthermore, I discovered materials I simply would not have known existed had I not spent time at the Library. I chose to work at the British Library because I knew it housed the archives of the Macmillan publishing house, a major company that published several of the works of fiction I studied. I discovered volumes of notes by the editors of Macmillan, analyzing and approving or rejecting manuscripts submitted to the company. Although these notes did not contain many references to historical novels focusing on Cromwell, a valuable finding in and of itself, they did demonstrate the emphasis editors placed on a novel’s seeming authenticity or “local coloring,” their belief that that the plot of such novels should interact with the major figures and events of the time period and that certain perspectives, such as anti-Catholicism, would be popular with readers, while others, such as depicting Charles I as a martyr, would not be well-received. These notes, which unfortunately did not predate the 1870s, overwhelmingly discussed historical fiction as an ignoble and somewhat unpopular genre, supporting the academic conclusion that the popularity and prestige of the genre were in decline by the late nineteenth-century.
In my search for nonfictional materials relating to Cromwell, I discovered sources I could not have anticipated finding, such as a series of cheap pamphlets on the lives of major figures in British history that perfectly suited my desire to examine popular, rather than elite and academic, views of history. Finally, I have learned the norms and the rewards and challenges of working in a large archive – from the importance of creating a plan of attack to the need to balance specificity with a willingness to alter one’s search parameters –an experience that will serve me throughout my academic career.