Horace Walpole's Historic Doubts and the uses of anachronism

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


University of St Andrews English Research Seminar
‘I did not take Shakespeare's tragedy for a genuine representation', Walpole wrote in the preface to Historic Doubts on Richard the Third (1768), ‘but I did take the story of that reign for a tragedy of imagination'. Though Shakespeare had caricatured the last Plantagenet as a bunch-backed child-killer — ‘Deform'd, unfinished' — here was ‘authority' Walpole did not ‘pretend to combat'. Shakespeare's literary precursor, Sir Thomas More, however, was a different matter — his History (c.1513) not as David Hume claimed ‘the highest authority' but the very lowest. Debunking foundational works of English history while declaring allegiance to a distinctly literary approach to the past, Walpole appears in much recent criticism as a sort of metahistorian — two hundred years ahead of time. But his subsequent debate with Hume and leading antiquaries has also been understood as a straightforward defeat. Walpole's whole approach was anachronistic: not primarily a documentary reconstitution of Richard's actions but the Tudor saga seen with an eighteenth-century eye. And when he does discover new things in the sources — robes for the deposed Edward V in the account book for Richard's coronation — he leaps to a theory about Richard planning his nephew's restoration, the very model of constitutionally self-limiting king. Offering a different account of this history, I explore Walpole's efforts to turn the tables on his critics — who had ‘jumped at a trifling anachronism or two' while they ‘shunned the thread of the argument', taking refuge in tradition rather than try to put the key documents in context or make them speak. The debate about Richard III and the princes in the tower thus begins to involve larger questions about continuity and change — a trained sense for what may or may not belong in another historical culture — and the role of imagination in deciding what can count as documentary evidence.
Period18 Mar 2024
Event titleUniversity of St Andrews English Research Seminar
Event typeSeminar
LocationSt Andrews, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational