When you occupy a tiny niche in the scholarly world, at times it seems as though you're either a) talking to yourself or b) trying to establish a new vocabulary. Let's just say that 19th-century didactic historical fiction stands as the very model of a modern minor academic niche. (Which, incidentally, explains why the article I'm currently [not] working on has nothing to do with that subject.) These novels have interesting things to tell us about how the genre emerged and developed, about how many Victorians imagined their relationship to the past, even about how certain literary techniques functioned in popular--as opposed to "high culture"--contexts. Still, as a general rule, at conferences I'm usually one of the scant few who has read any of the books under discussion, let alone heard of the authors.
From a literary-historical point of view, one of the interesting things about these novels is that the reason for their existence often has little in common with our current theories of the historical novel's "purpose." For that matter, the kind of literary criticism that appeared in the major Victorian periodicals rarely speaks to these books, either. A number of novelists, for example, clearly saw themselves as popular national and/or ecclesiastical historians. Deborah Alcock primarily specialized in novels about the Continental Reformation and Calvinism; Elizabeth Rundle Charles took on various offshoots of Western Christianity, mostly channeled through the history of a single family; the Rev. A. D. Crake mainly wrote medieval "chronicles"; Emily Sarah Holt did the entire history of Britain from a hardline Protestant perspective; Emma Leslie postholed major periods in ecclesiastical history, especially the Reformation; and Emma Marshall focused on key moments in Anglican history.
Now, there are a number of twentieth-century historical novelists who saw (or see) themselves doing similar work--e.g., Peter Ackroyd, Mary Renault, Kenneth Roberts, Gore Vidal. Critics who discuss their work, however, generally examine it in terms of milieu and, for lack of a better term, "liveliness." Did the author avoid anachronism? Successfully reconstruct past worldviews? Creatively synthesize fictional and factual elements? Imagine private life and thinking in a way unavailable to the historian? By contrast, the didactic historical novel emphasized the moral and theological value of the plot. History, to put none to fine a point on it, was a sometimes dangerous mess*; novels, though, obeyed different laws of narrative construction (probability, closure, linear development, etc.**), and those laws nicely approximated the workings of divine providence. (I discussed popular providential history last March.) In other words, literary narrative was potentially more "truthful" than historical narrative because it could clarify how God's plan worked--not necessarily because literature could put a livelier spin on real events. Readers could see God's plot in a novel, but not in a historical text, given that the latter would be full of all sorts of confusing, not to mention possibly immoral, sidelights and distractions. For a modern reader, there's a downside to this approach--namely, that the novelist sometimes appears to be writing the same book forty times. (Emily Sarah Holt, I'm looking at you.) For the didactic historical novelist, however, any innovation lost was clarity gained. Notice, for example, how Deborah Alcock announces the plot of one of her novels:
But before the little city [Geneva] could accept and fulfil her mission, she had to be trained and educated, and purged from the elements irreconcilable with it. These were twofold. The worst foes of true order and of true liberty (which in their essence are but one), are a false order, which is slavery, and a false freedom, which is license. In throwing off the yoke of Rome, Geneva had emancipated herself from the first; she had still before her a long and bitter struggle with the second, represented by that party known in history as the Libertines.***
When Geneva enters the historical stage, it does so with a specific goal ("mission"), and everything that happens thereafter advances the city towards that goal ("trained," "educated," "purged"). For Alcock, history has a purpose, and her novel illuminates just how purposeful it is. Moreover, historical events are less important than the moral concepts that they represent--a position that some novelists and popular historians used to excuse all sorts of historiographical felonies.
*--Especially when children were involved. One writer on pedagogical subjects, W. Newnham, warned that there were some works of history and natural philosophy "so interlarded with error, so intermixed with irreligion, that the young mind, ere it can be aware of danger, may have drank deeply of a poison, which will pervade the principles, and influence the conduct, and alienate the affections, from the simplicity of piety…” The Principles of Physical, Intellectual, Moral, and Religious Education, 2 vols. (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1827), 2:576.
**--I'm ventriloquizing here.
***--Deborah Alcock, Under Calvin's Spell (London: Religious Tract Society, n.d.), 27-28.