Panel 2 – Responses to the Enlightenment

- Alex Broadhead, University of Liverpool (UK), “The Romantics in Alternate History from Hawthorne to Card: Beyond Enlightenment Historiography”

- Jim Clarke, Coventry University (UK), “Unwriting the Reformation: Anti-Catholic uchronias in Science Fiction”

The Romantics in Alternate History from Hawthorne to Card: Beyond Enlightenment Historiography

Since the publication of Hawthorne’s ‘P.’s Correspondence’ in 1845, the lives of the British Romantic poets have provided a consistent source of speculation for authors of alternate history. Hawthorne’s tale - the first fictional alternate history narrative in English – imagines a world in which Keats and Byron did not die prematurely but instead lived to become a haunted recluse and a political turncoat respectively. Byron was also present at two other seminal moments in the history of the genre: first in Trevelyan’s 1907 essay ‘If Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo’ and then in Nicolson’s ‘If Byron Had Become King of Greece’ (included in Squire’s 1931 collection). In recent years, the number of alternate histories featuring Romantic writers has increased considerably, with Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), Card’s Alvin Maker series (1987- present) and Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004) all recontextualising the Romantics in timelines other than our own.

In this paper, I offer an overview of writing in this tradition and seek to explain the appeal of Romanticism for alternate-history writers. For many of these authors, the adoption of the Romantics as subjects is accompanied by a rejection of Enlightenment historiography. Whether through tongue-in-cheek whimsicality, as exemplified by Hawthorne’s and Nicolson’s stories, or through the foregrounding of the fantastical, as occurs in the novels of Card and Clark, many of these works are drawn to forms of historical experience that resist the kind of rational explanation that, according to Trevor-Roper, defines the historiography of the Enlightenment.[1] In this respect, the narratives follow the lead of the Romantic poets, whose highly subjectivised and relativised treatment of history constituted a rejection of the rationalisations of Enlightenment historians such as Edward Gibbon.  Through their appropriation of the lives and voices of the Romantics, these works offer us an interpretation of the value and motivations of alternate history, which is in marked contrast to more Enlightenment-influenced theories of alternate history, with their emphasis on ‘plausibility,’[2] exemplified most conspicuously by Ferguson’s Virtual History (1997).

Alex Broadhead teaches in the English department at the University of Liverpool and specialises in Romantic writing. He is currently working on a book-length study of representations of the Romantics in fiction and film. His first monograph, The Language of Robert Burns: Style, Ideology and Identity, was published in 2014.

[1] Hugh Trevor-Roper, History and the Enlightenment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), p.2.

[2] Niall Ferguson, ‘Introduction: Virtual History: Towards a ‘chaotic’ theory of the past,’ in Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals ed. by Niall Ferguson (London: Picador, 1997), pp.1-90, passim.

Unwriting the Reformation: Anti-Catholic uchronias in Science Fiction".

The recurring nightmare of twentieth century science fiction is not the impending apocalypse nor the ravening alien, but the Catholic priest. In SF texts, Roman Catholicism retards scientific progress, devastates enlightened alien civilisations, destroys planets and enslaves the entire galaxy.

SF's origins in Enlightenment values, as illustrated in the 'science' signifier within SF, have generated a lengthy oppositional relationship with Catholicism, which is consistently depicted within the genre as retrograde, anti-technology and totalitarian.

SF's co-option of the alternative history narrative in the form of uchronie has therefore led to the development of a body of largely British SF which posits the ultimate othering of Catholicism – the unwriting of the Reformation and the Enlightenment era which followed. These texts depict dystopic alternative worlds in which science is restricted or forbidden, and liberty is confounded by the totalitarian control of Roman Catholic hegemony.

This paper will examine a sample of this body of texts, revealing how anti-Catholic uchronias developed out of a broader anti-Catholic trend in British fantastika, and illustrating how the perception of Catholicism as anti-science in alt-histories such as Keith Roberts' Pavane and Kingsley Amis' The Alteration form part of a much wider literary tradition which sustains to this day.

I will also explore how the treatment of Catholicism in these texts not only derives from earlier anti-Catholic SF uchronias such as Allen Upward's The Fourth Conquest of England, but also how they intersect with broader themes of Malthusian overpopulation and cyclical history which can also be found in more nuanced treatments of Catholicism in SF, such as Anthony Burgess's The Wanting Seed and Walter Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz.


Jim Clarke is Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University. His doctorate from Trinity College Dublin examined the aesthetics of Anthony Burgess. He has published articles on JG Ballard, Anthony Burgess and Robert Wilson, and is currently completing a monograph on SF and Catholicism for publication.