Sophia Lee’s Illegitimate History

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The Eighteenth-Century Novel



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This essay examines another crucial moment in the struggle to define the boundaries of truth and fiction, history and romance. Sophia Lee’s The Recess; Or, A Tale of Other Times (1783–85), published at nearly the same moment as The Progress of Romance, was one of the most popular and influential historical novels published in the years before Scott. Lee’s novel deserves a privileged place in the history of fiction because of its mixture of the factual and the fictional, its blending of generic conventions, and its influence on later novelists. Despite its popularity and its significance for literary history, literary critics have only recently rediscovered The Recess. Lee refashions materials taken from Hume and Robertson’s more conventionally structured narratives of Renaissance history as a personal letter. She also subtly questions the authority of historiography, suggesting that reading a novel may be a superior means to understand the past. In this essay, I examine The Recess in relation to its source materials, Robertson’s History of Scotland and Hume’s History of England, focusing on Lee’s borrowings from those authors, the ways in which she supplements their accounts, and the techniques she developed to undermine the authority of historiography and to create a space for the novelization of the past.


English literature--Historiography; Historical fiction; European; History publishing


European History | History | Literature in English, British Isles




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