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Written in a period often characterized as one of postimperial decline and shrinking global status, contemporary British romances of the archive characteristically invoke historical periods in which the British (often English) national story is central and influential. This means neither that romances of the archive celebrate the national past uncritically nor that they adopt a single philosophy of history. Written by a wide array of novelists, including Peter Ackroyd, Kingsley Amis, Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Lindsay Clarke, Stevie Davies, Peter Dickinson, Margaret Drabble, Patricia Duncker, Robert Goddard, Robert Harris, Alan Hollinghurst, P.D.James, Penelope Lively, Adam Mars-Jones, Lawrence Norfolk, Charles Palliser, Vikram Seth, Graham Swift, Barry Unsworth, Alan Wall, Nigel Williams, and A.N. Wilson, romances of the archive employ the research quest to connect separate time periods, deeper and nearer pasts. By characterizing the researcher who investigates, and then learns the joys, costs, and consequences of discovery, romances of the archive persistently question the purposes of historical knowledge and the kind of reading that directs the imagination to conceive the past. Perhaps the central romance of these fictions lies in their contention that research into the past does anything at all; rarely do we find a romancer of the archive who ceaselessly reads and searches for documents just for the fun of it -- simply learning for the sake of adding to the store of human understanding. Instead, the fun of research quests lies in their adventure formulae and their exceptionally consequential effects. In romances of the archive, characters are transformed, wrongs righted, disasters averted, villains exposed, crimes solved. [p. 4]
Keen, Suzanne. Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2001.
Last Modified: 24 September 2002