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Literary historicism : Dutch

  • Literature (fictional prose/drama)Dutch
  • Author:
    Jensen, Lotte
  • Cultural Field:
    Texts and stories
  • Text:

    Between 1780 and 1850, a great volume of historical literature was published in the Netherlands. All succesful writers, such as Hendrik Tollens, Willem Bilderdijk, Jacob van Lennep and Nicolaas Beets, made use of historical subject matter for their literary works. This development formed part of a larger European context, not least because English, German, and French literature proved a fertile source for Dutch authors. The influence of Walter Scott, for instance, can hardly be overestimated. However, from a comparatist point of view, the development of historical genres followed its own national pattern in the Netherlands, since contemporary political circumstances had a considerable impact on the rise and fall of these genres.

    As for the production of historical poetry, it is useful to make a distinction between three different, but partly overlapping, types: romance poetry, national-heroic poetry and narrative poetry. In the 1780s Dutch poets such as Rhijnvis Feith and A.C.W. Staring started to write romances with medieval subject matter, following the example of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of ancient poetry and G.A. Bürger’s Lenore. The genre of the romance underwent a nationalistic transformation around 1800, when poets like Bilderdijk, Loosjes, Tollens and Staring began using this generic form in their patriotic verse to celebrate heroes of the national past. The rapid progress of national-historical romance was also influenced by political factors. Tollens’s romances on great national heroes and heroines, for example, became immensely popular, because they were considered to be a means to resist the French domination during the years 1806-13.

    In these and following decades, the widespread publication of national-heroic poems was bolstered by prize contests. Cornelis Loots and Tollens, for instance, wrote prize-winning patriotic poems about the nation’s forefathers: Huig de Groot (on Grotius, 1804) and De dood van Egmond en Hoorne (1806). The most influential national-heroic works were De Hollandsche natie (1812), a national epic by the Amsterdam poet J.F. Helmers, and Tafereel van de overwintering der Hollanders op Nova Zembla in de jaren 1596 en 1597 (“Wintering on Nova Zembla in 1596-97”, 1822) by Tollens, which would later inspire several painters. The production of heroic poetry was clearly spurred by political crises, as rapid growth in this genre can be witnessed during the French regime (1806-13) and the Belgian Revolution (1830-32).

    Another type of historical poetry was introduced to the Netherlands in the late 1820s. Jacob van Lennep was the first to imitate Walter Scott’s narrative poems and adapt them to a national context. In his Nederlandsche legenden (“Dutch legends”, 1828), he narrated episodes from the Dutch medieval past. From the early 1830s the influence of Byron can be detected in the narrative poetry of, amongst others, Joseph Alberdingk Thijm and Nicolaas Beets. Beets (a correspondent of Southey) gained fame for his Byronic poems José (1834), Kuser (1835) and Guy de Vlaming (1837). Later, he abandoned this style and turned to humorous Realism, e.g. in his Camera obscura (1839), a collection of satirical, sentimental and humorous sketches of domestic life in which he tried to grasp the essence of the Dutch national character.

    National-historical interest can also be traced in the field of theatre. In the period 1800-50 some 80 plays appeared thematizing the national past. The production peaked, again, during years of political crisis: during the reign of Louis Bonaparte (1806-10), the early years of King Willem I’s reign (1815-18), and the Belgian Secession. Authors most frequently chose scenes from the Dutch Revolt, and included explicit patriotic messages. Bilderdijk honoured the French-imposed monarch Louis Bonaparte in his Floris de Vijfde, on a fondly-remembered medieval Count of Holland (1808). Among the most productive playwrights were Adriaan Loosjes, Marten Westerman, and Hendrik Willem Warnsinck. Particularly succesful were Cornelis van der Vijver’s Het turfschip van Breda (“The turf barge of Breda”, 1812). Of special interest for Frisian history are the plays by Arent van Halmael. In the late 1840s Hendrik Jan Schimmel became the leading historical playwright. He also wrote several historical novels, and was co-editor of De gids.

    The rise of the historical novel occurred rather late. While Walter Scott had published his first historical novel in 1814, the first Dutch historical novels modelled on Scott appeared in 1829: De schildknaap (“The esquire”) by Margaretha Jacoba de Neufville, and Eduard Dalhorst, by Herman van Apeltern (ps. of A.W. Engelen). Previously (1808-16), Adriaan Loosjes had published four didactic novels about the national past, which during a long time were used as a reference point in the discussion about the nature and purposes of the historical novel. The first of the series, Het leven van Maurits Lijnslager (1808), was reprinted several times, and appreciated for its use of “typically Dutch” characters.

    From 1830 onwards, the historical novel gradually gained more ground and eventually outstripped all other historical genres in popularity. Arnout Drost’s Hermingard van de Eikenterpen (“Hermingard of the Oak Knolls”, 1832) was set in late-Roman-imperial times and described the Christian conversion of a young woman from the Batavi tribe; it was one of the last instances of the “Batavian” ancestral myth which had dominated Dutch historical culture since c.1600.

    The production of historical novels reached a high point in the period 1835-50. The period setting, despite an occasional medieval topic, tends largely to thematize the period of the Reformation and the revolt against Spain (1550-1650) and the 17th-century heyday of naval exploration and colonial expansion. Most of the authors involved have now sunk into obscurity, except for Jacob van Lennep, Jan Frederik Oltmans, and Anna Louisa Geertruida Bosboom-Toussaint. Van Lennep was the author of three influential historical novels: De pleegzoon (“The foster son”, 1833), De roos van Dekama (1836) and Ferdinand Huyck (1840). Oltmans is known for Het slot Loevestein (“The castle of Loevestein”, 1834) and De schaapherder (“The shepherd”, 1838). Bosboom-Toussaint, one of the century’s leading women authors, published a great number of historical novels, of which Het huis Lauernesse (“The house of Lauernesse”, 1840) became the most enduringly popular.

    By 1850 the historical novel had passed its first peak in the Netherlands as literary taste turned to Realism and contemporary topics; its flourish between 1800 and 1850 was until recently largely overlooked by literary historians, as was its revival, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, particularly as a juvenile genre: Johan H. Been’s Paddeltje, de scheepsjongen van Michiel de Ruyter (“Paddeltje, the cabin boy of Michiel de Ruyter”, 1908) later echoed in Johan Fabricius’s De scheepsjongens van Bontekoe (1924, “Bontekoe’s cabin boys”). There can be no doubt that the historical poems, plays and novels of the 19th century were formative, more than any other cultural genre, in canonizing certain episodes in Dutch history, particularly from the period 1550-1650, as key myths in the Dutch national-historical consciousness.

    Word Count: 1101

    Amsterdam (NL)

    Bosboom-Toussaint, Anna Louisa Geertruida

    Bürger, Gottfried August

    Alberdingk Thijm, Jos. Alb.

    Bilderdijk, Willem

    Helmers, Jan Frederik

    Lennep, Jacob van

    Scott, Walter (Sir)

    Southey, Robert

    Staring, Anthony Christiaan Winand

    Tollens, Hendrik

    Percy, Thomas

    Schimmel, Hendrik Jan

    Warnsinck, Hendrik Willem

    Vijver, Cornelis van der

    Halmael, Arent van

    Neufville, Margaretha Jacoba de

    Apeltern, Herman van

    Drost, Arnout

    Oltmans, Jan Frederik

    Feith, Rhijnvis

    Loosjes, Adriaan

    Beets, Nicolaas (ps. Hildebrand)

    Been, Johannes Hendrik

    Historical fiction in prose and verse : Dutch

    Patriotic poetry and verse : Dutch

    Visual arts : Dutch

    Neufville, Margaretha Jacoba de 1829 De schildknaap: Een oorspronkelijk historisch romantisch verhaal

    Drost, Arnout 1832 Hermingard van de eikenterpen

    Lennep, Jacob van 1833 De pleegzoon

    Lennep, Jacob van 1840 De lotgevallen van Ferdinand Huyck

    Lennep, Jacob van 1836 De roos van Dekama

    Bosboom-Toussaint, Anna Louisa Geertruida 1840 Het huis Lauernesse

    Oltmans, Jan Frederik 1833 Het slot Loevestein in 1570

    Oltmans, Jan Frederik 1838 De schaapherder

    Loosjes, Adriaan 1808 Het leven van Maurits Lijnslager: Eene Hollandsche familiegeschiedenis

    Tollens, Hendrik 1819 Tafereel van de overwintering der Hollanders op Nova Zembla

    Lennep, Jacob van 1828 Nederlandsche legenden in rijm gebracht [vol.1]

    Beets, Nicolaas (ps. Hildebrand) 1837 Guy de Vlaming: een verhaal

    Percy, Thomas 1765 Reliques of ancient English poetry: Consisting of old heroic ballads, songs, and other pieces of our earlier poets

    Helmers, Jan Frederik 1812 De Hollandsche natie, in zes zangen

    Beets, Nicolaas (ps. Hildebrand) 1834 Jose, een spaansch verhaal

    Beets, Nicolaas (ps. Hildebrand) 1835 Kuser: Een verhaal

    Beets, Nicolaas (ps. Hildebrand) 1839 Camera obscura

    Bilderdijk, Willem 1808 Floris de Vijfde: treurspel

    Vijver, Cornelis van der 1812 Het turfschip van Breda: historiesch toneelspel

    Apeltern, Herman van 1829 Eduard Dalhorst, een nederlandsch verhaal uit het laatst der zeventiende eeuw

    Been, Johannes Hendrik 1908 Paddeltje, de scheepsjongen van Michiel de Ruyter

    Fabricius, Johan 1924 De scheepsjongens van Bontekoe

  • Article version:
    1.1.1.2/b
  • Blaas, Piet; 2000. “Tollens en de vaderlandse herinnering”, in: De burgerlijke eeuw: Over eeuwwenden, liberale burgerij en geschiedschrijving, ed. Piet Blaas (Hilversum: Verloren) 46-58 [“Tollens and the memory of the fatherland”]

    D’haen, Theo; 2004. “«A splenetic Englishman»: The Dutch Byron”, in: The reception of Byron in Europe, ed. Richard Cardwell (London: Continuum), 2. 269-282

    Jensen, Lotte; 2008. De verheerlijking van het verleden: Helden, literatuur en natievorming in de negentiende eeuw (Nijmegen: Vantilt) [“The glorification of the past: Heroes, literature and nation-building in the nineteenth century”]

    Jensen, Lotte; 2010. “Literature as access to the past: The rise of historical genres in the Netherlands, 1800-1850”, in: Free access to the past: Romanticism, cultural heritage and the nation, ed. Lotte Jensen, Joep Leerssen, Marita Mathijsen (Leiden: Brill) 127-146

    Mathijsen, Marita; 2004. Nederlandse literatuur in de romantiek, 1820-1880 (Nijmegen: Vantilt) [“Dutch literature during the Romantic period, 1820-1880”]

    Streng, Toos; 2011. “De roman in Nederland, 1790-1899: Een boekhistorische verkenning”, Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse taal- en letterkunde 127.2: 139-163 [“The novel in The Netherlands, 1790-1899: An exploration of book history”]

    Streng, Toos; 2015. “De historische roman in Nederland, 1790-1899: Waardering en numerieke en thematische ontwikkeling”, Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse taal- en letterkunde 131.2: 123-146 [“The historical novel in The Netherlands, 1790-1899: Rating and numerical and thematic development”]

    Streng, Toos; 2015. “Historische roman en nationale Romantiek in Nederland, 1790-1899”, Tijdschrift voor geschiedenis 128.4: 599-622 [“Historical novel and national Romanticism in The Netherlands, 1790-1899”]

    Van der Wiel, Joke; 1999. De geschiedenis in balkostuum: De historische roman in de Nederlandse literaire kritiek (1808-1874) (Leuven: Garant) [“History dressed for the ball: The historical novel in Dutch literary criticism, 1808-74”]

    Zijderveld, Arie; 1915. De romancepoëzie in Noord-Nederland van 1780 tot 1840 (Amsterdam: Kruyt) [“Romantic poetry in the Northern Netherlands from 1780 until 1840”]


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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Jensen, Lotte, 2018. "Literary historicism : Dutch", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version 1.1.1.2/b, last changed 10-10-2018, consulted 16-12-2018.