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Literary historicism : Dutch

  • Cultural Field
    Cultural Current
    RemembranceLiterature (fictional prose/drama)
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    Jensen, Lotte

    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 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 on 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. Production peaked, again, during years of political crisis: during the reign of Louis Bonaparte (1806-10), the early years of King William 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 was 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 squire”) 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 for 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 flourishing 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 (“Bontekoe’s cabin boys”, 1924). 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: 1100

    Article version
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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Jensen, Lotte, 2022. "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, last changed 02-04-2022, consulted 22-02-2024.