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"Think of me as your conscience": Spectres in recent English-Canadian historical fiction Open Access


Other title
historical fiction
Canadian literature
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Wiebe, Reginald GD
Supervisor and department
Slemon, Stephen (English and Film Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Ens, Gerhard (History and Classics)
Devereux, Cecily (English and Film Studies)
Hjartarson, Paul (English and Film Studies)
Wyile, Herb (English and Theatre - Acadia University)
Braz, Albert (English and Film Studies)
Department of English and Film Studies
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
In this dissertation I will discuss how English-Canadian writers of recent historical fiction incorporate ghosts for the purposes of recuperation: to suggest both the persistence of historical injustices and to signal the possibility of healing. Recognizing that views of Canada’s alleged ghostlessness perpetuate a colonial overwriting of the varied histories that preceded Confederation, many writers prominently feature history and hauntings to represent that Canada does, in fact, have a storied past. Recent historical fiction by English-Canadian writers has frequently demonstrated less interest in postmodern practices and more interest considering the past as ontologically stable, though not completely accessible. This is often, I argue, in the service of a postcolonial project to revise history to acknowledge the injustices and traumas that colonial historiography has suppressed. Spectres can negotiate a desire for retaining skepticism of the inherent biases of historiography and the need to maintain some level of historical certainty in order to advocate for a particular cause. Using Jacques Derrida’s concept of Hauntology and close readings of five novels, I contend that spectres are essential in postcolonial projects of illuminating the past for the purposes of recuperation in recent historical fiction. The goal of many novels of haunting and history is not only to note historical wrongs – to highlight the sense of unease and illegitimacy that ghosts signal – but also to suggest possible avenues of recovery. The presence of ghosts is central to this type of haunting, but the context of the historical novel is equally critical: these novels demonstrate a desire not simply to highlight the persistence of knowledge but to actually revise our understanding of the past. When novels of historical haunting seek to revisit historical wrongs it is for more than emphasizing their ongoing effects. They seek, sometimes paradoxically and sometimes dubiously, to present the past as a site of revision and as a site that can be recuperated. Underlying this project – often unspoken, but sometimes made explicit – is the hope that telling the story of an injustice is part of the project of reconciling that wrong without foreclosing its ongoing effects. In the first chapter, I will examine how spectres can signal the foreclosure of historical wrongs even as they can also suggest the persistence of those wrongs. Exploring Margaret Sweatman’s novel When Alice Lay Down With Peter, I will consider how ghosts can provide reassurance about Canada’s history of settlement and invasion even as they highlight the injustices of that practice. In the second chapter, I will examine how spectres can illuminate events and experiences lost to history. Through Jacqueline Baker’s The Horseman’s Graves and Jane Urquhart’s Away, I will consider how spectres are well suited to trouble our assurances in the foundations of the present. I will also consider how these same spectres can occlude the losses that they illuminate. In the third chapter, I will examine how the unsettling presence of spectres can demonstrate the ways in which historical fiction itself can be a vessel for recuperation. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees, enables me to consider how spectres manifest the advantages (and some of the risks) that historical fiction has for reclaiming lost history. In the fourth and final chapter, I will examine how spectres can offer a model for recuperating the past without foreclosing the traumas that perpetuate its hauntings. Reading Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, I will consider how spectres can prevent the conservative approach of much recent historical fiction from becoming totalizing and how the liminal nature of ghosts can signal strategies for healing.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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