Reanimating the English Historical Novel in the Twenty-First Century – The Case of David Mitchell’s the Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Open access


This article argues that David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) represents a new variation of the genre of historical fiction. The historical novel in Britain has risen to prominence since the 1980s and in the twenty-first century this strong interest in the past continues. Placing David Mitchell’s book in the context of recent historical fiction, the article takes account of Joseph Brooker’s hypothesis that, together with Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet may be indicative of an emergent trend in the contemporary English historical novel. The purpose of the article is to identify and explore Mitchell’s key strategies of writing about history. It is argued that, departing from the prevalent mode of historiographic metafiction, Mitchell’s book adheres to some of the traditional tenets of the genre while achieving the Scottian aim of animating the past in innovative ways. The analysis leads to the conclusion that the use of the present tense, the subjective perspectives, and the exclusion of foreknowledge lend the novel dramatic qualities.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Mitchell David. 2011a [2010]. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. London: Sceptre.

  • Bayer Gerd. 2014. Cannibalising the Other: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and the incorporation of ‘exotic’ pasts. In Elodie Rousselot (ed.) Exoticizing the past in contemporary neo-historical fiction 103–119. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. DOI: 10.1057/9781137375209_7

  • Beville Maria. 2016. Getting past the ‘post-’: history and time in the fiction of David Mitchell [sic]: Književnost i Kultura 1(6). (accessed 20 December 2017). DOI: 10.15291/sic/

  • Boccardi Mariadele. 2009. The contemporary British historical novel: representation nation empire. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Boulter Jonathan. 2011. Melancholy and the archive: trauma history and memory in the contemporary novel. London: Continuum.

  • Brooker Joseph. 2015. Reanimating historical fiction. In David James (ed.) The Cambridge companion to British fiction since 1945 160–176. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI 10.1017/CCO9781139628754.012

  • Byatt A. S. 2001. On histories and stories. Selected essays. London: Chatto & Windus.

  • Charles Ron. 2010. Review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a novel by David Mitchell. The Washington Post 30 June. (accessed 24 April 2017).

  • Eggers Dave. 2010. Empire of desire. Review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The New York Times 1 July. (accessed 24 April 2017).

  • Dillon Sarah. 2011. Introducing David Mitchell’s universe. A twenty-first century house of fiction. In Sarah Dillon (ed.) David Mitchell. Critical essays 3–23. Canterbury: Gylphi Limited.

  • Fleishman Avrom. 1971. The English historical novel. Baltimore MD & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • Genette Gérard. 1983. Narrative discourse. An essay in method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Groot Jerome de. 2010. The historical novel. London & New York: Routledge.

  • Harris Paul A. 2015. David Mitchell in the laboratory of time: An interview with the author. SubStance 44(1) (David Mitchell special issue). 8–17. DOI: 10.1353/sub.2015.0000

  • Hutcheon Linda. 1988. A poetics of postmodernism: History theory fiction. New York: Routledge.

  • Jackson Tony E. 1999. The desires of history old and new. CLIO: A Journal of Literature History and the Philosophy of History 28(2). 169–187.

  • Kakutani Michiko. 2010. Dutchman sees life in Japan long ago. The New York Times June 28. (accessed 21 November 2017).

  • Keen Suzanne. 2001. Romances of the archive in contemporary British fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • Keen Suzanne. 2006. The historical turn in British fiction. In James F. English (ed.) A concise companion to contemporary British fiction 167–187. Malden MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. DOI: 10.1002/9780470757673.ch8

  • Larsonneur Claire. 2015. Revisiting Dejima (Japan): From recollections to fiction in David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). SubStance 44(1) (David Mitchell special issue). 136–147. DOI: 10.1353/sub.2015.0004

  • Larsonneur Claire. 2016. Weaving myth and history together: Illustration as fabrication in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Image [&] Narrative 17(2). 24–33.

  • Lea Richard. 2015. Make it now: the rise of the present tense in fiction. The Guardian 21 November. (accessed 30 January 2017).

  • Lukács Georg. 1963. The historical novel. Translated by Hannah & Stanley Mitchell. Boston MA: Beacon Press.

  • Mitchell David. 2011b. On historical fiction. In David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 555–560. London: Sceptre.

  • O’Donnell Patrick. 2015. A temporary future. The fiction of David Mitchell. New York NY & London: Bloomsbury.

  • Pierce Leonard. 2010. Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – interview with David Mitchell. A.V. Club 6 August. (accessed 4 May 2017).

  • Rigney Ann. 2001. Imperfect histories. The elusive past and the legacy of romantic historicism. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Rimmon-Kenan Shlomith. 1991. Narrative fiction: Contemporary poetics. London & New York NY: Routledge.

  • Rousselot Elodie. 2014. Introduction: Exoticising the past in contemporary neo-historical fiction. In Elodie Rousselot (ed.) Exoticizing the past in contemporary neo-historical fiction 1–16. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Schoene-Harwood Berthold. 2009. The cosmopolitan novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • Scott Walter. 1834. Essay on romance. In Walter Scott Essays on chivalry romance and the drama 127–216. Edinburgh: Robert Cadell.

  • Simon Scott. 2010. How David Mitchell brings historical fiction to life NPR Weekend Edition Saturday. 21 August. (accessed 24 April 2017).

  • Watt Ian. 1979. Conrad in the nineteenth century. London: Chatto & Windus.

  • Wesseling Elisabeth. 1991. Writing history as a prophet: Postmodernist innovations of the historical novel. Amsterdam & Philadelphia PA: John Benjamins. DOI: 10.1075/upal.26

  • Wood James. 2010. The floating library: What can’t the novelist David Mitchell do? The New Yorker 5 July. (accessed 24 April 2017).

Journal information
Impact Factor

Cite Score 2018: 0.08

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.1
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.095

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 73 73 14
PDF Downloads 47 47 15