Thomas B(ertram) Costain Essay - Critical Essays

Costain, Thomas B(ertram)


Thomas B(ertram) Costain 1885–1965

Canadian-born American novelist, nonfiction writer, biographer, and editor.

Costain's career as a novelist began with the publication of For My Great Folly (1942), a historically based fiction about John Ward, a seventeenth-century English pirate. He continued to produce popular and best-selling historical novels, among which were his best-known and critically acclaimed The Black Rose (1945) and The Silver Chalice (1952). In addition, he gained further popularity with his "Pageant of England" series, which includes four nonfiction volumes, covering the years 1066–1485, and narrates events which revolve around the British monarchy and other important figures.

Costain's first novel set the pattern for those that followed in its extensive background research, intrigue, colorful detail, fast-paced action, vast scope of scene, and other elements of epic adventures. The novels are often set in the Middle Ages and use many terms and details appropriate to the period. Costain believed that history should come alive for the reader and demonstrate how the past has contributed to the present. His recurring topics are social change, the rise of the common people, and the decline of chivalry. Costain's characters are courageous, skillful, hardy, and based on historical figures; he makes them realistic by adding appropriate personal details. His foremost skill is his narrative ability, which is enhanced by solid construction and interesting "period" miscellany.

Critics acknowledge the popularity and entertainment value of Costain's novels. They do, however, note certain stylistic weaknesses. His extensive use of obscure terms is viewed as an affectation; his colloquial language and the attitudes of many of his characters are thought to be too modern for the times in which they are supposed to have lived. Scholars claim that Costain's presentations of history, like his characters, are simplified to the point where they do little to enrich the reader's sense of an unfamiliar era. Nevertheless, Costain tried to do justice to his subjects by extensively consulting experts and imaginatively blending fiction with fact. Costain's books are still considered good examples of well-constructed historical fiction, and they demonstrate his intention to make history appealing to modern readers through an emphasis on its romantic and adventurous aspects.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary] and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)

Jane Spence Southron

The historical side of ["For My Great Folly," an] immensely entertaining novel set in England and the Mediterranean must be dealt with first despite the author's disclaimer of a factual foundation for much of it. It was a critical time: the opening years of the reign of the Scottish King of England whose fatuous attempts to wrest freedom from his subjects led, afterward, to civil war and the establishment of a Commonwealth. If you were entirely ignorant of the history involved you could take the story as sheer fiction and enjoy it throughout on that different plane. It is not unleavened fiction. A very important slice of it, for which Mr. Costain gives himself no credit, is the vivid and substantially accurate picture of King James I's corrupt court painted here with neither bias nor exaggeration. But there are other historical matters that invite inquiry.

To begin with, the book is built up round Captain John Ward, pirate, whose dossier in the pirates' "Who's Who" tells us little more than that he was of lowly birth and settled, eventually, at Tunis. While vouching for his story of Ward's piratical exploits, which, he says, "follows the historical facts closely enough," Mr. Costain admits that the picture he has given of the man himself is "completely imaginary." Apart from Ward's use, at variance with the rest of his character, of the sinister "cant" slang of the London underworld, a very sound, romantic job has been made of his...

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Ben Ray Redman

[The] main story-line of "Ride with Me" is the line of Frank's pursuit of Gabrielle through the corridors of history, with many fine shows along the way. It is a line that will be followed with pleasure by those who take their historical fiction by the pound, who demand only that heroines be beautiful and heroes dauntless. But the judicious will, I am sure, mark down "Ride with Me" as a brave but unsuccessful essay in the difficult field of the historical novel.

Evidences of Mr. Costain's industry are manifest on every page, and there is no doubt as to the genuineness of his interest in and enthusiasm for the Napoleonic period, in which his people have such being as he gives them. But industry and interest and enthusiasm are not enough when material is ineffectively organized, when trivial byproducts of research clutter pages, when characters are wooden, when the reader must plod instead of being pulled, when the author scants or shoots around scenes that might have been his biggest. That he has taken in a lot of territory and quite a chunk of history does not suffice, in view of the fact that his central historical figure is only a shadow, and the other figures from life no more than names. We are given glimpses of General Sir Robert Wilson ("Riding Bobby"), to the tale of whose exploits this book was originally dedicated … but it all adds up to very little, certainly not to the image of a man and a hero. (pp. 9-10)

Ben Ray Redman, "Francis Ellery's Crusade," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXVII, No. 34, August 19, 1944, pp. 9-10.

K. Shattuck Marvin

The Literary Guild has bestowed its accolade upon "The Black Rose," and its author, Thomas B. Costain, deserves another one for the research which went into its writing. Perhaps the relish which Mr. Costain obviously derived from his labors will serve as his reward.

Thirteenth century England and the same period in China, plus an interval spent on the medieval silk routes overland into China, are the great pictures in this book. As they are a new milieu for historical romances, they are in themselves absorbing, but against them the characters move rather pallidly. Mr. Costain's aforementioned relish prevented him from giving us much more than a hazy picture of Walter, Tristram, Engaine and Maryam, for whose ilk the reader of numerous historical romances may have by now only a hazy interest, anyway. A neat job is done on medieval Oxford, Edward I, castle life in England, travel in a trans-Asiatic caravan, and China with the Mongols sweeping down on the Sung Kingdom to unify the nation. The "dreaming spirit" of the University and the Arthur Rackham-Maxfield Parrish vision of a castle perish in the reader's mind before a far more vivid and enjoyable white light of truth with details pleasant and unpleasant. Thirteenth century vocabulary abounds magnificently but enigmatically….

The plot sprawls loosely against the vivid panorama. Walter, a student at Oxford, finds himself the recipient of a small fortune which he...

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William Du Bois

Readers of Mr. Costain's earlier novels …, will know that he has a special alchemy for every setting he chooses; those who flocked to "The Black Rose" by the hundred thousands will need no invitation to return for more. They will not be disappointed in "The Moneyman."

The author sets his stage brilliantly with his opening chapter. Moving with the great Jacques Coeur (the argentier du roy, or King's Moneyman) through the splendors and stenches of the Louvre, from the queen's card-table to the king's closet, form the perfumed presence of the king's mistress to the hard-backed benches where the king's captains cool their heels, we see the multi-colored tapestry of the Middle Ages in all its hectic splendor, breathe the rot of chivalry in its last, maudlin muddle. Mr. Costain makes it abundantly clear that this was indeed the dark hour before the dawn; seen through the eye of the Moneyman, a modern born centuries before his time, the ridiculous pomp of Charles VII's court takes on new meaning—and the Moneyman's part in the over-all pattern becomes a first-rate dramatic pivot. (p. 1)

Mr. Costain's plots and counter-plots, like Mr. Costain's genius for color, are his own patented secret: they will not even be sketched in this review. Suffice it to say that things end well enough for [two of his central characters, d'Arly and his lady], after the last breathless gallop, the last agonized turn of the rack. Coeur's...

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The Atlantic Monthly

What are the ingredients of a good historical novel? What is in an author's mind when he chooses a period in which to place his story? Is it to provide color and background to enrich with a romantic haze a story not quite strong enough to stand on its own legs? Does the author set out to "explain" history in a popular way? Or is he writing for the pot, knowing that any craftsmanlike cloak-and-dagger job will find a good market? These and other unanswerable questions bedevil this particular reader of The Moneyman….

[Mr. Costain] is a consistent and successful producer of this sort of thing—as his three previous novels have shown. The Moneyman is a good enough story, well enough...

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Charles Lee

Here is Thomas Costain at his best, in a well-constructed novel…. "High Towers" has something for all: historical solidity, biographical interest, glamour. It is rich with learning, alive with adventure.

Its larger enchantments deal with the fabulous Le Moyne family and the growth of the French Empire in North America during the early years of the eighteenth century. Within this framework Mr. Costain offers a satisfying quantity of love stories, excitations and intrigues. The gaudiness of certain of his effects does not depend on specious spectacle; the dazzle is inherent in the tale. He fictionalizes history; he does not fabricate hysteria. He writes of human beings, not of supermen and hussies....

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Geoffrey Bruun

"Historians' English," Philip Guedalla asserted, "is not a style; it is an occupational disease." To this verdict Thomas B. Costain would add a fervent Amen. The author of "The Black Rose" and "The Moneyman" has turned from his triumphs in historical fiction to write a popular history ["The Conquerors"]. "The picture that emerges," he submits in a pugnacious preface, "is, in my opinion, an honest and complete one." On this point some critics may have their reservations, but few will deny that the picture is detailed, diverting, and undeniably dramatic.

"The Conquerors" opens a series which will be known as "The Pageant of England." It covers, as the tedious textbook writers would say, the period from...

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Theodore Maynard

Mr. Costain comes to the point in his first sentence: "There is no need for another history of England unless it can be given popular appeal." The best-selling novelist openly declares for the same sort of thing in his new field as that which proved such a success in the old, and there can be little doubt that he will obtain it.

Nevertheless I have my reservations with regard to his performance, as I have also with regard to his novels, in whose dexterity I admit, as in the case of this initial excursion into history, I can find a good deal to praise. ["The Conquerors"] is orderly and has a fund of information of the kind that does not usually appear in works of this category. Color and vivacity are...

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Charles Lee

Thomas Costain has won a large and admiring public with novels of historical romance, most of which are set in the Middle Ages. In his new novel ["Son of a Hundred Kings"] he brings his readers back to more recent times—Canada in the Nineties—without disturbing the splashy colors which dominate his canvas. Substituting a vivid memory for the customary research—Mr. Costain grew up in Canada during the years he writes about—he tells the story of 6-year-old Ludar Prentice, who was shipped from England to his father in Canada, and enters upon various adventures, chiefly Victorian.

A spree of old-fashioned yarning, it is richly sub-plotted in the Dickensian manner with structural gingerbread and...

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Geoffrey Bruun

Mr. Costain's name is known to millions who have enjoyed "The Black Rose" in print or technicolor. In 1949 he turned from historical romances to write history itself and revivified English annals from Hastings to Magna Carta. The venture demonstrated that he could stick fairly close to authentic sources and still invest his story with the glamor that characterized his fiction. His aim was to write the sort of history that has a strong popular appeal. "In succeeding volumes," he predicted, "which will deal with periods where the records are more full, it will be easier to accomplish the purpose which I have begun."

His second volume in this "Pageant of England" series ["The Magnificent Century"] has...

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G. B. Harrison

To Mr. Costain's vigorous narrative can legitimately be applied the overworked metaphor kaleidoscopic, for, like the images in that ancient toy, it abounds in simple bright colors, ever shifting their pattern. In this new volume of The Pageant of England [The Magnificent Century] he covers the reign of the regrettable John's son, Henry III, who ruled England for over fifty years, marked by incompetence, extravagance, petulance, broken promises, civil war, violence and magnificent buildings. The story, as befits a pageant, is reduced to simple terms and certain figures and events stand out clearly—William the Marshal, Hubert de Burgh, Simon de Montfort, the shifty king, and young Edward who becomes king…....

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Thomas Caldecot Chubb

In 1949 Thomas Costain temporarily turned aside from a successful series of historical novels to commence a long history of England in which it was his intention to apply his persuasive imagination to the sober realm of fact. It began well, and the first two volumes have won justified applause. "The Conquerors," starting in 1066, and "The Magnificent Century," which told the tale of Magna Charta John's artistic but unstable son, Henry III, are indeed the sort of books that convert chronicles of the dead past into summer reading. And they do this with at least reasonable respect for what really occurred.

Yet good as they are they are not Thomas Costain at his best, and I am sure this reviewer is not...

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Richard Winston

Over the past thirteen years Thomas B. Costain has been writing books whose sales are reckoned in the millions. His earlier novels are crowded with bold adventurers and desirable slave girls who meet one another in exotic places. Lately Mr. Costain has turned to non-fiction and he has been rendering the pageantry of English history with something of the dash and color that he puts into his novels. Now, back with fiction again, he has attempted to combine the two genres in a novel of family destinies in nineteenth century England, "The Tontine," big in size and scope, jam-packed with characters, covering four generations and the better part of the nineteenth century….

Mr. Costain's novel centers...

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Earl W. Foell

["The Tontine"] is not nearly so grim … as its title would suggest. In fact, the great Waterloo Tontine that was hatched by an unsavory criminal boss hard on the heels of Wellington's historic victory provides only the mere framework for this sprawling Dickensian romance. The meat that plumps out its two large volumes is a very palatable, lively picture of England during the industrial revolution….

Mr. Costain is a good story teller. His action moves, however heavily loaded with detail. His characters are "characters," not unlike those of Dickens or, perhaps, Damon Runyon. His plot traces the lives of four generations of the above-mentioned families in alternating episodes (sometimes involving...

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Geoffrey Bruun

Readers who enjoyed "The Black Rose," "The Silver Chalice," and the half-dozen other historical novels Mr. Costain has written …, will find "Below the Salt" equally diverting. It has somewhat less zest and humor than its predecessors and somber overtones prevail throughout most of the story. But it combines all the popular ingredients of a medieval romance….

The research Mr. Costain undertook … has given him an intimate understanding of English society in the age of the Angevin kings. His scenes, including the signing of the Magna Charta, have an authentic air, and so have the historical characters he introduces….

Perhaps because his main plot has inherent limitations, being...

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Charles W. Ferguson

The title of Thomas B. Costain's new volume ["The Three Edwards"] refers to the three Edwards who were successive kings of England during the turbulent and crucial era that began in 1272 and ended in 1377….

Of such a vital and prophetic era, Mr. Costain has made excellent use in this new unit of his continuing "Pageant of England." For the most part his narrative moves with the pace of swiftly changing events. The eye runs through page after page with curiosity, recognition and delight. Occasionally generalizations and anachronistic comment make the reader blink, but the force of the story carries him steadily forward.

Only toward the end of the third Edward's reign does the book...

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Paul M. Kendall

In "The Three Edwards," Thomas B. Costain continues his history of England since the Norman Conquest (The Pageant of England: "The Conquerors," "The Magnificent Century") The volume deals with a turbulent reach of human experience, stretching from the thirteenth century of iron-fisted Edward I, law-giver and conqueror, when French was still the language of law-court and great hall, to the restless unhappy close of the reign of Edward III….

To a popular historian like Mr. Costain, the period offers a wonderful story and barbed personalities: the romantic struggles of Wallace and Robert the Bruce, the inept life and horrible death of Edward II, the victories of Crécy and Poitiers, the...

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Geoffrey Bruun

As a novelist Mr. Costain has always been at his best when he gave his rollicking fancy a free rein. His favorite formula is to fling a handful of worthy and attractive people into the maelstrom of disastrous historical events and then bring them safely to harbor in the final pages. He surrounds these core characters with a picaresque train of supernumeraries and keeps the drama of their adventures moving at an exhilarating gallop….

[In "The Darkness and the Dawn"] the historical setting is Europe in the middle of the chaotic fifth century when Attila the Hun assailed the dissolving Roman Empire….

Nicolan and Ildico [are] the hero and heroine of "The Darkness and the Dawn."…...

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Millicent Taylor

When Thomas Costain's "The Conquerors," came out more than a dozen years ago, and was followed two years later by his "The Magnificent Century," they gave us a treatment of history refreshingly colorful and new. Here indeed was "The Pageant of England" as rich as events woven into medieval tapestries—stories of tournaments, battles, the storming of castles, arranging of international marriages, the plots and counterplots of family intrigues, and more dimly perhaps yet ominously persistent, the struggles of submerged peasants, the growing power of the guilds, the self-realization of citizens of London.

Perhaps it is just as well that Mr. Costain eventually decided to end his "Pageant" with the...

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Millicent Taylor

Thomas Costain's flair for bringing to life periods of history dominated by fascinating personalities takes us in ["The Last Love"] to St. Helena during Napoleon's final exile. It is mainly the story of a loyal and delightful friendship between the great Corsican—now a tragic and lonely figure—and the generous-hearted tomboy daughter of William Balcombe, a distinguished Englishman stationed there….

The book is frankly a novel, not a history—yet the story of this friendship is fact, and most of the characters are actual persons. In some extensive flashbacks the author gives historical and biographical background material leading up to St. Helena.

The main events of the story...

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