(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

At a time when the historical romance seemed to be degenerating into thrill-seeking, shoddy journalism, or bedroom farce in costume, Alfred Duggan continued to produce works that are historical novels in the true sense of the word. In his books, it is not the very pastness of the past that is important, the nostalgic appeal of the far away and long ago, but the Realism of his presentation within the limits of his period. He had the ability to create against the background of the past a world so solidly constructed that his novels make ancient Roman or medieval times as real as the present. His men and women live in violent and picturesque periods, but the writer held them true to the experiences that have been common to mankind in all ages.

His success came partly from his handling of a special point of view. In Duggan’s novels, there is no looking backward from the twentieth century toward an earlier time, with all the curiosity or condescension which such a glimpse into the past usually involves. Sensitive to the mood of an age, he refused to let his characters think or feel as they would in a later period. In THE LADY FOR RANSOM, for example, there is no suggestion of anything in time beyond the spectacle of the great Byzantine civilization tottering to its fall and of the adventures of some Norman mercenaries involved in border wars between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Seljuk Turks.

The connection between these events and the First Crusade is made plain by the narrator, a monk who had been ordered by his abbot to tell the story of his experiences for the instruction of some young knights preparing to set out for the Holy Land under Count Bohemond’s banner. The monk had been born Roger fitzOdo, the son of a Greek mother and a Norman smith, in the days when Norman adventurers were craving principalities for themselves in Lombardy and Sicily. Orphaned during a rebel raid, he found a patroness in rough-mannered but kindhearted Lady Matilda, wife of Messer Roussel de Balliol, liegeman to Roger fitzTancred. Messer Roussel is the same valiant “Ursel de Baliol” of the ancient chronicles, believed by some to be the ancestor of the house of the same name among the claimants for the Scottish crown in the time of Robert Bruce.

Messer Roussel was a soldier who followed his overlord without much thought for the future. His wife was more ambitious. For every adventurer in those times there was the example of Duke William, who had seized a kingdom from Saxon Harold at the Battle of Hastings; surely a knight as brave as Messer Roussel was capable of securing some great fief that his sons could inherit. When Romanus Diogenes, the new emperor at Constantinople, offered to enlist Messer Roussel and his three hundred mailed horsemen for an expedition against the Turks, Lady Matilda persuaded him that his acceptance would in no way violate his oath to Roger fitzTancred.

The Normans first took part in a campaign against the Patzinaks north of the Danube and then proceeded to Constantinople. There they were instructed in the mysteries of Eastern Roman politics. Romanus Diogenes ruled only as co-emperor with his stepson Michael. Although the house of Ducas...

(The entire section is 1300 words.)