Nineteenth-Century Historical Fiction Definitions And Characteristics - Essay

Definitions And Characteristics

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

George Henry Lewes

SOURCE: A review of "The Foster Brother: A Tale of the War of Chiozza," in The Westminster Review, Vol. XLV, No. 1, March, 1846, pp. 34-54.

[Lewes was one of the most versatile men of letters in the Victorian era. A prominent English journalist, he was the founder, with Leigh Hunt, of The Leader, a radical political journal that he edited from 1851 to 1854. He served as the first editor of the Fortnightly Review from 1865 to 1866, a journal which he also helped to establish. Critics often cite Lewes's influence on the novelist George Eliot, to whom he was companion and mentor, as his principal contribution to English letters, but they also credit him with critical acumen in his literary commentary, most notably in his dramatic criticism. In the following excerpt, Lewes harshly criticizes authors of some historical romances for their inclusion of "useless" information and for their failure to capture the spirit of the time period about which they were writing.]

To judge from the number yearly published, one may presume that there is a great demand for historical romances; and to judge from the quality of those published, one may suppose the readers very good-natured, or very ignorant; or both. We believe they are both.

To write a good historical romance is no easy task; to write such as are published (with an exception here and there) is, we believe, one of the easiest of all literary tasks. Were it otherwise, how could Mr James and Alexandre Dumas pour forth their novels with such amazing rapidity? One announces that he finished a volume in twelve days; the other has recently signed an agreement to limit himself to twenty volumes in the year! Were it otherwise, how could the great quantity of yearly publications be kept up? Few will be bold enough to assert that the great mass of novelists display any remarkable talent; yet the great mass of novels are historical; ergo, we conclude that the historical novel is one wherein mediocrity is at its ease. Must it not be so? In the domestic novel mediocrity cannot escape dulness and twaddle; in the art-novel it cannot escape rant and maudlin; in the roman intime it degenerates into utter drivel; and in the satirical novel it is in the plight of one endeavouring to be witty, and sinking into mere pertness and personality. For the domestic novel a man needs knowledge of character, power of truthful painting, pathos, and good sense. For the art-novel he needs imagination, style, and a knowledge of art. For the roman intime he needs a mastery over mental analysis, passion, and lyrical feeling. For the satirical novel he needs wit, and knowledge of the world. But for the historical novel, as it is generally written, he needs no style, no imagination, no fancy, no knowledge of the world, no wit, no pathos; he needs only to study Scott, and the historical novelists; to "cram" for the necessary information about costumes, antiquated forms of speech, and the leading political events of the epoch chosen; and to add thereto the art, so easily learned, of complicating a plot with adventures, imprisonments, and escapes. As for character, he need give himself no trouble about it: his predecessors have already furnished him with types; these he can christen anew. Probability he may utterly scorn. If he has any reflections to make, he need only give them a sententious turn; truth, novelty, or depth, are unimportant. Sprinkle largely with love and heroism; keep up the mystery overhanging the hero's birth, till the last chapter; and have a good stage villain, scheming and scowling through two volumes and a half, to be utterly exposed and defeated at last—and the historical novel is complete.

The writers of this bastard species are of two kinds: the one kind has a mere surface-knowledge of history, picked up from other novels, and from Hume, or Sismondi. The other has "crammed" for the occasion: knows much, but knows it ill: is minutely tedious, because he insists on teaching you to-day what he himself learned yesterday. He reads chronicles only to quote them, and endeavours by notes to supply the want of that mastery of the subject, which long familiarity alone can give, and which alone enables a man to paint an epoch. This false erudition, joined to a false imagination, produces an abortion, to which we prefer the flimsiest of novels.

Yet the public evidently encourages historical romance, even such historical romance as is afforded it. We have already hinted two reasons for this; and to them we could add a third, viz.: It is thought easier and pleasanter to read history in romance, than to read it in those respectable russia-bound octavos, "which no gentleman's library should be without." Idleness;—a wish to get at knowledge by a royal route; and a pleasant self-sophistication, that reading such novels is not "a waste of time,"—these are the great encouragers of historical novels. What is the consequence? The consequence is, that we have false history, and a bad story, palmed upon us for a novel. Now we are of those, albeit accustomed to grave studies, who utterly deny the fact of a novel being a waste of time: certainly a bad novel is; but so is every bad book. Think of the delight a good novel will give; think of the emotions it excites, the trains of thought it suggests; think also of the influence exercised upon mental culture by the perusal of novels. This influence may be good or bad, according to the truth or falsehood of the works; but in stating the case for novels, we have a right to speak only of the good. The question is not, are bad novels waste of time? No one doubts it. We confess, then, to a high relish for novels. If we seldom read them, it is because the good are rare. We confess to a high opinion of their influence; and so far from thinking them a "waste of time" (which is the frequent assertion of some very frivolous people, trying to look pro-found) we believe few works more capable of fulfilling the highest aim of books. There is but one indispensable condition: they must be true. Of course by truth we do not mean literality; few tales are so false as those "founded upon facts"; the truth we speak of is truth of character and feeling.

It is your bad historical romance, the reading of which is waste of time. No-knowledge is better than misknowledge; and the scraps of history picked up from a novel are just sufficient to mislead the indolent into the idea of their possessing "information." Either history is worth knowing, or it is not: if worth knowing, then worth studying in proper sources; if not, then surely a great incumbrance to a tale. We suggest this to worthy mammas, and tutors, who only allow young people to read historical romances, because there some good "information" is to be gained. We know a lady who piques herself upon her strictness, and who, while refusing to allow her daughter, aged sixteen, to read novels, allowed her to read St Simon's 'Memories'—because they were historical! This is a good instance of the error we are combating; it is indeed a type. Worthy mammas! Excellent tutors! Is there no other sort of "information," but that of "facts"? Are there no things under the sun worth learning, besides the erudition of 'Mangnall's Questions?' Is knowledge of the human heart not information? Are your children to live in the world, to battle with it, and not to know it? Are they to mix with men and women, and rather than learn the natures of men and women, in the best way they can, to "cram" up a certain amount of "information" of mere externals, of names and dates, and those ancient names and dates? This is poor wisdom; but akin to the wisdom which devotes the long and precious years of youth to the study of that which they will never (in nine cases out of ten) need in after-life.

Let not the reader suppose that we cast any slight upon historical romance. Our object has been solely to point attention to the fallacy of supposing that bad historical romances—and very few good ones are published—can be less a waste of time than other romances. The conjunction of two such elements as history and fiction may be excellent, provided the history be good and the fiction good. But if the history be bad, or superficial, it is an excrescence. The story, after all, is the main thing; and if history be joined to it, it is only on the privilege of adding a new interest to the story.

When we speak of bad and false history, we mean useless, or worse than useless handling of past times, characters, and events. Those sticklers for truth, who reproach Scott with having falsified history because he wilfully confused dates, forget the far greater truth which that wonderful writer generally presented. If, for his purposes, he disarranged the order of events a little; no grave historian ever succeeded better in painting the character of the epoch. He committed errors of detail enough to make Mrs Markham shudder. He divined important historical truths which had escaped the sagacity of all historians. A great authority, Augustin Thierry, has pronounced Scott the greatest of all historical divinators. All Europe has pronounced him to be the greatest of modern romance writers.

When, therefore, a writer has so familiarized himself with the inward spirit and outward form of an epoch, as to be able to paint it with accuracy and with ease, he may make that epoch a very useful and entertaining scene for his story: and then if his story be good, he will have written a good historical romance. Unfortunately it is only the outward form that most writers study; thinking with this outward form to compose splendid accessories. But after all, what are accessories? Very much what splendid processions, gorgeous scenery, numerous attendants, and spangled dresses are to a tragedy: a panoply of ennui.

Admitting the utility of history to romance, when history is properly understood, there is, we think, still one caution necessary. Let a man be thoroughly versed in the epoch, and perfectly capable of painting it, there is one danger he must always avoid: the danger of misrepresenting historical personages. In a former paper on the historical drama, we attempted to prove the almost insuperable difficulty of representing well-known historical persons, except as subordinate actors in the drama. The dramatist is forced to falsify history. The novelist is not quite so badly situated, but the danger is considerable. He may sketch portraits; but he must be wary how he makes the persons act and speak. His safety lies in entrusting the main action of his story to imaginary actors, and bringing known persons forward as only slightly connected with the plot. Of course, this applies only to such persons whose characters are tolerably known to us. If the epoch be remote, and the characters dimly perceived, the novelist has perfect licence; for such epochs verge upon the domain of the fabulous, wherein imagination may roam at will. But this, which is an obstacle to the historian, is an assistance to the novelist. Assured that we must be as ignorant as himself, he can invent his materials and create his characters. Shakspeare was at liberty to create a character for Macbeth, for Hamlet, or for Lear. No such licence could be allowed to one who treated of Elizabeth, Charles I., Strafford, or Louis XIV.

Brander Matthews

SOURCE: "The Historical Novel," in The Historical Novel and Other Essays, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901, pp. 3-28.

[An American critic, playwright, and novelist, Matthews wrote extensively on world drama and served for a quarter century at Columbia University as professor of dramatic literature; he was the first to hold that title at an American university. Matthews was also a founding member and president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Because his criticism is deemed both witty and informative, Matthews has been called "perhaps the last of the gentlemanly school of critics and essayists" in America. In the following essay written in 1897, Matthews argues that the only truly representative and "trustworthy" historical novel is that whose subject matter is contemporary with the author's experience.]

When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his 'Note on Realism,' and declared that "the historical novel is dead," he did not think he would live to be the author of the Master of Ballantrae. But when Prosper Merimee expressed to a correspondent his belief that the historical novel was a "bastard form," he could look back without reproach upon his own Chronique de Charles IX—one of the finest examples of the kind of fiction he chose to despise. Whether or not most readers of English fiction at the end of the nineteenth century approve Merim& opinion that the historical novel is illegitimate by birth, few of them will agree with Stevenson in deeming it defunct. If we can judge by the welcome it receives from the writers of newspaper notices, it is not moribund even; and if we are influenced by the immense sale of Ben-Hur and by the broadening vogue of Quo Vadis, we may go so far as to believe that it was never stronger or fuller of life.

We might even suggest that the liking for historical fiction is now so keen that the public is not at all particular as to the veracity of the history out of which the fiction has been manufactured, since it accepts the invented facts of the Chronicles of Zenda quite as eagerly as it receives the better-documented Memoirs of a Minister of France.

More than any other British author of his years, Stevenson worked in accord with the theories of art which have been elaborated and expounded in France; and it may be that when he declared the historical novel to be dead he was thinking rather of French literature than of English. There is no doubt that in France the historical novel is not cherished. No one of the living masters of fiction in France has attempted any but contemporary studies. M. Daudet, M.Zola, M. Bourget, find all the subjects they need in the life of their own times. Flaubert's fame is due to his masterly Madame Bovary, and not to his splendid Salmmbo. So sharp is the Franch reaction against Romanticism that even impressionist critics like M. Jules Lemaltre and M. Anatole France do not overpraise the gay romances of the elder Dumas, as Stevenson did. In France the historical novel has no standing in the court of serious criticism. As Merimee wrote in the correspondence from which one quotation has already been made, "History, in my eyes, is a sacred thing."

Historical fiction suffers in France from the same discredit as historical painting, and for the same reasons. It is either too easy to be worth while—a French critic might say—or so difficult as to be impossible. When a young man once went to Courbet for advice, saying that his vocation was to be a historical painter, the artist promptly responded: "I don't doubt it; and therefore begin by giving three months to making a portrait of your father!"

Perhaps French opinion is nowhere more accurately voiced than by M. Anatole France in the 'Jardin d'Epicure':

We cannot reproduce with any accuracy what no longer exists. When we see that a painter has to take all the trouble in the world to represent to us, more or less exactly, a scene in the time of Louis Philippe, we may despair of his ever being able to give us the slightest idea of an event contemporary with Saint Louis or Augustus. We weary ourselves copying armor and old chests; but the artists of the past did not worry themselves about so empty an exactness. They lent to the hero of legend or history the costume and the looks of their own contemporaries; and thus they depicted naturally their own soul and their own century. Now what can an artist do better?

In other words, Paul Veronese's Marriage at Cana is frankly a revelation of the Italian Renascence; and this revelation is not contaminated by any fifteenth-century guess at the manners and customs of Judea in the first century. It is difficult to surmise how some of the laboriously archeological pictures of the nineteenth century will affect an observer of the twenty-first century. As in painting, so in the drama: Shakspere made no effort to suggest the primitive manners and customs of Scotland to the spectators of his Macbeth; and if the characters of Julius Caesar are Roman, it is chiefly because of the local color that chanced to leak through from North's Plutarch. What Shakspere aimed at was the creation of living men and women—interesting because of their intense humanity, eternal because of their truth and vitality. He never sought to differentiate Scotchmen and Danes of the past from Englishmen of the present. He lent to all his personages the vocabulary, the laws, the usages, the costumes which were familiar to the playgoers that flocked to applaud his pieces. Archeology was unknown to him and to them; anachronism did not affright them or him. Probably he would have brushed aside any demand for exactness of fact as an attempt to impose an unfair restraint upon the liberty of the dramatist—whose business it was to write plays to be acted in a theater, and not to prepare lectures to be delivered in a college hall. Shakspere and Veronese, each in his own art, worked freely, as though wholly unconscious of any difference between their own contemporaries and the subjects of the Caesars.

The compilers of the 'Gesta Romanorum' had no conception of the elements of either geography or chronology; and the authors of the Romances of Chivalry seem to have been as ignorant, although their scientific nihilism is perhaps wilful—like Stockton's when he tells us a Tale of Negative Gravity.' The essential likeness of the Romances of Chivalry to the Waverley Novels has been pointed out more than once; and in each group of tales we find the hero, or the technical hero's rescuing friend, omnipresent, omniscient, and almost omnipotent. The essential difference between the two kinds of fiction is quite as obvious also: it lies in the fact that Scott and his followers know what history is, and that even when they vary from it they are aware of what they are doing.

The historical novel, as we understand it today, like the historical drama and like historical painting, could not come into being until after history had established itself, and after chronology and geography had lent to history their indispensable aid. Nowadays the novelist and the dramatist and the painter are conscious that people do not talk and dress and behave as they did a hundred years ago, or a thousand. They do not know precisely how the people of those days did feel and think and act: they cannot know these things. The most they can do is to study the records of the past and make a guess, the success of which depends on their equipment and insight. They accept their obligation to history and to its handmaids—an obligation which Shakspere and Veronese would have denied quite as frankly as the compilers of the 'Gesta Romanorum' or the writers of the Romances of Chivalry. Scott was appealing to a circle of more or less sophisticated readers, any one of whom might be an antiquary: he was to be tried by a jury of his peers. But the author of Amadis of Gaul, for example, wrote for a public that cared as little as he himself did about the actual facts of the countries or of the periods his hero traversed in search of strange adventure.

Although it is not difficult to detect here and there in Scott's predecessors the more or less fragmentary hints of which he availed himself, it would be absurd to deny that Scott is really the inventor of the historical novel, just as Poe was afterward the inventor of the detective story. In the Castle of Otranto Horace Walpole essayed to recall to life the Gothic period as he understood it; but—if we may judge by Mrs. Radcliffe and the rest of his immediate imitators—it was the tale of mystery he succeeded in writing and not the true historical novel. For this last, Walpole was without two things which Scott possessed abundantly—the gift of story-telling and an intimate knowledge of more than one epoch of the past.

And Scott had also two other qualifications which Walpole lacked: he was a poet and he was a humorist. As it happens, the steps that led Scott to the Waverley Novels are not hard to count. He began by collecting the ballads of the Border; and soon he wrote new ballads in the old manner. Then he linked ballads together, and so made Marmion and the Lady of the Lake. When he thought that the public was weary of his verse, he told one of these ballad tales in prose, and so made Waverley. But he had read Miss Edgeworth, and he wished to do for the Scottish peasant what she had done for the Irish: thus it is that the prose tales contained sketches of character at once robust and delicate. In time, when he tired of Scotch subjects, he crossed the Border; and in Ivanhoe he first applied to an English subject the formula he had invented for use in North Britain, helped in his handling of a medieval theme by his recollections of the Götz von Berlichingen of Goethe, which he had translated in his prentice days. After a while he crossed the Channel, and found that the method acquired in telling the Scotch stories enabled him to write Quentin Durward, a story of France, and the Talisman, a story of Palestine. Although he had to forego his main advantage when he left his native land, Scott did not abandon his humor; and these later tales contain more than one memorable character, even if they reveal none so unforgetable as are a dozen or more in the Scotch stories.

Probably the immense vogue of the Waverley Novels, as they came forth swiftly one after another in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, was due rather to the qualities they had in common with the Castle of Otranto than to the qualities they had in common with Castle Rackrent. No doubt it was the union of the merits of both schools that broadened the audience to which the Waverley Novels appealed; but, in attaining his contemporary triumph, Scott owed more to Horace Walpole than to Maria Edgeworth. He surpassed Walpole immeasurably, because he was a man of deeper knowledge and broader sympathy. His audience was far wider than Miss Edgeworth's, because he infused into his Scottish tales a romantic flavor which she carefully excluded from her veracious portrayals of Irish character.

Yet it may be suggested that the stories of Scott most likely to survive the centenary of their publication and to retain readers in the first quarter of the twentieth century are perhaps those in which he best withstands the comparison with Miss Edgeworth—the stories in which he has recorded types of Scottish character, with its mingled humor and pathos. For mere excitement our liking is eternal: but the fashion thereof is fickle; and we prefer our romantic adventures cut this way to-day and another way to-morrow. Our interest in our fellow-man subsists unchanged forever, and we take a perennial delight in the revelation of the subtleties of human nature. It is in the Antiquary and in the Heart of Midlothian that Scott is seen at his best; and it is by creating characters like Caleb Balderstone and Dugald Dalgetty and Wandering Willie that he has deserved to endure.

In work of this kind Scott showed himself a Realist. He revealed himself as a humorist with a compassionate understanding of his fellow-creatures. He gave play to that sense of reality which Bagehot praises as one of the most valuable of his characteristics. When he is dealing with medieval life,—which he knew not at first hand, as he knew his Scottish peasants, but afar off from books,—the result is unreal. He was as well read in history as any man of his time; and he himself explained his superiority over the host of imitators who encompassed him about, by saying that they read to write, while he wrote because he had read. But this knowledge was second-hand, at best: it was not like his day-in-day-out acquaintance with the men of his own time; and this is why the unreality of Ivanhoe, for instance, is becoming more and more obvious to us. The breaking of the lances in the lists of Ashby-de-la-Zouch is to us a hollow sham, like the polite tournament at Eglinton. The deeds of daring of Ivanhoe and of the Black Knight and of Robin Hood still appeal to the boy in us; but they are less and less convincing to the man.

Although Ivanhoe and Robin Hood and the Black Knight are boldly projected figures, their psychology is summary. How could it be anything else? With all his genius, Scott was emphatically a man of his own time and of his own country, with the limitations and the prejudices of the eighteenth century and of the British Isles. Few of his warmest admirers would venture to suggest that he was as broad in sympathy as Shakspere, or as universal in his vision; and yet he was trying to reconstruct the past for us, in deed and feeling and thought—the very thing that Shakspere never attempted. The author of Much Ado about Nothing and of the Comedy of Errors was content to people the foreign plots he borrowed so lightly with the Elizabethans he knew so well. The author of Ivanhoe and of the Talisman made a strenuous effort to body forth the very spirit of epochs and of lands wholly unlike the spirit of the eighteenth century in the British Isles. It is a proof of Scott's genius that he came so near success; but failure was inevitable. "After all," said Taine, "his characters, to whatever age he transports them, are his neighbors—canny farmers, vain lairds, gloved gentlemen, young marriageable ladies, all more or less commonplace, that is, well ordered by education and character, hundreds of miles away from the voluptuous fools of the Restoration or the heroic brutes and forcible beasts of the Middle Ages."

The fact is that no man can step off his own shadow. By no effort of the will can he thrust himself backward into the past and shed his share of the accumulations of the ages, of all the myriad accretions of thought and sentiment and knowledge, stored up in the centuries that lie between him and the time he is trying to treat. Of necessity he puts into his picture of days gone by more or less of the days in which he is living. Shakspere frankly accepted the situation: Scott attempted the impossible. Racine wrote tragedies on Greek subjects; and he submitted to be bound by rules which he supposed to have been laid down by a great Greek critic. To the spectator who saw these plays when they were first produced, they may have seemed Greek; but to us, two hundred years later, they appear to be perhaps the most typical product of the age of Louis XIV; and a great French critic has suggested that to bring out their full flavor they should be performed nowadays by actors wearing, not the flowing draperies of Athens, but the elaborate court-dress of Versailles. Phedre is interesting to us to-day, not because it is Greek, but because it is French; and some of Scott's stories, hailed on their publication as faithful reproductions of medieval manners, will doubtless have another interest, in time, as illustrations of what the beginning of the nineteenth century believed the Middle Ages to be.

Not only is it impossible for a man to get away from his own country, but it is equally impossible for him to get away from his own nationality. How rarely has an author been able to create a character of a different stock from his own! Certainly most of the great figures of fiction are compatriots of their makers. We have had many carpetbag novelists of late—men and women who go forth gaily and study a foreign country from the platform of a parlor-car; and some of these are able to spin yarns which hold the attention of listening thousands. What the people of the foreign countries think of these superficial tales we can measure when we recall the contempt in which we Americans hold the efforts made by one and another of the British novelists to lay the scene of a story here in the United States. Dickens and Trollope and Reade were men of varied gifts, keen observers all of them; but how lamentable the spectacle when they endeavored to portray an American! Probably most American endeavors to portray an Englishman are quite as foolish in the eyes of the British. Dickens twice chose to compete with the carpet-bag novelists; and if we Americans are unwilling to see a correct picture of our life in Martin Chuzzlewit, we may be sure that the French are as unwilling to acknowledge the Tale of Two Cities as an accurate portrayal of the most dramatic epoch in their history. There are those who think it was a piece of impertinence for a Londoner like Dickens to suppose that he could escape the inexorable limitations of his birth and education and hope to see Americans or Frenchman as they really are; finer artists than Dickens have failed in this—artists of a far more exquisite touch.

The masterpieces of the great painters instantly declare the race to which the limner himself belonged. Rubens and Velasquez and Titian traveled and saw the world; they have left us portraits of men of many nationalities: and yet every man and woman Rubens painted seems to us Dutch; every man and woman Velasquez painted seems to us Spanish; every man and woman Titian painted seems to us Italian. The artists of our own time, for all their cosmopolitanism, are no better off; and when M. Bonnat has for sitters Americans of marked characteristics he cannot help reproducing them on canvas as though they had been reflected in a Gallic mirror. In short, a man can no more escape from his race than he can escape from his century; it is the misfortune of the historical novelist that he must try to do both.

The Atalanta in Calydon of Mr. Swinburne has been praised as the most Greek of all modern attempts to reproduce Greek tragedy; and it may deserve this eulogy—but what of it? It may be the most Greek of the modern plays, but is it really Greek after all? Would not an ancient Greek have found in it many things quite incomprehensible to him? Even if it is more or less Greek, is it as Greek as the plays the Greeks themselves wrote? Why should an Englishman pride himself on having written a Greek play? At best he has but accomplished a feat of main strength, a tour deforce, an exercise in literary gymnastics! A pastiche, a paste jewel, is not a precious possession. A Greek play written by a modern Englishman remains absolutely outside the current of contemporary literature. It is a kind of thing the Greeks never dreamed of doing; they wrote Greek plays because they were Greeks and could do nothing else; they did not imitate the literature of the Assyrians nor that of the Egyptians; they swam in the full center of the current of their own time. If Sophocles were a modern Englishman, who can doubt that he would write English plays, with no backward glance toward Greek tragedy? The lucidity, the sobriety, the elevation of the Greeks we may borrow from them, if we can, without taking over also the mere external forms due to the accidents of their age.

Art has difficulties enough without imposing on it limitations no longer needful. Let the dead past bury its dead. This has been the motto of every great artist, ancient and modern, of Dante, of Shakspere, and of Moliere. A man who has work to do in the world does not embarrass himself by using a dead language to convey his ideas. Milton's Latin verse may be as elegant as its admirers assert; but if he had written nothing else, this page might need a footnote to explain who he was. If a layman may venture an opinion, the use of Gothic architecture in America at the end of the nineteenth century seems an equivalent anachronism. Gothic is a dead language; and no man to-day in the United States uses it naturally, as he does the vernacular. One of the most accomplished of American architects recently drew attention to the fact that "such a perfect composition and exquisite design as M. Vaudremer's church of Montrouge, Paris, unquestionably the best and ablest attempt in our time to revive medieval art, is considered cold even by his own pupils"; and then Mr. Hastings explains that "this is because it lacks the life we are living, and at the same time is without the real medieval life." Gothic was at its finest when it was the only architecture that was known, and when it was used naturally and handled freely and unconsciously—just as the best Greek plays were written by the Greeks.

In other words, the really trustworthy historical novels are those which were a-writing while the history was amaking. If the Tale of Two Cities misrepresents the Paris of 1789, the Pickwick Papers represents with amazing humor and with photographic fidelity certain aspects of the London of 1837. The one gives us what Dickens guessed about France in the preceding century, and the other tells us what he saw in England in his own time. Historical novel for historical novel, Pickwick is superior to the Tale of Two Cities, and Nicholas Nickleby to Barnaby Rudge. No historical novelist will ever be able to set before us the state of affairs in the South in the decade preceding the Civil War with the variety and the veracity of Uncle Tom's Cabin, written in that decade. No American historian has a more minute acquaintance with the men who made the United States than Mr. Paul Leicester Ford; and yet one may venture to predict that Mr. Ford will never write a historical novel having a tithe of the historical value possessed by his suggestive study of the conditions of contemporary politics in New York city, the Honorable Peter Stirling. Nevertheless there are few librarians bold enough to catalogue Pickwick and Uncle Tom and Peter Stirling under historical fiction.

One of the foremost merits of the novel, as of the drama, is that it enlarges our sympathy. It compels us to shift our point of view, and often to assume that antithetic to our custom. It forces us to see not only how the other half lives, but also how it feels and how it thinks. We learn not merely what the author meant to teach us: we absorb, in addition, a host of things he did not know he was putting in—things he took for granted, some of them, and things he implied as a matter of course. This unconscious richness of instruction cannot but be absent from the historical novel—or at best it is so obscured as to be almost non-existent.

In Anna Karenina one can see Russian life in the end of this century as Tolstoy knows it, having beheld it with his own eyes: in War and Peace we have Russian life in the beginning of this century as Tolstoy supposes it to have been, not having seen it. One is the testimony of an eye-witness: the other is given on information and belief. Pendennis and the Newcomes and Vanity Fair—for all that the last includes the battle of Waterloo, fought when Thackeray was but a boy—are written out of the fulness of knowledge: Henry Esmond is written out of the fulness of learning only. In the former there is an unconscious accuracy of reproduction, while in the latter unconsciousness is impossible. The historical novel cannot help being what the French call voulu—a word that denotes both effort and artificiality. The story-teller who deals honestly with his own time achieves, without taking thought, a fidelity simply impossible to the story-teller who deals with the past, no matter how laboriously the latter may toil after it.

In fact, the more he labors, the less life is there likely to be in the tale he is telling: humanity is choked by archeology. It calls for no research to set forth the unending conflict of duty and desire, for example. If we examine carefully the best of the stories usually classed under historical fiction we shall find those to be the most satisfactory in which the history is of least importance, in which it is present only as a background. The examination may lead to a subdivision of the class of historical fiction into the actual historical novel and the novel in which history is wholly subordinate, not to say merely incidental.

A British critic, Professor George Saintsbury, has laid down the law that "the true historical novelist employs the reader's presumed interest in historical scene and character as an instrument to make his own work attractive." Although it would be easy to dissent from this dictum, it may be used to explain the distinction drawn in the preceding paragraph. A tale of the past is not necessarily a true historical novel: it is a true historical novel only when the historical events are woven into the texture of the story. Applying this test, we see that the Bride of Lammermoor is not a true historical novel; and this is perhaps the reason why it is held in high esteem by all lovers of genuine Romance. By the same token, the Scarlet Letter is not a true historical novel.

Neither in the Bride of Lammermoor nor in the Scarlet Letter is there any reliance upon historical scene or character for attraction. Scott was narrating again a legend of an inexplicable mystery: but although the period of its occurrence was long past when he wrote, he presented simply the characters enmeshed in the fateful adventure, and relied for the attractiveness of his story upon the inherent interest of the weird climax toward which the reader is hurried breathless under the weight of impending doom. Hawthorne was captivated by a study of conscience, the incidents of which could be brought out more conveniently and more effectively by throwing back the time of the tale into the remote past.

In another story of Scott's, not equal to the Bride of Lammermoor in its tragic intensity, but superb in its resolute handling of emotion, the Heart of Midlothian, there is perhaps a stiffer infusion of actual history; but it would be rash to suggest that in its composition the author relied on historical scene or character to make his work attractive. The attraction of the Heart of Midlothian lies in its presentation of character at the crisis of its existence. So in the Romola of George Eliot, although the author obviously spent her strength in trying to transmute the annals of Florence into her narrative, the historical part is unconvincing; the episode of Savonarola is seen to be an excrescence; and what remains erect now is a wholly imaginary trinity—the noble figure of Romola, the pretty womanliness of little Tessa, and the easy-going Tito, with his moral fiber slowly disintegrating under successive temptations. Tito is one of the great triumphs of modern fiction, not because he is a Greek of the Renascence, but because he is eternal and to be found whenever and wherever man lacks strength to resist himself.

If we were thus to go down the list of so-called historical novels, one by one, we might discover that those which were most solidly rooted in our regard and affection are to be included in the subdivision wherein history itself is only a casual framework for a searching study of human character, and that they are cherished for the very same qualities as are possessed by the great novels of modern life. Without going so far as to say that the best historical novel is that which has the least history, we may at least confess the frank inferiority of the other subdivision in which the author has been rash enough to employ historical scene and character to make his own work attractive. What gives charm and value to Henry Esmond is exactly what gives charm and value to Vanity Fair—Thackeray's understanding of his fellow-man, his sympathetic insight into human nature, his happy faculty for dramatically revealing character by situation. Perhaps the eighteenthcentury atmosphere, with which Thackeray was able to surround Esmond only by infinite skill, is not breathed comfortably by the most of those who enjoy the book for its manly qualities. One feels that the author has won his wager—but at what a cost, and at what a risk!

Some logical readers of this essay may be moved to put two and two together, and to accuse the present writer of a desire to disparage the historical novel, because he has tried to show, first, that the novelists cannot reproduce in their pages the men and women of another epoch as these really thought and felt, and, second, that the novelists who have attempted historical fiction have best succeeded when they brought the fiction to the center of the stage and left the history in the background. But to draw this conclusion would be unjust, since the writer really agrees with the views of Sainte-Beuve as expressed in a letter to Champfleury: "The novel is a vast field of experiment, open to all the forms of genius. It is the future epic, the only one, probably, that modern manners will hereafter justify. Let us not bind it too tightly; let us not lay down its theory too rigidly; let us not organize it."

To point out that a historical novel is great—when it is great—because of its possession of the identical qualities that give validity to a study of modern life, is not to suggest that only the contemporary novel is legitimate. To dwell on the deficiencies of the historical novel is not to propose that only realistic fiction be tolerated hereafter. But perhaps a due consideration of these inherent defects of the historical novel may lead the disinterested reader to confess its essential inferiority to the more authentic fiction, in which the story-teller reports on humanity as he actually sees it. And if Romance is preferred to Realism, Romance is purest when purged of all affection.

Genuine Romance is always as delightful as shoddy Romanticism is always detestable. Fantasy is ever beautiful, when it presents itself frankly as fantasy. Undine does not pretend to accuracy; and the Arabian Nights never vaunted itself as founded on the facts of Haroun-al-Rashid's career. Stevenson's romances, artistically truthful, though they contradict the vulgar facts of every-day existence,—Markheim, for example, and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,—bid fair to outlive his Romanticist admixtures of Scott and Dumas; and the New Arabian Nights, with its matter-of-fact impossibility, will outweigh the Master of Ballantrae a dozen times over. But pure Romance and frank fantasy are strangely rare; there are very few Hoffmanns and Fouques, Poes and Stevensons, in a century—and only one Hawthorne.

Not long ago an enterprising American journalist wrote to some twoscore of the story-tellers of Great Britain and of the United States to inquire what, in their opinion, the object of the novel was. Half a dozen of the replies declared that it was "to realize life"; and the rest—an immense majority—were satisfied to say that it was "to amuse." Here we see the practitioners of the art divided in defining its purpose; and a like diversity of opinion can be detected among the vast army of novel-readers. Some think that fiction ought to be literature, and that "literature is a criticism of life." Some hold that fiction is mere story-telling—the stringing together of adventure, the heaping up of excitement, with the wish of forgetting life as it is, of getting outside of the sorry narrowness of sordid and commonplace existence into a fairy-land of dreams where Cinderella always marries Prince Charming and where the haughty sisters always meet with their just punishment. It is to readers of this second class that the ordinary historical novel appeals with peculiar force; for it provides the drug they desire, while they can salve their conscience during this dissipation with the belief that they are, at the same time, improving their minds. The historical novel is aureoled with a pseudo-sanctity, in that it purports to be more instructive than a mere story: it claims—or at least the claim is made in its behalf—that it is teaching history. There are those who think that it thus adds hypocrisy to its other faults.

Bagehot—and there is no acuter critic of men and books, and none with less literary bias—Bagehot suggested that the immense popularity of Ivanhoe was due to the fact that "it describes the Middle Ages as we should wish them to be." This falsification characteristic of the historical novel in general is one of its chief charms in the eyes of those who like to be ravished out of themselves into an illusion of a world better than the one they, unfortunately, have to live in. "All sensible people know that the Middle Ages must have been very uncomfortable," continues Bagehot. "No one knew the abstract facts on which this conclusion rests better than Scott; but his delineation gives no general idea of the result: a thoughtless reader rises with the impression that the Middle Ages had the same elements of happiness which we have at present, and that they had fighting besides." Scott knew better, of course; but though "when aroused, he could take a distinct view of the opposing facts, he liked his own mind to rest for the most part in the same pleasing illusion." Perhaps Bagehot might have agreed with some later critics who have held that many of Scott's novels are immoral because of this falsification of historic truth—a charge which receives no support from the Bride of Lammermoor, for example, nor from the Heart of Midlothian, and half a dozen other of his stories, in which Scott's strong sense of reality and his fine feeling for Romance are displayed in perfect harmony.

Alfred Tresidder Sheppard

SOURCE: "The Germ and the Plot," in The Art & Practice of Historical Fiction, Humphrey Toulmin, 1930, 81-94.

[In the excerpt that follows, Sheppard discusses the sources and ideas that inspired such historical novels as Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Sir Walter Scott's Woodstock, and George Eliot's Romola.]

"A little Plote of my simple penning."—LORD DARNLEY (1554).


That indefatigable antiquary, folklorist, historian, ecclesiast and writer of historical (and other) fiction, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, made it a rule to read no reviews, and possibly because of that his work suffered. George Henry Lewes, treating George Eliot much as if she were a Grand Lama, was careful to keep from her knowledge any adverse criticisms of her work. Charles Dickens read very few novels. When he wrote A Tale of Two Cities he was staggered … at the cart-load of books on the Revolution sent to his door in response to his suggestion by Carlyle.

I think myself that anyone anxious to attempt the historical novel will be well advised to know nothing of an Index Expurgatorius. Victor Hugo's mother was wiser than her world thought her when she allowed her boy to roam at large among books, good, indifferent, and bad. It is useful to know what has been done in the same field, to trace origins and developments, and to study criticisms. One should, of course, be ready to criticize the critics, some of whom I propose to criticize by and by. A wide reading of the historical novel in all its stages aided by the estimates of men competent to judge is immensely useful. One can see how this writer and that have dealt with situations, problems, difficulties; one can distinguish between failure and success, and perhaps see the causes of each.

I have endeavoured to trace very roughly the development of the historical novel from the early legends, anecdotes, chansons de geste, and mediaeval romances, to the present day, because I am convinced that many writers fail through ignorance of the work that has preceded them. One need not be a sedulous ape, but example, good or bad, is better than precept where it is a case of avoiding pitfalls, or attempting to do better than the best. There have been very great historical novels. The perfect historical novel has never yet been written, and may never be. It must preserve the merits and avoid the demerits of the great writers, and even then draw something from lesser writers where the great have failed. It must preserve dignity and avoid grandiloquence, preserve atmosphere and avoid the archaic carried to extremes, preserve accuracy of background and avoid the crowding out of the human interest, preserve strength and avoid the needlessly coarse and ruthless and morbid, preserve the dramatic without being melodramatic, preserve proportion without sacrificing detail. Whether it will ever be written I do not know. There is no great historical novel without obvious and even glaring faults. Those who essay this form will, unless by a miracle, fail themselves; but at least they should at the outset attempt the miracle of throwing the rope of the wagon across a star.


An eminent historian writing of the Middle Ages has said that every country has possessed in its own primeval literature the first germ of romance. Just as in the rude epic of our forefathers, in the snatch of song in which modern rhyme was preceded by primitive means of arresting the ear, in the nursery tale or legend with its simple but often very effective plot (take, for instance, the ancient story of the spinning girl helped by, and then circumventing, the power of evil) are to be found the germs of our modern historical fiction, so each novel begins in the mind of its author with a germ from which the whole book is finally to grow. I remember having a long discussion once on this subject with an historical novelist who endeavoured to show how different books had sprung from a still-traceable germ, and held the theory that every great book could be set down in essence in a few words. A postcard (it was urged) ought to hold even The Grand Cyrus. Recently I was reminded of this by a reference in Lytton to authors who take the germs of their novels from history, and by another comment by a critic that the germ of a novel and the content of it should be reducible to a dozen or a score of words.

How does any historical novel, great or small, have its origin and take shape and bulk from that first beginning?

Lytton wrote himself, in another passage, "To my mind a writer should sit down to compose a fiction as a painter prepares to compose a picture. His first care should be the conception of a whole as lofty as intellect can grasp." Stevenson said, "A work of art is first cloudily conceived in the mind." One of our most popular modern novelists has said that the idea of his most famous book came to him from a train journey and the sight of someone sitting opposite him in the carriage round whom a hazy story began to weave itself. In The Young Duke Disraeli (Lord Beaconsfield) gave a receipt for writing a novel: "Take a pair of pistols, a pack of cards, a cookery-book, and a set of new quadrilles; mix them up with half an intrigue and a whole marriage, and divide them into three equal portions." (It was, of course, the day of the three-decker.) Alexander Pope once wrote a recipe for an epic poem, treating it as if a plum-pudding were in the making; an important ingredient was the "fable" or plot, which could be taken out of any "old poem, history book, romance, or legend."

We have in a Book of Memoranda by Charles Dickens the germ of A Tale of Two Cities, but it would be impossible to construct from it the novel as it finally appeared; his first idea, which could easily go onto a postcard, ran:

How as to a story in two periodswith a lapse of time between, like a French drama?

This first indefinite "germ-idea" was followed by "Titles for such a notion." He had always great difficulties with his titles, and took immense, though certainly not wasted, time in making a final choice. Here are the first efforts at a title for the story in two periods which became the Tale of Two Cities:


For some time the idea was laid aside, though evidently a book was shaping gradually. "One of These Days," "Buried Alive," "The Thread of Gold," "The Doctor of Beauvais," were considered and rejected. In March, 1859, he wrote "This is to certify that I have got exactly the name for the story that is wanted; exactly what will fit the opening to a T: A Tale of Two Cities."

Alexandre Dumas attached far more importance to the idea and conception of a novel than to the actual execution: this, he thought, of quite minor importance. Before putting pen to paper he gave the closest attention to the planning of his book. When success had come to him, he would lie silent for days, it is said, on the deck of his yacht imagining, thinking, planning, until the plot had taken clear shape from the germinal idea, and everything had been carefully arranged. He wrote very rapidly when the actual penmanship began. Once he accepted a challenge to prove this; he was to write the first volume of the Chevalier de Maison Rouge (the plot having already matured) in sixty-two hours, including sufficient time for sleep and food; the book was to fill seventy-five pages, with forty-five lines to each page. He finished his task in less than the appointed time. Some of his historical novels were built up from an anecdote.

The greatest difficulty which any novelist, but especially the historical novelist, has to face is the difficulty of selection. What the Right Hon. H. A. L. Fisher said recently about the art of literature consisting in omissions seems to me not only tersely put but important and, to a large extent, true. As a matter of fact, Stevenson had said the same thing. It is not, or should not be, hard to find the germ or even the plot for novels. It is hard to find the germ or plot for a novel. When a journalist complained to Lord Northcliffe about the difficulty of finding ideas for articles, he was told that a bus-ride down Fleet Street ought to supply ideas enough to fill a newspaper; which is perfectly true, given the eye that can see what the ordinary eye misses. 0. Henry said that you had only to knock at any door and say "All is discovered!" to find a story. In every period of history, in every episode, in a fragment of stone, in an old weapon, in a name on a desolate grave, in a scrap of verse, is the germ of an historical novel. The difficulty is, or should be, selection. The selection of title is a difficulty. The selection of character and incident is a difficulty. And it is as important to know what to reject as what to select.

Perhaps I may be forgiven here if, by way of illustration, I give some scraps from my own experience. The germ of my first novel, The Red Cravat, lay in a paragraph in Carlyle's Frederick the Great, where Frederick William of Prussia gives a letter to a girl which is really an order for her instant marriage to one of his giant grenadiers; she discovers or suspects this, and hands it to an old woman who is promptly married when it is delivered. In my book the grenadier became English, the letter or order after vicissitudes secured his marriage to an English girl with whom he was in love. (But almost always one wanders much farther than this from the germinal idea, which sometimes, when the book is finished, seems altogether lost. The Red King cried out, when Alice, coming through the Looking Glass, took hold of the end of his pencil, "It writes all manner of things that I don't intend.") Running Horse Inn began with the idea of writing a novel round a little wooden inn I knew at Herne Bay, calling it by another name, and part of the germinal idea included a certain episode in a trial for murder, early in the nineteenth century, when a scrap of torn newspaper used as the wad of a gun proved guilt. The Rise of Ledgar Dunstan and The Quest ofLedgar Dunstan were based on the hypothesis that the world war might have been the secret and unintentional work of one obscure individual. A Son of the Manse might have been summed up in a few words as a study of the results in certain cases of harsh, procincial Nonconformity on sensitive natures. Consciously or unconsciously it undoubtedly owed something to George Douglas Brown's powerful but gloomy The House with the Green Shutters. The Autobiography of Judas Iscariot was inspired by a scrap of legend and a little story by Anatole France. Brave Earth was the result of a paragraph read in an old copy of Baker's Chronicle picked up on a Cambridge bookstall. This paragraph described the unexpected fate of a Bodmin man during the Western Insurrection under Humphry Arundell in 1549, but the novel drifted far beyond this one episode, which had, in the end, no essential connection with the plot or book. Here Comes an Old Sailor was based on an old legend; the scenes were placed chiefly at Fordwich, because that tiny forgotten port of Canterbury had caught my imagination during a visit long before the book came to be written. Queen Dick first began to take shape after reading some verses about Queen Dick—Richard Cromwell—among some contemporary tracts and broadsheets.

In every case, the book itself was, in the end, very different from my first intention—in more ways, unfortunately, than one. In my short stories germinal ideas have come, I find on reflection, from the suggestions of friends (one was based on a description of the game of Pool) on a chance remark made by a chambermaid in a French hotel about a neighbouring circus, on newspaper paragraphs, on a journey in the tube when the lights went out suddenly and unexpectedly, on memories attached to a certain old wooden seat at a watering-place long ago, on scraps in old chronicles and histories, on an incident in school life which I transferred to Napoleonic days, with grown men instead of boys for the actors. There is no reason to reject anything because one finds it first in a modern setting. What happens in a modern liner may (unless one is attempting another story like "The Ship that Found Herself"—and perhaps even then) be made to happen in a Spanish galleon, a Cinque-Port ship, a Viking-ship, a coracle. A train may become a stage coach. A tank of today's warfare may be the wooden horse of Troy.

I do not know whether it is the experience of most authors that books drift very far from the first intention, but probably in the majority of cases the final result is far indeed from the preliminary nutshell form, or even from a carefully elaborated plot. With Scott this was certainly the case, though he was careful to warn young writers that he did not advise them to imitate his own methods. He said often that he could never adhere to a written-out careful plot; ideas rose as he wrote. When he was at work on Woodstock—a novel which I have heard one distinguished critic describe as the best of Scott's novels, though I am far from agreeing with him—he reports in his Journal, "This morning I had some good ideas respecting Woodstock which will make the story better. The devil of a difficulty is that one puzzles the skein in order to excite curiosity, and then cannot disentangle it for the satisfaction of the prying fiend they have raised." On the 12th of February, 1826, he wrote again: "Having ended the second volume of Woodstock last night I have to begin the third this morning. Now I have not the slightest idea how the story is to be wound up to a catastrophe. I am just in the same case as I used to be when I lost myself in former days in some country to which I was a stranger. I always pushed for the pleasantest road, and either found or made it the nearest.… I only tried to make that which I was actually writing diverting and interesting, leaving the rest to fate. A perilous style, but I cannot help it. I would not have young writers imitate my carelessness, however."

In spite of his faults and foibles, Scott was too essentially modest to be unaware of his own faults; or of many of them. While engaged on one of his novels he broke off to have a nap, first urging his readers to do the same—at all events, in his Journal, to which he confided his difficulties and dissatisfactions. Publication in parts, or in threevolume form, itself led to a certain looseness in the work of most of our earlier novelists. J. R. Lowell once said that he himself could not write a novel, nor conceive how any-one else was able to, and he would sooner be hanged than begin to print anything before he had wholly finished it. "Moreover," he added, "what can a man do when he is a treadmill?" Scott, when ill-health and his noble effort to redeem his fortunes made his work largely a treadmill business, certainly wrote many a careless and dreary page, but I think there is still some truth in what a once popular Scottish writer,...

(The entire section is 25183 words.)