Thomas B(ertram) Costain Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)