« VorigeDoorgaan »
THE HISTORICAL NOVEL.
THE historical novel is no longer in novelists, less easily daunted, makes fashion. There is without doubt one its heroic charge into university slang very good reason for this. We have and the secrets of the smoking-room ; no longer amongst us writers like Sir and we exclaim, “C'est magnifique,' Walter Scott or the elder Dumas. but we do not look for success. If the But something more than this would pitfalls lie so close at our door, to seem to be implied by the current plunge into the dim distances of hiscritical opinion. Readers of the tory must surely be to court disaster. literary journals must have noticed And when, instead of considering prothe sort of contemptuous forbearance babilities, we turn to actual examples shown to the new writers who still in of novels historical and unhistorical these days attempt the historical novel. by the same authors, it may seem to The critics seem to feel towards them many that a comparison of, say, much as the mathematician feels Romola with Adam Bede, or of Esmond towards the man who is to square the with The Newcomes, goes to support circle or to discover perpetual motion the view of the critics. In spite of -to feel, that is, that the
fellows the subtle truth of the picture of moral are foredoomed to failure, and that they dissolution presented in Tito, most really ought to know better than to people in reading Romola experience a attempt impossibilities. The implica- chilling sense of general unreality, and tion is, that, in itself, and quite apart withal a fatiguing consciousness of the
from the particular merits of the author's effort to be accurately Floren| writers, the historical novel is an im- tine, which prevents it from taking
possible form of art. Now, if these in their hearts an equal place with the critics condemn the historical romances earlier stories of middle-class English of Scott and Dumas, that is a judg- life. Esmond is a favourable example ment of importance which, in deference for the author : the age of Queen Anne to the position of the condemned, is not very far removed from to-day, should be delivered at length, with its and the pages of The Spectator make grounds explicitly stated. If on the its characters and manners familiar. other hand they shrink from condemn- Thackeray had an intimate literary ing
cott end Dumas, it becomes knowledge of it — indeed Professor interesting to examine the causes Seeley has had to combat the heresy which have rendered that impossible that the novelist would have been its to-day which was so brilliantly possible best historian. Yet Esmond too, earlier in the century.
charming as it is, suffers, some have The opinion of the critics does not thought, from its slight constraint of at first sound unreasonable.
It is a
pose : it does not throb, they say, with matter of common observation how life-blood, like The Newcomes and sadly writers err the moment they Vanity Fair. Nay, take Scott himself. leave the sphere of their personal The late Professor Green of Oxford experience. The male novelist, who once said outright that the permanent is wise, shuns the details of his value of the Waverley Novels lay in heroine's dress, and, like Mr. Black, their pictures of the Scottish peasantry. contents bimself with such safe
gene Certainly Scott's strongest work in ralities as “all in cream' white with a some respects is to be found in his bunch of scarlet geraniums in her peasants and lairds and bailies. It bosom.” The light brigade of lady is the Dandie Dinmonts and Nicol
Jarvies whom we know as real people, Chester should chastise them with and who recur to our minds in thinking scorpions. The former, indeed, in a over Scott's characters, Set Jeanie lecture recently republished, concluded Deans side by side with Rebecca, or a list of essential preliminaries to Davie Deans by Isaac of York, and if understanding the age of the Crusades the latter lose none of their pictur with this admonition : “and if you esque charm, they surely at least lose can so steel yourselves, forbear from some of their living reality.
reading Ivanhoe.” Alas, it must be Nor has this view of the intrinsic admitted that when we were underimpossibility of the historical romance graduates at Oxford our tutor never been left to be implied by the tone of had to warn us to forbear, if we could anonymous critics. It has often been so steel ourselves, from reading our openly expressed. The hostility of the Freeman and our Stubbs. But in professed historians was no doubt to truth (and this is the first thing to be expected. But there is Mr. Leslie make ourselves clear about) objecStephen, a professed literary critic, tions from the point of view of the who has spoken in his time much good tutor of history are not necessarily sense about fiction, frankly giving up valid objections in the sphere of the historical novel. Hypatia and artistic criticism. There are no doubt Westward Ho! he speaks of as brilliant occasions when the tutor, like the but almost solitary exceptions to the British matron, may have a word to general dreariness of their class. He say on artistic questions. But our is sure they are full of bopeless inac present inquiry is not whether these curacies : he does not believe that men romances are good science, but whether like the Goths ever existed in this they are good art; and historical inworld ; and he is prepared to give up accuracy will only concern us if it the whole tribe of monks, pagans, spoil the novel as a novel, if it weaken, Jews and Fathers of the Church. Even that is, the interest of the story or in his “dear Ivanhoe” he thinks that the force of the dramatic passion. It the buff-jerkin business, which aroused is no part of the proper functior of Carlyle's easily aroused contempt, is art to impart information ; and the an element of decay, and that conse true povel-reader, recalling childish quently the book is on the high road experiences of powder and jam, will to ruin like one of Reynold's most care rather rejoice that his “dear Ivanhoe," lessly painted pictures.
is of no use for the schools. If it is with approval Sir Francis Palgrave's to be read at all, let it be read, not for opinion, that historical novels are the the sake of some illegitimately acmortal enemies of history; and adds quired information, but for its own for himself that they are mortal sake, that the reader, like Mr. Stephen, enemies of fiction.
“ There may be
may love Wilfred, and Front de Beuf, an exception or two, but as a rule the and Wamba the Witless; that he may task is simply impracticable. The shudder when Rebecca stands on the novelist is bound to come so near to dizzy edge that sunders death from the facts that we feel the unreality of dishonour; and breathe a sigh of rehis portraits.” This is plain speaking, lief, when the Templar, “ unscathed by but the interesting and important the lance of the enemy falls a victim point is that in spite of all this Mr. to the violence of his own contending Stephen confesses that he rejoices in passions." the Amal and Raphael ben Ezra, and In considering Mr. Stephens's stricthat he loves Ivanhoe and Front de tures on historical novels, the first Beuf and Wamba the Witless. thing that strikes one is, that similar
If the lover thus chastises them objections might be made as well to with whips it were not to be wondered most poetical treatments of historical if Mr. Freeman and the Bishop of subjects. An undergraduate who
should boast,like the great Duke of Marl illusion of literal conformity to fact is borough, that he had learnt all his his instinctively demanded of the novel. tory from Shakespeare, would, there This distinction is worth a little concan be no doubt, fare as badly at the sideration because a misunderstanding
hands of Mr. Freeman as he who had of its nature has given rise to two pioned his simple faith to Ivanhoe complementary errors ; on the one side
The Talisman. Wonderfully as the theory of the realists, on the other Julius Cæsar has caught the spirit a refusal to the novel of a place among of an epoch so different from Eliza the arts. bethan England, it would scarcely “ Your Shakespeare fashions his bear the microscope of modern re characters from the heart outwards ; search. And what then shall be said your Scott fashions them from the skin of Victor Hugo's incursions into these inward, never getting near the hearts sacred realms? Yet poetry is freely of them," wrote Carlyle (himself an allowed the license wbich is, it seems, unrivalled observer and painter of to be denied to the novel. There are men from the skin outwards) in his indeed not wanting signs that science essay on the creator of Dandie Dinmay ere long dispute this license in
And the contrast here sugthe case of poetry, and the point gested between Shakespeare and Scott was expressly raised by a reviewer is extended in Green's essay above of Mr. Browning's last volume. But mentioned into a general contrast bebitherto there has been a clear distinc tween the methods of poetry and the tion between the attitude of criticisin novel. “Tragedy," wrote Green, and to the bistorical novel, and its attitude the scope of his essay includes epic to historical plays or poems in respect poetry as well, of this matter of accuracy.
The attack Ivanhoe and Hypatia
“has no extraneous elements. It implies aconis not extended to Le Roi s'Amuse
scious effort of the spirit made for its own sake
to re-create human life according to spiritual or Henry the Fourth. Poetry has
laws: to transport itself from a world where been freely allowed to use all history chance and appetite seem hourly to give the as her storehouse of raw material, and lie to its self-assertion, into one where it may to re-create after her fashion its heroes
work unimpeded by anything but the antagon
isms inherent in itself, and the presence of an and heroines in her own image. In overruling law. The common facts of life as deed, a great part of our tinest litera it is, and always must have been, the influence ture is thus derived. This distinction of custom, the transition of passion into meof attitude cannot be accidental. It
chanical habit, the impossibility of continuous
effort, the necessary arrangements of society, must be due to an instinctive feeling the wants of our animal nature and all that in the minds of some readers at all results from them—these are excluded from events that the novels are spoiled by
view, and so much only of the material of the inaccuracy, while the poetry is not.
humanity is retained, as can take its form
from the action of the spirit, and become a And this would imply some essential
vehicle of pure passion. The false distinctions difference between the method of the of dress, of manner, of physiognomy are obtwo arts, the recognition of which may
literated, that the true individuality which throw light on the special point under
results from the internal modifications of pas
sion may be seen in clearer outline. The consideration. The distinction that
tragediai idealises because he starts from immediately occurs to one is that, while within. He reaches, as it were, the central poetry comes to us offering itself fire, in the heat of which every separate frankly as ideal re-creation, novels
faculty, every animal want, every fortuitous
incident is melted down and lost. The novel, present themselves professedly as nar
on the contrary, starts from the outside. Its ratives of fact. The novel is bound main texture is a web of incidents through to be natural, that is, to present its which the motions of the spirit must be disfacts in their every-day guise. The
cerned, if discerned at all. .. These inci.
dents must be probable, must be such as are reality looked for in the poem is truth
consistent with the observed sequences of the and consistency of conception; but an world.”
On this distinction Green based a through these means it throws a light critical judgment which banished the wbich is by no means of every day novel from the high company of the upon the tragic significance of some arts. This, we have been told, was quite ordinary destiny. That we may not Green's own maturer view; and it the better realise this let us look for was surely a harsh and narrow judg a moment at cases where a similar ment.
motive has been treated by masters No doubt in too many novels the in each art. Adam Bede, like the epidetails remain merely external, dead sode of Gretchen in Faust, is a tragedy matter unfused by the central heat. of seduction and child-murder. Le Père But an art must be judged by its suc
Goriot has been well called a French cesses and not by its failures; and in Lear, a tragedy of filial ingratitude the great novels the details are pene
and cruelty. Gretchen's hand was trated and made luminous. As against coarse and hard, just as Hetty's arms the naturalistic school of criticism, towards the wrists were coarsened with then, it must be insisted that all butter-making, and “other work that art, the art of M. Zola, or of Mr. ladies never did.” What Green might Howells, so far as it is art, is neces call the accident of social position is sarily ideal : so against this view of an element in both tragedies. But the Green's it is to be urged that, being setting of poor Gretchen's story is imideal, art need not shrink from the mediately significant to every educated dullest or ugliest facts of common life. intelligence in Christendom : the cirLike religion, art must call nothing cumstances are, so to speak, incarnate common nor unclean. In every age ideas-the temptation of the jewels, common life looks dull till it is touched the mocking maidens, the soldierby the spirit; but it is a Cinderella that brother, the Dies Iro in the dim catheonly waits the fairy wand. As Green dral. In Adam Bede, on the other himself
says in the same essay : “ The hand, the full force of the tragedy spirit descends that it may rise again, depends upon its complete detailed it penetrates more and more widely presentation of life and sentiment in into matter, that it may make the Hayslope --- details only immediately world more completely its own." Surely and thoroughly significant to people Shakespeare won this battle once for familiar with such life. We must all. It was the very triumph of his know and feel the relation of the
young genius to transfigure the clowns and squire to the tenants and villagers, Calibans, nay, to spiritualise this very and be at home at the rectory and matter which Green finds so clogging the Hall Farm : we must enter into to the spirit, dress, manner, and phy the spirit of the carpentering and siognomy. Let it not be forgotten butter-making, the birthday-feast and that the French critic of the old clas the Methodist preaching, and have sical school felt towards. Bardolph's sympathy with the pride of the selfnose-luminous with the spirit of Mrs. respecting Poysers. The pathos of the Quickly's excellent sack-very much trial and sentence, and of the perhaps what Green felt towards the apparently even more moving scene in the prison, circumstantial vulgarity of the novel. is the focus of the tragedy, but it is
Yet there can be no doubt that these not the whole tragedy. The trouble observations of Green and Carlyle at the Hall Farm is real and deep, touch a true distinction between the though it sounds querulous and selfish methods of the two arts; and it is a beside those terrible scenes.
“ She's distinction which affords a clue to the made our hearts bitter to us for all difficulty of the historical novel. The our lives to come, and we shall ne'er novel, in contrast to poetry, is bound hold up our heads i' this parish, nor i’ to present its subject in its every day any other.” We are made to feel even dress to the every-day mind, even when the oddly expressed but intensely char
acteristic grief of the old grandfather: add “ orama” to every other word in “I mun begin to be looked down on their witless sentences : salt without now, an' me turned seventy-two last much savour, one would have thought, St. Thomas', an' all th' under-bearers to season tasteless talk. At the end and pall-bearers as I'n picked for my of the book, when Goriot had drained funeral are i' this parish and the next drop by drop the cup of humiliation to't. It's o' no use now-I mun be and anguish, when by the grim deathta'en to the grave by strangers.” bed in the desolate and fetid garret to
Or again, compare Le Père Goriot which their extravagances had at last with King Lear. Lear is the spiritual reduced him, the two sisters, seeking tragedy of filial ingratitude for all money still, by their mutual recrimitime: the details supply a picturesque nations forced the poor old man to background or are swallowed up in face the fact he had tried to hide from the passion of the piece. Le Père himself, that they had no affection for Goriot is a tragedy of filial ingratitude him, that their cruelty had been wilful, accurately and elaborately set in the then there was wrung from him the circumstances of Parisian life of a pitiful cry : “Je sais cela depuis dix special and, it may be hoped, tran ans. Je me le disais quelquefois, mais sitory epoch. We feel with searching je n'osais pas y croire;' and at last the force Lear's spirit riven and all jangled tortured heart broke. Young Rasout of tune by the cruelty of Goneril tignac, fresh from the chamber of and Regan; but we do not get up with death, where he had witnessed the him in the morning and live with him long agony with its harrowing alterday by day, witnessing the partings nations of delirious invective and from the dismissed body-guards and maudlin self - reproach, comes down watching the growing shabbiness of into the dining-room of the pension. the once kingly raiment. Whereas we He is greeted with : “Eh bien, il parait see with our every-day eyes every aspect que nous allons avoir un petit mortof that Parisian life, and the form and orama là haut.” circumstance of each downward step We dwell on these details partly to in the long martyrdom of old Goriot. show, in disproof of Green's contention, And yet, see how every detail is an that even such sordid matters are not element in the central tragedy: the beyond the transfusing power of art, old retired tradesman's unfashionable but mainly to bring home to the mind style which banished the doating father the mass of intimate detail habitually from his daughter's table : the sordid employed by the novelist of this type. features of the pension to which the For to realise how abundant and conextravagances of those daughters drove vincing are such details in books like him : the very stains and torn paper Adam Bede or Le Père Goriot, to on the walls of the dining-room, the realise how not only the spirit but the heavy atmosphere which Balzac chris body of the tragedy is reproduced for tens odeur de pension, nay, the vapid us, is at the same time to realise the slang of the pensionnaires. There is hopelessness of the task of a writer who perbaps no more striking instance than should set about to do the same thing this last point of the transfusing by art for the age of the Crusades, or any age of matter intrinsically base, till it be but the one with which he himself is comes luminous. There is nothing in familiar. It is just because George this dull, transitory world so transitory Eliot conscientiously endeavoured to do and dull as stupid slang, and perhaps for Florence, for Savonarola and Tessa, the stupidest piece of slang, recorded what she did for Hayslope, for Mr. to man's shame, is the slang of the Irwine and Mrs. Poyser and Hetty, Maison Varquer. A panorama had that the book is the comparative failure been set up in Paris, and it became that it is. It is not merely that such tbe mode amongst the pensionnaires to details are beyond the reach of an