The Historical Novel

Considered analytically, the term “historical fiction” is altogether anamolous for whereas history deals with facts, fiction deals with imaginary persons and incidents. Fact and fiction are considered to be normal antonyms. Trying to combine them is apparently like trying to yoke the ox and the unicorn together.

A historical work can be changed into a novel only by making it depart from facts, and a novel can be changed into history retrenching all fiction. Today fact and fiction are looked upon as altogether irreconcilable, but the setting up of a rigid distinction between the two is a comparable modern procedure. The ancient Greece and Rome and the medieval Europe recognised no such distinction. What they gave as literature was often a homogeneous and irresoluble mixture of truth and fiction. Ulysses, Helen of Troy, and King Arthur and his Round Table, for instance, are semi-historical and semi-legendary or even mythical figures, and so are their adventures. It was left for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to give history its true shape and function. Camden, Clarendon, Hume, Gibbon, and others progressively established a distinct line of demarcation separating the regions of history and fiction (including myth, hearsay, and all rationally indefensible particulars). Henceforward the mixing of the two was not to go unindicted.

Historical Novelists before Scott:
But a new species of fiction was destined to become popular even after this rigid demarcation had been effected, apparently for good. Scott was the greatest of all those who attempted this genre known as the historical novel. Far from distorting or wantonly tinkering with the historical truth, he vitalised the past by breathing into its dry bones a new spirit. We will consider the method and achievement of Scott at some length a little later; first, let us have a look at the writers who attempted the historical novel before Scott.
In general, the historical novelists before Scott were thoroughly unequipped and uninspired for their peculiar art. What they offered was not historical fiction but fictitious history. Their novels were, in many a case, hysterical rather than historical. Crudity, lack of knowledge and inspiration, and deficient artistry were their chief drawbacks. In fact, none of them was fit for the task. As Raleigh observes, the novels produced by them constitute the silliest, feeblest body of work to be found in the annals of prose fiction. Horace Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe had aimed at the illusion of antiquity with fair success, but had avoided explicit historical allusions and refrained from introducing well-known historical personages or, in fact any personages known to history at all. Some others who did so violated all sense of history. To take some instances. Miss Sophia Lee’s Recess and Harriet and Sophia Lee’s Canterbury Tales outraged history by introducing fantastic concoctions in the garb of true historical events. In the first-named novel, for example, there is celebrated a secret marriages- altogether unknown to and unsuspected by historians between Mary Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk. In the same novel, even Queen Elizabeth is hauled on to the stage and is made to show herself as a typical eighteenth-century dowager with all her manneristic bow-wow and copia verborum (=excessive talking). This vandalistic perversion of history comes nowhere near the true genius of a historical novelist, who may, indeed, change some minor details, select and reject, compress or dilate events, but can by no means be granted the licence to strike at the very foundations of history. Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs cannot be indicted in a like manner, as it was a genuine historical novel in most respects. Even then, it did not approach the novels of Scott, mainly because it failed to catch the genuine spirit of the past, not to speak of vitalising it. Now, to fail in recapturing the spirit of the past is a serious defect in a historical novel, for that is its very raison d’etre. Witness E. A. Baker’s statement that “to summon up a past epoch, to show men and women alive in it and behaving as they must have behaved in the circumstances is the labour and joy of the genuine historical novelist.”
There are two prequisites of a historical novelist:
(i)         sound academic knowledge of the period of history sought to be treated by him; and    
(ii)        In ntuition into the manners and morals prevalent in that period.
A mere smattering of the historical primer will not do; nor will even an erudite study, if the historical imagination and intuition are lacking. Hilare Belloc. however, discounts all learning and puts his faith on “some strange process of intuition.” But we cannot reasonably despise all learning and research. We would rather agree with Arthur Clarke who says: “It is not the question of research or no research but of managing the products of research.” As to how mere learning and perfect historical accuracy are not enough for a historical novel is apparent from the failure of Queenhoo Hall (1808) written by Joseph Strutt, which, after the author’s death, Scott was to complete. This novel has the first of the two pre requisites listed above, but completely “acks the second, with obvious results. Persons such as Sophia Lee and the Gothic romancers of the eighteenth century completely conformed to it, but none of them wrote a genuine historical novel.
Sir Walter Scott:
Scott was the first and last great historical novelist, of England. He avoided the pitfalls of his predecessors and set about the all-important task of actualising the past so as to show its manners and morals in a proper perspective to his contemporaries. He had both the qualities of a good historical novelist-deep study and an amazing intuition. Compton-Rickett observes in A History of English Literature: “He compels our interest by no literary trick, but by making us feel that men and women of a past age were real live human beings.” With his historical novels Scott proved, to quote Carlyle. “that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by state papers, controversies, and abstractions of men…It is a great service, fertile in consequence, this that Scott has done; a great truth laid open by him.” Scott vitalised the past and converted the monstrosities of his predecessors into the pure gold of creative imagination. Diana Neill observes in this connexion : “What Richardson, Fielding and Smollett had done in holding a mirror up to the eighteenth-century way of life, Scott did for the remote centuries of which his contemporaries knew nothing.” He took names and dates from the history primer and transformed them into imaginative literature. He assembled the dry bones of the past and quickened them with a vigorous life. History, like the picture in Walpole‘s Castle of Otranto. steps out of its moveless frame and talks. He walked through the tombs of time and, like an enchanter, brought to life their ghostly denizens. In calling forward the past, he resembles Prospero who controlled many spirits :
Spirits which by mine art
I have from their confines call’d to enact
My present fancies.
Scott was the first novelist who was really qualified for his peculiar job. He was a historical novelist not by mere endeavour but by his very temperament Charles Reade reconstructed the past with the art of a brilliant journalist; Thackeray refashioned it as a sympathetic critic; George Eliot treated it as a scholar; Scott simply breathed the past as a part and parcel of his thinking life. According to Baker, he was “a born romancer.” As a boy he had been “a glutton of books.” In his maturity he diligently applied himself to the study of old romances, chronicles, and histories concerning, particularly, the Scotland of yore. He was indeed quite confident of possessing a wide and intimate grasp of that knowledge which is the important qualification of a historical novelist. Added to this was a wonderful intuition which enabled him to evoke lifelike pictures of the past with a remarkable accuracy and an engaging fidelity.
Scott avoided the pitfall of his predecessors who either altogether excluded important historical events and persons, or else gave them a central importance. Scott did admit them but gave them, unlike the historian, a subordinate or. sometimes, a peripheral importance. For Scott their main importance lay in their capacity to influence the minor characters whom he gave a conspicuous position. His heroes and heroines are, with a few exceptions, historically unknown nonentities. More often it is a historical period (not a person or some persons) which occupies his central interest. A critic observes: “We see Papists and Puritans. Cavaliers and Roundheads Jews Jacobites and freebooters, all living the sort of life which the reader feels that in their circumstances and under the same conditions of time and place he might have lived too.”
Scott’s range as a historical novelist is really amazing. Not only does he deal with different countries but also with different centuries. We never find him at the same point more than once. Some of his novels like Guy Mannering (1815), Old Mortality (1816), and The Heart of Midlothian (1818) deal with Scotland; there are others, like Ivanhoe (1819), Kenilworth (1821), and The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), which are concerned with English history; still some others, like Ouentin Durward (1823) and The Talisman (1825), take us out of England to the Continent. Everywhere there is the same fidelity to essential historical facts and an imaginative and lively recreation of the spirit of the past. No other English novelists has a broader canvas or a surer brush. And there is the same fidelity in his representation of the bygone ages as there is in Dickens’ or Fielding’s representation of his own.
Some “limitations” of Scott as a novelist may here be taken cognizance of. The most important of them is his deficiency as a psychologist. He cannot, or at least does not, bring out shades and grades of passions. His characters are devoid of psychological subtleties. If they are they are virtuous virtuous through-and-through; if they are villains, their villainy is unconcealed and incorrigible. What Goethe said of Byron can be said of Scott-“the moment he reflects he is a child.” He thought of life not as a problem but as a colourful pageant. Here is Carlyle’s gibe at his characterisation : “Your Shakespeare fashions his characters from the heart outwards; your Scott fashions them from skin inwards, never getting near the heart of them.” His heroes are sticks and his heroines walking gowns. They merely respond to situations and do not create them. Scott himself admitted his contempt for some of his own heroes. He said of Edward Waverley, for instance, that he was a “sneaking piece of imbecility.”
Along with his deficient psychological equipment may be mentioned his lack of the architectonic skill. He did not give plot-construction much importance. He was given to saying: “It is no use having a plot; you cannot keep to it.” His plots resemble a sprawling Gothic cathedral without any symmetry. He followed and quoted Dryden’s remark too often : “What the devil does the plot signify, except to bring in good things?” What he aimed at was telling a good, interesting story. And he succeeded pretty well. “Scott”, observes Leslie Stephen, “is the most perfectly delightful story-teller natural by the fire-side.”
After Scott:
Scott began the vogue of the historical novel not only in England but other countries like Germany and France. In England Mrs. Anna Eliza Bray was the first of his successors to come into prominence. Her important work is The Protestant (1828) which deals with the persecution of the Protestants under Queen Mary Tudor. G. P. R. James wrote about a hundred historical novels between 1825 and 1850. They were popular, but without much merit. William Harrison Ainsworth also enjoyed much popularity for twenty years beginning with Rockwood (1834). Of the five historical romances by Bulwer Lytton the most popular is The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). He gave importance to didacticism and historical fidelity even in minor details. “Countless details”, says Cross, “which Scott would have cast aside, Bulwer put bodily into narrative. The result was more history, less imagination, and a slower movement.” Some Victorian writers used the historical novel for sectarian propaganda. Consider, for instance, Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia (1853) with the subtitle New Foes with an Old Face in which he attacked the Roman Catholics, and Newman’s counterblast Callista: A Sketch of the Tliird Century. Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852) sought to recreate the life of eighteenth-century England, and did so indeed with much plausibility. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Bambaby Rudge may also be considered as historical novels. George Eliot’s Romola aimed at representing the life of Italy during the period of the Renaissance. Among twentieth-century historical novelists may be mentioned Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Hetty Wesley and The Splendid Spur, Jacob Wassermann (The Triumph of Youth), Ford Madox Hueffer (The Fifth Queen), Miss Phoebe Gay (Vivandiere), and quite a few more. Indeed, it seems that the historical novel, a comparatively late dish in the banquet of literature, has come to please the palate for all times to come.

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