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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Though sometimes belittled by foolish criticism


That

the danger of the historical variety was entirely avoided by these its French practitioners cannot indeed be said. Even Scott had not wholly got the better of it in his less perfect pieces, such, for instance, as those already glanced-at parts of _The Monastery_, where historical _recit_ now and then supplies the place of vigorous novel-action and talk. Dumas' co-operative habits (which are as little to be denied as they are to be exaggerated) lent themselves to it much more freely. But, notwithstanding this, the total accession of pleasure to the novel-reader was immense, and the further possibility of such accession practically unlimited. And accordingly the kind, though sometimes belittled by foolish criticism, and sometimes going out of favour by the vicissitudes of mere fashion, has constantly renewed itself, and is likely to do so. Its special advantages and its special warnings are of some interest to discuss briefly. Among the first may be ranked something which the foolish belittlers above mentioned entirely fail to appreciate, and indeed positively dislike. The danger of the novel of ordinary and contemporary life (which accompanied this and which is to be considered shortly as such) is that there may be so much _mere_ ordinariness and contemporariness that the result may be distasteful, if not sickening, to future ages. This has (to take one example out of many) happened with the novels of so clever a person as Theodore Hook in England, even with comparatively elect
judges; with the vulgar it is said to have happened even with such consummate things as those of Miss Austen. With a large number of another sort of vulgar it is said to happen with "Victorian" novels generally, while even the elect sometimes find it difficult to prevent its happening with Edwardian and Fifth Georgian. Now the historical novelist has before him the entire range of the most interesting fashions, manners, incidents, characters, literary styles of recorded time. He has but to select from this inexhaustible store of general material, and to charge it with sufficient power of humanity of all time, and the thing is done.[339] Under no circumstances can the best historical novels ever lose their attraction with the best readers; and as for the others in each kind, who cares what happens to _them_?

There are, moreover, some interesting general rules about the historical novel which are well worth a moment's notice, even if this partake to some extent of the nature of repetition. The chief of them, which at least ought to be well known, is that it is never safe to make a prominent historical character, and seldom safe to make a prominent historical event, the central subject of your story. The reason is of course obvious. The generally known facts cramp and hamper the writer; he is constantly knocking against them, and finding them in the way of the natural development of his tale. No doubt there is, and has been, a good deal of otiose and even rather silly criticism of details in historical novels which do not satisfy the strict historian. The fuss which some people used to make about Scott's anachronisms in _Ivanhoe_ and _Kenilworth_; the shakings of heads which ought to know better, over Thackeray's dealings with the Old Chevalier and his scandals about Miss Oglethorpe in _Esmond_, can be laughed or wondered at merely. But then these are matters of no importance to the main story. It is Ivanhoe and Rebecca, Henry Esmond and Beatrix,[340] all of them persons absolutely unknown to history, in whom we are really interested; and in the other case mentioned, Amy Robsart is such a creature or "daughter," if not "of dreams" "of debate," that you may do almost what you like with her; and the book does not sin by presentation of a Leicester so very different from the historical.[341] But, on the other hand, the introduction of historical persons, skilfully used, seasons, enforces, and vivifies the interest of a book mightily; and the action of great historical scenes supports that of the general plot in a still more remarkable manner. On the whole, we may perhaps say that Dumas depends more on the latter, Scott on the former, and that the difference is perhaps connected with their respective bulk and position as dramatists. Dumas has made of no historical magnate anything like what Scott has made of Richard and of Mary and of Elizabeth; but Scott has not laid actual historical scenes under contribution to anything like the same extent as that by which Dumas has in a fashion achieved a running panorama-companion to the history of France from the fourteenth century to the Revolution and, more intensively, from the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew to the establishment of Louis XIV.'s autocracy.


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