Saturday, March 18, 2017

Edward Bulwer Lytton on the Historical Novel

excerpts from THE MONTHLY CHRONICLE
A National Journal of Politics, Literature, Science and Art
Volume 1: March-June 1838

LONDON: Longman & others

THE CRITIC – No. I [pg 42]
ON ART IN FICTION

PROSE FICTIONS
The Novelist has three departments for his art: MANNERS, PASSIONS, CHARACTER.
MANNERS
The delineation of manners embraces both past and present; the Modern and the Historical Romance.

The Historical [pg 43]

We have a right to demand from the writer who professes to illustrate a former age, a perfect acquaintance with its characteristics and spirit.  At the same time, as he intends rather to interest than instruct us, his art will be evinced in the illustrations he selects, and the skill with which they are managed.  He will avoid all antiquarian dissertations not essentially necessary to the conduct of his tale.  If, for instance, his story should have no connection with the mysteries of the middle ages, he will take care how he weary us with an episodical description that changes his character from that of a narrator into that of a lecturer.  In the tale of Notre Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo, the description of the cathedral of Notre Dame is not only apposite, but of the deepest interest; for the cathedral is, by a high effort of art, made an absolute portion of the machinery of the tale.  But the long superfluous description of the spectacle with which the story opens is merely a parade of antiquarian learning, because the Scholars and the Mysteries have no proportionate bearing whatever in the future development of the tale.

The usual fault of the historical novelist is over minuteness in descriptions of dress and feasts, of pageants and processions.  Minuteness is not accuracy.  On the contrary, the more the novelist is minute, the more likely he is to mar the accurate effect of the whole, either by wearisome tameness or some individual error.

An over-antiquated phraseology is a common and a most inartistical defect: whatever diction the delineator of a distant age employs, can never be faithful to the language of the time, for if so, it would be unintelligible. ..... The language of a former time should be presented to us in the freest and most familiar paraphrase we can invent.  Thus the mind is relieved at once from the task of forming perpetual comparisons, and surrenders itself to the delusion the more easily, from the very candour with which the author makes demand on its credulity. [At this point Bulwer Lytton takes his illustration fromany story of ancient Greece” but what he says could be applied to another place and time.]  The author will, therefore, agreeably surprise the reader, if he adopt a style as familiar and easy as that which a Greek would have used in common conversation; and show the classical spirit that pervades his diction, by the grace of the poetry, or the lightness of the wit, with which he can adorn his allusions and dialogue.  .....  instead of selecting such specimens and modifications of human nature as are most different from, and unfamiliar to, the sympathies of modern times, he will rather prefer to appeal to the eternal sentiments of the heart, by showing how closely the men of one age resemble those of another.  ...  The reader will be interested to see society different, yet men the same; and the Manners will be relieved from the disadvantage of unfamiliarity by an entire sympathy with the humours they mask, or the passions on which they play.

Again, if the author propose to carry his reader to the times of Richard the First or of Elizabeth, he will have to encounter an universal repugnance from the thought of an imitation of Ivanhoe or Kenilworth.  An author wo was, nevertheless, resolved to select such a period for his narrative would, accordingly, if an artist of sufficient excellence, avoid with care touching upon any of the points which may suggest the recollection of Scott.  He would deeply consider all the features of the time, and select those neglected by his predecessor; - carefully note all the deficiencies of the author of Kenilworth, and seize at once upon the ground which that versatile genius omitted to consecrate to himself.

To take the same epoch, the same characters, even the same narrative, as a distinguished predecessor is perfectly allowable; and, if successful, a proof at once of originality and skill.  But if you find the shadow of the previous work flinging itself over your own – if you have not thoroughly escaped the influence of the first occupant of the soil, - you will only invest your genius to unnecessary disadvantage, and build edifices, however graceful and laboured, upon the freehold of another.

CHARACTER
An author once said, “Give me a character, and I will find the play;” and, if we look to the most popular novels, we shall usually find, that where one reader speaks of the conduct of the story, a hundred readers will speak of the excellence of some particular character.

THE PASSIONS
The passion of Love is not represented by a series of eloquent rhapsodies, or even of graceful sentiments.  It is represented, in fiction, by its effects on some particular character: the same with Jealousy, Avarice, Revenge, &c.  Therefore, in a certain sense of the word, all representations of passion in fiction may be considered typical.  .....  in the novel, as in the drama, it is in the struggle of emotions that the science of the heart is best displayed.

THE SENTIMENT.
The Sentiment that pervades a book is often its most effective moral, and its most universal charm. It is a pervading and indescribable harmony in which the heart of the author seems silently to address our own.  ...  Of all the qualities of fiction, the sentiment is that which we can least subject to the inquiries or codes of criticism. It emanates from the moral and predominant quality of the author the perfume from his genius: and by it he unconsciously reveals himself.
************


What if Rafael Sabatini’s historical fictions, long and short but chiefly long, were to be evaluated by the views expressed above? (There are many more in this article, on other aspects of writing prose fiction.) His earliest short stories, (reprinted in ROMANTIC PRINCE: Part Two: READING RAFAEL), would have been torn to shreds by Bulwer Lytton! It is also interesting to refer to Rafael’s own views on writing historical fiction. These are set out in Chapter V – The Artist’s Studio – of ROMANTIC PRINCE: Part One: Seeking Sabatini.

Friday, March 03, 2017

On Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

Early in 2014, I made time to very slowly compare my printed copy of the original (that is, uncut) UK version of Scaramouche with the heavily cut and most often unnecessarily edited (meaning altered in wording and punctuation) US first edition, which was the only text to be found online. I was doing this in order to supply Project Gutenberg Australia with the UK text to add to the almost complete collection of printed Sabatini found there.

To pay sufficient attention, I emptied my mind of over fifty years' memories of the novel and started as if I were reading a book not read before. It was an illuminating experience. I played it in my head like the perfect movie no one can ever make, seeing and hearing all as if it was happening before me. One reaction I can put down to old age: I wept as the young
André cradled Philippe's unresponsive head, begging him to speak. That did not happen when I was 13! I noticed small details I had missed in a score of re-readings: both André's parents have dark eyes like his own.

Then there was this:
"The surest way to the gallows of all," laughed André-Louis. At the moment Le Chapelier manifested impatience. I wonder did the phrase cross his mind that day four years later when himself he rode in the death-cart to the Grève?

The last sentence coming out of nowhere, it would seem, is like the sudden quotation of the Dies irae in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, preceded and followed by a tolling bell; it sends - as it is meant to - a shiver down the spine. That can only happen because Le Chapelier was a real person, and he is true to life in the Scaramouche novels.

In a way, Rafael Sabatini's narrative gift, the power to seize the reader's attention and take him/ her hurtling through an exciting part of the story, undoes his other gift, the wonderful ability to recount history with an eloquence whose beauties require the reader to pause and savour them.

He weaves the story of his fictional characters so skilfully into that history that the same elevated mood which is induced by his eloquence enhances their story. I am thinking of how Bertrand des Amis is caught up (and crushed) in the historical event of 12 July 1789, one among so many real people who were killed, and of the final sentence of that chapter, merging at once the bond of affection which has grown between des Amis and his assistant, the sadness of its ending, and the portentous announcement of the French Revolution:
To André-Louis, waiting that evening on the second floor of No. 13 Rue du Hasard for the return of his friend and master, four men of the people brought that broken body of one of the earliest victims of the Revolution that was now launched in earnest.

To me it resonates like music, like the end of a movement, the sad, solemn movement, of a symphony. When reading the novel for the story one might miss these effects.

I realised just how grand Rafael Sabatini can be at his grandest, and writing a history which deeply moved him, he is very grand. It is not my habit to compare novels and novelists unless - on the rarest of occasions - they cover the same ground. To a limited extent, A Tale of Two Cities bears comparison with The Trampling of the Lilies, and with Scaramouche. But I've always found Dickens' novel too nightmarish, too much outdoing Carlyle, for me to take it seriously as a novel of the French Revolution. As a novel, yes, but not as one I would recommend to a student of history. The slow transformation of André's beliefs about reform and revolution, the complexity of any great movement in history because of the complexities of human beings, the actual unfolding of events, these are so superbly blended with the fictional element. I can't go into all the details here, but in chapter after chapter - especially in the marvellous Book Three - in paragraph after paragraph, his special artistry is to be seen - this novel is an inspired work in his output of novels.

I can find only one iffy moment: the long speech in self-exculpation from La Tour d'Azyr at a tense moment when time is of the essence. But make it he must, and at what other moment could it be possible? One must take it as one takes the soliloquies in Shakespeare or the arias in Grand Opera - Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor singing a long, beautifully decorated aria with a sword stuck in his middle.

Rafael unconsciously poured much of himself into Scaramouche, possibly carried away by the power of his own story. Look again at the word placement in that sentence I quoted ("I wonder...the Grève?") Speak it and listen to the musical effect of "himself he rode" instead of "he rode himself"; to the cadence of "in the death-cart to the Grève". I being accustomed to singing, if the writer was himself responding to the influence of music, I hear music in his words. There is so much music buried deep in the novel, so deep that not even he realised it was flowing underneath his writing, like a subterranean stream which feeds the greenery above, unbeknownst to any.

There is that sequence leading to a climactic moment, the duel between André and the Marquis. It builds up so tensely, there is a palpable electricity about the meeting of Mme de Plougastel and Aline at No 13 Rue de Hasard. And then they hear this:
"A raccommoder les vieux soufflets!"
As I read that, I recalled at once the cry of the toy-seller in Puccini’s La boheme, at a moment not comparable in mood but musically similar, when the many voices and the orchestra have risen to a crescendo:
“Ecco i giocattoli di Parpignol!”

I wish I could hear the trained voice of an actor of the English stage long ago declaim the grand chapter that opens Book 3. It is no wonder that Esther Forbes was so captivated by the script that she picked up and read right through, not putting it down until she had read every word.



Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

LOOKING AT THE PAST – AND PRESENT

In the course of reading the entire series of stories and novels about the 12th-century Benedictine monk, Brother Cadfael, by Edith Pargeter (as Ellis Peters), I had occasion to seek for more about Brian FitzCount. I found the following, and reflected on how little humankind has changed. The opinions to which I have drawn attention hold true even today, perhaps more today than at other times.

No professional advocate, however skilful in his exposition, can tell us what, as historians, we most desire to know. It is not merely or chiefly that he suppresses the facts which incriminate his clients. These we may easily enough obtain from the writers of the other faction. The more serious shortcoming of such an advocate is that, even where he states fairly enough the principles which were held to justify a given course of action, he gives them the colour of his own idiosyncrasy. He has his own way of marshalling the arguments; and he often adduces arguments which would scarcely have occurred to the men for whom he speaks. But the historian is as much concerned with men as with principles; the temperament of the politician is to him no less interesting and important than the idea which the politician represents. Even if the historian believes that the mainspring of feudal policy was a naive and brutal egotism, he cannot believe that feudal politicians were fully alive to the sordid character of their own motive. There is evidence enough that even Geoffrey de Mandeville had followers to whom he appeared in the light of a respectable and injured man. It is only reasonable to suppose that he and his like deceived themselves before they were able to deceive others. Self-knowledge is rare in any age — rarest of all in an age so unintellectual, so strenuous, and so eventful as the twelfth century. Now the truth about men is only one part of history; the myths which they make about themselves, and which they succeed in circulating, are also to be carefully considered. For it is in these myths that the ideals of any age are most infallibly revealed; not indeed the ideals of the best minds, but the ideals of the market-place, the conventional standards of morality.

We can never understand feudalism as a factor in history until we correct our conception of feudalism in the abstract by studying the mental processes of the individual feudatory. He was not to himself or to the majority of those who came in contact with him the mere incarnation of a centrifugal and disruptive individualism. He looked at political questions through a haze of sentiment and of tradition. So much we can imagine without the help of documents. But to estimate what sentiments and what traditions blurred his vision at a particular moment is less easy. And we are seldom supplied with the evidence that we require for arriving at an estimate.

No doubt confidential letters were exchanged, and manifestos were dispersed, whenever a crisis was at hand. Few however of these documents have come down to us from the age when feudalism was still robust and unsophisticated. Therefore we have in general to be content with secondary sources of information. We know how the baron of the Anglo-Norman epoch appeared to the minstrel, the monk and the esurient scholar. We know what was thought of his aims and his manoeuvres by kings and lawyers and highly placed ecclesiastics. But it is a rare piece of good fortune when he speaks in his own person. He may not be telling the truth; even so, we are glad to know the lines on which he thought it desirable to lie, the excuses which he thought would vindicate his conduct in the eyes of honourable men.
(H.W.C. Davis, "Henry of Blois and Brian FitzCount~"English Historical Review XXXV (1910), pp. 297-303.)

The article, and the letter from BrianFitzCount to Henry of Blois, are to be found at https://archive.org/details/englishhistorica25londuoft
and the letter in translation at http://falcon.arts.cornell.edu/prh3/310/texts%5Cbrian.html


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve

A thought for every Christmas: “Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” - President Calvin Coolidge

CHRISTMAS EVE carol (The Lord at first did Adam make)
1.
The Lord at first did Adam make
Out of the dust and clay,
And in his nostrils breathed life,
E'en as the Scriptures day.
And then in Eden's Paradise
He placed him to dwell,
That he within it should remain
To dress and keep it well.
Chorus.
Now let good Christians all begin
An holy life to live,
And to rejoice and merry be,
For this is Christmas Eve.
2.

And then within the garden he
Commanded was to stay,
And unto him in commandment
These words the Lord did say:
The fruit which in the garden grows
To thee shall be for meet,
Except the tree in the midst thereof,
Of which thou shalt not eat.
Chorus.
3.
For in the day that thou shalt eat,
Or do it them come nigh;
For it that thou doth eat thereof
Then surely thou shalt die.
But Adam he did take no heed
Unto that only thing,
But did transgress God's holy law,
And so was wrapt in sin.
Chorus.
4
.
Now mark the goodness of the Lord
Which he for mankind bore,
His mercy soon he did extend,
Lost man for to restore;
And then for to redeem our souls
From death and hellish thrall,
He said his own dear son should be
The Saviour of us all.
Chorus.
5.
Which promise now is brought to pass,
Christians, believe it well;
And by the coming of God's dear Son
We are redeemed from thrall.
Then if we truly do believe,
And do the thing aright;
Then by his merits we at last
Shall live in Heaven bright.
Chorus.
6.
Now for the blessings we enjoy,
Which are from Heaven above,
Let us renounce all wickedness
And live in perfect love.
Then shall we do Christ's own command,
Ev'n his own written word,
And when we die in Heaven shall
Enjoy our living Lord.
Chorus.
7.
And now the tide is nigh at hand,
Int' which our Saviour came;
Let us rejoice, and merry be,
In keeping of the same.
Let's feed the poor and hungry souls,
And such as do it crave;
Then when we die, in Heaven sure,
Our reward we shall have.
Chorus.

About midnight some one on the roof cried out, "What light is that in the sky? Awake, brethren, awake and see!"

The people, half asleep, sat up and looked; then they became wide-awake, though wonder-struck.  And the stir spread to the court below, and into the lewens; soon the entire tenantry of the house and court and enclosure were out gazing at the sky.

And this was what they saw.  A ray of light, beginning at a height immeasurably beyond the nearest stars, and dropping obliquely to the earth; at its top, a diminishing point; at its base, many furlongs in width; its sides blending softly with the darkness of the night, its core a roseate electrical splendour.  The apparition seemed to rest on the nearest mountain southeast of the town, making a pale corona along the line of the summit.  The khan was touched luminously, so that those upon the roof saw each other's faces, all filled with wonder.

Steadily, through minutes, the ray lingered, and then the wonder changed to awe and fear; the timid trembled; the boldest spoke in whispers.

"Saw you ever the like?" asked one.

"It seems just over the mountain there.  I cannot tell what it is, nor did I ever see anything like it," was the answer.

"Can it be that a star has burst and fallen?" asked another, his tongue faltering.

"When a star falls, its light goes out."

"I have it!" cried one, confidently.  "The shepherds have seen a lion, and made fires to keep him from the flocks."

The men next the speaker drew a breath of relief, and said, "Yes, that is it!  The flocks were grazing in the valley over there to-day."

A bystander dispelled the comfort.

"No, no!  Though all the wood in all the valleys of Judah was brought together in one pile and fired, the blaze would not throw a light so strong and high."

After that there was silence on the house-top, broken but once again while the mystery continued.

"Brethren!" exclaimed a Jew of venerable mien, "what we see is the ladder our father Jacob saw in his dream.  Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers!"

~ from  Ben-Hur  by  Lew Wallace

Sunday, December 18, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent

Here lies the precious Babe, first-fruit of virgin's womb,
Angels' delight and joy, men's highest price and boon,
Should He your Saviour be and lift you into God,
Then, man, stay near the crib and make it your abode.

How simple we must grow! How simple they, who came!
The shepherds looked at God long before other men.
He sees God nevermore, not there, nor here on earth,
Who does not long within to be a shepherd first.

All things are now reversed: the castle is the cave,
The crib becomes a throne, the night brings forth the day,
The Virgin bears a Child.  Reflect, O man, and say
That heart and mind must be reversed in every way.

~ Angelus Silesius

Sunday, December 11, 2016

3rd Sunday of Advent

When Jesus Christ our Lord was born,
The angels welcomed that happy morn;
The world was weary, the world was sad,
So down came Jesus to make us glad;
And all the bells on earth did ring,
And all the angels in heaven sing:
‘Peace on earth, goodwill towards men’.

Two thousand years have come and gone,
Since the star of Bethlehem brightly shone;
And now again the world is torn
With war and hunger and fear and scorn;
There's fighting while the bells do ring,
There's hating while the angels sing;
Not much peace or goodwill towards men.

It may not be in a stable bare,
There won't be wise men and shepherds there;
But when Lord Jesus is born again,
Oh, may it be in the hearts of men;
And all the bells on earth will ring,
And all the angels in heaven sing,
For Christ our Lord will really bring
Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.


~ Calypso Carol

Sunday, December 04, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent

Loving Father, help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men.

Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting. Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clear hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

~Robert Louis Stevenson