Saturday, March 18, 2017

Edward Bulwer Lytton on the Historical Novel

A National Journal of Politics, Literature, Science and Art
Volume 1: March-June 1838

LONDON: Longman & others

THE CRITIC – No. I [pg 42]

The Novelist has three departments for his art: MANNERS, PASSIONS, CHARACTER.
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.

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 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 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.

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