Such complete interruptions in the transmission of species are as rare in the intellectual as in the physical world; and we prefer to maintain that the romance, although it was for a time eclipsed by the brilliancy of the writers who described the manners and sentiments of contemporary society, was never extinguished, but became transformed gradually, by successive modifications of environment, into the modern novel of adventure.
It is true that Defoe entirely rejected the marvellous, while Horace Walpole, fifty years later, dealt immoderately in the elements of mystery and wonder; yet, notwithstanding these violent oscillations of style and method, we believe that the great historical novels of the early nineteenth [Pg 4] century, and the tales of stirring incident which flourish at the present day, descend by an unbroken filiation from the fabulous romance of elder times.
Raleigh does not carry his brief yet instructive history of the English novel beyond the time of Walter Scott, with whom, he says, 'the wheel has come full circle,' the Romantic revival was victorious, prose finally superseded verse as the vehicle of adventurous story, and realism was wedded to romance. We trust that in some future work he will carry on up to a later date his survey of the course and currents of imaginative fiction.
In the meantime, it may not be irrelevant to follow up further and a little more closely the ruling characteristics and the formative influences that have contributed toward the production of English light literature as it exists at the present day. The novels with which our fortunate generation is so abundantly supplied may be divided broadly into two classes, overlapping and interlaced with each other, yet on the whole distinguishable as separate species—the Novel of Adventure and the Novel of Manners.
The former class has a very long pedigree.
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The early romance writer drew his incidents from the field of heroic action and marvellous enterprise; he revelled in noble sentiments, astonishing feats, and the exhibition of all the cardinal virtues in tragic situations; his mission was to preserve and hand down to us magnified figures of mighty men, or the pictures of great events, as they had impressed themselves upon the popular imagination.
For such material he was obliged to travel abroad into remote countries, or backward to bygone ages; but if his images of gallant knights and fair damsels were well modelled, if the language was superb, and the deeds or sufferings sufficiently [Pg 5] astonishing, no one cared about anachronisms, incongruities, or improbabilities.
But as the heroic romance dwindled and withered under the dry light of precise knowledge and extending erudition, the purveyors of fiction, accommodating themselves to a more exacting taste, applied themselves seriously to the reproduction of famous scenes and portraits by the aid and guidance of historic documents and antiquarian research.
The modern romantic school, of whom the master, if not the founder, is Scott, represented a clear step forward to what is now called Realism, and a proportionate abandonment of the classic convention, or the method of drawing from traditional or imaginary models. To Scott may be ascribed the authoritative introduction of descriptions of landscape, of storms, sunsets, and picturesque effects; not the artificial scene-painting of Mrs.
Radcliffe, but artistic delineations of the aspects of earth, sea, and sky which gave depth and atmosphere to his dramatic situations. From this period, also, may be dated the practice, so entirely contrary to the spirit of true romance, of verifying by documentary evidence the details of a story. But the process savoured too much of the workshop. A novel or poem that required an [Pg 6] appendix of notes and glossaries must be of high excellence to avoid suspicious resemblance to an elaborate literary counterfeit, since open and avowed borrowing from dictionaries of antiquities or volumes of travel must damage the illusion which is the indispensable element of romance.
In Moore's fantastic metrical romance of Lalla Rookh the system was carried to an extent that now seems ridiculous, for certain passages are loaded with outlandish phrases or metaphors that are unintelligible except by reference to the notes. Nevertheless the English public, being then quite ignorant of the true East, tolerated Moore's sham Orientalism, even though Byron's fine poems were just then exposing the difference between working up the subject in a library and wandering in Asiatic countries.
Byron's language seems in the present day turgid, and his Greeks and Turks may have a theatrical air, but his splendid descriptive passages were drawn by a master hand straight from nature, while his colouring, landscape, and costume are usually excellent; so that his work also is a distinct movement in the direction of realism.
Yet it is to be observed that after Byron and Scott the metrical romance, that most ancient form of tale-telling, fell rapidly into disuse. The fact that Byron's latest poem, Don Juan , belonged essentially to the coming realistic school, is a significant indication of transition; and Scott's abandonment of poetry for prose, which was a necessary consequence of his advance toward realism, gave its death-blow to the earlier fashion.
By this time, indeed, the conventional writer of adventures, though he held his ground up to or even beyond the middle of the century, was in a state of incurable decadence. He was losing the confidence of the general reader, who had picked up some precise notions regarding appropriate scenery, language, [Pg 7] and costume in sundry periods and divers places, from China to Peru; and he was persecuted by that mortal foe of the old romancer, the well-informed critic, who trampled even upon a commonplace book well filled with references to standard authorities, insisting upon careful study of the whole environment, the dexterous incorporation of details, and delicate blending of local colours.
Severe pedagogic handling of a historic novel, as if it were a paper done at some competitive examination, was too much for the old school, which finally subsided into cheap popular editions, making way for a new class of writers that adapted the Novel of Adventure to the requirements of latter-day taste, to the widening of knowledge, and the diversified expansion of our national life. The prevailing tendency was now to confine the range of scene and action more and more approximately to the contemporary period, to insist on genuine materials, and to observe a stricter canon of probabilities, wherein the discriminating reader fancied himself to be a judge.
The use of notes was discarded as contrary to the high artistic principle that in fiction everything must resemble reality while nothing must be demonstrably matter of fact. The appearance of famous personages must be occasional, after the manner of gods in an epic poem; they must not be, as formerly, the leading characters and chief actors in the drama.
And great battles, instead of marking the grand climacteric of a story's development, were now merely traversed, so to speak, on their outskirts, or were only approached near enough to throw a glowing sidelight on certain groups and situations. The gradual adoption of these limitations may be traced back to the naval and military novels that reflect the traditions of the great French war.
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No one even then thought of writing a romance with Nelson or [Pg 8] Bonaparte as the hero, or of finishing off in the full blaze of Trafalgar or in the rout of Waterloo; although with Marryat and Lever the English reader revelled in the dashing exploits or bacchanalian revels of sailors and soldiers. Lever did indeed give glimpses of Wellington or Napoleon; but his business was with Connaught Rangers and French guardsmen; while Marryat and Michael Scott gave us daring sea-captains and reckless sailors with inimitable vigour and animation.
But as the echo of thunderous battles by sea and land died away, this particular offshoot of modern romance ceased to flourish, and has never had any considerable revival. The tale-teller of adventure, like his ancestor the epic poet, requires a certain haziness of atmosphere; he must have elbow room for his inventive faculty; and he is liable to be stifled in the flood of lucid narrative and inflexible facts let loose upon recent events in our day by complete histories, personal memoirs, public documents, war correspondence, and all-pervading journalism.
This is probably the main reason why the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, which broke for brief intervals the long peace of England, have furnished no fresh material contribution of importance to the romance of war, either in prose or poetry, to stamp the memory of a long weary siege, or of a short and bloody struggle, upon the popular imagination. Another reason must be, of course, the non-appearance in England of the vates sacer ; for Tolstoi has shown us that within and without Sebastopol there might be found material for work of the highest order.
However this may be, it is a remarkable fact that just about that time the novel of adventure turned back for a moment, in Kingsley's hands, to the spacious times of great Elizabeth, to the Armada and the legends of filibustering on the [Pg 9] Spanish main; and at the present time we may observe that the leading writer of this school goes back at least a hundred years for the field of his best stories. The eighteenth century, whose politics, philosophy, and literature seemed to Carlyle's somewhat bookish conception to be flat, prosaic, and comparatively uninteresting, was in truth for Englishmen pre-eminently the age of energetic activity, which touched the high level of romantic enterprise at two points, the Scottish rebellions and the exploits of famous buccaneers.
Stevenson has reopened, with great skill and success, these mines of literary ore that had been discovered but only partially worked by Walter Scott. His rare artistic instinct divined the rich veins which they still contained; while in other stories his intimate acquaintance with actual life and circumstance on the coasts and islands of the Pacific Ocean has provided him with those elements of distance and unfamiliarity which are essential, as we have suggested, to the composition of the novel of adventure.
Other less original writers have travelled in search of these elements to the Australian bush or the outlying half-explored regions of South Africa. This very cursory survey of the main influences and circumstances that have shaped the course and set the fashion of our modern novel of adventure may be useful in explaining its actual position at the present moment. Scepticism and research have effectually retrenched the very liberal credit formerly assigned to romance writing; the art now consists in spinning a long narrative out of authentic materials which must be disguised or kept hidden; while its leading features are a delight in elaborate accessories and that very modern sentiment, a horror of anachronism.
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A few living artists, like Mr. Shorthouse and Mr. Stevenson, can still excel under these difficult [Pg 10] conditions, which have driven a crowd of second-rate novelists into the extreme of minute realism. Into this retreat, however, they have been followed by a host of readers; for in these days of universal instruction and flat uneventful existence nothing satisfies the average mind like photographic detail, which is a commodity to be had of every industrious or studious composer.
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As the range of accurate information extends, as the dust heap of old records, private as well as public, is sifted more narrowly, as the antique habit of taking things readily for granted disappears, the novel becomes more and more an arrangement of genuine facts and circumstances, interleaved by such fiction as the skill and imagination of the author can produce. It may be worth observing that this demand for exact verification has affected the use of the early chronicles in two contrary ways; they are relied upon implicitly or they are arbitrarily discredited, in proportion as the facts stated appear credible or not credible to critics or professors who are working upon them.
All the particulars of a great battle or of some famous event that can be gleaned out of some ancient monkish annalist, who must always have collected his information by hearsay and often after many years, are treated as authentic so long as they do not sound improbable; but if they offend against the canon of probability set up by a library-hunting student, they are liable to be summarily rejected. We may venture upon the conjecture that the true result of this process is to assimilate the work of the critical historian much more nearly than he would for a moment allow to that of a skilful historic novelist.
A romancer of insight and imaginative power, who studied his period, would be quite as likely to make a lucky selection of real incidents, motives, and characters, in a story of the Roman [Pg 11] Empire or of England under the Plantagenets, as an erudite writer of history. Perhaps the best measure available to us of what we may believe in regard to far-off times is afforded by observation of what now happens in rough societies or remote places; and this test the novelist is rather more apt, on the whole, to employ than the historian.
In the novels, as upon the stage, this demand for minute accuracy of scenic or historical details has necessarily elicited an abundant supply; though whether the entire picture is rendered much more natural and real by an accumulation of correct particulars may be questioned. The result may be ingenious and even instructive; but there are sure to be great errors and anachronisms, although they may now be undiscoverable; while the general tone, point of view, and balance of motives are nearly certain to be obscured or distorted.
For the modern novelist, like the ancient myth-maker, is necessarily the child of his time; his work takes the bent of his personal temperament, and is moulded by the environment of ideas and circumstances within which he lives. The Myth, the Romance, the Historic Novel, each in its successive period, did at least this service to later generations: they preserved and handed down to us the popular impressions, the figures or pictures of great men and striking events, as they were reflected upon the imagination of subsequent ages.
It can never be discovered, and it does not very much matter, whether these images [Pg 12] have any close resemblance to the lost originals; it may be that some artists in some periods saw far more clearly than in others. The true criterion for estimating the true value of romantic fiction, of tales of action and adventure, must be always its artistic and intellectual qualities, the question whether it succeeds in filling a broad canvas, in dealing with masculine sentiment and stirring action, in striking the deeper chords of human emotion and energy.
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But the historic novel of our day strives principally after exact reproduction, as may be seen even in a book of such incontestable talent as Marius the Epicurean , and very notably in Archdeacon Farrar's book, Darkness and Dawn, or Scenes in the Days of Nero , which may stand as the type and complete specimen of Erudite Fiction.
In his preface he tells us that. Expressions and incidents which to some might seem startlingly modern, are in reality suggested by passages in the satirists, epigrammatists, and romancers of the Roman Empire, or by anecdotes preserved in the grave pages of Seneca and the elder Pliny. Here we have reached, in this conscientious explanation of method, the extreme point of remoteness from the original spirit of historic romance.
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Archdeacon Farrar's figures and descriptions are worked out upon the pattern of a mosaic, by piecing together the loose fragmentary bits of our knowledge regarding life and society under Nero. A glance at these books shows that they belong to the latest school of nineteenth-century fiction, to a period when careful scholarly accumulation of accessories and adroit adaptation of history have taken the place, not only of convention [Pg 13] and clumsy invention, but also of the free untrammelled handling of types and traditions which gave freshness and originality to the simpler forms of early romance.
We believe, then, that these attempts at exact reproduction, this method of the multiplication of particulars, involve a fallacy, and are detrimental to the more enduring forms of art. But the people is willing to be deceived; the general reader has acquired a taste that must be gratified; with the result that the elder romancers in prose and verse, including Scott and Byron, are falling out of fashion with the middle classes, though Scott holds his own in the sixpenny edition. The rule of Realism is becoming so despotic that the story of adventure is reverting more and more to that shape which lends itself most completely to life-like narrative, the shape of a Memoir.
And it may be pointed out accordingly that in France the Editor of Memoirs has lately entered into substantial rivalry with the Novelist of Adventure. It must have been noticed by those who attend to the course of French literature, that of late years the publication of Memoirs relating to the period of the Revolutionary war, and especially of the First Empire, has rather suddenly increased. The causes are undoubtedly to a considerable degree political, connected with the reorganisation of the French army and navy, which has revived the military ardour of the nation, and has given an edge to the deep-seated spirit of rivalry with Germany on land and with England at sea.
Whatever immediately interests a nation gives a sharp turn to its literature, and the immense success of General Marbot's book, containing the extraordinary personal experiences of one who passed through the most famous scenes of the heroic era, exactly hit off the public taste at a [Pg 14] moment when various motives combined to revive the Napoleonic legend. The historians of that era had done their harvesting; the crop had been reaped, raked, and gleaned; the time was too near and too thoroughly known for fiction; and yet there never was a finer field for the production of romance.
No one can doubt that if Napoleon Bonaparte had conquered half Europe, won his tremendous battles, and founded his empire in an illiterate prehistoric age, he would have taken everlasting rank with Alexander the Great and Charlemagne as the central figure of a third world-wide cycle of heroic myths; nor is it necessary to read Archbishop Whately's Historic Doubts to perceive how readily Napoleon's real story lends itself to extravagant myth-making.
At a later period he might have been the leading character in some prolix and pedantic romance, and still more recently his life and deeds would have been built up into the scaffolding within which the historic novelist used to construct his love idylls, his tragic situations, or even his illustrations of some social theory. All these methods and devices have become obsolete; and though the spirit of hero-worship that animated those who listened to the ancient tales still possesses mankind at certain seasons, Romance must now submit to the hard conditions of modern Realism.
In this predicament it finds a new and satisfactory embodiment in the form of Memoirs concerning the great Emperor and his companions, which dispense copious anecdotes of his court and camp, his sayings and doings, his domestic habits, his private manners and peccadilloes. If these particulars can be served up as sauce to the description of mighty events, the contrast renders them all the more savoury. The lowest depth is reached when the reminiscences of an Emperor's valet, to whom he is still a kind of hero, are served up with that succulent dressing of vivid particularity which is swallowed with relish because it brings down a great man to the level of the most trivial experience.
How far these Memoirs are genuine in the sense which makes them so attractive—that is to say, as literally authentic pictures of a great man's interior life, of his actual words and behaviour as witnessed by his intimates—must always remain doubtful to the sceptical mind.
True reminiscences are naturally somewhat cloudy in outline, hanging loose together with gaps and interruptions; whereas these are all coherent, clear-cut, and written in a style that gives superior polish and setting to every scene and anecdote. But whatever may be the exact proportion of authenticity which this class of Memoirs can justly claim, they completely fulfil the prime conditions of popularity prescribed for the modern novel, which must work out minute details with the greatest possible resemblance to actual life and circumstance. Upon this ground, indeed, the ablest professors of fiction might despair of competing with those who exhibit a mighty man of valour in undress, who lead us where we may hear him talk, watch him eat or shave, and study his conjugal relations.
It [Pg 16] is to be feared that if the multiplication of such Reminiscences continues, they will seriously trench upon the province of the novelist, who will be left no scope for the employment of his craft in a field that has been thoroughly ransacked, and who must inevitably retire before writers who have discovered the art of making truth quite as amusing as fiction, than which it must always be more interesting.
The brilliant success of Marbot's Memoirs, which were undoubtedly written by himself, seems to have warmed into activity and circulation various other volumes of similar reminiscences that must have been hibernating for one or two generations in the family archives, or have otherwise fallen into temporary oblivion; for in many cases one is inclined to wonder why authentic documents of such value and interest were not sooner produced.
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The latest example of this class of Memoirs, belonging to the Revolutionary or Napoleonic cycle, is to be found in the Adventures of A. Say's generation who knew Marbot were quite unaware, he adds, that here was a naval and colonial Marbot, whose fighting life was one of the strangest of stories. Say's preface seems to be intended as a guarantee of this story's authenticity, though he notices casually the remarkable fact that 'on every occasion when Moreau is on the brink of destruction, it is his luck to be saved by a pretty girl'; also that 'a charming portrait-gallery might be made of the women who, between and , rescued this [Pg 17] hardy rover, who was both sailor and soldier, from death by sword or sickness in divers parts of the world,' from the West India Islands to the banks of the Thames.
His guarantee must be accepted; yet if this book had not been the genuine autobiography of a known personage, there would really be nothing to distinguish it from the historic novel, in which an imaginary person, such as Thackeray's Esmond, describes well-known scenes of history as an eye-witness and actor in them. Moreau was present at the great naval engagement of June 1, ; at the hanging of Parker, the ringleader of the famous mutiny at the Nore, when he was saved by Parker's widow; he was in Bantry Bay with the ships of Hoche's unlucky expedition; he landed with Humbert in Donegal, and saw the Race of Castlebar; he had some marvellous experiences in the West Indies, and everywhere the devotion of women facilitated his hairbreadth escapes.
There need be no irony in repeating that avowed fiction can have no chance at all in competition with literature of this class. The authentic Memoirs of the d'Artagnans of our own century are now preferred even to the works of Alexandre Dumas, so dear to our youth.