(to the Historical Nights Entertainment)
by Rafael Sabatini
HISTORICAL fiction has come of recent years into wide favour, chiefly, if not entirely, as a result of the very high degree of cultivation of this field of literature by those who have chosen to work in it. Nevertheless it is still regarded with a measure of disfavour in certain pseudo-intellectual quarters, and it would be of interest to have from those who so regard it the reason for their attitude and for the assumption that fiction concerned with contemporary life is deserving of greater consideration.
When all is said, just as it is the business of the writer of stories of today to be, at his best, a commentator upon contemporary life, so it is the business of the writer of historical fiction to be a commentator upon the past. For myself, I have never been able to understand at what stage of time the line is to be drawn which marks off the past, in the historical sense, from that which we consider the present. Past and present, after all, stand to each other in the relation of cause and effect; and cause and effect, we know, are but the two sides of a fact. The events of today are the logical effects of the events of yesterday or of last week. But they are no less the logical effects of the events of a hundred or a thousand years ago; and just as to understand what is occurring now it is desirable to know what occurred a week ago, so our understanding of the present will be the fuller in a measure as we increase our acquaintance with the past.
Setting aside all that, however, I do not think that anyone will venture to deny that the achievement of a vivid narrative of events that might have taken place a century or two ago is one that places its author midway between the novelist and the historian; and this, for a storyteller, seems to me to be a position of some dignity. It is a position, however, reserved only for him who to a sense of the past, which
I conceive to be more or less inherent in some of us, is prepared to bring a tireless industry in research, which, if it cannot create that sense, will certainly nourish and enrich it. I am aware that historical stories may be written with only a superficial knowledge of the period presented. But when this is the case, when the knowledge possessed is no more than just adequate to the writer's immediate needs, no such effect of actuality or verisimilitude will be produced as is to be found in the work of the author who has explored his period so exhaustively that he knows every twist and turn of its byways.
Paradoxical though it may appear, it is not by any parade of the knowledge so laboriously acquired that his work will achieve its power of conviction. On the contrary, the overloading of a period story with scenic details, in the ancient mannerwith minute descriptions of garments, weapons, furniture, and the like equipment; with laboured analyses of political situations, and with elaborate particulars of manners and customswill merely result in retarding the sweep of the narrative, rendering it dull and ponderous. It sufficesbut it is essentialthat the full knowledge of these things shall be present in the mind of the writer. Although perhaps not one-tenth of this knowledge will find its way to the written page, yet in some subtle, indefinable way, the nine-tenths or more which remain apparently unexpressed will none the less inform what is written, and the sense of period with which the writer is imbued and from which he derives his certainty of touch will convey to the reader an impression akin to that which he would derive from the report of an eye-witness.
A comparison of the work of some of the old masters in this branch of literaturehere included, as in honour due to themwith that of some of our contemporary performers should be sufficient to reveal the extent and results of the cultivation to which I have referred. It is discoverable in the restraint both in invention and in diction which has been brought to this type of fiction; it is to be seen in the lively imagery and poetical quality that distinguishes such descriptive writing as that of Miss Marjorie Bowen; it is found in such dialogue as that of Mr. H. C. Bailey, crisp and sparkling, and yet of an economy that rarely permits a character to talk out of the action. And I mention these two not by any means as exceptions, but as samples from the best of the bulk.
Of the pompous intellectual who extols Sir Walter Scott, and yet asserts that he cannot read the modern historical novel, you may with confidence mistrust the intelligence and the honesty. He is in the same snobbish case as he who confines his commendation to foreign authors whilst having no real acquaintance with them because unable to read them in the original.
Broadly speaking, the historical story falls into one of three classes.
There is the purely fictitious narrative, developed through characters all of which, or almost all of which, are fictitious, but set against the background of a definite period, and conditioned by that period's manners, customs, and politics.
There is the narrative which seizing upon some historical situation or event, uses it as the warp upon which to weave the author's inventions, mingling historical with fictitious characters and actual with imagined happenings. It is the form most commonly adopted by the writer of historical stories, long and short, perhaps because it offers the greatest scope. But this is not to say that it is easy to manage; for whilst making heavy demands upon invention, it yet cramps this and confines it within certain rigid predetermined bounds. It is the form that was preferred by Dumas, who has never been excelled in this art of weaving fact and fiction so closely together that in his finished tapestry it is impossible to perceive where the one ends and the other begins. It is the form preferred also by Stanley Weyman, whom we may regard as responsible for the revival, some forty years ago, of the historical novel, and for giving it the impetus towards the form in which we now possess it.
Lastly, there is a quite new development of the historical story, which relies for its effect almost entirely upon fact. The author takes an historical episode which in itself is rich in drama, studies its every aspect in closest detail, as thoroughly as the surviving records will permit, then determines his own point of view, and from this stages the event with all the realism that he can bring to it.
Since writers of historical fiction commonly seek inspiration in actual, recorded events, it is inevitable that the same ground should often have been independently traversed by different authors. A collection of groups of stories, each group, based on the same historical or traditional episode should make interesting and instructive reading. But the amount of research required to make such a collection is sufficient to render idle the hope that we shall ever possess it.
It happens, however, that I am able to include in this volume two stories in this case, one of which is my own The Ghost of Tronjolly. I should not be in a position to offer even this single instance of duplication if an American reader had not written to me some months ago to point out that this story is in its essentials the same as The Spectre Bridegroom by Washington Irving, and to ask me, more or less bluntly whether I was guilty in the manner of Molière (and others) de prendre mon bien où je le trouve.
I was glad to be able to answer that I had never read a line of Washington Irving's, and to offer the explanation that manifestly each of us had dipped his bucket in the same well of fact, an eighteenth-century anecdote upon which I had built my story having supplied Washington Irving with a foundation for his.
Both stories have been included in this collection on the assumption that it may be of interest, at least to some readers to see how differently two minds working independently may deal with the same materials. For their information I should add that in my story I have preserved the period and locality of the original anecdote. Washington Irving has preferred to give himself wider elbow-room.
The collection here offered, representative of the best work of modern times in this field of fiction, should serve to make good the claim that whilst, like fiction concerned with contemporary life, it offers both entertainment and an expression of the literary art, it possesses the additional merit of serving on the one hand as an introduction to the study of history, and, on the other, at its best, as an illustration and elucidation of historical epochs.
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