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British history, either not at all, or as yet imperfectly, illustrated by historical romance. Nor is the stock terminated; on the contrary, it is growing, and hourly on the increase. The time is already come when the heroism of la Vendée, the tragedies of the Revolution, form the appropriate subject of French imaginative genius; and the period is not far distant when Wellington and the paladins of the late war, transported from this earthly scene by the changes of mortality, will be fitting subjects for lasting and immortal place in the fields of romance.
The success of many of the novels of recent times, in the conception of which most genius has been evinced, and in the composition most labour bestowed, has been endangered, if not destroyed, by inattention to this principle in the choice of a subject. There is great talent, much learning, and vigorous conception, in the Last Days of Pompeii by Bulwer; aud the catastrophe with which it concludes is drawn with his very highest powers; but still it is felt by every class of readers to be uninteresting. We have no acquaintance or association with Roman manners; we know little of their habits; scarce anything of their conversation in private: they stand forth to us in history in a sort of shadowy grandeur, totally distinct from the interest of novelist composition. No amount of learning or talent can make the dialogues of Titus and Lucius, of Gallius and Vespasia, interesting to a modern reader. On the other hand, the Last of the Barons is an admirably chosen historical subject, worked out with even more than the author's usual power and effect; and but for a defect in composition, to be hereafter noticed, it would be one of the most popular of all his productions. Great talent and uncommon powers of description have been displayed in Oriental novels; but they have not attained any lasting reputation-not from any fault on the part of the writers, but the want of sympathy in the great majority of readers with the subject of their compositions. Strange to say, we feel nothing foreign in James's Attila. So deeply are we impregnated with barbarian blood-so strongly have Scythian customs and ideas descended to our times—that the wooden palace of the chief of the Huns, surrounded with its streets of carts, and myriads of flocks and herds, in
the centre of Hungary, is felt as nothing alien. On the
. Anne of Geierstein, and the Indian story in the Chronicles of the Canongate
, belong to this class; and even if Robert of Paris had not been written during the decay of the author's mental powers, it would probably have failed from the impossibility of communicating any of the interest of a novel to a story of the Lower Empire.
In this respect there is an important distinction between the drama and the historical romance, which writers in the latter style would do well to keep in view. Tragedy being limited in general to a very short period, during which events of the most heartrending kind are accumulated together, in order as strongly as possible to awaken the sympathy, or move the hearts of the spectators, it is comparatively of little importance where the scene is laid. Where the bones and muscles of the mind are laid bare by deep affliction, mankind in all ages and countries are the the same.
The love of Juliet, the jealousy of Othello, are felt with equal force in all parts of the world. We can sympathise as strongly with the protracted woes of Andromache, or the generous self-immolation of Antigone, as the Athenian audience who wept at the eloquence of Euripides or the power of Sophocles. We feel the Death of Wallenstein to be as sublime as the Germans who are transported by the verses of Schiller; and they weep at the heroism of Mary Stuart with as heartfelt emotion as the people of Scotland, to whom her name is a household word. But it is otherwise with romance. It is occasionally, and at considerable intervals only, that these terrible or pathetic scenes are represented in its story, which sweep away all peculiarities of nation, age, or race, and exhibit only the naked human heart : nineteen-twentieths of its pages are taken up with ordinary occurrences, one half of its interest is derived from the delineation of manners, or the developing of character in dialogue, which exhibits none of the vehement passions; and the interest of the reader is kept up chiefly by the fidelity of the drawing, the spirit of the conversation, or the accuracy and brilliancy of the descrip
tions. If these prove uninteresting from their being too remote from ordinary observation or association, the work will fail, with whatever talent or power its principal and tragic scenes may be executed.
In proposing as the grand requisite to the historical romance that the subject should be of an elevating and ennobling kind, we by no means intend to assert that the author is always to be on stilts, that he is never to descend to the description of low or even vulgar life, or that humour and characteristic description are to be excluded from his composition. We are well aware of the value of contrast in bringing out effect; we know that the mind of the reader requires repose, even from the most exalted emotions; we have felt the weariness of being satiated with beauty in the galleries of the Vatican or the valleys of Switzerland. Brilliants require setting, and bright light can be brought out only by proportional depth or breadth of shadow. If the novelist tries to keep up exalted sentiments or pathetic scenes too often, he will fall into the mistake of the painter who throws an equal light on all parts of his picture. Probably the rule which Sir Joshua Reynolds says he found by observation had been invariably observed by Titianviz., to have one-fourth only of his picture in very bright light, one-fourth in deep shadow, and the remaining half in middle tint, may be equally applicable to the compositions of the novelist. But admitting all this-admitting further, that novels which deviate from the elevated standard may often attain a great temporary popularity, the greater, probably, owing to that very deviation—it is not the less true that the main object of the art should be to awaken generous and elevated feelings; and that in no other way than by attention to this object is durable fame to be obtained.
The celebrity arising from skill in the painting of low or vulgar manners, from power in the description of desperate or abandoned characters, how great soever it may be for a season, never fails to pass away with the lapse of time. Voltaire's romances, once so popular, are now nearly so much dead stock in the bookseller's hands; and the whole tribe of the licentious novelists of France prior to the Revolution are now read only by the licentious youth of Paris, and a few prurient sensualists in other countries. It will be the same with Victor Hugo, Janin, and George Sand, in the next generation and in other countries. All their genius, learning, and pathos will not be able to save them from the withering effect of their accumulated horrors, shocking indecencies, and demoralising tendency.
Again, in the composition of the historical romance, the story should be sufficiently simple, and a certain degree of unity preserved in the interest and emotion which are to be awakened. It is not meant to be asserted by this that the novelist is to be confined strictly to unities like the Greek drama, or that the same variety, within certain limits, is not to be presented in the pages of romance, which we see every day around us in real life. All that is meant to be advanced is, that this variety must be confined within certain limits, if the interest of the piece is to be properly kept up; and that it should be an especial object with the novelist to avoid that complication and intricacy of incidents which forms so formidable, though unavoidable, an addition to the difficulties of a historian. It is the more singular that romance writers should have fallen into this mistake that it is the very difficulty which stands most in the way of the interest of history, and the one which it is the peculiar advantage of their art to be able in a great measure to avoid. Yet it is the error which is most general in writers of the greatest ability in this department of literature, and which has marred or ruined the effect of some of their happiest conceptions. It has arisen, doubtless, from romance writers having observed the extreme multiplicity of incidents and events in real life, and in the complicated maze of historical narrative; and thence imagined that it was by portraying a similar combination that romance was to be assimilated to truthful annals, and the ideal founded on the solid basis of the real. They forget that it is this very complication which renders history in general so uninviting, and acceptable (compared with romance) to so limited a circle of readers; and that the annals of actual events then only approach to the interest of fiction, when their surpassing magnitude, or the importance of the characters involved in them, justifies the historian in suspending for a time the thread of inconsiderable and uninteresting incidents, and throwing a broad and bright light,
similar to that of imagination, on the few which have been attended with great and lasting effects.
The great father of historical romance rarely falls into this mistake. The story, at least in most of his earlier and most popular pieces— Waverley, the Antiquary, the Bride of Lammermoor, Old Mortality, the Abbot, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Quentin Durward, and Rob Roy—is extremely simple ; the incidents few and well chosen ; the interest of a homogeneous kind, and uniformly sustained ; the inferior persons and incidents kept in their due subordination to the principal ones. The subordinate characters of these admirable works, their still-life descriptions, and minor incidents, are grouped as it were around the main events of the story, and brought forward in such a way as to give variety while they do not detract from unity. It is impossible to conceive more perfect models of the historical romance, both in point of subject, conception, and execution, than Ivanhoe and the Abbot. In both, the subject is national and generally interesting-in both, the historical characters brought forward are popular, and connected with early associations -in both, the period chosen is one in which great national questions were at stake, and the conversations and characters afforded the means of bringing them prominently before the mind of the reader-in both, the incidents of the piece are few and simple ; and the lesser plots or characters which they contain serve only to amuse the mind and give variety to the composition, without interfering with the unity of its general effect. How few and simple are the events in the Bride of Lammermoor! The tragedies of Sophocles do not exhibit a more perfect example of the preservation of the unity of emotion. Yet how interesting is the whole story
-how completely does it carry along every class of readers -how well does every incident of moment prepare the mind for the dreadful catastrophe in which it terminates! How few are the incidents in the Abbot-how scanty the materials on which the story is built! A page riding from a castle in Dumfriesshire to Edinburgh, his introduction to the Regent Murray, and adventures during a few days in Holyrood, his attendance on the imprisoned Queen in Lochleven Castle, her escape from thence, and final overthrow at Langside--form the whole incidents out of which the web