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ART. VI. — 1. Pericles : a Tale of Athens in the Eighty-third
Olympiad. By the Author of a Brief Sketch of Greek
Philosophy. 2 vols. London : 1846. 2. The Fawn of Sertorius. 2 vols. London: 1846. 3. The Fountain of Arethusa. By ROBERT EYRES LANDOR,
Author of The Fawn of Sertorius, &c. 2 vols. London:
1848. 4. Amymone: a Romance of the Days of Pericles. By the
Author of Azeth the Egyptian. 3 vols. London: 1848. 5. Antonina ; or, the Fall of Rome. A Romance of the Fifth
Century. By W. WILKIE COLLINS. 3 vols. London:
1850. In selecting classical romances as a subject for criticism, we
shall hardly be suspected of an intention to conciliate those of our readers who are likewise readers of novels. Ranging as the books before us do over the last four or five years, they cannot be spoken of as the five most popular works of fiction which the period has produced. Even Mr. Collins's. Antonina,' though advanced to the dignity of a second edition, and, as we understand, already translated into German, bas not had that marked success which would have rendered it an exception; and if it had, it would only have been better qualified for proving the rule. Amymone,' indeed, is the only other work on the list which in its form and price has conformed exactly to the external conditions of a circulating library career. The author of · Pericles' in the very first sentence of his preface has taken pains to remove the possible impression that he has been attempting a novel; whilst the Fawn of Sertorius gives itself out to be the rearrangement of an old Roman narrative coeval with Sallust, — and is evidently constructed so as not intentionally to dispel the illusion. Mr. Robert Landor's second production is not even a tale; being rather a series of imaginary conversations, of much the same stamp as his brother's, but written with a connected purpose, and set in a fictitious framework. Still, though no more than two out of the five aspire to the full rank of a novel, they may all be classed together, as showing that a certain quantity of invention (which might have bestowed itself elsewhere), has been employed during the last quinquenniad in endeavours to reproduce in detail the spirit and habits of classical antiquity. The species of composition to which they belong, and the books themselves, will furnish sufficient materials for such consideration as we can afford to give them.
Uses of Historical Fictions.
There can be no necessity for wasting many words to prove the utility and worth of historical fiction. We have said enough when we have said that it is essential as a complement to history. History alone would not suffice to bring out that which we must all feel we ought most to desire to know - the nature and power: of a people's genius -- what they thought, what they hated, and what they loved. Thucydides, by the introduction of speeches, a device in itself belonging as much to romance as to literal matter of fact, has dexterously contrived to give us more information about the Athenian character than could have been gained from the simple recital of their actions; but, if we had only him to trust to, we should know but little of that wonderful intellectual movement which was going on during the whole time of the Peloponnesian war. No mention is made of Socrates, because the two occasions on which he acted as a public man happened to fall after the date to which the history reaches ; but even if it had included them, what an account would that have been of a life like his! Of the everyday manners and customs of the Athenians it teaches us even less. Yet this is a work, which the prophetic genius of the author most justly pronounced to be a possession for all time -a history which the world is probably more interested in preserving than any other record of any other period. The enlarged plan of modern historians has enabled them to take in much that we miss in Thucydides. The writings of the time, scientific treatises, tragedies, comedies, satires, memoirs, and correspondence, are put into requisition to tell us what philosophers and ordinary men were doing while such and such great events were in progress. This knowledge, however, is conveyed not in the body of the history, but in separate chapters, having no relation to it except that of mere juxtaposition, - resting-places where the reader may look about him while the train of historical circumstance is supposed to stop. Mr. Macaulay's celebrated chapter on the state of England is but a chapter after all. If it were taken away, the history, though deprived of a most valuable portion of its matter, would nevertheless be complete in its form. History still remains as imperfect as ever, though later writers have learnt to attach essays and disquisitions to it. It is hopeless to think of fusing biography with it, and presenting at one view life, public and private, political and social. Memory has delivered to us the facts separately, not in connexion; yet we feel that the connexion would give them not an added but a multiplied value. Thus after the historian has done his utmost, much is yet left to be done; and there is no faculty to do it but the imagination. Every intelligent reader VOL. XCII. NO. CLXXXVIII.
will do it for himself according to his measure; linking the great thoughts into the same scheme with the great deeds, and realising both alike as developed under certain social conditions, by men wearing a certain dress, partaking of certain meals, assembling at certain meetings for business or pleasure. But few will have insight enough to apprehend this very keenly, and fewer still fertility to construct it in its details, or retentiveness to keep it together when constructed: and so they are glad to have the work done for them, and reserve the more desultory energies of their own intelligence for purposes of criticism. How it is done depends of course on the knowledge and power of the doer. It is easy to prophesy that where so much is left to presumption, even the most instructed will occasionally go wrong, and fill up the historical outline -- which, however much he borrows from actual events, must always be scanty — with things which could never have taken place. But in proportion to its success the work will be not only more attractive but more completely true than history itself. The advance which historical inquiry has made and is making since Scott began to write, may possibly discredit the Waverley novels in this or that particular; but if ever they are superseded, as pictures of the times which they represent, it will be by a series of fictions of similar compass, not by Thierry or Kemble.
If our remarks have hitherto been somewhat general, the illustrations which we have used must have rendered them particular. Those who, after filling up blanks in Thucydides by the present help of Mr. Grote, and in Tacitus by the anticipation of Mr. Merivale, are still conscious of a void, ought to welcome any imaginative writer who professes to supply it. Classical fiction only makes that promise for ancient history, the performance of which in the case of modern history was received with such delight thirty years ago.
Stories founded on classical mythology of course stand on a totally different ground. They have no more to do with the history of Greece or Rome than Southey's Thalaba and Kehama with that of Arabia or India. Their interest rests on the interest of the ideas embodied in the ancient belief. So far as those ideas have influenced history, their faithful expression will have an historical importance. But it is something more than the significance of a particular superstition which would make us long for a more complete description of the Athenian panic after the mutilation of the Hermæ in a Grecian Peveril of the Peak.
It cannot be wondered at that the classical writers should have left the accomplishment of the task to us. The full development of prose fiction is a phenomenon belonging almost exclusively to modern times, - we had nearly said to the present
Prose Fictions, modern.
century. The Golden Ass' of Apuleius was apparently in no great favour with antiquity. Macrobius, at least, would relegate to the nursery Apuleius et hoc totum fabularum genus.' When we speak of Plutarch's Lives' as romances, we intend not a compliment but a satire. The natural antithesis to history was then supposed to be poetry. Even poetry, however, rarely ventured to deal with a strictly historical subject. Epic poems were grounded on their mythology, so that critics talked about supernatural machinery as a necessary ingredient in such composition. Tragedy, after one or two attempts to emancipate itself, had to retire back upon the houses of Pelops and Laius. Comedy, so long as it dealt with contemporary history, was merely a satiric farce; nor was it until it surrendered its historical pretensions, and confined itself to imaginary personages, that it began to sketch men and manners, and hold up to the times its own mirror. Indeed, an historical fiction on a contemporary subject is a thing essentially hazardous and impracticable. The illusion, which it is the writer's chief interest to preserve, is at once dispelled by the introduction of persons who are known and can be referred to, or whose immediate representatives, at any rate, might disprove the story ; and it is succeeded by Horace's feeling of incredulous disgust. When Mr. D’Israeli, in Sybil,' makes his hero consult Lord John Russell on a critical occasion, we smile at the awkwardness into which his subject has led him. If the subject of the book had been less than a Chartist rebellion, we might have passed over the interview as an unimportant circumstance; as it is, we think of Malesherbes' quiet remark to the poet who feigned some convulsion of nature to have taken place in honour of a royal progress,— Though this happened in my time, yet I do • not recollect it.' The laws of art are at least as stringent against such misrepresentations of living characters as the laws of libel; and the Greeks, whe did not always stand in fear of the latter, were sure to be amenable to the former. Thus virtually cut off from the imaginative treatment of contemporary history, they were deprived, in a great measure, of every opportunity of cultivating historical fiction. While the inventive powers of their literature were yet unexhausted, they could not have gone very far back in their history without trenching on the divine • foretime;' and their genius and their means of information would equally have prevented them from choosing an independent story out of the annals of another country. Xenophon's want of national spirit, as well as the comparatively late period at which he wrote, must account for his selection of the Cyropædia. The Romans, it is true, had all Grecian history before them; but they apparently did not like to touch what their masters had not attempted. At any rate, we do not find that their imaginative writers made any effort to revive the glories of the nation to which they owed so much; while they scarcely seem to have thought of approaching their own, except once or twice through an epic medium. Whatever may have been the cause, the fact is clear, that if we wish for any such supplemental history of ancient times, we must go to modern writers. The counsels of the conspirators the night before the death of Cæsar are known to us only through
Shakspeare. No earlier authorities than Mr. Savage Landor and Miss Lynn volunteer to tell us what Pericles said to Aspasia.
Unfortunately, however, the proved legitimacy of a branch of writing does not necessarily insure its popularity. Classical fiction may be deserving of as much currency as the romance of history, but it has not attained it. As we have seen from our present list, its cultivators hardly think it wise to court a very extended circulation. No doubt this is mainly owing to the little interest felt by the reading public, omnivorous as it is, in classical antiquity. The classics are studied at school and college, and, except occasionally when a quotation is thought desirable, tabooed for the rest of life. Byron's hatred of Horace was of a piece with the feeling which Pope had celebrated long before the hostility of no small portion of his countrymen to every thing they had learned at school. Modern history is looked upon with more favour; rather on account, we fear, of the absence of scholastic associations, than because it is more generally understood, or felt to be more intimately connected with the life which we see around us. If recent improvements in education should succeed in bringing it into the regular routine of academical training, it may be in some danger of falling into like disrepute, and so ceasing to be useful as a foundation for the drama or the novel. We are inclined to think, too, that scholars themselves do something towards keeping up this feeling. Whether from pride or from vanity, from tenaciousness of their own pursuits or from deference to the prejudices of the unlearned, they are not generally indisposed to concur in regarding any attempt to mix up ancient learning with modern light reading as pedantic and unseasonable. A professed scholar, who has gained any fame by his labours, is about the last person from whom we should expect a classical story, unless it were for some purely didactic object, like Becker's • Charicles' and .Gallus.' It should be recollected, too, that the practical evidence which is most convincing to an English mind, the solvitur ambulando, is here rather deficient. There are no great masterpieces of classical fiction to which an admirer can point in justification of his enthusiasm. Scott, after having