Stark Reviews: Grim Prairie Tales (1990)
The Nine-Tiered Table of Reality Crossovers

'A defense of historical fiction' by Jonathan Nield (1902)


Most of us, I suppose, at one time or another have experienced a thrill of interest when some prominent personage, whom we knew well by repute, came before us in the flesh. We watched his manner, and noted all those shades of expression which in another's countenance we should have passed by unheeded. Well, it seems to me that, parallel with this experience, is that which we gain, when, reading some first-rank romance, we encounter in its pages a figure with which History has made us more or less familiar.

And I would remark that the great masters do not, as a rule, make that mistake which less skilful writers fall into - the mistake of introducing well-known historical figures too frequently. The Cromwell of "Woodstock" has an element of mystery about him, even while he stands out before our mental vision in bold relief. Had Scott brought him more prominently into the plot, and thus emphasized the fictional aspect of his figure, our interest in the story, as such, might have been sustained, but we should have lost that atmosphere of vraisemblance which, under a more careful reserve, the hand of the master has wrought for us.

But it is not only this introduction of personalities which constitutes a novel "historical"; the mere allusion to real events, or the introduction of dates, may give us sufficient ground for identifying the period with which a novel deals. Of course the question as to whether a particular person or event is truly historical, is not always an easy one to answer. By the adaptation in it of some purely mythical character or event, a novel is no more constituted "historical" than is a Fairy-tale by the adaptation of folklore. King Arthur and Robin Hood are unhistorical, and, if I have ventured to insert in my list certain tales which deal with the latter, it is not on that account, but because other figures truly historical (e.g., Richard I.) appear. 

As there has been some dispute on this question of the Historical Novel proper, I offer the following definition:

A Novel is rendered Historical by the introduction of dates, personages, or events, to which identification can be readily given.

I am quite aware that certain well-known novels which give the general atmosphere of a period - such, for example, as Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" and Mr. Hewlett's "Forest Lovers" - do not come within the scope of my definition; but this is just why I have added a "Supplementary List" of semi-historical tales.... 

Coming to the List itself, it will be noticed that I have been somewhat sparing in the books given under the "Pre-Christian" heading. Novels dealing with these very far-off times are apt to be unsatisfactory; the mist in which events and personages are enveloped, takes away from that appearance of reality which is the great charm of the historical novel. We are hardly concerned, in reading "Sarchedon" and similar books, to get away from the purely imaginary pictures which spring from the Novelist's own brain, and the danger is that the very elements which add to our interest in the tale as such, will go far to mislead us in our conception of the period dealt with. There is none of that sense of familiarity which we enjoy when reading a sixteenth or seventeenth century romance; in the latter case, the historical background, being easily perceptible, merges for us with the creations of the author's own imagination. Where the writer of an "ancient" romance happens to be a scholar like Ebers, we feel that - so far at least as historical presentment goes - we cannot be far wrong, but the combination of great scholarship and narrative capacity is, alas, too rare!

* * *

Perhaps this introduction may be most fitly concluded by something in the nature of apology for Historical Romance itself. Not only has fault been found with the deficiencies of unskilled authors in that department, but the question has been asked by one or two critics of standing - What right has the Historical Novel to exist at all? More often than not, it is pointed out, the Romancist gives us a mass of inaccuracies, which, while they mislead the ignorant (i.e., the majority?), are an unpardonable offence to the historically-minded reader. Moreover, the writer of such Fiction, though he be a Thackeray or a Scott, cannot surmount barriers which are not merely hard to scale, but absolutely impassable. The spirit of a period is like the selfhood of a human being - something that cannot be handed on; try as we may, it is impossible for us to breathe the atmosphere of a bygone time, since all those thousand-and-one details which went to the building up of both individual and general experience, can never be reproduced. We consider (say) the Eighteenth Century from the purely Historical standpoint, and, while we do so, are under no delusion as to our limitations; we know that a few of the leading personages and events have been brought before us in a more or less disjointed fashion, and are perfectly aware that there is room for much discrepancy between the pictures so presented to us (be it with immense skill) and the actual facts as they took place in such and such a year. But, goes on the objector, in the case of a Historical Romance we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked, for, under the influence of a pseudo-historic security, we seem to watch the real sequence of events in so far as these affect the characters in whom we are interested.

How we seem to live in those early years of the Eighteenth Century, as we follow Henry Esmond from point to point, and yet, in truth, we are breathing not the atmosphere of Addison and Steele, but the atmosphere created by the brilliant Nineteenth Century Novelist, partly out of his erudite conception of a former period, and partly out of the emotions and thoughts engendered by that very environment which was his own, and from which he could not escape!

Well, to all such criticisms it seems to me there are ample rejoinders.

In the first place it must be remembered that History itself possesses interest for us more as the unfolding of certain moral and mental developments than as the mere enumeration of facts. Of course, I am aware that the ideal of the Historian is Truth utterly regardless of prejudice and inclination, but, as with all other human ideals, this one is never fully realised, and there is ever that discrepancy between Fact and its Narration to which I just now alluded. This being so, I would ask - Is not the writer of Fiction justified in emphasising those elements of History which have a bearing on life and character in general? There is, doubtless, a wise and an unwise method of procedure. One novelist, in the very effort to be accurate, produces a work which - being neither History nor Fiction - is simply dull; while another, who has gauged the true relation between fact and imagination, knows better than to bring into prominence that which should remain only as a background. After all, there are certain root motives and principles which, though they vary indefinitely in their application, underlie Human Conduct, and are common to all ages alike. Given a fairly accurate knowledge as regards the general history of any period, combined with some investigation into its special manners and customs, there is no reason why a truly imaginative novelist should not produce a work at once satisfying to romantic and historical instincts.

Again, if it be true that the novelist cannot reproduce the far past in any strict sense, it is also true that neither can he so reproduce the life and events of yesterday. That power of imaginative memory, which all exercise in daily experience, may be held in very different degrees, but its enjoyment is not dependent on accuracy of representation - for, were this so, none of us would possess it. In an analogous manner the writer of Romance may be more or less adequately equipped on the side of History pure and simple, but he need not wait for that which will never come - the power of reproducing in toto a past age. If, in reading what purports to be no more than a Novel, the struggle between Christianity and Paganism (for example), or the unbounded egotism of Napoleon, be brought more vividly before our minds - and this may be done by suggestion as well as by exact relation, then, I would maintain, we are to some extent educated historically, using the word in a large though perfectly legitimate sense....

I know well that numerous novels might be cited which, besides abounding in anachronisms, are harmful in that they present us with a misleading conception of some personality or period; moreover, I acknowledge that this defect is by no means confined to romances of an inferior literary order. That Cromwell has been unreasonably vilified, and Mary Queen of Scots misconceived as a saintly martyr - how often are these charges brought against not a few of our leading exponents of Historical Fiction. Let this be fully granted, it remains to ask - To whom were our novelists originally indebted for these misconceptions? Were not the historians of an earlier generation responsible for these wrong judgments?

True, the real Science of History - the sifting of evidence, and the discovery and unravelling of ancient documents - may be described as an essentially modern attainment, so it would be unreasonable to blame our older historians for errors which it was largely, if not wholly, beyond their power to overcome. And it is just here that I would emphasise my defence of the Romancist. If Historians themselves have differed (and still differ!) may it not be pleaded on behalf of the Historical Novelist that he also must be judged according to the possibilities of his time? For, while he may have too readily adopted false conceptions in the past, there is no necessity why, in the future, he also - profiting by the growth of Critical investigation - should not have due regard, in the working out of his Historical background, for all the latest "results." And, I would further add, even though it be true that Scott and others have misled us in certain directions, this does not prevent our acknowledgment that, given their aspect of a particular period, it was only fitting that the scheme of their novels should be in harmony with it....

The fountains of Romance show no sign of running dry, and, though we may look in vain at the moment for a genius of the very highest type, the Future has possibilities within it which the greatest literary pessimist among us cannot wholly deny. If, then, fault can be found with the older Romancists for the spreading here and there of false historical notions, let us look to future workers in the same sphere for adjustment.

I believe, however, that one notable critic has pronounced the mischief already done to be quite irreparable, seeing that the only "History" at all widely spread is that derived from those very romances in which errors are so interwoven with the sentimental interest of the plot itself that readers inevitably "hug their delusions!" But I think that this danger need not be contemplated seriously. The Historical Novel exists primarily as Fiction, and, even though in our waking moments we may be persuaded of the unreality of that "dream" which a Scott or a Dumas has produced for us, we shall still be able to place ourselves again and again under the spell of their delightful influence.


From A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales by Jonathan Nield (1902). You can read his Lists here.

Art: Cromwell in the Battle of Naseby 1645 by Charles Landseer