Nov. 28, 1891. “Esther Vanhomrigh.”
Among considerable novelists who have handled historical subjects–that is to say, who have brought into their story men and women who really lived and events which have really taken place–you will find one rule strictly observed, and no single infringement of it that has been followed by success. This rule is that the historical characters and events should be mingled with poetical characters and events, and made subservient to them. And it holds of books as widely dissimilar as La Vicomte de Bragelonne and La Guerre et la Paix; The Abbot and John Inglesant. In history Louis XIV. and Napoleon are the most salient men of their time: in fiction they fall back and give prominence to D’Artagnan and the Prince André. They may be admirably painted, but unless they take a subordinate place in the composition, the artist scores a failure.
A Disability of “Historical Fiction.”
The reason of this is, of course, very simple. If an artist is to have full power over his characters, to know their hearts, to govern their emotions and sway them at his will, they must be his own creatures and the life in them derived from him. He must have an entirely free hand with them. But the personages of history have an independent life of their own, and with them his hand is tied. Thackeray has a freehold on the soul of Beatrix Esmond, but he takes the soul of Marlborough furnished, on a short lease, and has to render an account to the Muse of History. He is lord of one and mere occupier of the other. Nor will it do to say that an artist by sympathetic and intelligent study can master the motives of any group of historical characters sufficiently for his purpose. For, since they have anticipated him and lived their lives without his help, they leave him but a choice between two poor courses. If he narrate their lives and adventures as they really befel, he is writing history. If, on the other hand, he disregard historical accuracy, he might just as well have used another set of characters or have given his characters other names. Indeed, it would be much better. For if Alcibiades went as a matter of fact to Sparta and as a matter of fiction you make him stay at home, you merely advertise to the world that there was something in Alcibiades you don’t understand. And if you are writing about an Alcibiades whom you don’t quite understand, you will save your readers some risk of confusion by calling him Charicles.
Now Jonathan Swift and Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh really lived; and by living, became historical. But Mrs. Woods sets forth to translate them back into fiction, not as subordinate characters, but as protagonists. She has chosen to work within the difficult limits I have indicated. But there are others which might easily have cramped her hand even more closely.
A Tale of Passion to be told in Terms of Reason.
The story of Swift and Esther Vanhomrigh is a story of passion, and runs on the confines of madness. But it happened in the Age of Reason. Doubtless men and women felt madness and passion in that age: doubtless, too, they spoke of madness and passion, but not in their literature. And now that the lips are dust and the fiery conversations lost, Mrs. Woods has only their written prose to turn to for help. To satisfy the pedant she must tell her story of passion in terms of reason. In one respect Thackeray had a more difficult task in Esmond; for he aimed to make his book a reflection, in every page and line, of the days of Queen Anne. Not only had he, like Mrs. Woods, to make his characters and their talk consistent with that age; but every word of the story is supposed to be told by a gentleman of that age, whereas Mrs. Woods in her narrative prose may use the language of her own century. On the other hand, the story of Esmond deals with comparatively temperate emotions. There is nothing in Thackeray’s masterpiece to strain the prose of the Age of Reason. It is pitched in the key of those times, and the prose of those times is sufficient and exactly sufficient for it. That it should be so is all the more to Thackeray’s honor, for the artist is to be praised in the conception as duly as in the execution of his work. But, the conception being granted, I think Esther Vanhomrigh must have been a harder book than Esmond to write.