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Historical Novels
by [?]

IN default of such an admirable piece of work as Dr. Weir Mitchell’s “Hugh Wynne,” I like best those fictions which deal with kingdoms and principalities that exist only in the mind’s eye. One’s knowledge of actual events and real personages runs no serious risk of receiving shocks in this no-man’s-land. Everything that happens in an imaginary realm–in the realm of Ruritania, for illustration–has an air of possibility, at least a shadowy vraisemblance. The atmosphere and local color, having an authenticity of their own, are not to be challenged. You cannot charge the writer with ignorance of the period in which his narrative is laid, since the period is as vague as the geography. He walks on safe ground, eluding many of the perils that beset the story-teller who ventures to stray beyond the bounds of the make-believe. One peril he cannot escape–that of misrepresenting human nature.

The anachronisms of the average historical novel, pretending to reflect history, are among its minor defects. It is a thing altogether wonderfully and fearfully made–the imbecile intrigue, the cast-iron characters, the plumed and armored dialogue with its lance of gory rhetoric forever at charge. The stage at its worst moments is not so unreal. Here art has broken into smithereens the mirror which she is supposed to hold up to nature.

In this romance-world somebody is always somebody’s unsuspected father, mother, or child, deceiving every one excepting the reader. Usually the anonymous person is the hero, to whom it is mere recreation to hold twenty swordsmen at bay on a staircase, killing ten or twelve of them before he escapes through a door that ever providentially opens directly behind him. How tired one gets of that door! The “caitiff” in these chronicles of when knighthood was in flower is invariably hanged from “the highest battlement”–the second highest would not do at all; or else he is thrown into “the deepest dungeon of the castle”–the second deepest dungeon was never known to be used on these occasions. The hero habitually “cleaves” his foeman “to the midriff,” the “midriff” being what the properly brought up hero always has in view. A certain fictional historian of my acquaintance makes his swashbuckler exclaim: “My sword will [shall] kiss his midriff;” but that is an exceptionally lofty flight of diction. My friend’s heroine dresses as a page, and in the course of long interviews with her lover remains unrecognized–a diaphanous literary invention that must have been old when the Pyramids were young. The heroine’s small brother, with playful archaicism called “a springald,” puts on her skirts and things and passes himself off for his sister or anybody else he pleases. In brief, there is no puerility that is not at home in this sphere of misbegotten effort. Listen–a priest, a princess, and a young man in woman’s clothes are on the scene:

The princess rose to her feet and approached the priest.

“Father,” she said swiftly, “this is not the Lady Joan, my brother’s wife, but a youth marvelously like her, who hath offered himself in her place that she might escape. . . . He is the Count von Loen, a lord of Kernsburg. And I love him. We want you to marry us now, dear Father–now, without a moment’s delay; for if you do not they will kill him, and I shall have to marry Prince Wasp!”

This is from “Joan of the Sword Hand,” and if ever I read a more silly performance I have forgotten it.