Historical Novels

UNLESS I miss my guess, the time is ripe for good historical novels. Fiction of this sort was rather shoved to one side in the years following the war, when realism and irony were in favor. I recall Bower. by Lion Feuchtwanger, and Willa Cather’s Death Comes fur the Archbishop as exceptions to the rule. So were the early novels of James Boyd.
THE writer of an historical novel assumes a dual responsibility: be must re-create, usually from literary sources, a scene which, however foreign it may be to the unacquainted reader at the outset, wall by appreciable degrees be made familiar and convincing; side by side with this he must develop a narrative sturdy enough t o carry without strain the many descriptive parts and to sustain—with increasing tension — the reader’s interest till the climax is reached. If the writer dwells upon his period to the belittlement of his story, or if he plays up his narrative without reckoning the facts and psychology of its time and place. Ins book is apt to be tedious or inconsistent.
In Rogue Herries (Doubleday, Doran, $‘2.00) Hugh Walpole starts with everything in his favor. The setting for his story is the Lake ; ouufry in eighteenth-century England, and the central figure - the Rogue — is a strong, fitful gentleman, capable of great things, too often responsible for harsh ones. The man was made for the country—his stormy, ghost-ridden character is matched by the crags and nat ural turbulence of Borrowdale; and the country was made to be written about. Those who, like your reviewer, have sealed some of the faces of Great End and Sea fell, and worn out shoe leather on the Screes, will know the majesty and mystery that invests these storm-covered heights. Mr. Walpole knows, and very skillfully has he drawn this highland with its dour, passionate people.
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We see the cold stone houses and the everlasting ram; the still, black farms, and the beauty of the valleys when clouds break the sunlight; the rude hoisterousness of the Keswick Fair and the human broil of the Christmas revels (Pieter Breughel in prose); the witch baiting, the drinking, and the lechery. Along with these aspects of an earlier Cumberland, we are made familiar with the London of Queen Anne and the Hanoverians, the Scotland of the Young Pretender. These threads and more are drawn into this story of a vagabond gentleman. By his command of such detail, Mr. Walpole makes us quickly at home in his book, giving us an expectancy of fine things to come; then, alas, by his over-elaboration of this very stuff, his story begins to creak, it slows down, it cannot bear the load; finally, like the One-Hoss Shay, it dissolves into dust— in this case, the dust of history.
Rogue Herries, the aloof outcast with his sinister hold over those about him, is at the start a compelling figure. We are told he is ghost-ridden, we expect his fate to be tragic. He should make the story move. But with his wife’s death, he begins to fade. And when after interminable digressions he takes a fantastic gypsy for his second wife, credulity begins to desert. From that point to the close I read with doubt, noticing, as I passed, the want of humor and propulsion, the need, the everlasting need, of compression. I am sorry to say it, for there is much that is picturesque in this novel.
Perhaps because it deals with a time and country unknown to me, certainly because it is a brisk and exciting tale, I found much to recommend in Janies Boyd’s new historical novel, Lang final (Scribner, $2.50). The time is the early eighteen hundreds; the country, that portion of our Southern states verging toward the Mississippi, half frontier, half Indian forest, through which the stream of migration was slowly forcing its way. The man in the case, Murfree Rinnard, is in his American way as proud and aloof as Rogue Herries: a Long Hunter, trapping and shooting by himself in the silent forests for months on end, he felt ‘crowded in the barest settlements, hated ‘the movers,’as he called the pioneers, and had little or no respect for women, who were always too easy for him. The Indian country was his province and he knew it by heart, nor wanted anything different until he met an Eastern girl in Hill Town.
To tell much more of the story is to cheat the reader. It is enough to say that Alurfree stole away from the thought of marriage and, to free his mind, went back to his long hunts. These expeditions took him into Tennessee for bear meat, down the Mississippi and into the Spanish Territory for furs, and on a long mission into the Creek country to avert war; they comprise the body of the book, and for their vigorous and sensuous revelation of woodcraft and frontier living they are splendid. Alurfree is companioned by the old bear dog. Roamer. The senses of each are as keen as mustard, and watching their reactions, we come to participate in the book itself.
The love story, for all its suspense, is simple enough, and. I dare say, will be accepted by most, without objection. But, I should like to suggest, would a man who had no intimates, and only one dog in his whole life, who knifed his partner over a girl, who killed a bear with his hands, who lived for years with the Creeks, and who succeeded with all but one woman lie ever tried for - - would such a man be apt to treasure a virgin image in his mind for long? We can only guess, and for my part I am doubtful.
But whether or not you are troubled by this premise, the novel will be read and ought to be read for its robust action, for frontier humor at its best, for the skill with which the author has employed in speech and reflection the twangy phrases of early America, but mostly because Mr. Boyd is a ready story-teller who packs his narrative as tight as an apple with incidents, and leaves it crisp to taste.