WHAT are the ingredients of a good historical novel? What is in an author’s mind when he chooses a period in which to place his story? Is it to provide color and background to enrich with a romantic haze a story not quite strong enough to stand on its own legs? Does the author set out to “explain” history in a popular way? Or is he writing for the pot, knowing that any craftsmanlike cloak-and-dagger job will find a good market? These and other unanswerable questions bedevil this particular reader of The Moneyman (Doubleday, $3.00), which the Book-of-the-Month Club, in its combined wisdom, chose as its midsummer — or hammock— selection. There is a continuing flow of historical novels in the shopwindows, and the same questions might be asked about any of them.
Mr. Costain, however, is a consistent and successful producer of this sort of thing — as his three previous novels have shown. The Moneyman is a good enough story, well enough told. Jacques Coeur, the argeniter of King Charles VII, has acquired a fortune as a merchant of the new school and, although of low birth, has reached an important position at court through his wealth, his patriotism, and his willingness to finance the war against the English. To spur the sluggish king to keep on with the war, someone is required to replace the dying Agnes Sorel as an inspirational mistress. Coeur finds such a substitute on hand in the form of a virtuous female waif who bears a striking likeness to the moribund Agnes and who, oddly enough, turns out to be her illegitimate niece. Coeur’s benevolent plot is abandoned when his friend, the Sire d’Arlay, falls madly but virtuously in love with the waif, Valerie. Sinister characters now enter and things go very badly indeed. But of course Valerie and the Sire d’Arlay are married at last, and the book ends on a hopeful note as the husband tells his wife: “There will be a change. Men will begin to see the folly of all this. Everything Jacques Coeur wanted—and much more—will come to pass in time.”
The author has made Jacques Coeur and the Sire d’Arlay into modern-minded men. The former foresees a state of things when wealth, wisely administered, and sound economics will replace outworn feudalism. The Sire d’Arlay has come to regard chivalry as an empty fraud. Things are pretty bad in fifteenth-century France but, giv en a few characters with modern American ideas, they will workout all right in the end and the world will be better in our next volume. In fact, the world will probably keep on getting better and better, which is a very nice, comfortable thought in 1947.
This is, therefore, a kind of “hindsight” historical novel. The present is always with us, looking down its nose at the past. We see fifteenth-century France as a brutal, colorful pageant of error and evil, of romance and misery, which we readers, as superior spectators, can regard in our wisdom. This happy position makes the book easy to understand; we like the swordplay and the action and the suspense, and we are pleasantly aware of our own superiority to the misguided creatures who caper and prance before our eyes.
Neither we nor the author is in or of the period described. The book is well enough documented as to manners and customs, the clothes and the armor, the food and the gallantry, but it is all objective. Nothing is taken for granted. It has to be explained. We have to see it through the eyes of Mr. Costain and his modern-minded characters.
I am irresistibly reminded of that idol of my youth, G. A. Henty, who employed the same technique quite consistently and successfully. In all his innumerable books, written for the “Dear Lads” of England and America, no matter what the date or where the scene, whether in a Phoenician galley or with the legions of Caesar or on an Indian trail, the hero was always a nice boy, somehow AngloSaxon, Victorian, and Protestant. Whatever his alleged race or creed, he felt about things just the way we dear lads would have felt about them and he was just as brave and noble as we dreamed we were, and were not.
This objective, hindsight historical novel writing has its obvious virtues and advantages, but it is hard to write from that standpoint and produce a work of art. One cannot re-create a period if one cannot speak and think and react in its rhythm and idiom. Mr. Costain can no more place himself inside the body and mind of a fifteenth-century Frenchman than Mark Twain’s Yankee could creep into the soul of Sir Kay, the seneschal. In his introduction the author says, quite naïvely: —
It is surprising how little has been written about some phases of the career of the great Moneyman. Monstrelet and his fellow scribes of the day went to great pains to set down the activities of unimportant knights and to tell of the daily lives of dull kings and stupid princes but they seem to have been lightly concerned with the spectacular career of Jacques Coeur.
Well, yes, it is surprising from the standpoint of International Rotary, but it is wholly in character with the standpoint of the fifteenth century. Only by hindsight could a lowborn moneyman like Jacques Coeur acquire stature. At the time, he was not the kind of person one wrote about.
Compare this kind of thing with the historical novels eminent Frenchmen of our day have written about their own countrymen. The suave and unexplained incarnations of their periods who appear in the novels of Anatole France and Henri de Régnicr are creations as authentic in art as they are learned in documentation. Or take a novel placed in the sixteenth century, such as Maurice Maindron’s Le Tournoi de Vauplassans. Here we are wholly and magically drawn into the idiom of an age that is past.
A Moneyman written in that idiom would probably not be appreciated by the Great American Public. But it would more nearly approach the standards of attempted artistry. Both books, however, have received their rewards: Le Tournoi de Vauplassans was crowned by the French Academy: The Moneyman is the midsummer selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. There is a difference.