That Mighty Sculptor, Time
How Many Years
A Blue Tale and Other Stories
When Henry James’s friend Sarah Orne Jewett sent him a copy of her just completed historical novel The Tory Lover, written five years after the Maine stories of The Country of the Pointed Firs, he implored her: “Go back to the dear country of the Pointed Firs, come back to the palpable present-intimate that throbs responsive, and that wants, misses, needs you.”
The “historic” novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness … You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman—or rather fifty—whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force—and even then it’s all humbug.
There was, he went on to admit, “a shade of the (even then) humbug that may amuse,” and she had at least avoided many of the “childish tricks” of recent practitioners.
But even you court disaster by composing the whole thing so much by sequences of speeches. It’s when the extinct soul talks, and the earlier consciousness airs itself, that the pitfalls multiply and the “cheap” way has to serve.1
One is reminded of James’s letter by an essay in That Mighty Sculptor, Time by another very famous historical novelist, Marguerite Yourcenar. She writes here about “Tone and Language in the Historical Novel,” and the nub of her essay is that one cannot reconstruct the voices of the past, so that a historical novelist must at all costs eschew dialogue. Speaking of her Memoirs of Hadrian, 2 she remarks that the few fragments of common speech preserved in ancient literature gave her nothing “that would have enabled me to re-create with even a minimum of plausibility an exchange about serious or urgent, subtle or complex matters, a conversation between Hadrian and Trajan, or Plotina, or Antinous, or with his legate Severus concerning the affairs of Judaea.” Nothing, or virtually nothing, was left us of “those inflections, those quarter tones, those articulated half smiles which yet can change everything.” When it came to dialogue, she says, the only choice offered to her was between a “servile copying of a few ancient expressions known to everyone” (of the “Stab my vitals!” variety),3 or “the homespun ingenuity4 of Technicolor scenarios (‘Spartacus, I think I am going to have a baby’).”
Thus, though initially she designed her Memoirs of Hadrian as a dialogue, she very soon realized that it would have to be a monologue: an attempt at the dignified form…
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