5 JUNE 1982, Page 27


Past masters

David Williams

liistorical novel' is a chameleon phrase. Now it looks like this. Now it looks like that. What have The Talisman and War and Peace got in common?

Well, both are about the past. In Scott's case the far past, in Tolstoy's the near past. There is no other similarity. Scott, it must always be remembered, is the great originator of the genre and a supplementary question or two might help to clarify our ideas about the form. Are the best of the Waverley novels 'historical'? Yes, in the sense that they aren't about Edinburgh bet- ween 1814 an 1826 when Scott was at his busiest with them. But all the same they're very near to him — as near as his own quarters in Castle Street were to Abbots- ford, the cluttered little border pile that finally sucked the life out of him. "Tis Sixty Years Since' is the sub-title of Waverley: so is that as far back as the historical novel, if it's to be any good, ought to go? Just as far back, that's to say, as would allow a 12-Year-old future performer to remember hearing his grandfather talking about what he'd lived through? To this I'm inclined to risk having famous titles hurled at my head Salammbo? The Scarlet Letter? Romola? — and still give a guarded Yes in reply.

But once Scott had launched the historical novel, the genre swept all through Europe in a wave of unsurpassed populari- ty. And it isn't really difficult to see why. The past is always attractive because it is drained of fear'. This most perceptive remark is Carlyle's, and it goes a long way towards explaining why historical novels have continued in popularity for so long. Prom Sir Walter to C. S. Forester or Georgette Heyer may represent a steep drop, but all three cluster under the historical novelist's umbrella. The elder Dumas, an entertainer of genius, noted Sir Walter's success and followed jauntily in his footsteps. He was always ready to admit that he had 'violated history'. But he used to add in excuse: `Je lui ai fait de beaux en- fants'. This is a bit frivolous, and the ac- cusation of fundamental unseriousness has often been made against historical novels, and sometimes been made to stick. Henry James, the solemn, perceptive, subtle arch- bishop of the novel-as-art-form, was very doubtful about them. The novelist has dif- ficulties enough, he thinks, when he is deal- ing with the immediate, visible, tangible Present which he shares with all his readers; how can he expect to be successful when he

takes wing and flies off like Flaubert to an- cient Carthage? Dumas would have had a quick and confident answer to that.

Both novels listed here are good, cons- cientious, informed examples of how to practise this perhaps unnecessarily suspect art. Mr Thomson goes back to the mid-18th century when Chatham was busy putting together the first British empire. Chatham makes no personal appearance, but David Hume does. Here, immediately, Mr Thom- son is treading on treacherous ground.

Hume was a genius who thought hard and wrote beautifully. He looks forward to the modern world. Mr Thomson is perfectly aware of this, but does not succeed in put- ting the man's greatness on to the page. We get the impression of a podgy old dear who is too fond of his stomach. He is right, though, to follow Sir Walter's strict rule: bring the real people in, but never let them take command; short glimpses and then wheel them off. Mr Thomson is adroit about this and wholly satisfactory. In the conversation passages — they can be very tricky — he usually shows a sure touch too, though there are lapses. 'You must be crazy, Jock,' says the Earl of Ravelston, and there's talk elsewhere of a 'business trip'. The story concerns this same earl, a shifty, muddled creature who can't quite shake off his 1745 loyalties although he recognises that a new world is beginning.

Coal has been found on his land. 'Horrible stuff!' he tells Hume. 'Hume waved towards the grate. "Brings warmth," he said. "And wealth. Both of them desirable" '. 'I am between two ages,' the earl realises elsewhere, but sometimes the reader is left in doubt whether Ravelston is thinking his thoughts, or whether Mr Thomson is thinking them for him. The middle stretches of the novel are a bit short on incident, but the climax is skilfully or- chestrated, and there's an old-fashioned, dignified air about the book as a whole which is thoroughly agreeable.

In a note at the end Mr Burnett tells us that his novel, The Priestess of Henge, is set

'in about 2100 a.c.'. So we are in the early Bronze Age, and Stonehenge, which took a millenium and a half to construct, is at roughly its halfway stage. Its building is the unifying theme of a rambling but altogether fascinating novel.

In writing his dialogue Mr Burnett tries on the whole for the timeless-stately, which is probably the best policy. But it's difficult to hold the note, and if you fail to do so there can be disasters. 'Perhaps you can summon up sufficient wind to blow life into the fire'. No, that doesn't quite get it. 'She lifted the goatskin. "Mead?" '. No again. 'We've made mistakes, but make another and it won't only be the children who'll suf- fer, but all of us. It's that simple'. This sounds more like ex-President Nixon than Morrigen, the ruthless priestess-leader with the matted hair. But on the other hand Mr Burnett, with such a hazardous course to steer, succeeds much more often than he fails. "There were lice in Kelda's hair," said Ralla. "They kept tickling me as I cut it." 'What could be better than that? You can't of course talk about `characterisation'. You have to confine yourself to hints, forewarnings, intima- tions, and his Morrigen, belonging in her primitive way to that tiny group of absolute ones who move society forward, is a splen- did creation. The fascinations of this book aren't however novelistic; Mr Burnett's gifts are for the panoramic and the pic- torial, and here he serves us well.