Allan Massie

History in the Making

In 1814, Walter Scott published his first novel. It was something new: a novel dealing with a moment of history, and one in which fictional characters encountered real, historical ones and were caught up in an actual historical drama. Almost all Scott’s novels followed the pattern set by Waverley, and inspired imitators all over Europe. Many of the books influenced by Scott were doubtless very bad. Others were good; some of them were, in fact, great. Manzoni said he would never have written I Promessi Sposi but for Scott. In France Balzac, Hugo and Dumas were in his debt. So was his fervent admirer Theodor Fontane in Germany and very evidently Tolstoy in Russia. Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot and even Trollope were all inspired by Scott’s example to attempt at least one historical novel. Stevenson was his heir in their native Scotland. Then, with the emergence of the self-conscious literary novel and the arrival of Modernism, historical fiction fell out of fashion and, despite some notable novels, into critical disrepute. Now, thanks to the success of Hilary Mantel, the historical novel is enjoying a resurgence of popularity – even though some of the reviewers who praise Mantel express surprise that a historical novel can be so good.Obviously many historical novels aren’t written well: there are some truly dreadful ones – bodice-rippers and swashbuckling sagas. This should surprise nobody. Most novels in any genre are poor or at best indifferent. There are many dreary literary novels, and many pretentiously silly ones. Much crime fiction is trash, and so too is a great deal of science fiction. Moreover, in any genre there are novels worth reading once, but not for a second time. None of these reservations invalidates a particular genre.

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