Historical Novels –Cornwall and Beyond


Was Lady Browning, Dame Daphne du Maurier quite reliable, from a factual viewpoint in her treatment of historical figures in her novels? Someone mentioned at a meeting this week that her portrayal of Sir Richard Grenville, the first Baronet, (1600-58), grandson of the Sir Richard Grenville who was the naval commander at the Battle of Flores when The Revenge was sunk to avoid capture off the Azores. (According to Tennyson, “Sink me the ship, Master Gunner—sink her, split her in twain! … Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain! “) The King’s General written in 1946, and there is a full review of it by Ann Wilmore at http://www.dumaurier.org/reviews-general.html.The novel is written from a Royalist viewpoint and has been recently performed at Restormel Castle as recently as just two years ago. Wilmore recognises that in the period that it was written it was intended to be an escapist romance. There is a suggestion that the Grenville character is perhaps somehow distantly linked to her own husband, a General who in April 1944 he had become commander of I Airborne Corps. He was a controversial figure and was involved in Operation Market Garden and later Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff in India. He eventually became Commander in Chief of the South East Asia Command. (He was played by Dirk Bogarde in the film A Bridge Too Far.)

Altogether Grenville was not a very nice man. He had a violent temper which put pay to his marriage and ended in two acrimonious lawsuits. He was sent by Charles! to take part in the Siege of Plymouth and eventually had to retreat from there intoCornwallwhere he was to ensure vital supplies of tin for the Royalists. He appears to have got deeply involved with maintaining Duchy and Stannary rights and attempted to attain independent rights forCornwall. He is said to have enforced discipline in an arbitrary manner and hung some men and imprisoned others. He appears to have extorted money for his own purposes and after all this reacted with rank insubordination to Lord Goring and then refused to serve under Sir Ralph Hopton. He was imprisoned on St Michael’s Mount. According to Wikipedia, he became known as “Skellum Grenville”, the term may well derive from the German “Scheim” which means a scoundrel.

Georg Lukács, (1885-1971), the Hungarian Marxist thinker and literary critic is an important figure who has written about the Historical Novel,1937 in considerable depth.( See for instance http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/l/u.htm#lukacs-georg) Having read Kierkegaard and Weber early in life, he later turned away from Kafka and Modernism in favour of Thomas Mann. He argues that following the French Revolution and its aftermath, people became more conscious of the change itself as an important factor in individual consciousness. He went on to praise this development in the work of Sir Walter Scott, who portrayed the dissolution of feudal life and the rise of mercantile capitalism in the Highlands. This realism he saw too in the novels of Balzac and Tolstoy. Constant change becomes an explicit theme and opens up the possibility of social revolution as the proletariat enters as a factor. Hence these authors despite their conservatism are preferable to modernists and Flaubert, receives disapprobation for his historical work, Salammbo, particularly for its emphasis on style, as opposed to realism. However, it is interesting that Lukacs did not appear to much approve of Zola. He preferredGorky but this may have been influenced by that with which he was more familiar and besides Engels seems to have had reservations with respect to Zola.

This argument derives, of course from the Marxist view of ideology and the separation which exists between appearance, by which he means the character’s thoughts and feelings divorced from reality, which Lukacs which is thought by him to be the existing social relations framed by the means of production under capitalism. Realism, Lukacs believes can penetrate and uncover,” the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible of relationships, which go to make up society.” Influenced, it seems by Nietzsche’s writings on decadence in writing, which criticised a lack of the sense of totality; modernism is isolated from the socio-economic reality. Hence, realists penetrate depths by confining their work to a more superficial and fictional subjectivity. This obviously raises many further questions including: – the role of the imagination in literature and what Lukacs might make of magical realism.

On a lighter note, apparently The Scarlet Pimpernel novels are historically quite accurate. Baroness Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947) wrote some fifteen of these. Her full name was Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála “Emmuska” Orczy de Orczi and came from a Hungarian aristocratic family. She was also a talented painter who exhibited her paintings in the RoyalAcademy. Her novels include Sir Percy Blakeley’s enemies, Robespierre, Collot d’Herbois and of course, Chauvelin.(The latter is an exception, Citoyen Chauvelin although based on a real figure – Bernard-François, marquis de Chauvelin is not at all accurate, but a military officer who served in the American Revolution). However, in respect of her depiction of St Just and Lambert Talien his erstwhile opponent and the conditions in the Temple prison, the treatment of the Dauphin and the assassination of the journalist Marat, the worship of Reason as a deity are all covered reasonably accurately.

British statesmen such as William Pitt, the Younger and Lord William Grenville are also portrayed and show Orczy having a pretty thorough grasp of detail. The narrative keeps the reader engaged which helps as well.

Which are your favourite historical novels and authors?

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