It will be gathered from what I have said that Mr. Moore has vastly outstripped his own public form, even as shown in A Mummer’s Wife. But it may be as well to set down, beyond possibility of misapprehension, my belief that in Esther Waters we have the most artistic, the most complete, and the most inevitable work of fiction that has been written in England for at least two years. Its plainness of speech may offend many. It may not be a favorite in the circulating libraries or on the bookstalls. But I shall be surprised if it fails of the place I predict for it in the esteem of those who know the true aims of fiction and respect the conscientious practice of that great art.
Nov. 28, 1891. “Esther Vanhomrigh.”
Among considerable novelists who have handled historical subjects—that is to say, who have brought into their story men and women who really lived and events which have really taken place—you will find one rule strictly observed, and no single infringement of it that has been followed by success. This rule is that the historical characters and events should be mingled with poetical characters and events, and made subservient to them. And it holds of books as widely dissimilar as La Vicomte de Bragelonne and La Guerre et la Paix; The Abbot and John Inglesant. In history Louis XIV. and Napoleon are the most salient men of their time: in fiction they fall back and give prominence to D’Artagnan and the Prince Andre. They may be admirably painted, but unless they take a subordinate place in the composition, the artist scores a failure.
A Disability of “Historical Fiction.”
The reason of this is, of course, very simple. If an artist is to have full power over his characters, to know their hearts, to govern their emotions and sway them at his will, they must be his own creatures and the life in them derived from him. He must have an entirely free hand with them. But the personages of history have an independent life of their own, and with them his hand is tied. Thackeray has a freehold on the soul of Beatrix Esmond, but he takes the soul of Marlborough furnished, on a short lease, and has to render an account to the Muse of History. He is lord of one and mere occupier of the other. Nor will it do to say that an artist by sympathetic and intelligent study can master the motives of any group of historical characters sufficiently for his purpose. For, since they have anticipated him and lived their lives without his help, they leave him but a choice between two poor courses. If he narrate their lives and adventures as they really befel, he is writing history. If, on the other hand, he disregard historical accuracy, he might just as well have used another set of characters or have given his characters other names. Indeed, it would be much better. For if Alcibiades went as a matter of fact to Sparta and as a matter of fiction you make him stay at home, you merely advertise to the world that there was something in Alcibiades you don’t understand. And if you are writing about an Alcibiades whom you don’t quite understand, you will save your readers some risk of confusion by calling him Charicles.