« PreviousContinue »
years before the introduction of writing, and Volney declaring, that among the Indians of North America there was no accurate tradition of events more than a century old. Now Fabius Pictor, Cincius Alimentus, and Cato, who lived about the time of the Second Punic War, were removed by an interval of more than five centuries from the supposed foundation of the city, nearly three centuries from the expulsion of the kings, one hundred and seventy years from the burning of the city, and one hundred years from the defeat of the Romans at the Caudine Forks. The latest of these events is more remote than the limit to which oral tradition can safely be extended. Fabius and Cincius, therefore, had no authentic sources of information with respect to the first four-and-a-half centuries; and if we could still read their works, our real knowledge of the history of the period would, probably, be little varied.*
We may at once discard from our minds all inferences unfavourable to the authority of oral tradition in Roman history, derived from Sir Isaac Newton's canon, or Volney's testimony respecting the North American Indians. There never was a time when the Romans were ignorant of the art of writing. After the burning of the city the documents relating to civil affairs were ordered to be publicly exhibited (edita in vulgus Liv. vi. 1), while those relating to religion were concealed by the priests—a distinction which indicates that the power of reading was not uncommon. There can be no analogy between a state of things in which laws and treatises and the succession of magistrates is preserved by public authority, and the heroic history of Greece, in which, from the absence of all written records, imagination has free scope to invent and vary as it pleases. But the Romans did more than this to preserve the framework, at least, of an authentic history of their state. Cicero tells us that from the beginning the Pontifex Maximus committed an account of the events of each year to writing, and then exhibited it on a board at his house for public inspection. Whether these Annales Maximi escaped the conflagration of the capture of the city is disputed, but there can be no doubt that the practice was resumed and continued till the pontificate of Mucius Scævola, the celebrated jurist, contemporary with the
were lost, the knowledge of their contents could not wholly perish. That there was some authentic outline of the history, is evident from the complaints which Cicero and Livy make of the falsification of particular parts, by funeral orations, family
• Vol. i. p. 247; Vol. ii. p. 489. We have combined in the text the statements contained in these two passages.
† Cic. de Orat. ii. 12.
memoirs, and forged inscriptions; how otherwise could they ascertain the falsehood ?
It is taken for granted in Sir G. Lewis's argument, that because Fabius Pictor and his contemporaries were the oldest writers of Roman history whom Livy and Dionysius knew and used, it must have originated with them. It is true Dionysius says that there was neither a συγγραφεύς nor 8 λογογράφος of the more ancient times of Rome ; but does it follow that because there was no formal history, there were no historical writings ? Were the preceding five centuries a blank canvas upon which any one was at liberty to paint a fancy piece, trusting, as Niebuhr says, that if he roundly asserted it was the history of their forefathers, his countrymen would believe him, provided only they recognized a few names and events with which they were familiar? No such intimation is given us by the ancient writers, who complain indeed of a want of careful chronology in Fabius, (not very wonderful in a senator and soldier,) of national partiality, (easily explained from the same cause,) and of brevity in the early part of his narrative, but never impute to him the palming a fictitious history upon the world. Nor can we suppose that a man of his active life, went about collecting hearsays from the oldest inhabitants respecting the five centuries which preceded his time. He must have found the Roman history already reduced into a continuous form, and probably to writing, or at any rate capable of being orally communicated from one generation to another. Niebuhr left us some materials with which to build, in his ballads and lays, while Sir George Lewis reduces us to believe that the history rose like an exhalation out of the mist of the five preceding centuries. But a national history cannot be improvised like a system of philosophy; it must have its warrant in the nation's faith, though no individual member of the community may be master of the whole. In this regular transmission, which can alone account for its universal reception, each generation receives it from its predecessor with a stamp of genuineness, and gives the same confirmation to that which it adds and hands on to the coming age. Only in this way is the formation of a national history conceivable. Imagination, credulity, patriotism may corrupt historical truth; want of knowledge may confound genealogy, chronology, and geography in the popular mind; it may even accept pure fiction respecting a period which passes the limits of its own traditions, but we believe it to be beyond human power or literary talent to impose a tissue of falsehoods on a people, respecting the great series of events which constitute their history. And if the Roman history be examined without a desire to exaggerate its discrepancies, there will be found in it a coherence and consistency which it could not have possessed had it first come into an organized existence in the time of the Second Punic War. A similar remark may be made respecting the eminent men who figure in the Roman history. Fiction may have hung its wreaths around the names of Valerius Publicola, Virginius, Cincinnatus, Camillus, or Licinius, but the men themselves are as truly historical, as essentially connected with the transactions of their times, as the Gracchi or the Scipios. If, in our exposition, nothing more were required than to show how the national character was formed, how the institutions of the Roman people developed themselves, and their state absorbed all the independent powers of Italy, no difficulty would be felt; for this direction and current of events is clear and intelligible, in the midst of all the wanderings and bifurcations of the stream; our embarrassment begins when it is necessary to reproduce the history in detail, to rectify the chronology, to reduce exaggerations within the bounds of credibility, to discriminate between fact and fiction. The mode of doing this, which to one man seems natural and obvious, another will condemn as arbitrary. Sir George Lewis's advice is, to leave the story as it has come down to us from the ancients; it is a beautiful work of art, which can only suffer by being retouched by the pencil of a modern restorer. This recommendation might be easily adopted if only one picture were in existence. But the writer of a Roman history is in the position of a connoisseur who has several pictures before him, all claiming to be the original, and who must decide, as he best can, which is genuine and which spurious. We are more hopeful than our author in regard to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory decision by means of internal marks of credibility. The probable and natural connexion of events, which in a work of fiction would be merely a proof of the narrator's skill, becomes an evidence of truth in what we know to be mainly a bona fide history. Even such bold attempts at reconstruction, as some of Niebuhr's, should not be discouraged, provided conjecture is offered as conjecture, and not propounded for implicit belief. If we can make the pieces of our puzzle fit, we shall be satisfied that we have at last got them into their right position. And the evil of a little occasional waste of ingenuity is much less, than that of sitting down, as Sir George Lewis recommends, in blank despair of ever knowing anything of Roman history before the war with Pyrrhus.
ART. IV.-A NOVEL OR TWO.
Eustace Conyers. By James Hannay. 3 Vols. Hurst and
Blackett. . A Lost Love. By Ashford Owen. Smith, Elder, and Co. North and South. By the Author of “Mary Barton.” 2 Vols.
Chapman and Hall. Clare Hall. By the Author of “ Amy Herbert.” 2 Vols.
THE Germans teach of the “retarding nature ” essential to
1 & romance. They do not mean that which retards the reader, but that the absence of which is apt to retard the reader,—the retarding elements of the action—the holding back from the coming issue—a sense, throughout the tale, of an end, but a constantly increasing anxiety as to what end : a feeling of a convergence of moral destinies to an unseen focus; of a connecting, overhanging Providence waiting to be evolved, but retarded by the slow maturing of the separate elements, or by the counteracting struggles of the actors.
A great artist must stand to the characters he delineates in two distinct relations. He must enter into each individually, and he must bind them all together. He must be in each and over all. He must not only catch and paint the distinct natures, but the uniting purpose which broods over them. He must imbue his tale with the feeling of that secret relation between the characters which suggests the reason why their destinies are interwoven, and which determines the limits of their mutual influence on each other's career. He must, in a certain sense, be the providence to the conceptions he has created, and colour his narrative with the feeling which has prompted him to group them in the same picture. From the beginning there should be a foreshadowing of the coming knot of destiny, though not of its solution; so as to give a unity of meaning to the whole, as well as individual life to the parts.
The best modern writers of fiction seem to be falling into the error of neglecting the tale in delineating the characters. You feel constantly inclined to say of them, as the grateful layman said of the long-winded divine, “ It is very good of him to stop at all; for there was no reason why he should.” A
recent author sketched three generations successively in his (or her) novel,* and was apparently only deterred from going in as fresh as ever upon the fourth generation, by arriving at the present time. It is getting quite unusual to conclude with the wedding; and even the total extinction of all the first set of heroes and heroines will not be sufficient soon. The reason is, that the strict-experience school of fiction is on the increase, and is carrying out its realism to a faulty extreme. The influence of Dickens and Thackeray, with their wonderful power of insight into special moods and phases of modern character, has tended to shake the conviction, that any art beyond that of genial and penetrating observation, is needed for the delineation of human life, so as to awaken the deepest interest of perusing man. The consequence has been the springing up of a sort of accidental school of fiction, in which men are delineated by random dots and lines; (in the case of Dickens, indeed, it is almost delineation by more or less consistent anecdote, so little is there of a fixed conceptions of his character;) in which there is neither any scheme for fully drawing out character, nor any obvious reason for selecting the special attitudes into which it happens to be thrown. A character is casually taken, and set up in various casual lights, and turned about, and put in different positions, and socially strained, and inquisitively tapped, and generally put through its paces; and the same thing is done for several other characters, and the aggregate is called a novel. And there would be no reason against this process, if it gave any true picture of real life ; or, what is better still, if it taught us to see real life more really. But, in fact, this realistic school of fiction is truly realistic only in its detail. In the tale—the action- lies the proper fusing power for the individual elements; and if these elements have been originally separate studies, no power on earth will successfully group them, so as to bring out all the intended characteristics of each. You may get a bundle of fictitious biographies, and tie them mechanically together. But in the living relations in which men stand to each other, only special aspects of the several actors can be disclosed to the spectator of the whole action. If we want to see real combinations of men, we can only have partial views of the individuals concerned ; since both the nature of the action and the nature of the fellow-actors, will modify and limit the mental qualities that come into play. The neglect of the plot until after the characters have been determined and surveyed, is as fatal as the neglect of statuary grouping till after the individual figures have been modelled. They have been
See “ Thorney Hall,” by Holm Lee. Smith, Elder, & Co.