Historical novels: Peter Vansittart

October 16 2008

It may not be a good idea to be called Peter if you’re a novelist, or Vansittart. “He was acclaimed as England’s greatest living historical novelist for several decades”: Wikipedia. “Refusal to recreate the past through the lens of traditional historical fiction, in which the English saw their ancestors as ‘only ourselves in fancy dress’”: Telegraph obituary.

“Totally unblinkered by the usual political and social prejudices of the day, he saw people and institutions from entirely new angles”: The Times obituary.

The Times: “Often defying accepted historical context, his novels treat of famine, war, plague and persecution, and range from the European forests of 3000 BC via the occupying Romans, the Dark Ages and medieval France to an English private school in the 1930s and, finally, the Thatcher years.”

Telegraph: “Vansittart, a writer of prodigious imagination and intellectual vitality, also published volumes of non-fiction history, including In The Fifties (1995), a heavily autobiographical survey of the post-war decade; and, in 1998, his eclectic In Memory of England, [a] tour d’horizon that The Daily Telegraph compared favourably with GM Trevelyan’s classic English Social History (1942) – Allan Massie insisting that ‘everyone preparing for A-level history should be given a copy’.” But the public never bought his fiction.

From a 1989 interview with him.

“The French Revolution might not have been an unmitigated disaster, but it poisoned French politics at least until the collapse in 1940.”

“Humour is […] a problem in a historical novel. I suspect that Dark Age humour, if it existed, would be intolerably tedious and very crude.”

“The writers who influenced me as a youth – Spengler, Toynbee, and H. G. Wells, particularly in his Outline of History – fascinated me because of their large-scale approach, the spectacle of breakdown and the possibility of return to what is vital. Yes, it fascinated me then and fascinates me now. It’s very much a theme of the book I’m writing at the moment about third-century Rome.”

“The picture of the French Revolution which one gets from a book like The Scarlet Pimpernel and the stories of a figure like Lenin which one hears from a committed member of the Communist Party are all wildly inaccurate, I think, in terms of historical truth. Since I was brought up on very old-fashioned history books, I had much to unlearn. If something was in print, I believed it to be true, even though it says black is white in the first paragraph, and black is not white in the second paragraph. In about 1840, King Louis Philippe brought back Napoleon’s body to Paris. When an old horse escaped and joined the procession, rumour went round that this was Napoleon’s own horse, Marengo, who would have been almost forty years old by then. It couldn’t possibly be true, and people knew it; at the same time, they believed it might [be]. There’s a Russian proverb, he lies like an eyewitness.”

“Once at a dinner party I looked around the table and suddenly realized that I was the only man among about twenty present who hadn’t actually killed somebody.”

“I’ve always been haunted by the newsreel of Mussolini hanging upside down in the marketplace at Milan, forty-eight hours after the same crowd had been cheering him to the echo; and by reading about figures of the French Revolution like Danton, cheered one second and guillotined the next, and Mirabeau, who was immensely popular at the time of his death, but three years later his body was dragged out of the Pantheon and flung into a ditch to make room for someone else.”

“I believe very strongly with E. M. Forster that history does not on the whole consist of the conflict of polar opposites, of efficiency against inefficiency, of heroism against antiheroism, but more often of muddle. One remembers episodes in fiction like Fabrizio in The Charterhouse of Parma in the middle of the Battle of Waterloo wondering where the battle is.”

“The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have remarked that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. In fact, there were no playing fields at Eton in the Duke’s time. What he actually said in 1815 was, ‘Gentlemen, I think I owe my grasp of strategy to the tricks I used to get up to in the garden’. Now, that was translated into French, then translated back into English fifty years later in the version that we now know.”

I’m glad he clears that one up. That phrase always sounded later-nineteenth-century: at least post-Thomas Arnold; or even Edwardian.

One Response to “Historical novels: Peter Vansittart”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Wikipedia presumably means “consistently acclaimed over a period of several decades”, not “the last time we had a historical novelist of this stature was several decades ago”. Vansittart had been publishing since the ’40s.


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