TThe way of telling the story has changed over time, and so has the historical novel. It begins with Walter Scott, for whom “history” was the setting for romantic adventures: a sympathetic young hero goes out into the world and faces a struggle between historical forces: Whigs and Jacobites, Roundheads and Knights, Crusaders and Saracens. He “hesitates” between them (which is why Scott’s first hero is named Waverley) before settling on the side of progress and modernity. The 19th century saw many historical changes influenced by Scott. romancers (Harrison Ainsworth, Fennimore Cooper), once famous but now forgotten.
This style of historical novel fell out of fashion during the 20th century. Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser the books parody him: Fraser’s hero is young and adventurous, but also a scoundrel, a coward, a rake. The historical novels of Toni Morrison deconstructs the devotions of the past in a more serious way, revealing worlds striated by hideous racism and sexism. Hilary Mantel writes the past with a fine yet modern literary sensibility: his Thomas Cromwell is indeed an individual of the 21st century, self-questioning, sensitive and with the retrospective gaze of his creator. Alternate History Novels: Hitler Wins World War II at Philip K Dick’s The man in the high castleAfrica colonizes Europe in Three in a Row by Malorie Blackman – figure history as fragile and contingent, allowing us to think through our assumptions about its permanence and inevitability.
James Buchan’s A Street Shaken by Light is unlike any of these. In many ways, it’s a return to Scott. A friendly and honorable young man from Edinburgh named William Nelson travels to Paris in 1720 to work for the French royal bank. He is immediately drawn into wider political struggles: imprisoned in the Bastille, then released to travel as a company officer to Bengal. The story is romantic in the ancient sense: William has a series of adventures, fights in duels, prospers thanks to his wits, but also in the modern one: on his first day in Paris, William sees and falls in love with the beautiful young Mademoiselle de Joyeuse. , “France’s greatest heiress”, and remains faithful to her through all of her exotic escapades, despite the opportunities presented by various other women, and even though Mademoiselle herself marries someone else.
This energetic and wonderful novel is the first in a projected six-part series, and if Buchan stays true to his Scott, William will navigate his wavering loyalties (France and Scotland, Catholicism and Protestantism) and eventually land on the side” Right”.
Not that Buchan indulges in any Scottish stylistic prolixity. His prose is light, skillful and precise. The novel includes several 18th-century spellings and idioms (“Mr Du Tot shrugged,” “bukket,” “oeconomy,” and the like), but never in a heavy or distracting way. Throughout, Buchan’s historical verisimilitude is spot on, not only in the fixtures and fittings of the time, but also in his attitudes, his manners, his flavor. Buchan’s William gets into as many exciting scrapes as Flashman, but he doesn’t share Flashman’s cynicism, cowardice, or venality.
The book is a highly enjoyable adventure romance covering imperial France, the East India Company, Persia, the Jacobite rebellion, shipwreck, dueling, exploits, and more. Buchan, grandson of John Buchan of The thirty nine steps fame, he really knows how to build a heartbreaking story. As with his previous set from the 1970s a good place to die, also a story about a young man who goes abroad with nothing but his wits, combines tremendous emotional and psychological acuity and compelling vitality in one exciting story. What might seem from a plot summary to be a pulp adventure is elevated by the writing into an exciting work of art. Scott would be proud.