Rose Melikan is a Fellow of St Catharine's College, Cambridge. Her 'day job' is in Roman law and English legal history, but lately her days (and nights, and weekends) have been taken up with historical fiction. Her first novel, The Blackstone Key, was published in 2008; The Counterfeit Guest followed in 2009, and the latest is The Mistaken Wife (2010). You can find out more about them on Rose's website. Here she writes about Count Hannibal by Stanley Weyman.
Rose Melikan on Count Hannibal by Stanley Weyman
From my earliest days as a reader I have enjoyed works of history. I read every book in the 'Childhood of Famous Americans' series that my elementary school possessed (John Paul Jones and Jim Bowie were my favourites) and I grew up with Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and the historical adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle. (Who cared for Sherlock Holmes so long as Sir Nigel Loring held the lists for England?) Such has been the mystery, excitement and challenge of history that it is not surprising that I became an historian myself. All scholarship entails a search for meaning, but I particularly appreciate the barriers of time and place; the sense that the people of the past are both with us, in the tangible evidence of lives led, and not with us - their hopes and fears cannot be wholly ours. The challenge, I find, is equally important in historical fiction and non-fiction, albeit in different ways. The historian is trying to recover a world that really existed, while the historical novelist strives to bring verisimilitude to an imagined past that is nevertheless shot through with real people, places and events. Writers in both genres experience the sense of being not quite able to touch their subjects - but almost.
Since becoming a writer of historical fiction, however, I have gained a new appreciation of authors who can bring us closest to that imagined past. One such is Stanley Weyman, in his time an extremely popular novelist, and one who deserves a wider audience today. Born in 1855, he read history at Christ Church, Oxford, before being called to the bar in 1881. His legal career faltered and he turned to writing, publishing his first novel, The House of the Wolf, as a serial in 1888-9. Over the next 38 years he wrote a further 28 novels and collections of short stories. Most were historical and set either in England or France, although he also ventured to Ireland, Germany and Switzerland. I have read nearly all of them, but for me the best is Count Hannibal, which takes place during the French Wars of Religion. In brief, the story concerns Hannibal de Saulx, Comte de Tavannes, the fictional brother of Gaspard de Tavannes, Marshal of France and hero of the battle of Jarnac. Nominally a Roman Catholic, Count Hannibal concocts an audacious plan to secure the affections of a young Huguenot woman, not merely in spite of her fiancé and the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, but by bending the terror, violence and turmoil of the situation to his will. The plan ultimately miscarries, and the three chief protagonists must flee, pursued by a common enemy and racked by mutual suspicion and dismay.
The story works on various levels. It is a superb adventure, in which life, love and honour are risked against great odds. The use of language is judicious. The scenes of violence chill without relying on the visceral:
Along one of the lanes a troop of children, the biggest not twelve years old, came dancing and leaping round something which they dragged by a string. Now one of the hindmost would hurl it onward with a kick, now another, amid screams of childish laughter, tripped headlong over the cord; now at the crossways they stopped to wrangle and question which way they should go or whose turn it was to pull and whose to follow. At last they started afresh with a whoop, the leader singing and all plucking the string to the cadence of the air. Their plaything leapt and dropped, sprang forward and lingered like a thing of life. But it was no thing of life, as Tignonville saw with a shudder when they passed him. The object of their sport was the naked body of a child, an infant!
At the same time, the natural imagery deepens the characters' experiences without checking the narrative. Here, the protagonists have camped in a wood during their flight from Paris.
The Countess long remembered that vigil - for she lay late awake; the cool gloom, the faint wood-rustlings, the distant cry of fox or wolf, the soft glow of the expiring fires that at last left the world to darkness and the stars; above all, the silent wheeling of the planets, which spoke indeed of a supreme Ruler, but crushed the heart under a sense of its insignificance, and of the insignificance of all human revolutions.
Throughout the language feels authentic, whether in the characters' speech or the description of a Paris street. We feel steeped in the period but never that we have been receiving a history lesson.
The characters, however, are what set the novel apart. They are complex, intriguing, and with 'flaws' that resonate with a modern reader but take a particular shape because of the historical context. The three protagonists are introduced in a scene that might easily occur in a contemporary novel. A young woman, shy and inexperienced, attends a party with her boyfriend. They become separated and she suffers agonies of embarrassment - conscious that she is alone among strangers, yet cringing when one of them flirts with her. Not surprisingly, when the boyfriend returns, a quarrel ensues, and we smile and feel that we know these people. But how can we? The 'party' in this case takes place at the court of Charles IX, and in his private rooms the final preparations for the Huguenot massacre are being made. The young woman is no stranger to religious persecution, and her two suitors have shed blood on the battlefield and in private disputes. All three adhere to an heroic code, leavened in places by notions of chivalry and Christian mercy, but which ultimately glorifies violence and personal honour. This is not, after all, the usual case of a love triangle!
And yet their story grips and holds us because they are so well drawn and we appreciate the consequences that familiar feelings such as jealousy, fear, gratitude or humiliation can have in their world. As the story progresses, moreover, character comes to the fore. Crucially, the protagonists' initial peril is a physical one created by external circumstances, from which we know that they must escape. After this, however, the dangers become moral, emotional and psychological, and are created by the characters themselves. They repeatedly test one another - actively playing upon weaknesses and supposed strengths – and in these duels the outcome is far from certain. Or perhaps I should say 'far from certain to us', for we sense that Weyman knew his characters and their world through and through. Under his guidance their decisions may be either troubling or satisfying, but they are always true.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]