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he historical novels of G. P. R. James make difficult reading for the twenty-first-century reader. True, few students of literature, even Victorianists, have read the novels of this extraordinarily prolific, once widely respected disciple of Sir Walter Scott. The reasons for our difficulty with reading James tell us a good deal about the nature of early Victorian literature. In fact, the very qualities that put us off his writing are precisely what made them attractive to the early and mid-Victorian reading public and periodical reviewers. Take, for example, the following sentence from Attila. A Romance that describes the novel’s protagonist entering the city of Margus at “extreme limits of the empire” in order to escape the Emperor Theodosius: “The Roman dress and air of Theodore and his two freedmen enabled them to pass on unquestioned through the gates; where a few soldiers, with their spears cast idly down, their helmets laid aside, and their swords unbraced, sat gaming in the sun, offering a sad but striking picture of the decay of that discipline which had once so speedily won, and had so long preserved, the dominion of the world” (Ch 9, “The Bishop of Margus”). James reminds the reader of the central importance of being a Roman in the Roman empire immediately after which he emphasizes the decay of that empire shown by the soldiers’ lack of discipline. Thus, in addition to placing his readers within that world of the distant past of which many Victorians believed themselves the rightful heir, James immediately makes a moral and political judgment. One other quality of this passage, which we'll observe later in more detail, appears in James’s use of the kind of sentence structure, punctuation, and rhythm characteristic of eighteenth-century prose: “with their spears cast idly down, their helmets laid aside, and their swords unbraced, sat gaming in the sun.” The three clauses beginning with their use parallel constructions. Equally important, the main clause of the sentence, which follows, has the same accents and rhythm.

The effects of James’s polished, highly rhetorical prose appear more clearly in the fourth chapter, “The Young Lovers”:

Theodore's hand clasped hers, and he led her on through all those splendid apartments — which have been, even in ruins, the wonder [noun1] and the admiration [noun2] of all after days — to the vast colonnade, six hundred feet in length, which fronted [verb1] and overlooked [verb2] the beautiful Adriatic. As they passed, in the various apartments of the slaves [noun1] and domestics [noun2] were to be seen lights, and to be heard many a gay voice laughing; and at the end of the principal streets of the palace, for it had its streets [noun1] as well as corridors [noun2], two or three groups were seen playing in the moonlight with polished pieces of bone, or, with loud [adjective1] and vehement [adjective2] gesticulations, disputing about their game.

The parallel and often paired sets of nouns and verbs, the frequent interpolated clauses, and the emphasis on slow, stately sentence rhythm demonstrate the extent to which James sees himself as much a follower of Samuel Johnson as of Scott. James’s style also reminds us that during the first thirty or forty years of the nineteenth century a great many readers, and perhaps the overwhelming majority of them, saw Johnson and Pope rather than Wordsworth, Austen, and Keats as models of literary excellence.

Another passage from the same novel shows James attempting to use a prose style best suited to Johnsonian generalization and statement to convey emotions and mental states:

The measured round of the sun had scarcely been accomplished, since those who now stood upon the hill-top, fugitives from their dear domestic hearths, had met together after separation, and had gazed over that same lovely prospect from the clump of cypresses which now lay beneath their eyes. Scarcely had one round of the sun been accomplished since, standing there, they had gazed upon that pageant-like scene of beauty, and had felt all its fair features reflected from the clear bright mirror of the happy heart. Scarcely had one round been accomplished since every splendid object that the eye could find, and every sweet sound that the ear could catch, in a spot, and a moment when all was music and brightness, had seemed but an image, a type, a prophecy of joys, and happiness, and successes yet to come; and yet in that brief space an earthquake had rent and torn that enchanted land, and had scattered ruin, desolation, and death over its fair calm face: in that brief space, from the bosoms of those who gazed upon it had been torn the bright joys of youth and inexperience; had been scattered the dear hopes and warm imaginings of innocent expectation; had been riven one of the dearest ties of human existence, the great band of the loving and the loved; for not one in that sad family but felt that the unjust fate of Paulinus had given a chilly coldness to their hearts--no, not one from the youngest to the oldest. The young felt that the fresh bloom was gone for ever from the Hesperian fruit; the elder that the cropped flower of hope, which had again been beginning to blossom, had been once more crushed down, and never could bloom again. [ch 7]

James, who elsewhere frequently uses “ere” instead of “before,” here employs eighteenth-century poetic diction, which might have impressed many of his readers as a indication of his high culture. He writes “measured round of the sun” instead of “a day” or “twenty four hours,” emphasizes elaborate parallel structures, and also adds somewhat soppy adjectives, such “dear” in “dear domestic hearths.” Here, as in much of his prose, James seems like those late eighteenth-century poets trying to write about emotions and powerful experiences with poetic forms, vocabulary, and rhetoric developed — and best suited — to wisdom literature, broad statements, and general truths.

Here, again, when describing a prospect of a mountain — think Ruskin’s mountains and Shelley’s “Mount Blanc” — James writes in an eighteenth-century literary mode:

The two sides of that mountain were like the prospect laid out beneath the eyes of man when, in the midst of life, he pauses to survey the past and to scrutinize the future. Dark and gloomy, on the one hand, stretched masses impervious to the eye, wrapped in uncertain mists and vague, undefined confusion, where nothing was known, nothing was sure, but that there lay ruin, chill neglect, and desolation, even unto those regions where the Cimmerian darkness of the grave covered and confounded all. On the other hand, stretching out like the sweet memories that lie along the path of youth, was seen a fair and beautiful land, with the Danube rushing on through the midst towards Margus: valley and hill, fragments of the Dacian forests, but broken by broad cultivated plains, a watch-tower here and there; then, within their guardian line, a farm, a villa, gardens, and pasturages, with the towers and walls of Margus at about eight miles' distance; and beyond, but to the right, the Mons Aureus rising, like a pile of lapis lazuli, in blue majestic splendour to the sky.

Despite the long history of the prospect poem from Pope and Denham down through the great Romantic poems, James turns away from the the mountain his characters have encountered and makes the actual prospect into a metaphor. This tendency to employ elaborate comparisons exactly inverts Homer’s epic similes, which compare some epic action or phenomenon to something common and well known, such as a donkey in a cornfield or a tree felled by lightening. James almost always goes for the abstraction, but in the last sentence of the paragraph he moves into the nineteenth century with a catalogue of landscape elements that build beautifully toward “Mons Aureus rising, like a pile of lapis lazuli, in blue majestic splendour to the sky.”

Turning from the Brontës, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, John Ruskin, and George Eliot to G. P. R. James makes his writing seem very old-fashioned, as indeed it often is. And yet it is what his readers wanted and enjoyed. Part of the reason for his success, one might hazard, lies in the fact that although his works often emphasize facts about distant places and times they do so in a dignified, stately (and sometimes padded or pompous) style his readers knew from the great writers of the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, however hard we work to place ourselves in the position of these readers, many of whom looked to pre-Romantic authors as standards of stylistic excellence, we find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to forget that we have read — and learned to see and think and feel —  with Dickens and Ruskin. And Hemingway and Faulkner and Joyce . . .


James, G. P. R. [George Payne Rainsford]. Attila. A Romance. Vol. I. Project Gutenberg EBook #49634. Transcribed by Charles Bowen from page scans of a copy in the Harvard College Library provided by Google Books. Release Date: August 6, 2015.

Last modified 27 December 2017

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