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History with a human face

The rise of historical fiction and narrative history-which often takes God into account through richly detailed stories of the era-marks a positive cultural trend


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Filmmakers are now adapting Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels of the Napoleonic war to the big screen, a prospect that has fans of his 20-book series as excited and as apprehensive as Tolkien and Harry Potter fans were at the news that their beloved books would become movies.

O'Brian, who died in 2000, inspired a number of other historical-fiction writers who followed in his wake. Modernism is over, and with it its prejudice for things that are new, so interest in the past and stories that bring history to life has surged, from the literati (the novels of Umberto Eco) to pop culture (Titanic).

And now popular culture embraces O'Brian. The role of Captain Jack Aubrey goes to Russell Crowe, the Oscar-winning star of Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. Paul Bettany will play Aubrey's sidekick, ship's surgeon and secret agent Stephen Maturin. (Mr. Bettany played the young Chaucer in A Knight's Tale and Mr. Crowe's college roommate in A Beautiful Mind.) Billy Boyd, who played Pippen in The Lord of the Rings, will portray Aubrey's faithful coxswain Barrett Bonden.

Whether Mr. Crowe will forgo the brooding image of most of his roles to capture Aubrey's bluff good nature and his near comical capacity of being as clueless on the land as he is masterful on the sea remains to be seen. But O'Brian fans can applaud the news that one of Hollywood's biggest stars has the lead role, which ensures top-notch production values and some thrilling sea battles.

Shooting on Master and Commander, based on the first book of the series, is already underway. With a substantial budget of $135 million and a big-name director in Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society), 20th Century Fox is reportedly thinking "franchise," since movies that turn into whole series are currently Hollywood's most profitable commodity. The film is scheduled for release next summer.

The O'Brian books, which have been called the greatest historical novels of all time, combine entertaining story lines of action and adventure with meticulous recreations of a time very different from our own.

History has received short shrift in the "progressive" education theories that have dominated schools for decades. "Social Science" has focused on vast cultural issues, wherein children dress up like colonial villagers to learn what it feels like to grind corn and receive object lessons in multiculturalism. When history is taught, it is often a matter of statistics, abstruse politics, and debates about racism, sexism, and homophobia. History as the deeds of great men, or as the march of civilization, or as record of human folly and achievements-such views, it seemed, were hopelessly passé.

But now, since so many fascinating and exciting things did happen-and since they are all new to the generations that don't know much about history-there is a resurgence of interest in learning about them. Not history as dry exposition, but history as narrative, the presentation of an unfolding sequence of events from the point of view of someone who is actually experiencing them.

Thus the popularity of both narrative history and historical fiction. The latter is made up by the author, like any fiction, but it is supposed to follow the rules, namely, rigorous fidelity to historical records. Narrative history often makes use of first-person diaries, letters, and interviews to present the events from a human point of view.

The effect is that readers enjoy an interior perspective on history, enabling them to imagine what it was like to be at Waterloo or Gettysburg, or, in the bestselling narrative histories of Stephen Ambrose, climbing the Rockies with Lewis and Clark, or storming the beach at Normandy.

One big difference emerges between today's sensibilities and those of even the recent past. Ours is an aggressively secular imagination. Our forebears may have sometimes been venal and wicked, but they generally regarded God as real, and that worldview-judging from letters and other primary sources-preoccupied their minds no less than their struggles for survival and victory.

Some historical writers get the sights and sounds of the age they are recreating with scrupulous fidelity. The clothing, the politics, the geography, the details of a battle, and what they would eat for dinner, but they are oblivious to the spiritual concerns of people in that time, the religion that was in their bones. Other writers, though, bring God into their histories.

O'Brian's successor

O'Brian's books take something of a middle ground. Captain Aubrey dutifully "rigs church" every Sunday, with all of the crew in their Sunday best, worshipping with the words of the Book of Common Prayer. In the absence of a clergyman, who would sometimes tag along as a chaplain or a passenger, the captain himself would lead the service and read a sermon-or, Captain Aubrey's preference-the Articles of War. This reflects the actual practice. And Maturin, for all of his Enlightenment pursuit of natural science, retains the Catholicism of his Ibero-Irish heritage.

But neither man is particularly religious. This could doubtless be said of many men in the early 19th century, but not of Matthew Hervey, the young cavalry officer in the books by Allan Mallinson, who is arguably Patrick O'Brian's successor in the field of historical fiction.

Mr. Mallinson cites both the inspiration and the tangible advice and encouragement of the late O'Brian. Mr. Mallinson's knowledge of what O'Brian in his warm endorsement called "horse-borne warfare" is not just from books. He himself is a cavalry officer-yes, the English still have such things-and he presently serves as the British military attaché in Italy, a position that apparently gives him plenty of time to write novels.

What O'Brian did for ships, Mr. Mallinson does for horses. Their care and feeding, veterinary issues, how much work they are-as cavalry troopers have to stay up later and get up earlier than infantrymen to take care of their horses-but also what it is to ride them, and the bond that grows between a cavalryman and his charger.

Mr. Mallinson is a master of battle scenes, but he also evokes the social climate of 19th-century England, from regimental politics to the troubles of the Irish and the desperation of the Luddites and their anti-industrial riots. And he is also a master of what is most difficult in fiction, creating characters that come alive.

Matthew Hervey begins as a minor officer fighting Napoleon, and we follow his career and his life from book to book. In one of the historical notes that have become obligatory in this genre, Mr. Mallinson quotes a writer of the day commenting on Wellington's army that "a very appreciable number of men were of a religious turn."

Young Hervey, son of a country parson, regularly prays and reads his Bible. In the heat of battle, he remembers his faith. He struggles against temptation and tries to do what is right, even when it lands him into trouble, as it often does.

Hervey's faith comes across as natural and not at all self-conscious; it lacks the preachiness that sometimes makes Christianity in fiction unbelievable. His Christianity is a part of him. It is also a part of his times. We see Hervey's father embroiled in the theological controversies of the time, as he is influenced by the High Church conservatism of one of Hervey's friends and thus is called on the carpet by his bishop, who threatens to take away his parish. (The friend, John Keble, is an actual historical figure, considered the founder of the "Oxford Movement" associated with John Henry Newman.) Hervey's sister, in the meantime, throws herself into the evangelical "compassionate conservatism" of the day, by ministering to the poor. Then there is the devout Methodist sergeant who lays down his life so that Hervey can complete his mission.

When his brother who was studying for the ministry dies, Hervey wonders whether he should resign his commission and enter the ministry himself. He realizes, with the help of his father, that his God-given vocation is to be a soldier.

The first book, A Close Run Thing, culminates in the Battle of Waterloo, a thrilling and historically accurate blow-by-blow account of the bloody combat that saved the world from Napoleon.

The second book, Honorable Company, has Hervey in India. In this exotic clime, so different from everything he had known in England, he faces serious sexual temptation, but overcomes it. He also discusses his faith with a Hindu Raja-as well as rescuing his elephant and saving his realm from a horde of Muslim invaders-and we also see how British colonialism, through the private enterprise of the East India Company, was able to take over much of the world.

In the third book, A Regimental Affair, out just this year, Hervey is in England during peacetime. His unit is assigned to put down the social unrest, including that of the Luddites, the craftsmen displaced by the industrial revolution, who went on violent rampages, destroying factories, machinery, and the homes of those who owned them. Hervey is troubled by the government's practice of using the army against its own citizens, and he is torn by his sympathy for the people and yet the necessity of quelling anarchy. In the meantime, he has to deal with an incompetent commander and the dark side of regimental politics.

This book also brings the romantic subplot developing throughout the first two books to a conclusion in Hervey's marriage. The Rev. Keble himself gives the wedding sermon, printed in full, setting forth a frank and utterly biblical understanding of sexual love within marriage. Hervey and his bride Henrietta-a formidable character herself, who pulls strings to free her husband from the predicaments he gets in because of his moral integrity-indeed have a strong marriage. Before long-following Rev. Keble's injunctions in a frank, but never explicitly described way-they have a baby.

By the end of the book, the scene abruptly changes, and Hervey and his family find themselves posted to the Canadian frontier, facing arctic weather and hostile Indians, all under his inept commander. The ending is a heart-wrenching cliffhanger that leaves readers breathless and yearning for the next installment.

Those who come close

For another 19th-century British soldier, there is Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, about a rifleman working his way through the ranks fighting Napoleon and other enemies of the king. No one describes actual battles with Mr. Cornwell's vividness. Usually, he spins some kind of romantic adventure for Richard Sharpe to engage in, but the center of every book is a real-world battle. His rendition of Waterloo is even better than Mr. Mallinson's, though, taken together, they give the reader a multidimensional picture of a turning point in world history.

While Mr. Mallinson's Matthew Hervey is utterly likable, Richard Sharpe is portrayed as a brutal, cynical killer. There is not much religious sensibility in Mr. Cornwell's novels. An exception might be the very latest title, Sharpe's Prey, out this year. Here, Richard Sharpe, Mr. Cornwell, and the reader all show some very real sympathy for the devout Lutherans of Copenhagen, whose city is mercilessly bombarded by the British, who are trying to steal the Danish fleet before Napoleon can get to it. The innocent, good-hearted Danes are caught in the crossfire of two mighty opposites, and for once the British do not come across as the good guys.

Of novels about American history, the father-and-son team of Michael and Jeff Shaara, in their epic Civil War trilogy (Gods and General, The Killer Angels, The Last Full Measure) do a good job of conveying the piety of men like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Joseph Chamberlain.

Jeff Shaara is currently writing about the Revolutionary War. The first volume, Rise to Rebellion, is filled with interesting detail readers probably never learned in high school, but his characterization of John Adams pales in comparison to that of John McCullough's bestselling biography-a narrative history-which shows the founder's complexity, his moral integrity, and his faith.

Another compelling treatment of American history is in the series of novels by David Nevin. Historians used to focus on the Federalist Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, and the controversies between them, as a way to understand the early days of the Republic. Today, historians are seeing that even more important are John Adams and James Madison, who opposed each other politically but were less extreme than Hamilton and Jefferson, and who actually got more things done. Both had strong marriages and influential wives, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison, and both were men of robust moral integrity.

Mr. Nevin's series focuses on James Madison, in the issues he dealt with as Jefferson's secretary of state and in his presidency, including the War of 1812. The novels, confusingly written out of order, are Eagle's Cry, Treason, and 1812.

The saga is full of mind-boggling details about American history that deserve to be better known. Most Americans do not realize how close their fledgling country came to war with France. Napoleon actually considered occupying his territory in the Americas-that is, the land west of the Mississippi-planning to use the Western frontier as a platform for attacking the British holdings in Canada.

The nemesis of Aubrey, Hervey, and Sharpe very nearly would have been our problem. Napoleon actually sent an army for this purpose to New Orleans, but they decided first to stop at Haiti and put down the slave revolt. But the ex-slaves, with the help of tropical disease, totally destroyed the French army. Napoleon gave up his scheme and sold his holdings to the United States as the Louisiana Purchase. Although seldom mentioned in Black History Month, those rebellious slaves arguably saved American freedom and were responsible for American possession of the Western frontier.

Mr. Nevin's novels also show that talk of secession was not only particular to the South in the 1860s. Far earlier, New York and New England were threatening to secede from the Union. And then, the Western territories also threatened to secede. Behind both intrigues was Aaron Burr, Jefferson's vice president. Burr tried to steal the presidency, killed the far better man Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and then tried to set himself up as "Napoleon of the West"-there is that nemesis again-by leading the West out of the Union and conquering Mexico.

After all of these crises, with Madison finally in the presidency, came war with England, which brought with it defeat after defeat, including the sacking of Washington, D.C., and the burning of the White House. But the power of the United States began to awaken when the fiery Kentuckian Andrew Jackson crushed the British in the Battle of New Orleans, a battle, ironically, that was fought after the diplomats had already made peace. The combatants just did not get the news in time.

The reader finishes Mr. Nevin's novels marveling at all the things that could have gone wrong and that could have snuffed the life out of the fragile young republic. Mr. Nevin does little with the religious dimension. But readers can still put the books down thanking God that He has preserved this nation.

Those who miss the point

Steven Pressfield is a fine historical novelist who specializes in ancient Greece. His Gates of Fire, on the Spartans at Thermopylae, is a compelling treatment of that heroic battle between the West and the East. His Tides of War, on the Clintonesque leadership of Alcibiades and his corruption of the Athenian democracy, is also a powerful and instructive tale. Both do convey the spirit and the feel of those ancient times, including the Greek's pagan religious sensibility.

His latest book, though, Last of the Amazons, attempts to give a historical treatment of a pagan myth. In doing so, it gets all tangled up in its feminist subtext. Contemporary preoccupations spoil both the history and what was good about his other fiction.

Larry McMurtry, a respected novelist in the literary world, broke through into popular success with his epic Western Lonesome Dove. Then came a host of sequels and prequels, none of which lived up to the original.

Now he has started another Western epic. He calls it The Berrybender Narratives, a series of four novels about an English lord, his family, and his entourage visiting the Western frontier for a hunting expedition. Such tourists did make their appearance, and the premise sets up some fine conflicts between Old World and New, aristocracy and democracy, civilization and the wilderness.

The first novel in the series has just been published, with the promising title Sin Killer. As the Berrybenders follow the trail of Lewis and Clark by cruising the Missouri river in a paddleboat-shooting at the animals as they go by-they encounter a mysterious frontiersman named Jim Snow, a young man whom the Indians call Sin Killer.

He is a master of the wilderness, a terrifying Indian fighter, and also a preacher. Drawn from accounts of actual Bible-reading mountain men, Sin Killer rescues Berrybender's restless daughter Tasmin and actually marries her.

The situations have much potential, but the manner in which Mr. McMurtry makes them fall is particularly disappointing. For one thing, the Berrybenders are so uncivilized themselves-they are promiscuous, apathetic, and shallow, without even the pretensions of genteel behavior that one would expect at least as a façade from Victorian nobility-that the thematic possibilities are wasted.

As for Sin Killer, the only real manifestation of his Christianity is when he slaps Tasmin when she takes the Lord's name in vain. That's it, at least in this first novel. Other than that, we learn that he is polygamous, with several Indian wives in addition to Tasmin, and he never gets around to preaching.

Mr. McMurtry clearly does not "get" the Christianity of his historical sources. For him, showing faith in a character is just another way to make him seem eccentric, which is about as far as he gets with all of his characters.

Still, this boom in publication and popularity of historical fiction and narrative history may push the broader culture toward an encounter with the fascinating and often exciting and inspiring accounts of what happened in the past. That can only mean a somewhat brighter future.


Gene Edward Veith Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.

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