THE MARRIAGE of history and art is a difficult union to sustain. All too often one partner is sacrificed to the other, which results in disbelief, or boredom, or both. On the highest level, as with a Shakespeare or a Schiller, the thing can be carried off even so; and perhaps it is more easily carried off on the stage, with its accepted artificialities, than in the novel, where the form is closer to historical writing and the need for verisimilitude seems to be greater.
The best historical novelists, realizing the difficulty, have taken care that whatever characters, situations and dialogues they have invented, the historical background--both as to the atmosphere and the known facts--should be accurately drawn. If one is going to write a novel about 17th-century France, one had better not confuse Paris with Bordeaux or Louis XIII with his successor. Only so long as the suspension of disbelief in the novel is sustained by the historical setting can such a novel be judged on its own terms, which are not those of the highest literature. For when the history cannot be trusted, then the work is thrown entirely into the realm of art, where the judgments are of a different order. The better writers of historical novels, an Oldenbourg or a Renault to take two recent examples, succeed because they keep what they are about in mind, and do not invite comparison with their betters in the art of fiction.
Antonine Maillet's novel P,elagie is about a group of French Acadians who, deported by the British from Eastern Canada to Georgia in 1755, embark half a generation later on a 10- year odyssey to their homeland by oxcart, a feat of great endurance and courage. The oxcart arrives in Baltimore in the spring of 1774, where its inhabitants are delighted to find a community of Acadians living on the outskirts of town in a place called French Town. So far so good; but otherwise the historical part of the Baltimore episode breaks down.
Baltimore was not then, as Maillet asserts it was, the capital of Maryland, and never has been. The governor lived in Annapolis, not in Baltimore. More to the point, the Acadians would not have gone to worship publicly in a church, but privately in a house which was used as a church, since only private worship was allowed to Catholics at that time. It is not only the facts which are wrong here, it is as well the atmosphere that they imply: Baltimore was not at that time, and neither was Maryland, a place of great religious freedom. Nor was Baltimore as large and thriving a seaport before the Revolution as it seems to be in the novel.
Are these small points? They may be, but they add up to a picture of Baltimore in 1774 that is substantially inaccurate. If this little part of the history of this historical novel is so wrong, what can one believe of the rest of the history?
It can be argued, certainly, that the novel is drawn from stories which have been passed from generation to generation by members of Maillet's own family, and which she has written down for the first time. One can't expect such an account to be accurate in all its particulars; it is the story of these gallant people that counts, not the details.
Well, precisely. But here, sad to say, we are on even softer ground. For as a novel P,elagie is at its weakest. It is so devoid of any real character development, so awkward in the setting and sustaining of a scene, so limp at moments of dramatic possibility, so lacking in narrative momentum, and at the same time so bloated with the most lamentable clich,es, repetitions and generally pedestrian writing (not all of which, surely, can be the fault of the translation from French) that one can only wonder, as one struggles from page to page, how such a potentially stirring tale can so determinedly refuse to come alive, and what can possibly have won this novel that celebrated French award the Prix Goncourt.
Its good intentions, perhaps. The fact that this is a story that should have been told, if not this way. Or maybe it won because, as Maillet triumphantly states, "I have avenged my ancestors." With a vengeance which, unhappily, does not spare her readers.