Skip to main content

George Garrett and the Historical Novel

ISSUE:  Spring 1985

George Garrett’s Death of the Fox (1971) and The Succession (1983) are such remarkable historical novels that they may be considered either fulfillments of the genre or repudiations of it. The term “historical novel” will not stand up under much examination. All narratives are historical in the sense that they must be placed in time and—even experiments in using the stream of consciousness and the historical present—must be retrospective. But a narrative concerned primarily with historical fact—with what actually happened—is not a novel, and poetry is closer to philosophy than to history, as Aristotle said. So what useful meaning can the term have? The question would seem to be one of degree or emphasis: historical fiction is fiction in which history is important, in which the author lays claim to historical as well as poetic truth and the reader is kept aware of the historical aspect, conscious that the time of the action is distant from his own.

Of historicalfiction thus simply defined we may distinguish two kinds. The first is that extremely popular form of entertainment in which the historical aspect is superficial, mainly picturesque and amusing or titillating. The costume romance places fictional characters against a backdrop of historical events and historical personages; but the central characters, insofar as they are real, are modern, and their doings bear at most a peripheral relation to the important events of the time. While this kind of fiction can be very attractive and sometimes informative, it rises no higher because the historical aspect has no meaning other than to provide the reader with escape (and perhaps the illusion that he is educating himself) and often to conceal the author’s poverty of imagination in character and plot.

The other kind, which is much less common and much less popular, makes a serious attempt to interpret the historical aspect, to relate it to the characters and plot, and to render the “otherness” of the characters in their different time while also rendering their common humanity.War and Peace, by common consent, is the greatest such novel; but War and Peace interprets a time only a couple of generations earlier than that of the author, and one known to him not only (and not primarily) through written sources but through legend, oral tradition, and memory. Allen Tate’s The Fathers is a similar case, and so is Andrew Lytle’s The Long Night.(Even The Scarlet Letter, Henry Esmond, and Sir Walter Scott’s best novels, though remote in time, are set in the author’s own country and draw on local associations and on oral as well as written sources.) Garrett’s two novels are different: their settings are more distant in time and in a different country, and they are based on written sources exclusively.

Garrett thus meets the full challenge head-on, more completely and uncompromisingly than any other “historical” novelist I can think of. If all novels are historical, but some are more historical than others, Garrett’s Death of the Foxand The Succession are historical in every sense compatible with remaining novels. His central characters are major actors on the stage of history and are so remote in time that there is little or no shared bond of genealogy, legend, or other common heritage between characters and readers. His fiction is based primarily on historical documents, not on memory and shared associations (though the places still survive, to be transformed by imagination; and Garrett has lovingly assimilated the topography of England and Scotland for this purpose).

The Succession, Garrett observes in his prefatory note, began as a study of the letters of Elizabeth and James. The impression made by his novels is, in solidity, authenticity, and immediacy, more like that produced by such great letter-collections as The Lisle Letters or Children of Pridethan like that of other historical novels. But letters, except for a few fortunate collections enhanced by imaginative editing, are like literal translations; they are no substitute for reimagining and re-creating the whole.

Garrett, then, doesn’t take any of the easy outs: his central characters are historical and are involved in centrally important historical events, which are followed meticulously in the novels. No liberties are taken with the facts: Garrett invents narrative detail but changes nothing and adds only what is plainly justified by analogy. Since the main characters are historical and the reader knows in advance what happened to them, there can be no narrative suspense. Garrett’s position is the polar opposite of Scott or Alexander Dumas—no cloak and sword, rapid action, romance and suspense, quaintness and local color. The characters are always presented in depth, from inside. Though there is a great variety of perspectives, points of view, and kinds of interest in the different sections, the unifying attitude and tone are contemplative and meditative. Garrett’s attitude toward the past is neither romantic nor debunking: he has a marvelous sense of ceremony, ritual, and pageantry, and of the immense significance of these things—and, of course, of religion—to the characters (in implicit contrast to moderns). The trials and executions are the most fully developed examples, though the conclusion of The Succession is perhaps the most impressive of all, with its picture of Christmas and of the whole cycle of the year at Elizabeth’s court.

In Garrett’s novels, we escape only in the sense that we do inhabit another world, fully imagined and realized. There is no explicit comparison to our own “real” world (though much implicit); Garrett never intrudes in his own person, but always speaks through the imagined mind of a “historical” personage or “ghost.”

One mystery that the serious historical novel always points to is that of the relation between the individual and his times, or the individual and society. It is only in this sense that Robert Penn Warren will call his fiction historical: “Writing a story about an actual person and using him as a kind of model are really not the same. I don’t pretend that Willie Stark is Huey Long. I know Stark, but I have no idea what Long was really like.” What interests him, he goes on to say, is how “individual personalities become mirrors of their times, or the times become a mirror of the personalities. . . . The individual is an embodiment of external circumstances, so that a personal story is a social story.” His novels, he says, are not historical because what he looks for is “an image, a sort of simplified and distant framed image, of an immediate and contemporary issue, a sort of interplay between that image and the contemporary world.”

These quotations define nicely the difference between Warren’s fiction, which often appears to be historical (and is certainly concerned with history), and Garrett’s two novels, which are centrally historical. Garrett does undertake to tell what Ralegh and James were really like (or how they may most plausibly be imagined, in accord with the facts). And, while obviously there are connections to the contemporary world, there are no contemporary issues that the reader feels are the central theme, and the connections are not explicit. On the other hand, Garrett is also concerned, like Warren or any other novelist, with his characters as unique individuals and not merely as mirrors of the times.


It is a curious coincidence that Garrett needed 12 years— close to the length of time Ralegh was in the Tower (1603—1618)—to finish The Succession (1983) after Death of the Fox (1971); but no coincidence that they are in reverse chronological order, focusing on 1603 and 1618, respectively. The Succession, as we shall see, would seem to be motivated partly by the determination to be fair to James (who was, of course, responsible for the death of the Fox) and to the Jacobean era, thus complementing Fox and giving a balanced picture. In many ways, the two novels do certainly complement each other—the basic techniques and approaches are the same—and they are companion works, each dealing with characters and aspects of the age that the other does not. But each is also self-sufficient, and in many ways they are different.

To put it briefly,Fox is a tragedy, covering a short period of time—Ralegh’s execution and the few days preceding it— with Ralegh’s earlier life brought in through retrospection. In spite of the novel’s length, there is a growing intensity, tension, and suspense as it proceeds to its foreknown conclusion; the focus narrows and sharpens.Succession, in contrast, is elegiac and sometimes nostalgic in tone; it has 16 sections as against Fox’s nine, and multiple narrators (though usually not in first person) instead of Fox’s central intelligence dominating the other narrators. The time covered in Succession ranges from 1566 to 1626; though the primary action is the succession of James in 1603, we see throughout the novel the messenger traveling from Edinburgh to London in 1566 with the news of James” birth and the courtier who profited nothing from bringing the news of Elizabeth’s death to James (from London to Edinburgh) but came into favor on the succession of Charles. The focus, so to speak, broadens and mellows into the concluding picture of the last Christmastide at Elizabeth’s court.

Both novels are profoundly” historical, “showing an easy mastery of an incredible amount of detail; but both are primarily works of imagination, to be judged by their success as novels, not by their historical accuracy. Yet Garrett’s is a historically disciplined imagination: that of a modern man putting himself in the place of a historical character, as he must be; but doing so in terms of the historical background of that character, what his childhood was or must have been like, not with free-floating imagination unleashed. Garrett goes inside the minds of major historical characters (James I and Ralegh, most notably and extensively, but also Queen Elizabeth, Bacon, Robert Cecil, and many others) as they confront major historical decisions. His is not only backstage, backstairs, or behind the scenes history, but main stage too. He doesn’t come up with startling revelations or solutions to historical mysteries but with plausible and sensible interpretations of larger meanings.

Throughout both these novels there is the same unusual attitude toward religion that was apparent in Do, Lord, Remember Me (1965), Garrett’s novel about a redneck revivalist and surrounding grotesques in a small Southern town. Garrett presents Big Red’s healing powers as real and Big Red as sincere, though also comic and corrupted; and he manages to sustain both attitudes at once. The mixture of the earthy and religious in these” low “characters is presented with nothing but sympathy. The complement of this attitude is the presentation of the priest in The Succession as he moves toward martyrdom; and Garrett manages to make this” high “religious character come to life just as fully as he did the low ones.(He does the same for Ralegh awaiting execution in Fox.) Do, Lord also anticipates Fox and Succession in using the technique of multiple narrators, with a correspondingly wide array of styles ranging from Big Red’s brilliant and tormented rich allusiveness to the more limited minds of the others. But all are presented with a large compassionate acceptance and without trace of condescension, while the novel is also continuously funny.(In this, it is at the opposite pole from Fox, which in the tragic mode throughout, though not as grim and unrelieved as this statement would suggest, and Succession, which is not comic, though it is in some sense beyond tragedy.)

In Fox, Ralegh is a tough old soldier (among other things), no angel but decent, with many fine qualities (but enigmatic), a victim of circumstances but no whiner. In this, he is like the equivocal hero of Which Ones Are the Enemy? and Garrett’s other stories of the postwar Army: tough, competent, skeptical but not wholly cynical; finally overreaching himself and suffering a downfall. It is much harder to like James, the central character of The Succession; he is a winner, but a villain insofar as history has villains. But Garrett is at the opposite pole from making history a simple morality play; both books constitute a profound and continuing meditation on the meaning of time, memory, and history.

By presenting each segment as meditation or reverie by a specific character, as he remembers or dreams, Garrett can use neutral language, not noticeably modern or antique either. Thus he avoids the problem of archaic language— gadzooks, egad, zounds—one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the historical novel. But it is a real challenge to write like Ralegh or Bacon or Queen Elizabeth so that the reader is not shocked by the transition from their own prose to yours, and Garrett manages this with great success. It works partly because they were such good writers, and when pruned of minor surface anachronisms, do not seem at all dated or antiquated, but the” naked bone and sinew “of the language; and this is what Garrett seems to pattern his own prose on. The style, then, is not based on pastiche or fake antiquarianism, but on the solid middle ground of English. But having established this as basis, Garrett goes on to produce a great variety of individual voices and to write in very different styles according to the occasion.

As we have seen, Garrett employs multiple narrators, each of whom tells his story. Unlike the great exemplars of this technique, Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury, however, his novels do not attempt to reveal the stream of consciousness. Instead, they exhibit a great variety of levels of consciousness, from dozing reverie to full alertness and decision. Wisely, he avoids too much use of the first person, preferring to use third person (sometimes even second) and varying degrees of distance. The device of having ghosts appear who are” characters “in the manner of Overbury—a soldier, a courtier, a sailor, to describe authoritatively these aspects of Ralegh—is very effective. But Garrett is perhaps best on the characters the reader loves to hate: Bacon, James and his favorites (in Fox; James is seen differently in Succession), and Stukely, Ralegh’s kinsman and betrayer.

Shakespeare is handled effectively and with restraint. It is plausible that Ralegh would not be overly impressed by his plays, preferring Marlowe and Jonson, and of course he would not have known him personally, or wanted to.Troilusis certainly the right play to have performed to represent the Jacobean mood, and Pandarus the right character for the Player to act.Fox is wonderful on sailors, voyages, sea battles, and the like, and Succession on reivers of the Scottish border, players, messengers, and other lowlife characters.

Ralegh was the perfect hero for Fox because he was enigmatic, skeptical, and tough-minded, and because he was many-sided, more man of action than poet.(No character in Fox is primarily a poet or artist of any sort.) But he was also appropriate because, in his writings, his central theme was the triumph of time and the meaning of time and history. Nothing could be more in keeping with this character, then, than to present him meditating over the meaning of time and history.


The Succession, as we have said, while the same kind of” venture into the imaginary past, “as Garrett calls them, and while obviously so closely related to Fox that in many ways they are companion volumes, presenting complementary views of the same period, is in other ways quite different. For one thing, it covers a longer time: while Fox was dominated by the image of Ralegh on the eve of his execution in 1618, Succession ranges from the birth of James in 1566 to the succession of Charles in 1626, though of course it is focused on the succession in 1603.(Both novels are focused on highly dramatic events which were, at the time, highly suspenseful; for it was by no means a foregone conclusion at the time either that James would succeed or that Ralegh would be executed. Though we know the historical outcome and therefore feel no suspense about what happened, we do feel suspense about just how and why it happened. And this suspense both novels satisfy through the exercise of the informed or historical imagination.) More importantly, the novels differ in that Succession has no hero, as we have said; insofar as it does, the hero has to be James, the villain of Fox. The Succession shows us the sense in which we must say, however much we continue to dislike him, that his succession was a Good Thing.

Against all our impluses to write history nearer to the heart’s desire, this prig, pedant, and spoiled boy is here understood and appreciated. Secretary Robert Cecil and others who were pro-James and appeared as villains in Fox are also seen in a different light here. Certainly one motive must have been to explore aspects of the age not covered in Fox: e.g., the sovereign as concerned with larger problems than the fate of Ralegh, the Player (wonderful scenes here of playhouses, actors, taverns), the reivers of the Scottish border, the Catholic priest, messengers, and spies of 1566 and 1603, the courtier of 1626 and 1575, and many others.(The Succession of the novel’s title is not only that of 1603, but those of 1566, 1587, and 1626.) The book ends with a last glimpse of Elizabeth at Christmas, 1602—3—the last season of the flourishing Elizabethan age and court—so that the final retrospective vision is that of Elizabeth’s court, not James’.

The Succession is less obviously appealing than Fox: there is no fascinating and” romantic “central figure like Ralegh. The challenge, then, is greater: to make the reader, and the author, accept James and see the other side. The wisdom of acceptance is always rare and difficult, and it is perhaps especially unpopular and implausible now. It is much easier to say that any fool can plainly see that everything is absurd than to say that, in some deep sense beyond complacency, whatever is, is right. We will return to this point at the end; but before leaving The Succession, let us look at a few of its other remarkable qualities.

The novel begins with the dying queen in March 1603 and ends with Christmas 1602—3, the last time the queen and court flourished. Garrett’s account of this season includes the list of Christmas presents to the queen; with its description of the festivals, customs, ceremonies, and liturgies, it evokes the timeless cycles of the Church and of the land as against the ceaseless passage of time and what the Elizabethans called Mutability.

” Reivers “is wonderful: this world of the Scottish border is that of the ballads specifically, but that of feudal, anarchist societies in many times, in places everywhere from Sicily to the American West.

” Courtier 1626 (1575) “is Robert Carey, now Earl of Monmouth, writing Sir Ferdinando Gorges about his young protege. He describes Elizabeth’s visit to Kenilworth in 1575, when Leicester was her favorite (preceding Essex and Ralegh). (The Essex rebellion is covered in” Player: 1602, “and the Essex trial and execution [1601] contrasted with Ralegh’s.) Carey was the first to bring the news of Elizabeth’s death to James; he got nothing from this, but profited from the favor of Charles when he was crowned in 1625.Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

Part of the appeal of bad historical novels is to the perennial yearning of the audience to be assured that the rich and powerful and historically famous are no better than they are, and to know the secrets of skulduggery in high places. In contrast, Garrett affirms the reality of heroism, courage, unselfish love, in his characters, while also affirming their common humanity. Both novels are acts of faith in the possibility of heroism, affirmations of the reality and validity of love and courage, honor and patriotism, of significance in history—all this while confronting the full reality of evil and apparent chaos. This is clearer in Fox than in Succession,which is essentially a Novel without a Hero, except to the limited extent that James can be called one. But however good a case the intellect may make for James, the heart’s heroine remains Elizabeth, as in the long, nostalgic concluding scene of her last Christmastide.

Perhaps this is the real surprise of the books considered as interpretation of history: instead of coming up with some new and startling thesis about Ralegh, some answer to the innumerable rumors and enigmas that surround him (concerning the School of Night, for instance), Garrett makes him at heart a thoroughly orthodox and, in his way, devout Christian. This is beautifully rendered in Ralegh’s letter to his son:” Yet even without thinking of mysteries beyond understanding, we see how those whom we love are transformed. And being loved by another, we find that we ourselves have been somehow remade and restored. . . . If human love is a weak reflection, a wavering image of the light of infinite and eternal Love (to the extent that it is caritas and not the fevered fancy of our lust), then it may be that in the transformation of lovers, each one to the other, we are given a sign of hidden truth. . . . If so, then love has within it the power to transform all of creation, though none of us will ever see it, until Judgment Day brings us to life again “(Fox, p.527). This faith informs the whole extremely moving last section, in which Ralegh awaits execution, as it does the poems Ralegh wrote about his own death: especially the final couplets,” But from this earth, this grave, this dust, / My God shall raise me up I trust “and” Just at the stroke when my veins start and spread/ Set on my soul an everlasting head. “Similarly, in the letter Ralegh writes to his son, Ralegh concludes that the yeoman farmer is much better off than his father or grandfather— in other words, that the accomplishments of Elizabeth’s reign were real, not illusory; that progress is possible and does sometimes occur and that history can be meaningful. (The whole long letter to his son meets the challenge successfully of writing in a style suggesting Ralegh’s without producing a travesty of that style.) The scene of the last visit to Ralegh in the Tower by his wife on the night before his execution is beautifully handled; it is not sentimentalized or made to fit any cliches, but shows the reality of unselfish love and courage, as enacted by both Ralegh and Bess.

On the other hand, it is obviously impossible to know precisely how people in the past felt and thought; even when they are quoted exactly, the words don’t mean the same thing now as then. So pedantic sticking to the” facts “of history won’t work. Thus the only method is Garrett’s: to” make a work of fiction, of the imagination, planted and rooted in fact, “as he said in the prefatory note to Death of the Fox.After mastering all the facts, soaking in all the details, he must imagine the novel, create it from scratch, but staying within the limits of what is not only possible but most probable historically. This will be the” imaginary past, “as Garrett calls it in his note to The Succession, but faithful to the facts, and hence the past as conceived by a rigorously disciplined imagination.

As Garrett says, this is the” imaginary past “in the sense that it has to be imagined—there is no way of automatically reconstructing it (or them, for the past is not one but many, of course) from facts—but it is solidly based on a thorough knowledge of what historical facts and documents are available and, more importantly, of the writings (both literary and personal—e.g., letters) of the period. So this kind of historical novel is a kind of communal product, in a sense: not based on the limited scope of one man’s imagination, but on the productions, fictional and real, of many people’s minds—a kind of collective reality created by all of them together.(I am not suggesting that it is a Jungian collective unconscious; this communal product is conscious, too, and includes art.) It is at the opposite pole from fantasy, where the writer simply unleashes his imagination with no regard for reality or possibility and no constraints. But it is finally dependent on the unifying imagination of a single author.


Though Garrett scorns the meretricious attractions of the conventional” historical “novel, this kind of deeper historical grounding has its own legitimate delights and satisfactions. Perhaps the chief is the deep sense of difference from the characters. Of course one feels primarily the sense of shared human nature, of common humanity, and this is never lost; but the characters are very different from transplanted moderns, and revealing this difference is one of Garrett’s most difficult and most rewarding feats. They have a different sense of time, based on the seasons and the church year; ceremonies and rituals are immensely more important to them than to us; they feel themselves to be far more intimately related to the past than we do.(It is difficult to express these matters abstractly, as Garrett never does: Garrett never mentions them and never calls attention to them; the reader gradually becomes conscious of them as the novel proceeds). Thus without explicit comment, the reader enjoys what is in a sense escape, but meaningful escape—another world that is the same yet different, a comparison and contrast (but always implicit rather than explicit).

But the final wisdom is that of acceptance, because the imagined world of the past is not simplified or distorted; neither prettied up nostalgically nor shown as inferior to the present (as in Eco’s Name of the Rose); but revealed as essentially the same, yet different.(I am, of course, only repeating a Renaissance cliche, as in the title of Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem.)”Wisdom of acceptance “is a dangerous phrase, calling up visions of cosmic Toryism and Margaret Fuller accepting the universe. A better parallel is with the reconciliation beyond tragedy, in Shakespeare’s romances or in the tragedies at the very end, when the bodies must be carried offstage and life must go on. Fox is, so to speak, the tragedy itself; Succession the moment beyond. Though in history nobody wins permanently (as Carey’s story in Succession shows most explicitly), history does have meaning; there is something to say for winners as well as losers, and Succession says it. The attitude is ultimately a religious one, I suppose, and at the risk of pious platitude I have to say that the suggestion is that what thou lovest well remains (thinking of Pound rather than the Bible): this surely is the implication of the end of The Succession with its last long loving look at the last Christmas season of Elizabeth and her court. The theme is parallel to that of Do, Lord, which ends with the beatific vision of Howie Loomis, a most unheroic drunk old man, who sees his dead wife transfigured because he loves and accepts her wholly, choosing her over any heavenly vision:” But I had to choose, you see. So instead I looked at her. The light of that place and shade too was on her. She didn’t change and yet she was changed. What I mean is the light wasn’t magic and it didn’t wipe away any lines of scars. They remained. Yet they were beautiful. Even the scars were beautiful. . . . She looked at the place and smiled at it, and I looked at her and wept like a child, not for loss, but because the world was so large and so wonderful and we were both in it now and forever.

“Then the dream was gone and I was back in myself again, a drunk old man asleep on the floor. A drunk old man who had slept like a baby all night long.”

The Succession ends with a somewhat similar, though more communal and more inclusive vision of a Plowman (the fine tissue of allusions recalling, of course, the Piers Plowman of Langland’s great satire, as well as the archetypal plowman.(His plow will be blessed on Plow Sunday, which marks the end of Christmastide, for the plowing race on Plow Monday with which the cycle of the year begins again.)

“Now still reeling a little and staring up into the sky lit with cold starlight. Fearful of nothing, not past or the future. Except for the certain knowledge that your head will be heavy and aching by daylight. And your laughter will have turned into such groaning as will arouse the laughter of others. But for now you are full of food and drink and gratitude.

” You believe you are full of love and charity also. And you can wish all the world, your friends and your enemies, nothing but well. Nothing but good fortune. Wishing the dead, from Adam and Eve until now, their rest in peace. And wishing the living, one and all, from the beggar in his hedge to the Queen in her soft bed. . . . “And what is it she can be dreaming of now, as he, half dreaming, imagines her, that lady minted on his hard-earned coins, lady of ballads and of prayers in the parish church? Is there a place in her dream for this happy drunken plowman, mud of good English earth thick on his boots, out under the stars, who is wishing for her and the rest of the world, for the sake of our own sweet Jesus, a good night?”

Garrett’s two novels belong in the exalted company of Ulysses and a very few other works that carry the novel form as far as it can go, exploiting all its resources and revealing new possibilities. They exhibit the novel operating at so high a level, with such variety of styles and perspectives, with such easy mastery of the “historical” aspect—of all details of time and place—and so deeply mediated in their study of the relation between the individual life and the history, that they are really something new.(In depth of learning and historical imagination, they belong in the company of Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and Broch’s Death of Virgil.) They are the finest historical novels I have ever read because they are not, in the conventional sense, historical novels at all.

The paradox is seen most clearly in the styles, which are not imitation Elizabethan or pastiche, but seem authentically of their period because they are first of all authentically modern. The discipline is somewhat like that of translation: as a poetic translation must be, to exist at all, modern poetry, and then be faithful to its original, so the historical novel must work first of all as a modern novel, and then maintain its fidelity to the historical past. These are nearly impossible demands; yet Garrett’s novels are as fully historical as they are modern. They are, however, much more than acrobatic feats or displays of virtuosity: they are beautiful, profound, and deeply moving works of art.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading