Romances by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

Romance has been elegantly defined as the offspring of FICTION and LOVE. Men of learning have amused themselves with tracing the epocha of romances; but the erudition is desperate which would fix on the inventor of the first romance: for what originates in nature, who shall hope to detect the shadowy outlines of its beginnings? The Theagenes and Chariclea of Heliodorus appeared in the fourth century; and this elegant prelate was the Grecian Fenelon. It has been prettily said, that posterior romances seem to be the children of the marriage of Theagenes and Chariclea. The Romance of “The Golden Ass,” by Apuleius, which contains the beautiful tale of “Cupid and Psyche,” remains unrivalled; while the “Daephne and Chloe” of Longus, in the old version of Amyot, is inexpressibly delicate, simple, and inartificial, but sometimes offends us, for nature there “plays her virgin fancies.”

Beautiful as these compositions are, when the imagination of the writer is sufficiently stored with accurate observations on human nature, in their birth, like many of the fine arts, the zealots of an ascetic religion opposed their progress. However Heliodorus may have delighted those who were not insensible to the felicities of a fine imagination, and to the enchanting elegancies of style, he raised himself, among his brother ecclesiastics, enemies, who at length so far prevailed, that, in a synod, it was declared that his performance was dangerous to young persons, and that if the author did not suppress it, he must resign his bishopric. We are told he preferred his romance to his bishopric. Even so late as in Racine’s time it was held a crime to peruse these unhallowed pages. He informs us that the first effusions of his muse were in consequence of studying that ancient romance, which, his tutor observing him to devour with the keenness of a famished man, snatched from his hands and flung it in the fire. A second copy experienced the same fate. What could Racine do? He bought a third, and took the precaution of devouring it secretly till he got it by heart: after which he offered it to the pedagogue with a smile, to burn like the others.

The decision of these ascetic bigots was founded in their opinion of the immorality of such works. They alleged that the writers paint too warmly to the imagination, address themselves too forcibly to the passions, and in general, by the freedom of their representations, hover on the borders of indecency. Let it be sufficient, however, to observe, that those who condemned the liberties which these writers take with the imagination could indulge themselves with the Anacreontic voluptuousness of the wise Solomon, when sanctioned by the authority of the church.

The marvellous power of romance over the human mind is exemplified in this curious anecdote of oriental literature.

Mahomet found they had such an influence over the imaginations of his followers, that he has expressly forbidden them in his Koran; and the reason is given in the following anecdote:–An Arabian merchant having long resided in Persia, returned to his own country while the prophet was publishing his Koran. The merchant, among his other riches, had a treasure of romances concerning the Persian heroes. These he related to his delighted countrymen, who considered them to be so excellent, that the legends of the Koran were neglected, and they plainly told the prophet that the “Persian Tales” were superior to his. Alarmed, he immediately had a visitation from the angel Gabriel, declaring them impious and pernicious, hateful to God and Mahomet. This checked their currency; and all true believers yielded up the exquisite delight of poetic fictions for the insipidity of religious ones. Yet these romances may be said to have outlived the Koran itself; for they have spread into regions which the Koran could never penetrate. Even to this day Colonel Capper, in his travels across the Desert, saw “Arabians sitting round a fire, listening to their tales with such attention and pleasure, as totally to forget the fatigue and hardship with which an instant before they were entirely overcome.” And Wood, in his journey to Palmyra:–“At night the Arabs sat in a circle drinking coffee, while one of the company diverted the rest by relating a piece of history on the subject of love or war, or with an extempore tale.”

Mr. Ellis has given us “Specimens of the Early English Metrical Romances,” and Ritson and Weber have printed two collections of them entire, valued by the poetical antiquary. Learned inquirers have traced the origin of romantic fiction to various sources.[117] From Scandinavia issued forth the giants, dragons, witches, and enchanters. The curious reader will be gratified by “Illustrations of Northern Antiquities,” a volume in quarto; where he will find extracts from “The Book of Heroes” and “The Nibelungen Lay,”[118] with many other metrical tales from the old German, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic languages. In the East, Arabian fancy bent her iris of many softened hues over a delightful land of fiction: while the Welsh, in their emigration to Britanny, are believed to have brought with them their national fables. That subsequent race of minstrels, known by the name of Troubadours in the South of France, composed their erotic or sentimental poems; and those romancers called Troveurs, or finders, in the North of France, culled and compiled their domestic tales or Fabliaux, Dits, Conte, or Lai. Millot, Sainte Palaye, and Le Grand, have preserved, in their “Histories of the Troubadours,” their literary compositions. They were a romantic race of ambulatory poets, military and religious subjects their favourite themes, yet bold and satirical on princes, and even on priests; severe moralisers, though libertines in their verse; so refined and chaste in their manners, that few husbands were alarmed at the enthusiastic language they addressed to their wives. The most romantic incidents are told of their loves. But love and its grosser passion were clearly distinguished from each other in their singular intercourse with their “Dames.” The object of their mind was separated from the object of their senses; the virtuous lady to whom they vowed their hearts was in their language styled “la dame de ses pensees,” a very distinct being from their other mistress! Such was the Platonic chimera that charmed in the age of chivalry; the Laura of Petrarch might have been no other than “the lady of his thoughts.”

From such productions in their improved state poets of all nations have drawn their richest inventions. The agreeable wildness of that fancy which characterised the Eastern nations was often caught by the crusaders. When they returned home, they mingled in their own the customs of each country. The Saracens, being of another religion, brave, desperate, and fighting for their fatherland, were enlarged to their fears, under the tremendous form of Paynim Giants, while the reader of that day followed with trembling sympathy the Redcross Knight. Thus fiction embellished religion, and religion invigorated fiction; and such incidents have enlivened the cantos of Ariosto, and adorned the epic of Tasso. Spenser is the child of their creation; and it is certain that we are indebted to them for some of the bold and strong touches of Milton. Our great poet marks his affection for “these lofty Fables and Romances, among which his young feet wandered.” Collins was bewildered among their magical seductions; and Dr. Johnson was enthusiastically delighted by the old Spanish folio romance of “Felixmarte of Hircania,” and similar works. The most ancient romances were originally composed in verse before they were converted into prose: no wonder that the lacerated members of the poet have been cherished by the sympathy of poetical souls. Don Quixote’s was a very agreeable insanity.

The most voluminous of these ancient romances is “Le Roman de Perceforest.” I have seen an edition in six small folio volumes, and its author has been called the French Homer by the writers of his age. In the class of romances of chivalry, we have several translations in the black letter. These books are very rare, and their price is as voluminous. It is extraordinary that these writers were so unconscious of their future fame, that not one of their names has travelled down to us. There were eager readers in their days, but not a solitary bibliographer! All these romances now require some indulgence for their prolixity, and their Platonic amours; but they have not been surpassed in the wildness of their inventions, the ingenuity of their incidents, the simplicity of their style, and their curious manners. Many a Homer lies hid among them; but a celebrated Italian critic suggested to me that many of the fables of Homer are only disguised and degraded in the romances of chivalry. Those who vilify them as only barbarous imitations of classical fancy condemn them as some do Gothic architecture, as mere corruptions of a purer style: such critics form their decision by preconceived notions; they are but indifferent philosophers, and to us seem to be deficient in imagination.

As a specimen I select two romantic adventures:–

The title of the extensive romance of Perceforest is, “The most elegant, delicious, mellifluous, and delightful history of Perceforest, King of Great Britain, etc.” The most ancient edition is that of 1528. The writers of these Gothic fables, lest they should be considered as mere triflers, pretended to an allegorical meaning concealed under the texture of their fable. From the following adventure we learn the power of beauty in making ten days appear as yesterday! Alexander the Great in search of Perceforest, parts with his knights in an enchanted wood, and each vows they will not remain longer than one night in one place. Alexander, accompanied by a page, arrives at Sebilla’s castle, who is a sorceress. He is taken by her witcheries and beauty, and the page, by the lady’s maid, falls into the same mistake as his master, who thinks he is there only one night. They enter the castle with deep wounds, and issue perfectly recovered. I transcribe the latter part as a specimen of the manner. When they were once out of the castle, the king said, “Truly, Floridas, I know not how it has been with me; but certainly Sebilla is a very honourable lady, and very beautiful, and very charming in conversation. Sire (said Floridas), it is true; but one thing surprises me:–how is it that our wounds have healed in one night? I thought at least ten or fifteen days were necessary. Truly, said the king, that is astonishing! Now king Alexander met Gadiffer, king of Scotland, and the valiant knight Le Tors. Well, said the king, have ye news of the king of England? Ten days we have hunted him, and cannot find him out. How, said Alexander, did we not separate yesterday from each other? In God’s name, said Gadiffer, what means your majesty? It is ten days! Have a care what you say, cried the king. Sire, replied Gadiffer, it is so; ask Le Tors. On my honour, said Le Tors, the king of Scotland speaks truth. Then, said the king, some of us are enchanted; Floridas, didst thou not think we separated yesterday? Truly, truly, your majesty, I thought so! But when I saw our wounds healed in one night, I had some suspicion that WE were enchanted.”

In the old romance of Melusina, this lovely fairy (though to the world unknown as such), enamoured of Count Raymond, marries him, but first extorts a solemn promise that he will never disturb her on Saturdays. On those days the inferior parts of her body are metamorphosed to that of a mermaid, as a punishment for a former error. Agitated by the malicious insinuations of a friend, his curiosity and his jealousy one day conduct him to the spot she retired to at those times. It was a darkened passage in the dungeon of the fortress. His hand gropes its way till it feels an iron gate oppose it; nor can he discover a single chink, but at length perceives by his touch a loose nail; he places his sword in its head and screws it out. Through this cranny he sees Melusina in the horrid form she is compelled to assume. That tender mistress, transformed into a monster bathing in a fount, flashing the spray of the water from a scaly tail! He repents of his fatal curiosity: she reproaches him, and their mutual happiness is for ever lost. The moral design of the tale evidently warns the lover to revere a Woman’s Secret!

Such are the works which were the favourite amusements of our English court, and which doubtless had a due effect in refining the manners of the age, in diffusing that splendid military genius, and that tender devotion to the fair sex, which dazzle us in the reign of Edward III., and through that enchanting labyrinth of History constructed by the gallant Froissart. In one of the revenue rolls of Henry III. there is an entry of “Silver clasps and studs for his majesty’s great book of Romances.” Dr. Moore observes that the enthusiastic admiration of chivalry which Edward III. manifested during the whole course of his reign, was probably, in some measure, owing to his having studied the clasped book in his great grandfather’s library.

The Italian romances of the fourteenth century were spread abroad in great numbers. They formed the polite literature of the day. But if it is not permitted to authors freely to express their ideas, and give full play to the imagination, these works must never be placed in the study of the rigid moralist. They, indeed, pushed their indelicacy to the verge of grossness, and seemed rather to seek than to avoid scenes, which a modern would blush to describe. They, to employ the expression of one of their authors, were not ashamed to name what God had created. Cinthio, Bandello, and others, but chiefly Boccaccio, rendered libertinism agreeable by the fascinating charms of a polished style and a luxuriant imagination.

This, however, must not be admitted as an apology for immoral works; for poison is not the less poison, even when delicious. Such works were, and still continue to be, the favourites of a nation stigmatized for being prone to impure amours. They are still curious in their editions, and are not parsimonious in their price for what they call an uncastrated copy. There are many Italians, not literary men, who are in possession of an ample library of these old novelists.

If we pass over the moral irregularities of these romances, we may discover a rich vein of invention, which only requires to be released from that rubbish which disfigures it, to become of an invaluable price. The Decamerones, the Hecatommiti, and the Novellas of these writers, translated into English, made no inconsiderable figure in the little library of our Shakspeare.[119] Chaucer had been a notorious imitator and lover of them. His “Knight’s Tale” is little more than a paraphrase of “Boccaccio’s Teseoide.” Fontaine has caught all their charms with all their licentiousness. From such works these great poets, and many of their contemporaries, frequently borrowed their plots; not uncommonly kindled at their flame the ardour of their genius; but bending too submissively to the taste of their age, in extracting the ore they have not purified it of the alloy. The origin of these tales must be traced to the inventions of the Troveurs, who doubtless often adopted them from various nations. Of these tales, Le Grand has printed a curious collection; and of the writers Mr. Ellis observes, in his preface to “Way’s Fabliaux,” that the authors of the “Cento Novelle Antiche,” Boccaccio, Bandello, Chaucer, Gower,–in short, the writers of all Europe have probably made use of the inventions of the elder fablers. They have borrowed their general outlines, which they have filled up with colours of their own, and have exercised their ingenuity in varying the drapery, in combining the groups, and in forming them into more regular and animated pictures.

We now turn to the French romances of the last century, called heroic, from the circumstance of their authors adopting the name of some hero. The manners are the modern antique; and the characters are a sort of beings made out of the old epical, the Arcadian pastoral, and the Parisian sentimentality and affectation of the days of Voiture.[120] The Astrea of D’Urfe greatly contributed to their perfection. As this work is founded on several curious circumstances, it shall be the subject of the following article; for it may be considered as a literary curiosity. The Astrea was followed by the illustrious Bassa, Artamene, or the Great Cyrus, Clelia, etc., which, though not adapted to the present age, once gave celebrity to their authors; and the Great Cyrus, in ten volumes, passed through five or six editions. Their style, as well as that of the Astrea, is diffuse and languid; yet Zaide, and the Princess of Cleves, are masterpieces of the kind. Such works formed the first studies of Rousseau, who, with his father, would sit up all night, till warned by the chirping of the swallows how foolishly they had spent it! Some incidents in his Nouvelle Heloise have been retraced to these sources; and they certainly entered greatly into the formation of his character.

Such romances at length were regarded as pernicious to good sense, taste, and literature. It was in this light they were considered by Boileau, after he had indulged in them in his youth.

A celebrated Jesuit pronounced an oration against these works. The rhetorician exaggerates and hurls his thunders on flowers. He entreats the magistrates not to suffer foreign romances to be scattered amongst the people, but to lay on them heavy penalties, as on prohibited goods; and represents this prevailing taste as being more pestilential than the plague itself. He has drawn a striking picture of a family devoted to romance-reading; he there describes women occupied day and night with their perusal; children just escaped from the lap of their nurse grasping in their little hands the fairy tales; and a country squire seated in an old arm-chair, reading to his family the most wonderful passages of the ancient works of chivalry.

These romances went out of fashion with our square-cocked hats: they had exhausted the patience of the public, and from them sprung NOVELS. They attempted to allure attention by this inviting title, and reducing their works from ten to two volumes. The name of romance, including imaginary heroes and extravagant passions, disgusted; and they substituted scenes of domestic life, and touched our common feelings by pictures of real nature. Heroes were not now taken from the throne: they were sometimes even sought after amongst the lowest ranks of the people. Scarron seems to allude sarcastically to this degradation of the heroes of Fiction: for in hinting at a new comic history he had projected, he tells us that he gave it up suddenly because he had “heard that his hero had just been hanged at Mans.”

NOVELS, as they were long manufactured, form a library of illiterate authors for illiterate readers; but as they are created by genius, are precious to the philosopher. They paint the character of an individual or the manners of the age more perfectly than any other species of composition: it is in novels we observe as it were passing under our eyes the refined frivolity of the French; the gloomy and disordered sensibility of the German; and the petty intrigues of the modern Italian in some Venetian Novels. We have shown the world that we possess writers of the first order in this delightful province of Fiction and of Truth; for every Fiction invented naturally, must be true. After the abundant invective poured on this class of books, it is time to settle for ever the controversy, by asserting that these works of fiction are among the most instructive of every polished nation, and must contain all the useful truths of human life, if composed with genius. They are pictures of the passions, useful to our youth to contemplate. That acute philosopher, Adam Smith, has given an opinion most favourable to NOVELS. “The poets and romance writers who best paint the refinements and delicacies of love and friendship, and of all other private and domestic affections, Racine and Voltaire, Richardson Marivaux, and Riccoboni, are in this case much better instructors than Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus.”

The history of romances has been recently given by Mr. Dunlop, with many pleasing details; but this work should be accompanied by the learned Lenglet du Fresnoy’s “Bibliotheque des Romans,” published under the name of M. le C. Gordon de Percel; which will be found useful for immediate reference for titles, dates, and a copious catalogue of romances and novels to the year 1734.


[Footnote 117: Since the above was written, many other volumes have been published illustrative of this branch of literature. The Bannatyne and Maitland Club and the Camden and Percy Societies have printed Metrical Romances entire.]

[Footnote 118: This famed lay has been magnificently published in Germany, where it is now considered as the native epic of the ancient kingdom. Its scenes have been delineated by the greatest of their artists, who have thus given a world-wide reputation to a poem comparatively unknown when the first edition of this work was printed.]

[Footnote 119: These early novels have been collected and published by Mr. J. P. Collier, under the title of Shakespeare’s Library. They form the foundation of some of the great Poet’s best dramas.]

[Footnote 120: They were ridiculed in a French burlesque Romance of the Shepherd Lysis, translated by Davis, and published 1660. Don Quixote, when dying, made up his mind, if he recovered, to turn shepherd, in imitation of some of the romance-heroes, who thus finished their career. This old “anti-romance” works out this notion by a mad reader of pastorals, who assumes the shepherd habit and tends a few wretched sheep at St. Cloud.]

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