Introduction to Savonarola: A Dramatic Poem, by Charlotte Eliot
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[ 771 Introduction Savonarola: A Dramatic Poem, by Charlotte Eliot1 London: R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1926. Pp. xv + 99; Introduction, vii-xii. I. Of History and Truth Accuracy is no justification of a work of historical fiction, though the lack of accuracy is a serious blemish. Such fiction, whether in prose or verse, must find its excuse in the same qualities as any other work of fiction, in vitality, order and grace. But historical fiction, to the degree to which it possesses these merits, has a documentary value of another kind than that possible to pure invention. Every period of history is seen differently by every other period; the past is in perpetual flux, although only the past can be known. How usefully, therefore, may we supplement our direct knowledge of a period, by contrasting its view of a third, more remote period with our own views of this third period! In this way a work of historical fiction is muchmoreadocumentonitsowntimethanonthetimeportrayed.Equally relative, because equally passed through the sieve of our own interpretation, but enabling us to extend and solidify this interpretation of the past which isitsmeaning,itssense,forus.BycomparingtheperioddescribedinRomola as we know that period, with George Eliot’s interpretation of it, we can supplement our knowledge (which is itself an interpretation and relative) of the mind and of the epoch of George Eliot. But unless George Eliot’s novel gave a faithful presentation of Romola’s time to George Eliot’s contemporaries, it would have little to say to us about George Eliot’s time.2 The rôle played by interpretation has often been neglected in the theory of knowledge. Even Kant, devoting a lifetime to the pursuit of categories, fixed only those which he believed, rightly or wrongly, to be permanent, and overlooked or neglected the fact that these are only the more stable of a vast system of categories in perpetual change. Some years ago, in a paper on “The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual,”3 * I made an humble attempt to show that in many cases no interpretation of a rite could explain its origin . For the meaning of the series of acts is to the performers themselves an interpretation; the same ritual remaining practically unchanged may assume 1926 772 ] different meanings for different generations of performers; and the rite may even have originated before “meaning” meant anything at all.4 * The persons concerned may believe that the ritual is performed in order to induce a fall of rain; but this innocent belief throws no light on the genesis of their behaviour; and it is true even for the participants only in that if they became convinced that the rite had no effect upon the weather, they would probably, though with regret, cease the practice. The interpretation of history is only a very much more complex but similar activity, and historical fiction only a special case of history. Those minds which are near to our own in time seem to us to present a more accurate picture of the past than do those minds which are themselves of the past. Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer (in an admirable unappreciated novel, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes) seems to offer a more authentic picture of the Age of Chivalry than does Scott.5 It is not so; he only teaches us to see the Middle Ages as we see our own time, just as Scott taught his age to see the Middle Ages as it saw or wished to see itself. An historical work not only tells more – or what it tells is more authentic – about the age in which it is written than about the past; it may even tell us more about the future – when that future is also past. We can learn more from Scott about the Young England movement, and even about the Oxford movement, than we can learn from him about the Crusades.6 It has sometimes been remarked that the heroes of Shakespeare and Corneille are simply courtiers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whatever the period in which they are set. But they are therefore more vital and accordingly truer to the life of any and every time than, for instance, the figures of Sienciewitz – anatomies of Roman archaeology seen through Polish spectacles.7 Whatever documentary value pertains to the following series of scenes of the life of Savonarola is due to its rendering of a state of mind contemporary with the author (and such rendering is always shown by the choice of subject as...