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Issue 03 – Christ the King 2020


The Dark Horse Of My Generation

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The Dark Horse of My Generation

In 1950 a publisher at Faber pleaded with Anthony Powell, then fiction editor at the Times Literary Supplement, that a new historical novel ought not to be overlooked for review “on the grounds of belonging to an obsolescent genre of literature.” Powell himself, as a novelist, was attracted to the far past (he was shortly to publish the first volume of his Dance to the Music of Time, haunted throughout by the shadows of historical romance). But Powell was surprised less by the implicit literary judgement than by the identity of the author under discussion: an old acquaintance, Alfred Duggan, “the last man on earth,” he thought, “to attempt an historical novel.” According to the most famous contemporary of either Duggan or Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Duggan was considered at Oxford to be “the dark horse of my generation,” “one of the least likely to succeed.”

Historical fiction in Britain, where the genre might reasonably claim to have been born, and where it retains a defiant place in popular, literary, and overlapping palettes, has a reputation as heady but divisive stuff, fitfully addictive, rarely respectable. The scarcely latent snobisme that associates the contemporary with the literary stood firm in post-war Britain as it does today, with a similar underlying force. Why search further afield when the present crackles with urgent conflict, political and cultural, ethical and artistic? If the answer lies in allegory — a utilitarian application of the past to clarify the problems of the present — is not the method both compromised and cumbersome? If the motivation is, by contrast, genuine historical curiosity, is not fiction tantamount to speculation, the very spice most sternly excluded from the scholar’s pot? As for the purely aesthetic claims of the craftsman, why try to observe and to sketch while hampered by the unnecessary handicap of elapsing, estranging time? Historical fiction is condemned for being torn between past and present, and as such doubly liable to date.

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About the author

Minoo Dinshaw

Minoo Dinshaw is the author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman and a contributing editor at The Lamp.