steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Have With You to Saffron Walden

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times) who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Thus Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penniless (1592), a passage familiar to many because it appears to refer to 1 Henry VI, and thus constitutes one of the earliest contemporary references to Shakespeare's work. I came across it again recently in that excellent book, Comeuppance, and was suddenly struck by Nashe's dodgy arithmetic. In 1592 John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, had been in his grave not for 200 years, nor even for 150, but for just 139. Of course it suits Nashe's rhetorical point to stretch it a bit, but still - could one get away today with saying that Henry Fox Talbot (who died exactly 139 years ago, in 1877) had been in his grave for two hundred years? ("How would it have joyed him to see so many people taking photos!") I don't think so. So, why one Talbot and not the other? Does it say something about a change in education or in historical sensibility, or just about Nashe's style as a controversialist?

While I'm on Nashe, I recently wrote a piece in which I cited without too much qualification the standard line that the historical novel began with Walter Scott's Waverley. But even as I wrote it, I was bothered by the counterexample of The Unfortunate Traveller, which is set during the reign of Henry VIII and has a fictional protagonist, Jack Wilton, who (like Edward Waverley) rubs shoulders with historical figures, notably the Earl of Surrey. Why isn't that hailed as "the first historical novel"? I find it hard to come up with a line of argument that doesn't smack of special pleading.
Tags: books, maunderings
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