— or so you’d think from they way writers today like to set their works in a different age. Give your hero any technological piece of kit – a phone, say, TV or computer – and by the time your novel is published (next year) your words already sound out of date. Set the story back a few years – or in an unknown future – and the environment is set. Yet in Victorian times there was a similar drive to hark back to a golden age. Even ‘modern’ novels by Dickens or George Eliot, say, were not modern in their settings but were instead set several decades earlier. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in her poem Aurora Leigh, complained of this:
I do distrust the poet who discerns
No character or glory in his times,
And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle court,
To sing—oh, not of lizard or of toad
Alive i’ the ditch there,—’twere excusable,
But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,
Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen,
As dead as must be, for the greater part,
The poems made on their chivalric bones ;
And that’s no wonder : death inherits death.
Nay, if there’s room for poets in this world
A little overgrown (I think there is),
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,—this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.
To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal,—foolish too. King Arthur’s self
Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;
And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat
As Fleet Street to our poets.
Her preference – and who can disagree? – is for ‘living art, which thus presents and thus records true life.’
— and on form and structure, which exercise our critics and creative writing tutors so much, she continues:
What form is best for poems ? Let me think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit,
As Sovran nature does, to make the form;
For otherwise we only imprison spirit
And not embody. Inward evermore
To outward, — so in life, and so in art
Which still is life.
Five acts to make a play.
And why not fifteen? why not ten? or seven?
What matter for the number of the leaves,
Supposing the tree lives and grows? Exact
The literal unities of time and place,
When ’tis the essence of passion to ignore
Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire,
And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.