In a couple of recent posts, I’ve mentioned the Victorian historical novelist Emily Sarah Holt. Curious, I looked on the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography today to see if there was an entry for her, and sure enough, there was, by Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg. I can’t link to it because it’s a subscription publication, but I found several things in the entry that were interesting.
First, Schnorrenberg stated that Holt was born in 1836, but that her date of death was uncertain; her last known published work was in 1904. It surprised me that the death of such a prolific writer should have apparently gone unnoticed. Perhaps that has to do with the disdain with which the intelligentsia of the early 1900’s regarded popular Victorian novelists.
Second, Schnorrenberg, describing Holt’s early biographical work called Memoirs of Royal Ladies, wrote, “For an introduction to such women as Ela de Rosman, Alicia de Lacy, Joan of Kent, or Constance, second wife of John of Gaunt, this work is still probably a useful starting place. The essays are documented and show a wide knowledge of the sources.” That confirmed what I’ve thought of the few historical novels of Holt’s I’ve read; in spite of Holt’s biases and some of the decidedly peculiar conclusions she draws, her research was thorough, relying heavily on primary sources, and would put that of many a modern historical novelist to shame.
Third, Schnorrenberg, turning to Holt’s many historical novels (45 by her count), describes them as intended for girls from ages ten to sixteen. If so, these nineteenth-century girls were a sophisticated lot. In the novels of hers that I’ve read, Holt assumes the reader has a certain grasp of history; she provides detailed historical appendices, complete with genealogies; and she’s not at all adverse to footnotes. Nor would her books have met with the approval of Dickens’s Mr. Podsnap, who deplored anything that might bring a blush to the cheek of the Young Person. Holt has her limits, of course. In her novel on Piers Gaveston and Edward II, In All Time of Our Tribulation, she never even hints at homosexuality, and in her account of the king’s death, she allows the killers to use a table, but stops short of bringing out the red-hot poker, presumably with the idea that if the young ladies really had to know the specifics, they could ask their brothers. The Young Person would surely blush, however, at the scene where Edward II is presented with the executed Gaveston’s head:
And then Edward saw before him the face that he had so dearly loved, calm with the stillness of death. . . . He flung himself on his knees by the severed head, clasped it to his bosom, poured kisses on the cold lips, and conducted himself almost like a man demented.
Even if the novels were intended for young girls, I suspect that they did find their way into the hands of adults, in part for the cattiness which the author often indulges in, as in this scene where Eleanor de Clare and Margaret de Clare meet at an inn: “Lastly, the sisters bade each other good night, with a kiss in which there was not much affection, except of that kind which Rouchefoucauld says is the strongest of all–that which is built upon mutual dislikes.”
Finally, there’s this thought by Schnorrenberg:
While there is certainly a didactic religious tone to her books, she was also telling a good and, so far as she could, historically accurate story. It is probable that she influenced at least as many girls as did Charlotte Yonge, and she may also have inspired in many girls an interest in history.
As the best historical novels should do. Here’s to Miss Holt.