This is an eminently unliterary age, incapable of thought, and therefore seeking to be amused. Whereas the the writing of books was once a painful act, it has of late become a trick very easy of accomplishment, requiring no regard for probability, and little thought, so long as it is packed sufficiently full of impossible incidents through which a ridiculous heroine and a more absurd hero duly sigh their appointed way to the last chapter.
Whereas books were once a power, they are, of late, degenerated into things of amusement with which to kill an idle hour and be promptly forgotten.... Who troubles their head over Homer or Virgil these days - who cares to open Steele's 'Tatler' or Addison's 'Spectator', while there is the latest novel to be had, or 'Bell's Life' to be found on any coffee-house table?
Few writers in any age would be likely to agree that the writing of books has 'become a trick very easy of accomplishment.' Critics in any age however are likely to compare their literature unfavourably with that of the past. The lines above were spoken by the hero of The Broad Highway, by Jeffery Farnol, published in 1910, and set in the Regency period.
Jeffery Farnol was a prolific writer of romantic and swashbuckling historical fiction. His titles include My Lady Caprice, Black Bartlemy's Treasure, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, and The Geste of Duke Jocelyn. He, or his publishers, described his works as 'a romance of the Regency', 'a stirring pirate story', 'a mystery story of merry England'.
Farnol was a bestseller in his day, but one could ask 'who troubles their head over Jeffery Farnol these days'? I remember shelves of his books in my local library in the 1960s and 1970s, but his popularity was already declining in his lifetime. At his death in 1952, his obituarist in the Times wrote:
For the moment the taste for the romance flamboyant seems to have been superseded - and not necessarily by a taste for anything better. Even those who sniff patronizingly at his novels admit that he achieved something more than the costume and prose style of Wardour Street. Whatever else his books lack... they flow with untroubled zest and assurance.
Farnol's flowery prose style, the relatively slow pace of some of his work, his romanticised view of English rural life in the past, would be assumed not to appeal to modern readers, who are supposed to have shorter attention spans and to require more realism in their fiction (although there is nothing wrong with a little romanticism, and fiction need not always be realistic).
Farnol has a niche following today, but as a bestseller he is largely forgotten. Which of today's prolific and successful writers of historical fiction will be remembered? Will people still be reading Bernard Cornwell or Philippa Gregory in fifty or a hundred years' time? Or will they come to be regarded as out of date as readers move on to the next fashion in historical fiction?