When George Gissing died in December 1903, he was very actively working on one of the greatest passions of his life, the study of ancient Greece and Rome. Veranilda, his unfinished historical novel on the fall of Rome, is the chief result of this lifelong study. On the face of it, the novel is not the usual offering from Gissing. First, it is decidedly historical and not contemporary with the author’s life. Second, Gissing had achieved remarkable success as a successor as a writer of the downtrodden and the underclassed. (Paul Elmer More referred to Gissing’s body of work as an “Epic of Poverty.”) But Veranilda represented something that he had not succeeded in doing in his short, but prolific writing career: a successful imaginative depiction of society’s leaders. Furthermore, as Avrom Fleishman suggested in his study, The English Historical Novel, Gissing saw in the story of a degenerative Rome a lesson for late nineteenth-century Victorian England, and by extension, a lesson for all decadent societies, which I may also suggest includes twenty-first century America.
One of the great attributes of the historical novel is its attempt to root a story in an earlier period while implicitly commenting on the time contemporaneous with the author. It is a genre which, from the time of its creation by Walter Scott two hundred years ago to now has proved to be exceptionally popular and lucrative. A reader can simply look on any bestseller list at any given time and learn that the reading public has a great appetite for fictionalized versions of significant historical times and characters.
Historical fiction remains popular for several reasons. First, historical novelists write to tell a story, and they strive to tell it well. But more important for our understanding of Gissing’s novel is that historical novelists can tell us not only about the past, but also about our present in a manner that keeps our interest, and helps us reflect on our own existence as historical beings. So the historical novel—unless written in the realm of escapist literature—takes the reader back and forth between the past and the present, urging the reader to reflect upon the deeper meaning of events. This is why I believe George Gissing’s Veranilda, a novel of Goths and Romans, of paganism, Catholicism and heresy, of Greek and Latin, is, although an incomplete novel, interesting for an imaginative conservative living as we are, like a sixth-century Roman, at the end of an age.
The story of Veranilda takes place during the time of the Gothic King Totila’s advance on Naples and Rome (c. 540 AD). Romans on the Italian peninsula are divided between their classical pagan identity, the ethnic conflict between the Greeks from the East and the Roman heritage, and the endeavor of the Church to define itself theologically. The Goths have put their trust in Totila, as Gissing’s narrator states, “a chieftain whom the Goths had raised upon their shields, a king, men said, glorious in youth and strength, and able, even yet, to worst the Emperor’s generals.” Under Totila, the Goths are able to reach and lay siege to the city of Rome itself, reversing many of the gains that the Greeks under Belisarius had attained. But Totila and the Goths are Arians, heretical devotees of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had been condemned by the Council of Nicaea two hundred years prior to the story in the novel for arguing that the Son was inferior to the Father. It is against this historical background that Gissing creates a fictional love story to steer the plot. It is a love between two young people from different worlds, whose relationship embodies the historical conflicts that provide the tension in the novel.
The story centers around Basil, a wealthy young nobleman, and his love for Veranilda, an Arian Gothic princess, purportedly a descendant of the Gothic king Theodoric, and ward of his cousin, Aurelia, an Arian as well, who, at the pleasure of her father, Flavius Anicius Maximus, returns to the Catholic fold. The love story is not an unrequited romance—the two lovers are aware of their feelings for each other—as much as it is an unrewarded one, for the plot revolves around keeping the two from each other, as Veranilda becomes a pawn between the competing courts of Justinian and Totila.
Setting the tone of the novel from the beginning is the witness of the paterfamilias, Maximus. Lamenting Rome’s great decline, he dies with the hope that the “fortune-favored Totila might sweep the land of its Greek oppressors,” and restore the glory that was Rome. Boethius-like he ponders the plight of the gentleman Christian facing the ultimate test in an age of decay:
He lay with closed eyes, a look of calm on his worn countenance. Beside him sat Decius, reading in low tones from that treatise on the Consolation of Philosophy, which Boethius wrote in prison, a hook wherein Maximus sought comfort, this last year or two more often than in the Evangel, or the Lives of the Saints…He loved especially the passages of verse; and when the reader came to those lines—‘O felix hominum genus,Si vestros animos amor Quo coelum regitur, regat.’, he raised his hand, smiling with peculiar sweetness.
‘Pause there, O Decius,’ he said, in a weak but clear voice; ‘let me muse awhile.’ And he murmured the verses to himself.
As in many of his works, Gissing here develops the theme of the power of love—or more exactly—the importance of the quality of love in the lives of his characters. As we see develop in the story, love can act as a sacred bond, as Maximus comes to realize, or it can degenerate and rend the fabric through jealousy and reckless passion. Basil confesses to Marcian, his best friend, “How can I describe her to you? The words which suffice for common beauty sound meaningless when I would use them to depict Veranilda. Shall I tell you that she has hair of the purest gold, eyes brighter than the sky at noon, lips like the flower of the pomegranate, a cheek so fair, so soft—nay, you may well laugh at these idle phrases.” But Marcian does not laugh. He too becomes captivated by Veranilda and his desire causes him to turn on Basil. He becomes an informant for both the courts of Justinian and Totila and works both against each other, lying to destroy Basil and keep Veranilda for himself:
[Marcian] was torn between spiritual fervor and passions of the flesh. With his aspiration to saintliness blended that love of his friend which was the purest affection he had known in all the years of manhood; yet this very love became, through evil thoughts, an instrument against him, being sullied, poisoned by the basest spirit of jealousy, until it seemed all but to have turned to hate.
In contrast to Marcian whose love spirals downward through the machinations of politics, power, and obsession, Basil struggles to keep his passion in check. In one of the strongest historically descriptive chapters in the novel, “The Soul of Rome,” Gissing eloquently creates a portrait of the young hero and the troubled times in which he lives. We see the library of Basil’s estate and the books that he has read. There is discussion of Roman education, of the conflict between ancient paganism and Christianity, of the decrepit water supply, and the destruction of the baths and aqueducts, and the general lack of Roman hygiene (“Nobles and populace alike lived without the bath, grew accustomed to more or less uncleanliness, and in a certain quarter suffered worse than inconvenience from the lack of good water”). As a traditional Roman and as a nephew of a famous Senator, Basil feels the call of public duty, yet aware of the poor education standards of his day, he questions his, and we may infer, he countryman’s, abilities:
“But in our time what can we do, we who are born Romans, yet have never learnt to lead an army or to govern a state?”… Basil, who thought more than the average Roman about these changes, and who could not often amuse himself with such spectacles as the theatres or the circus offered, grew something of a solitary in his habits, and was supposed by those who did not know him intimately, to pass most of his time in religious meditation, the preface, perhaps to retirement from the world.
It is this stitching together of the imaginative lives of fictional characters with real historical events and personages that gives historical novels their strengths as works of literature. To be successful, the writer must continuously weave the fictional and the historical in order to give this imaginative world space and form. One literary mechanism that the author can use to bring this weave to a meaningful point is a crisis in the life of the hero, and here Basil’s discovery of Marcian’s treachery and the murder that follows set in motion his journey to salvation, a journey that takes Basil to St. Benedict. For at this moment, having murdered Marcian and realizing that he also hates Veranilda for perceived complicity, Basil falls spiritually and physically ill. The murder of Marcian is the crisis that raises the plot from a universal morality tale of love, jealousy and rage, into a historically rooted human experience, not of what factually did happen, but of something that could have happened at that particular period in historical time. The narrator reminds us that “in those days of pestilence, every fever-stricken person was an object of dread to all but the most loving or the most courageous.” And the most loving and courageous around whom Basil will recover are the monks of the Benedictine monastery at Cassinum. Gissing uses the crisis in his fictional hero to illuminate the good works of the Benedictines. Like his mentor Maximus at the beginning of the novel, Basil seeks solace in prayer and reflection and with the appearance of Benedict himself, he embraces spiritual wholeness through confession.
It is in the confession scene with the actual historical St. Benedict that the significance of this historical period for Gissing unfolds. When we remember that Maximus at the beginning of the novel affirmed divine love in the words of Boethius (Maximus’ favorite passage of the Consolation is from Book II, Poem 8: “Love binds together people joined by a sacred bond; love binds sacred marriages by chaste affections; love makes the laws which join true friends. O how happy the human race would be, if that love which rules the heavens ruled also your souls!”), Basil’s confession to Benedict returns the reader to this image and affirms divine love as the greatest power of engagement in the actual historical world. Benedict helps clarify Basil’s spiritual crisis by reconciling the young Roman nobleman with the new Word:
Could not all your worldly meditations preserve you from so gross an incoherence of thought and action?…In the days of old Romans knew how to subdue their own desires to the good of their country. He who, in self-seeking, wronged the State, was cast forth from its bosom. Therefore was it that Rome grew mighty, the Omnipotent fostering her for ends which the fullness of time should disclose. Such virtue had our ancestors, even though they worshipped darkly at the altars of daemons. But from that pride they fell, for their hearts were hardened; and, at length, when heathendom had wellnigh destroyed the principle whereby they waxed, God revealed Himself unto His chosen, that ancient virtue and new faith might restore the world.
With one further admonition, Benedict sends the revitalized Basil back into the world: “A little patience, a little of the calm which becomes a reasoning soul, and you might not only have saved yourself from crime, but have resolved what must now ever be a doubt to your harassed thoughts.” We see here that Benedict embodies what Russell Kirk saw in Gissing’s major works, “the premise that one follows the good because it is beautiful and wise.”
If the novel had ended with this, I believe that it would have left us with a sense of wholeness and completeness. Instead, Gissing wrote several more chapters on the Goths and the siege of Rome. We learn that Basil leaves the monastery as required and finds Veranilda who is now under the protection of King Totila. Whether or not the love that they share for each other will be mended is unknown, but what we have of this novel is a very careful and dignified study on a tumultuous period in Roman history that undoubtedly the author thought significant for the readers of his own Victorian England. At an important level, it is a story of the laying out of the “politics of prudence,” of the actions and feelings of love rightly understood. This is not the love of a restless Romantic and not the love of a pop culture figure insisting that “love is all you need.” Rather, Gissing has created a story rooted in history that cultivates the virtue of prudence, of finding the right and appropriate means to achieve the good in a world in disarray.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
 We should keep in mind, however, that the reader should not accept this uncritically, as the author and reader may fall into what Herbert Butterfield termed “the Whig interpretation of history,” the tendency to use the past to illuminate the future in such a way that it limits our understanding by leaving out the unintended consequences and complexities in the development of historical events. In other words, if winners write the history, as many often say, then winners write such that they seemingly were determined to win; “God”–or the progressive dialectic–was on their side. Losers more necessarily see history as tragedy, and tragedy urges us to reflect upon and dig deeper into the actions and purposes of character, and to recognize and accept moral and intellectual responsibility. The winner celebrates, the loser pontificates.