Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
Introduction to the Imperial Edition
It was in the winter of 1892, when on a visit to French Canada, that I made up my mind I would write the volume which the public knows as 'The Seats of the Mighty,' but I did not begin the composition until early in 1894. It was finished by the beginning of February, 1895, and began to appear in 'The Atlantic Monthly' in March of that year. It was not my first attempt at historical fiction, because I had written 'The Trail of the Sword' in the year 1893, but it was the first effort on an ambitious scale, and the writing of it was attended with as much searching of heart as enthusiasm. I had long been saturated by the early history of French Canada, as perhaps 'The Trail of the Sword' bore witness, and particularly of the period of the Conquest, and I longed for a subject which would, in effect, compel me to write; for I have strong views upon this business of compulsion in the mind of the writer. Unless a thing has seized a man, has obsessed him, and he feels that it excludes all other temptations to his talent or his genius, his book will not convince. Before all else he must himself be overpowered by the insistence of his subject, then intoxicated with his idea, and, being still possessed, become master of his material while remaining the slave of his subject. I believe that every book which has taken hold of the public has represented a kind of self-hypnotism on the part of the writer. I am further convinced that the book which absorbs the author, which possesses him as he writes it, has the effect of isolating him into an atmosphere which is not sleep, and which is not absolute wakefulness, but a place between the two, where the working world is indistinct and the mind is swept along a flood submerging the self-conscious but not drowning into unconsciousness.
Such, at any rate, is my own experience. I am convinced that the books of mine which have had so many friends as this book, 'The Seats of the Mighty', has had in the English-speaking world were written in just such conditions of temperamental isolation or absorption. First the subject, which must of itself have driving power, then the main character, which becomes a law working out its own destiny; and the subject in my own work has always been translatable into a phrase. Nearly every one of my books has always been reducible to its title.
For years I had wished to write an historical novel of the conquest of Canada or the settlement of the United Empire loyalists and the subsequent War of 1812, but the central idea and the central character had not come to me; and without both and the driving power of a big idea and of a big character, a book did not seem to me possible. The human thing with the grip of real life was necessary. At last, as pointed out in the prefatory note of the first edition, published in the spring of 1896 by Messrs. D. Appleton & Co., of New York, and Messrs. Methuen & Co., of London, I ran across a tiny little volume in the library of Mr. George M. Fairchild, Jr., of Quebec, called the Memoirs of Major Robert Stobo. It was published by John S. Davidson, of Market Street, Pittsburgh, with an introduction by an editor who signed himself "N. B.C."
The Memoirs proper contained about seventeen thousand words, the remaining three thousand words being made up of abstracts and appendices collected by the editor. The narrative was written in a very ornate and grandiloquent style, but the hero of the memoirs was so evidently a man of remarkable character, enterprise and adventure, that I saw in the few scattered bones of the story which he unfolded the skeleton of an ample historical romance. There was necessary to offset this buoyant and courageous Scotsman, adventurous and experienced, a character of the race which captured him and held him in leash till just before the taking of Quebec. I therefore found in the character of Doltaire--which was the character of Voltaire spelled with a big D--purely a creature of the imagination, one who, as the son of a peasant woman and Louis XV, should be an effective offset to Major Stobo. There was no hint of Doltaire in the Memoirs. There could not be, nor of the plot on which the story was based, because it was all imagination. Likewise, there was no mention of Alixe Duvarney in the Memoirs, nor of Bigot or Madame Cournal and all the others. They too, when not characters of the imagination, were lifted out of the history of the time; but the first germ of the story came from 'The Memoirs of Robert Stobo', and when 'The Seats of the Mighty' was first published in 'The Atlantic Monthly' the subtitle contained these words: "Being the Memoirs of Captain Robert Stobo, sometime an officer in the Virginia Regiment, and afterwards of Amherst's Regiment."
When the book was published, however, I changed the name of Robert Stobo to Robert Moray, because I felt I had no right to saddle Robert Stobo's name with all the incidents and experiences and strange enterprises which the novel contained. I did not know then that perhaps it might be considered an honour by Robert Stobo's descendants to have his name retained. I could not foresee the extraordinary popularity of 'The Seats of the Mighty', but with what I thought was a sense of honour I eliminated his name and changed it to Robert Moray. 'The Seats of the Mighty' goes on, I am happy to say, with an ever-increasing number of friends. It has a position perhaps not wholly deserved, but it has crystallised some elements in the life of the continent of America, the history of France and England, and of the British Empire which may serve here and there to inspire the love of things done for the sake of a nation rather than for the welfare of an individual.
I began this introduction by saying that the book was started in the summer of 1894. That was at a little place called Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England. For several months I worked in absolute seclusion in that out-of-the-way spot which had not then become a Mecca for trippers, and on the wonderful sands, stretching for miles upon miles coastwise and here and there as much as a mile out to the sea, I tried to live over again the days of Wolfe and Montcalm. Appropriately enough the book was begun in a hotel at Mablethorpe called "The Book in Hand." The name was got, I believe, from the fact that, in a far-off day, a ship was wrecked upon the coast at Mablethorpe, and the only person saved was the captain, who came ashore with a Bible in his hands. During the writing now and again a friend would come to me from London or elsewhere, and there would be a day off, full of literary tattle, but immediately my friends were gone I was lost again in the atmosphere of the middle of the eighteenth century.
I stayed at Mablethorpe until the late autumn, and then I went to Harrogate, exchanging the sea for the moors, and there, still living the open-air life, I remained for several months until I had finished the book. The writing of it knew no interruption and was happily set. It was a thing apart, and not a single untoward invasion of other interests affected its course.
The title of the book was for long a trouble to me. Months went by before I could find what I wanted. Scores of titles occurred to me, but each was rejected. At last, one day when I was being visited by Mr. Grant Richards, since then a London publisher, but at that time a writer, who had come to interview me for 'Great Thoughts', I told him of my difficulties regarding the title. I was saying that I felt the title should be, as it were, the kernel of a book. I said: "You see, it is a struggle of one simple girl against principalities and powers; it is the final conquest of the good over the great. In other words, the book will be an illustration of the text, 'He has put down the mighty from their seats, and has exalted the humble and meek.'" Then, like a flash, the title came 'The Seats of the Mighty'.
Since the phrase has gone into the language and was from the very first a popular title, it seems strange that the literary director of the American firm that published the book should take strong exception to it on the ground that it was grandiloquent. I like to think that I was firm, and that I declined to change the title.
I need say no more save that the book was dramatised by myself, and produced, first at Washington by Herbert (now Sir Herbert) Beerbohm Tree in the winter of 1897 and 1898, and in the spring of 1898 it opened his new theatre in London.