Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Minister's Wooing

The special gift which appears to belong to particular writers of obtaining for their works what the French call a " mad success" is not a high one. The books which are read in every family and sold on every book-stall, which furnish popular platform speakers with half their arguments and all their illustrations, and which convert the author or authoress into the lion of the season, have seldom much substance; or, if they have, it is not to their substance, but to their popular defects that the rage for them is owing. The reason of this probably is, that the region of the mind to which such books address themselves is that which lies uppermost, and which has least permanence about it. In such cases, thousands of amiable and communicative people are ready to say, "my own sentiments better expressed; " and as they like to get an excuse for talking about their sentiments, they find one in praising the book and the authors by whose means their wish has been humoured. It is not, however, by standing on the same level with the rest of mankind, and repeating their transient commonplaces in a piquant style that works of permanent importance are written. An author who looks beyond money and popularity must be, to some extent, in advance of his neighbours. Indeed, he is inexcusable if he is not, for it is his business to think, and theirs to act; so that, if his thoughts are not better worth having than theirs, he must be incapable of thinking to any purpose. A real work of art is not to be understood at a moment's notice. It will grow upon the world, and educate the minds of the public at large to appreciate its beauty, and will thus have a sounder and more lasting popularity a few years after its production than it had at first.

For these reasons little sympathy was due to the extravagant admiration which Uncle Tom's Cabin excited here and in America; nor need any one be surprised at the fact that its popularity, like that of any other party pamphlet, has been as short-lived as it was extensive. The goodness and vice which ran down in unctuous streams from Uncle Tom, Eva, and Legree, were enough to make any one revolt against the book; and the same result was produced even more strongly by the egregious and scandalous injustice which always attends the argumentum ad misericordiam. The fact that Mrs. Stowe could describe the flogging to death of an old black in an affecting manner proved nothing whatever as to the general character and results of slavery. Mr. Olmsted's Travels were as much superior to Uncle Tom in real importance, as evidence upon the subject of slavery, as they were inferior in accidental importance. To excite the prejudices of a well-dressed mob against an abuse generally acknowledged to be one, may be occasionally useful, but is always in a high degree contemptible. To use novels as weapons of attack or defence is like giving foul blows in boxing. You may disable your antagonist, but you degrade yourself, and doubly degrade the supporters who applaud you.

The Minister's Wooing gives a fair specimen of Mrs. Stowe's real intrinsic power when she is not writing as a partisan, and it shows clearly enough that the impression which she made by her first book was due far more to the speaking-trumpet than to the voice. The story is intended to illustrate the manners and character of the New Englanders—of the generation which achieved the Independence of America, especially in reference to the Puritanical leaven which was deeply worked into their characters. Two, at least, of the persons introduced are alleged to be historical characters. They are Colonel Aaron Burr, who was well-known in American politics at the beginning of the present century, and a certain Dr. Hopkins, whom Mrs. Stowe speaks of with profound reverence as the author of theological books of a singular character, and which, she seems to imply, are still popular amongst certain sections of the inhabitants of New England. The story itself is a mere amplification of the oldest of all the commonplaces of fiction. Dr. Hopkins lives in the house of a certain Widow Scudder, who has a very pretty and piou3 daughter. The daughter is in love with a rather wild young cousin. The cousin—a sailor—goes to sea, and is supposed to be lost. On the supposition of his death, the girl is about to be married to Dr. Hopkins; but at the critical moment the sailor comes to life again. Dr. Hopkins absolves his bride from her engagement, and James and Mary marry, and live happily ever after.

The real point of the book, as far as it has one, is, that it claims to give a picture of the practical results of extreme Calvinism in active life; and in this point of view it has a certain interest, though not a healthy one. The chief figure in the book is Dr. Hopkins, the divine, and its most remarkable feature consists in descriptions of the way in which his teaching practically affected various classes of hearers. The character of his doctrine is stated by Mrs. Stowe, as follows:—
"According to any views then entertained of the evidences of a true regeneration, the number of the whole human race who could be supposed as yet to have received this grace was so small that, as to any numerical valuation, it must have been expressed by an infinitesimal. Dr. Hopkins in many places distinctly recognizes the fact that the greater part of the human race up to his time had been eternally lost, and boldly assumes the ground that this amount of sin and suffering, being the best and most necessary means of the greatest final amount of happiness, was not merely permitted, but distinctly chosen, desired, and provided for, as essential in the schemes of Infinite Benevolence. He held that this decree not only permitted each individual act of sin, but also took measures to make it certain, though, by an exercise of infinite skill, it accomplished this result without violating human free agency Dr. Hopkins boldly asserts that all the use which God will have for them (the damned) is to suffer. This is all the end they can answer; therefore, all their faculties, and their whole capacities, will be employed and used for this end The body can by Omnipotence be made capable of suffering the greatest imaginable pain without producing dissolution, or abating the least degree of life or sensibility One way in which God will show his power in the punishment of the wicked will be in strengthening and upholding their bodies and souls in torments which would otherwise be intolerable."
It was one principal evidence of a regenerate disposition to be able to acquiesce in this as the best possible arrangement. The men who preached these doctrines were eminent (Mrs. Stowe says) for their holiness and virtue, and were so far from being insensible to the horror of what they preached that their lives were bowed down and burdened by the intolerable agony of believing their own theories. Their doctrines, she says, exercised such an influence over the minds of the society in which they lived that they were the common subject of discussion by all classes of men and women on all occasions. The farmers talked them over at their work, their wives at the tea-table, and their servants at the plough-tail. The Minister's Wooing aims at depicting this, and, accordingly, we have portraits of members of all sorts of classes under the pressure of Dr. Hopkins's theory of Disinterested Benevolence. The tender, pious, susceptible girl who has lost her lover; the imaginative mother who has lost her son; the shrewd, clever, managing widow who looks after her own and her daughter's salvation with the same keenness as she shows in managing her house; the meek little farmer who, whilst a pattern of every form of self-denying virtue, passes through the world groaning and trembling because he cannot come up to his minister's standard; his fat, sleepy wife, who rather enjoys being harrowed up into a momentary excitement; and his high-spirited daughter, who accepts her position as one of the wicked, and makes the best of it as cheerfully as she can; are all depicted in turn, with considerable skill, as illustrations of the effects which the very highest form of High Calvinism would produce upon different specimens of the population of New England.

Mrs. Stowe occasionally appears to be struck with the reflection that she has chosen a strange subject for a novel, and she apologizes for it by saying that she could not have drawn a picture of New England as it was without giving theology its due prominence. The conclusion appears to be that she should have held her peace altogether. There really are some subjects which are too solemn for novelists, strange as such an opinion may appear. Of the many gross outrages on decency which have been perpetrated by French writers, none was so gross as the adaptation of the history of the Crucifixion to the exigencies of the feuilleton. But though there is, of course, an infinite difference in degree, and probably hardly less difference in execution, the principle of the Minister's Wooing is precisely the same. To some persons, Dr. Hopkins's opinions may probably appear to be eternal truth; to others, they may appear—as a much less energetic version of them appeared to Wesley —" blasphemy to make the ears of a Christian to tingle," and a justification for a call to the devils to rejoice, and to death and hell to triumph. Mrs. Stowe appears, to judge from her book, to incline to the former view. It is, indeed, true that, with that shuffling timidity which is the characteristic vice of novelists, she does not commit herself to anything, but talks about it and about it—putting Dr. Hopkins and his views in all sorts of positions, looking at them under every possible aspect, contrasting them with the activity of one person, the apathy of another, and the commonplace vulgarity of a third, with that effectiveness which any one may obtain who does not shrink from peeping and botanizing upon their fathers' graves. Whatever may have been the true value of the works of Jonathan Edwards and Dr. Hopkins, a religious novelist owed them more respect than Mrs. Stowe has shown. The themes on which they wrote were far too awful for a novelist. The only question about them which can interest any rational creature is, whether they are true or false. The only circumstance respecting them on which a novel can throw any light is their relation to common life.

Now, every one admits that the average tone and temper of every-day existence is not our ultimate rule—that if theology is worth anything at all, it must form the rule and guide of our daily lives, instead of being guided by them; and, therefore, a novel which (as all novels must) takes daily life as its standing ground, and shows how it is related to theology, has no tendency whatever to show the truth or falsehood of the theological doctrines which it describes. In so far as Mrs. Stowe's book can be said to have any moral at all, it is that we ought to keep our minds in a sort of hazy devotional warmth, and hope for the best, and that any consistent or explicit theological belief upon the great topics which form the basis of theology is self-condemned. The semi-conscious approach to a cross between a sentiment and an opinion which appears to form the premiss of the book, is that no theological opinions are true which are either un-Calvinistical or very unpleasant; and that, as most Calvinistical doctrines are extremely unpleasant, and involve the damnation of a great many agreeable people, the mind ought to be kept floating in a sort of tincture of Calvinism which, if it ever were reduced to definite statements of any kind, might perhaps turn out not to be as bad as might be expected.

This is as near an approach to a moral as Mrs. Stowe's book will yield. It would be rash to offer it with confidence, or to contend that she is any way committed to the proposition (if it is one). Such as it is, however, it furnishes an admirable illustration of the truth of the assertion that novels on serious subjects are the curse of serious thought. The difficulty of serious reflection upon any subject, and especially on theological subjects, is incalculably increased by those who overlay the essential parts of the question with a mass of irrelevant matter, which can have no other effect than to prejudice the feelings in one direction or another. If there is ground to believe that agreeable people really will be damned, the probability or improbability of that opinion will not be affected in the remotest degree by setting before the world minute pictures of these agreeable people, and by asking pathetically whether it is really meant that such a fate can overtake men and women who laugh and joke, and eat their dinners, and make love, and enjoy themselves like all the rest of the world. Of course, no one doubts that, if it is true, it is a great pity. The only question which reasonable people can ask with any interest is whether it is true. Temporal punishments are often remarked upon in the same style. M. Hugo, for example, in the Dernier Jour d'un Condamné, counted out the minutes of a man who was to be guillotined, and described in endless detail every separate sensation attending that condition. The inference suggested (of course, it was not drawn) was that society did not know what it meant by condemning a man to death; and that, if it did know, capital punishments would be abolished. The true inference was altogether the other way. People knew in general that it was very unpleasant to be guillotined, and they meant it to be so. The particular items which made up the total were quite immaterial, and M. Hugo's book was accordingly as much beside the mark at which he aimed as Mrs. Stowe's book is beside any mark whatever of a doctrinal kind.

It may be urged that the Ministers Wooing is merely a picture of a state of society, and that the authoress was not bound to do more than to paint it truly. But this is false in fact; for it is full of rich vague hints at argument as have just been described. And, besides this, the argument is bad in principle, for the book undoubtedly does produce an impression very unfavourable to Calvinism; and though that system is one which is open to observation it ought not to be attacked upon irrelevant grounds. Any one who describes things heartily and vividly takes up, for the time, the position described. By giving all the details of the eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, which was going on in New England notwithstanding Dr. Hopkins and his Disinterested Benevolence—by throwing what she has to say into the form of a novel, and by winding up the story with a happy marriage—Mrs. Stowe virtually adopts the cheerful view of life, and rejects the awful one; and the only approach to a justification for this which the book contains is that the awful view is unpleasant. It is impossible not to resent this. Whatever may be asserted to the contrary, the fundamental beliefs upon which all human conduct proceeds do not depend upon inclination, but on conviction; and there is hardly any more urgent necessity for men or nations than that those fundamental convictions should rest upon grounds which, if they do not exclude doubt, at any rate show what is doubtful and what is not—what is light and what is darkness. Whether there is a God—whether we can anme respecting his character from any data except those which revelation supplies—whether there is any revelation at all, and if so, what are its limits, and what its interpretation—are the overwhelming questions on which hangs all human life. To these Dr. Hopkins and Jonathan Edwards gave one set of answers. Others would give very different ones, but it is by those only who can discuss these subjects upon those terms that either Calvinism or any other creed whatever can be properly criticised. To make any step towards the discovery of the truth upon these matters is the most important, as it is the most awful, enterprise which any man can propose to himself; and it is impossible not to feel a strong sense of indignation against those who nibble at such questions, gossip about them, and, as far as their influence extends, try to substitute for the adamantine foundations on 'which any genuine faith must rest the mere shifting sand and mud of personal sentiment and inclination.

If the real drift of theological novels is extracted and thrown into plain words, its irreverence is horrible. In the present work there is a certain Priscilla, or as she is always called, Miss Prissy, a dressmaker, who is always in a little fuss about dresses and weddings. She is always bustling about with silks and satins— talking, laughing, and gossiping in a harmless lively manner. This woman, amongst others, is brought within the shadow of Dr. Hopkins and his theories; and the suggestion whenever she comes upon the stage is, " It is impossible that Dr. Hopkins's theories about eternal damnation should be true, for it would be very odd and incongruous if Miss Prissy were to he damned." The suggestion is unfair, and its indirectness makes it worse. No one doubts that an average human mind would see great incongruity and oddity in such an event; but the question is, whether, and to what extent, average human notions of congruity and singularity may be relied upon for the purpose of testing the truth of statements as to the operations of the divine mind. Upon that point Mrs. Stowe would have a right to be heard if she had anything to say; but till it is decided, it is not only premature, but irreverent and unfeeling, to introduce the subordinate question.

The gospel of vagueness and sentiment has obtained a miserable currency in these times. We think that the sea will never come, the waves never beat, the floods never rage again, and we accordingly build our houses on the sand. This is a great evil; for even if it be true that society is so firmly organized that we have got to the end of those trials which search the heart and reins—if we have secured for ourselves and our heirs for ever that fair chance of being comfortable, provided we are industrious, which may be roughly taken as the meaning of the phrases "civilization" and "social progress,"—it is still not the less important that our mental foundations should be firmly settled. We have still got to live, to marry, to educate children, to discharge some duty in life, and, after all, to die, and go we know not where; and there is something infinitely contemptible in doing all this in a blind, helpless, drifting way, with nothing to guide us but a strange hash of inclinations and traditions. If any spectacle can be sadder than this, it is that of clever, ingenious people who pass their lives in gossiping about the great principles in which their forefathers really did believe, and by believing in which they purchased for their children the inestimable privilege of being able, without conscious inconvenience, to do without any principles at all, and to pass their time in prattling over incongruities between their practice and the small remnant of their theories. The Great Eastern,or some of her successors, will perhaps defy the roll of the Atlantic, and cross the seas without allowing their passengers to feel that they have left the firm land. The voyage from the cradle to the grave may come to be performed with similar facility. Progress and science may, perhaps, enable untold millions to live and die without a care, without a pang, without an anxiety. They will have a pleasant passage, and plenty of brilliant conversation. They will wonder that men ever believed at all in clanging fights, and blazing towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands; and, when they come to the end of their course, they will go their way, and the place thereof will know them no more. But it seems unlikely that they will have such a knowledge of the great ocean on which they sail, with its storms and wrecks, its currents and icebergs, its huge waves and mighty winds, as those who battled with it for years together in the little craft, which, if they had few other merits, brought those who navigated them full into the presence of time and eternity, their Maker and themselves, and forced them to have some definite views of their relations to them and to each other.

Saturday Review, October 22, 1859.

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