Fair Oaks: or, the Experiences of Arnold Osborne, M.D. (by Max Lyle, 1856).
Fair Oaks belongs to a class of novels which is very characteristic of, and almost peculiar to, the present day. It is not exactly what would be generally called a religious novel, and it is certainly not one of the commoner type. Perhaps—to put an additional burden on a much-abused word—we may call it an earnest novel. Its story seems to be constructed expressly for the purpose of flying in the face of all the common rules for writing works of fiction. The good people are all unfortunate, and the various incidents are so contrived as to involve them in every sort of vexation. Arnold Osborne, the hero, adopts the medical profession from a conviction of its great inherent nobleness. He is studying it with the utmost enthusiasm and success, when he is interrupted by his father's death from an accident. The consequence is that he is forced to renounce the prosecution of his professional education, in order to take up his father's practice for the support of his stepmother and her children. Settling in his native country town for this purpose, he is elbowed out of his business by a coarse pretender, who runs away with his patients by dint of bullying and backbiting; and he is prevented, by the faithful discharge of a series of small duties falling due at unseasonable times, from making an offer to a very charming young lady to whom he is deeply attached, until after she has engaged herself to a person who cares little for her, and who is quite incapable of understanding her merits. At this pleasing juncture the book closes, and “we leave Arnold Osborne at Fair Oaks, no great worldly success attending him—no great worldly career opening to him—a laborious profession for his daily occupation—its usefulness his reward.”
Is not this a dainty dish to set before a novel reader? The world must have become good indeed when its young men see visions and dream dreams of such a curiously sober hue. Self-sacrifice, labour, and study, for their own sakes – contempt of worldly vanities — “an earnest and faithful life” – such are Max Lyle's aspirations. What may be the translation of that pseudonym, or whether it conceals a male or a female name, we have no notion; but we feel the strongest conviction that it is the mask of a very young and inexperienced writer. Such words as “child-love,” “life-work,” “work-worth,” and others, would show this conclusively. But, besides this, the book, as we have already observed, is a typical one. A sort of calm, resigned melancholy has seized upon a large and really very estimable class of clever young men and women in the present day. It is to the Byronic form of the disease what chicken-pox is to small-pox, but it belongs to the same family. The victims of this malady are too manly and too pious to complain. They are too good for this wicked world, and they know it; but as their lot is cast here—as they have duties to do, and “brothers” to help-they will be cheerful, and even, as a point of honour, enthusiastic and interested about pursuits in which they feel that they never can succeed for want of wickedness, and which would bring them no happiness if by any strange accident they did. It is the peculiar characteristic of heroes of this description that they are always kept back by their own virtues. Arnold Osborne (the very name denotes the man) is such an admirable doctor, so devoted to his profession, such a thorough gentleman, so handsome, well-born, and well-bred, that of course he fails. What can such a man do but fail, and go to heaven for it? It is distinctly his mission to do so—Victa Catoni is his motto. It would be a vulgarity, and all but a sin, to succeed.
There is something amiable, and even respectable, in this view of life. There is a morning as well as an evening twilight, and the calm mellow conviction that all the world is a sham, and that the persecuted minority are the true salt of the earth, which writers like Max Lyle accept and clasp with meek resignation to their lacerated bosoms, belongs, we fancy, rather to the former than to the latter time of day. May we respectfully suggest that the gospel of ill-success and social martyrdom is probably false, and certainly priggish? Self-sacrifice, no doubt, is a great virtue —perhaps the greatest; but, from its very nature, it cannot be otherwise than exceptional. As a general rule, a man like Arnold Osborne will get on in the world. There is, of course, plenty of imposture in every profession, but it owes its value entirely to the fact that that which it imitates is valuable. To suppose that pretenders to knowledge and skill can permanently get the better of the real possessors of those qualifications, is like supposing that counterfeit, coins can drive good money out of circulation. If the mass of mankind are not great philosophers, neither are they absolute fools; and, in the long run, people get a not unfair price for the goods which they bring to market. We cannot persuade ourselves that either in medicine or in any other profession the best men fail. We should doubt whether Dr. Bright, Sir Benjamin Brodie, or Mr. Fergusson, were inferior to the average of general practitioners, and we should be inclined to think that it would not be easy to substitute for the fifteen judges better men chosen from the ranks of briefless barristers.
Whatever may be the merits of such questions, we are fully convinced that it is a mistake both in morals and in art to make such a career as Dr. Osborne's the subject of a novel. No one can really be encouraged in what Max Lyle would call the “battle of life” by such representations. The Suave mari magno applies to moral virtues as well as to danger. But there is no more likelihood of making a man self-denying by showing him that self-denial may be depicted in an affecting manner, than there is of making him brave by showing him that courage looks well in a novel. Such fictions tend to no higher end than that of furnishing their readers with the materials of a kind of hypocrisy rather more refined than the commoner varieties of that accomplishment. True self-denial must be learnt in a much rougher and less attractive school. We must, however, confess, that our artistic objections to novels of this class are stronger than our moral objections. It is quite bad enough to have to make sacrifices in real life, without being called upon to admire them in fictions. A novel ought to be amusing, and to enable the reader to forget his duties and the other vexations of life. It's a poor heart that never rejoices; and we do not in the least believe that a man will face duty a bit the more manfully if he is always reading about its being the greatest and most glorious thing in the world. There are certain things which it is as well to assume, and then to have done with them. “Sir,” said Johnson to Boswell, who pressed him for a solemn declaration of his friendship, “write it down in the first leaf of your pocket-book, for I can't be always repeating it;" and in the same spirit we would suggest that a writer of novels should learn his Ten Commandments and his Creed once for all, and then do his best to amuse his readers like a man. Nothing is so easy as to be solemn and unhappy. For our parts, we never read such a novel as Fair Oaks without feeling that we have been deluded into a sermon under false pretences; and we can sympathize with the reproof which Mr. Olmsted's Indians administered to the “highfeelutin" orator, who harangued them, after the manner of Fenimore Cooper, about the Great Spirit and their fathers' graves. “Why,” said these rough children of nature, “why does your chief talk to us thus? We did not come here to be preached to, we came to be made drunk and to get some tobacco and brandy.”
Saturday Review, March 21, 1857.