Monday, October 24, 2016

Light literature and the Saturday Review

Our readers are no doubt aware that a number of persons, more or less well known to the public, are giving a series of entertainments, in order to raise a fund for the family of the late Mr. Jerrold. We were attacked with considerable acrimony by the Leader last Saturday for an expression which we had used in a former number in reference to that gentleman, and for the general tone of this journal towards Mr. Dickens and other popular writers. Nothing can be more proper or more amiable than that any profession should contribute to the support of the families of such of its members as may have deserved its esteem and died in poverty, and nothing could be more ungracious than to attempt to interfere with so laudable a purpose. It does not follow, however, that whenever a celebrated man dies he is to be indiscriminately eulogized, or that every appeal to the public in behalf of his family is to be allowed to pass unchallenged. When, for a series of years, a man has been notoriously in receipt of a large income, some explanation might not unreasonably be afforded of the circumstances which render it necessary to ask for money for his survivors; for there is all the difference in the world between assisting in a work of charity and subscribing to a testimonial. It may be as necessary to combat the one as it would be unfeeling to hinder the other. It would surely be a monstrous proposition that the mere fact of a man's death is to give unlimited currency to the eulogies of his admirers, and to close the lips of those who are of another way of thinking. When the Emperor Nicholas was laid in his grave, a well-known writer did not hesitate to record a conviction that he was “the right man in the right place.” Will Mr. Jerrold's admirers maintain that such a remark was of necessity brutal? Strongly as we claim the right of criticising even those who are recently dead, if their friends gratuitously challenge public applause in their behalf, we felt that, as there was in this case a possibility of doing an injury to Mr. Jerrold's surviving relations, it was better to assume that the testimonial to him was of a charitable character, and to pass over the matter in silence; but we did not feel bound to abstain from an incidental allusion to his name when it lay full in our way. Speaking of the characteristics of a class of journalists now rapidly passing away, we observed that Mr. Jerrold was rather a favourable specimen of them, and that they were “often men of great natural talent, of some acquired literary skill, and honest enough in their detestation of our ‘existing institutions,’ but utterly uninstructed and hopelessly perverse.” In order to accuse us, with the greater convenience, of “tilting at a new-made grave,” the Leader suppresses the rest of the passage, and prints only the words which we have italicised as being a substantive description by us of Mr. Jerrold's character. This, we are further informed, is “a sneer.” Surely, it is a very odd one. It is the statement of a fact which we challenge our contemporary to deny. Can he say that Mr. Jerrold was not ignorant, or can he deny that he looked on society with a perverse and a jaundiced spirit? Even his eulogist in the Times was obliged to introduce into his praises an averment that in private life he was a more amiable man than his readers would have supposed him to be; and his biography was principally remarkable for the fact that he raised himself from a very low rank in life. That this was honourable to his talent and energy, no one can deny; but surely, as far as it goes, it confirms the impression which his writings convey, that he was “utterly uninstructed.”

We do not, however, intend to enter into a discussion on Mr. Jerrold's character. We frequently expressed our opinion of him in his lifetime, and we have nothing to retract or qualify in what we then said; but as a celebration of his virtues is made the occasion of a sort of field-day on the part of a clique of which he was a distinguished member, '' as we have been charged with much unkind and ungenerous conduct towards it, we are not unwilling to take this opportunity of stating, as clearly as we can, our position in reference to the gentlemen in question.

We are spared some trouble in the delicate task of characterising our own position by the vigorous wit of Mr. Jerrold, quoted by his eulogist. “Dogmatism,” said that eminent sage, “is puppyism come to maturity;” and the Leader adds that such is the spirit which pervades our columns. Mr. Jerrold's extensive knowledge and unperverted spirit no doubt gave peculiar weight to his sayings; and we must therefore bow to the authority of our great critic, and not presume to question what we cannot understand. The accusations directed against us by the Leader itself are more intelligible and less afflicting. They consist partly of personalities about “academic breasts” and “united brethren.” Whether the writers of this journal are so fortunate as to be on good terms with each other, and to have enjoyed the benefit of a University education, are questions which may be of some importance to themselves, but can have little interest for the public. It is, however, a little singular to find ourselves denounced for a want of literary orthodoxy by a paper which is so very liberal as the Leader upon even more serious subjects. If we are “desperate iconoclasts” for attacking “literary men,” if we “tilt blindly against the sturdiest living celebrities,” if we have a “Quixotic zeal” against “all popular literature,” we should have expected some sympathy from writers who tilt so freely against that long-established institution, the Church of England—whose zeal about a well-known work called the Bible some people may consider Quixotic—and who refuse to that very popular writer, Paul of Tarsus, an immunity from criticism which they claim so jealously for Mr. Dickens. We admire and advocate freedom of thought and expression. Let the Leader say what it pleases on politics, morals, and theology, but let it concede a similar liberty to us upon the subject of the merits of a small school of littérateurs. In his zeal for his venerable institutions, our critic is carried a little beyond the limits of truth. After taunting us with our want of faith, he gives us credit for displaying in our writings “rudiments of a more positive faith.” Having “decided over” our “port and olives” that Shakspeare is “overrated,” we “reserve,” it appears, our “honest but severely temperate enthusiasm for the gentle Erlam and the brave M’Donald, who, after the fashion of their order, loved not wisely, but too well;” and we think that the fame of Mr. Thomas Sayers and the Tipton Slasher dwarfs the reputation of Mr. Dickens and Mr. Jerrold. But all that we said about Messrs. Erlam and M’Donald was, that the ladies for whose charms they paid so dearly seemed hardly to stand in need of the protection of the law; and we never did Messrs. Sayers and Perry the injustice of comparing them to Mr. Dickens. Our charge against that gentleman is, that he makes himself a legislator and philosopher because he is an amusing writer. Messrs. Sayer and Perry would have only followed his example if, from confidence in their “peristaltic energies” and their impenetrable “conks,” they had offered their services to the Government for the suppression of the Indian mutiny. This is so far from being the case that Mr. Perry, as we understand, aspires to no higher publicity than that of the taproom. Our only object in criticising Mr. Dickens has been to lead him to form an equally just estimate of the vocation for which Nature designed him.

We must not, however, neglect the imputation cast upon us by our contemporary, of a certain heartlessness, an “absence of any very lively faith,” and a sort of aristocratic contempt for popular feeling. It is a hard task to please the Leader. First we are denounced for want of faith, and then described as “mature puppies” for having too much. First we are blamed for heartless coldness, and then for sympathizing with men who, “after the fashion of their order, loved not wisely, but too well.” No doubt people so curiously constituted as to relish the combination of “port and olives" may do strange things. Perhaps, however, it is not immaterial to give a more serious answer to the charge in question. We have a faith, and we have a sympathy for popular feeling, which may perhaps turn out in the long run to be more genuine than the flimsy rodomontades about “progress” and “the Liberal party,” which are so common in the mouths of writers whom their worst enemies cannot describe as “reserved” or “severely temperate.” We do most earnestly believe that the one nation which has reconciled law, liberty, order, and power, cannot be exhaustively distributed into knaves, fools, and literary men. We feel that whatever defects may disfigure our Government and our law—whatever anomalies in Church and State may delight the hearts of writers who are to society what rats and worms are to a ship's bottom—whatever foul scandals may be raked together for the gratification of those who think that our civilization is adequately represented by the sewage of the Old Bailey—there is not, and there probably never was, a nation in the world which more truly feared and served God, or more nobly ruled man, than that English nation of which Mr. Dickens and his admirers ridicule and revile all the most important members. Thinking so, we must of course be reserved and cautious. We do not break with the whole past history of England. We do not pique ourselves on being the sons of fools, the grandsons of jobbers, and the great-grandsons of slaves. We believe that the wonderful structure of which the present generation forms a part, has been built up by no common wisdom, by no vulgar skill; and though we recognise in it many defects and many inconveniences which it is most necessary to supply or to remove, our wish to reform and our wish to preserve are functions of each other. That in holding such views, and in combating those who ignorantly oppose reform, or who ignorantly insult the existing state of things, we are in complete sympathy with the deepest popular feeling, we are most entirely persuaded; and it will require something far stronger than the denunciations of the Leaader to induce us to abandon that conviction.

The view which we take of the school represented by Mr. Dickens and by the late Mr. Jerrold is a plain consequence from the principles that we have laid down. Nothing can be more untrue than to represent the Saturday Review as the enemy of popular literature. It is the enemy of the impertinent and unfounded assumptions of a particular clique of popular writers; but that is a very different thing. It is as false to say that we “pooh-pooh” Mr. (we do not think that a man forfeits the ordinary civilities of society by writing books) “Thackeray,” as to say that we consider Shakspeare overrated. We certainly did not think that it was very patriotic to lecture in the United States on the weaknesses of English kings, at the very time when England was engaged in a desperate war; but of Mr. Thackeray's genius, and of the general tone of his books, we have uniformly spoken in terms of the very highest praise. It is equally untrue that popular writers or performers, as such, are the object of our attacks. It appears from the article to which we are referring, that Mr. Robson, Mr. Albert Smith, Miss Dolby, and Mr. Weiss took part in a concert given in remembrance of Mr. Jerrold. Did we ever say a word against any one of these persons? We have, on the contrary, the greatest admiration for Mr. Robson's extraordinary talents as a comic actor, and for the great ability, great kindliness, and strong good sense which distinguish Mr. Albert Smith. The very highest genius may be displayed by novelists or by actors, and nothing could be more illiberal than to depreciate the value of the less distinguished members of that knot of callings of which the proper object is the amusement of the public. Our quarrel with Mr. Dickens is a very limited one. That he is a man of great talent we freely admit; that there is, in our opinion at least, great epigrammatic force and humorous quaintness in some of his expressions, is conclusively proved by the frequency with which we quote him. We have never denied even Mr. Jerrold's talents; but that which we feel to be little less than a crime is, that because a man has great power of language and a lively fancy, he should consider himself at liberty to lay down the law upon the most important subjects. We wish for nothing better than to show these writers what discredit they do to their own calling. If a novelist cannot rest unless he writes about politics, he says, in effect, that novel writing is beneath him—he excites a suspicion that he is dissatisfied with his calling, and is itching to show that, if he had chosen, he could have made a figure in the more regularly constituted walks of life. The business of professional writers of light literature is to amuse the public, but they seem to shrink from such a conclusion as being unwelcome and degrading. The feeling is perfectly intelligible. There is no harm in being a pastrycook—a man may choose it, because he is fit for it; but if the motive of his choice is a boyish greediness, he will find, when he comes to be an ambitious man, that it does not exactly satisfy his aspirations. If, however, a sensible person were involved in such an occupation, he would show his sense by making the best of it, and devoting all the attention in his power to his ovens and his stew-pans; and if, like the Prince in The Arabian Nights, he happened to make his fortune by his cream tarts, he would feel the impropriety of immediately proceeding to assert his native superiority to persons of a higher conventional rank by scarifying the Lord Chief Justice in gilt gingerbread caricatures, or handing down the Prime Minister to infamy in cleverly-devised shapes of blancmange. A very little experience would show him that, in the case of persons in his position, an attempt to adopt as a motto ridentes dicere verum generally ends in very questionable truth and very sorrowful mirth.

The sort of conclusions in which Mr. Dickens and other writers of his school are landed by the recklessness with which they write, form a curious commentary on the Leader's complaint, that we are destitute of “a very lively faith.” Mr. Dickens’s faith is lively enough, no doubt; but how does the Leader like it? It seems, in morals and theology, to consist of a sort of happy-go-lucky notion that everything is all right all round, and that—except a few melodramatic villains who are wanted as foils for the rest—this world is peopled by a number of rather grotesque, but exquisitely-luscious incarnate virtues, and the next by a bevy of glorified opera dancers, who have no better occupation than that of petting their earthly con at he is a man of great talent glorified opera dancers, who have no better occupation than that of petting their earthly congeners here and hereafter. How far this is to the taste of our contemporary we do not profess to know, but how does he like Mr. Dickens's politics? “I’m all for law and order, and hurrah for a revolution,” said the Rugby boy, who was unlawfully fagged; and Mr. Dickens and his admirer might well respectively adopt the halves of that remarkable sentiment. Mr. Dickens's only tangible complaint against the Circumlocution Office is that it is not conducted on Russian principles; and the Leader has “a lively faith" in the virtues of a democracy. Perhaps the sentimental novelist and the faithful journalist are not so far apart, after all. Like most realities, English society and politics are dull enough to dreamers and enthusiasts. The common-place official, whose conduct is strictly tied down by fixed rule—the unpaid magistrate, who is only an ordinary country squire or rich retired tradesman—the lawyer, who never appeals to first principles—the judge, who does not administer poetical justice—are to such persons, flat, stale, and unprofitable. Those who so cordially despise their country are generally the victims of a sort of political Byronism. Just as a romantic young lady scorns the meek curate and the trim apothecary, and fixes her affections upon some ideal Lara, with raven locks, jewelled turban, and a cynical sneer on his chiselled lips, these gentlemen daintily turn away from circumlocution and precedent to cast a languishing eye upon Russia on the one hand, or the United States on the other. And just as the romantic girl, if her wish were gratified, would find that Lara smoked in bed, swore at dinner, ran away from the bailiffs, and ended at the hulks, so Mr. Dickens would find that his efficient Russian friend's first act would be to bind him hand and foot in red tape, and to sequester him, carefully labelled, and most methodically classified, in some official pigeon-hole, where Esther Summerson might fret her heart out in vain about the Court of Chancery, and Mr. Doyce would have to stifle his virtuous indignation if a Russian circumlocutionist thought fit “not to do it.” If, on the other hand, we were to give way to a kindred, though in form, a contradictory enthusiasm, writers of an ardent temperament would perhaps find, in the spectacle of a civil war between the Recorder and the Lord Mayor, excited by the question whether Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones should water Ludgate-hill—or in the vagaries of Hardshells intent upon hanging one set of editors, or in those of Hunkers, who might prefer to tar-and-feather another-materials for reflections upon our civilization which would excuse them from the uncongenial duty of raking the kennel and the cesspool in order to arrive at a just estimate of the society in which they live.

The Leader favours us with a definition of Dogmatism. Will it accept from us a description of “Puppyism come to maturity?” When a mere lad discovers in himself great power of fancy, great humour, great facility of language, and employs them, amongst other things, in melodramatic descriptions of the evils of a real abuse, or in harmlessly exaggerated caricatures of a court of law, we can admire his genius, and forgive or enjoy the liberties which he takes with our understanding. But when the clever youth, developing his powers by constant exercise, becomes beyond all comparison the most popular, and one of the most influential, writers of the day, and when, intoxicated by success, he thinks it his duty to run a tilt at institutions of which he knows nothing, and to claim to be the regenerator, because he is the most distinguished buffoon, of society—when in this he is abetted by a crowd of writers like himself, who think that white paint and a cap and bells are the proper costume for legislators, and that, because a man can make silly women cry, he can dictate the principles of law and government to grown men —such a person and his followers appear to us to afford the strongest of all illustrations of that which Mr. Jerrold considered a synonym for dogmatism.

Saturday Review, July 11, 1857.

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