Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Pure Literature

Review of:
Sunday at Home (by the Religious Tract Society)

Not very long ago, some good people scandalized at the enormous circulation of the weekly newspapers and magazines, which constitute so important a part of the reading of the poor, formed a “Society for the Diffusion of Pure Literature,” with the view of supplanting the papers which they considered objectionable by publications of a useful, or at any rate of a harmless, character. We are unable to say how far their operations have been successful, but the character of the publications which they circulate throws a curious light upon the mental condition of one of the most influential classes of English society—that great class which petitions Parliament against “secularizing the Sabbath," and which, during the present month, will supply the public with a counter-attraction to theatres and illuminations, in the shape of meetings at Exeter Hall. The most common complaint brought against the party in question by those who do not belong to it is, that besides the ordinary classification of human actions and affairs into right and wrong, and good and bad, they have introduced another division, most perplexing, and yet in their eyes vitally important,--the division into religious and secular. They form, say their critics, a sort of State within the State, having their own laws, their own traditions, their own standards of honour and expediency. Each of them is a citizen of two countries.  In his ordinary life, he is a merchant, a lawyer, or a country gentleman, acting, as far as the world around him can judge, much like his neighbours; but he has another life besides this, into which he retires on certain occasions, particularly on Sundays, and which has its own arrangements, quite distinct from those of the common world in which the greater part of his time is passed. As in his worldly capacity he has his ambition, his business, and his pleasure, so in his religious capacity he has his hopes, his devotions, and his relaxations. He must, it is true, have his “religion in common life”— that is, he must bring the one set of feelings to bear upon the other—he must have his sabbatical hour in every day, his sabbatical minute in every hour. But whatever relative importance he may attach to his two lives--however they may influence each other—they are in a thousand ways shown to be essentially distinct. Such a distinction, say the thinkers to whom we refer, is, in effect, an attempt to serve God and Mammon, and has a direct tendency to confound the difference between good and evil, and to overthrow all honesty and plain dealing in the common affairs of life. Such imputations are, of course, indignantly repelled. The distinction is affirmed to exist only in the mind of the critic, and the writings of the most eminent doctors, and the lives of the most distinguished leaders of the party are referred to as conclusive evidence of the falsehood of the charge. It is no part of our duty to go into the question. No doubt the temptation to which the Evangelical party is said to have yielded is one to which human nature is very liable; and it is equally certain that many writings might be quoted, and many actions referred to, which are, to say the least, quite inconsistent with the truth of the accusation, as against some of the most distinguished members of the party. As, however, it is one to which few people would wish to plead guilty, we shall, we think, be doing a service to the Society which we have mentioned, by pointing out to them how curiously the publications which they use every effort to circulate, confirm it.

Perhaps the strongest point in the case against the Evangelical party is their alleged view of the proper employment of Sunday. Not only do they teach that you must not work, and that you ought to perform various devotional exercises on that day—in which all Christians would agree with them—but they add that you must have a set of Sunday feelings and habits quite different from those which are fit for week-days. There must be not only Sunday clothes, but “Sunday books,” Sunday amusements, Sunday music, Sunday conversation. You may go to church twice a day, you may pass hours in private prayer, you may scrupulously abstain from your ordinary avocations; but if you read a novel, if you allow your daughter to play a polka, or your sons to go out rowing or skating, you are rather worse than if you had only gone to church once, and had passed the rest of the day in a half-conscious endeavour to read Sunday books. This distinction is unintelligible to many minds. We know, they say, what you mean by rest—we know what you mean by prayer, but we are utterly unable to conceive what you mean by “worldly.” It is with some curiosity to see how this question is answered that we turn to two the Leisure Hour, intended for week-day amusement, and the Sunday at Home, “a family magazine for Sabbath reading,” both published by the Religious Tract Society, and both extensively circulated by the Society for the Diffusion of Pure Literature.

Of the Leisure Hour we have little to say. It is a weekly penny magazine, published every Thursday, and occupying a position equi-distant between the London Journal and Household Words. Every number is embellished with a wood-cut intended to compete with the attractions of those which illustrate the works of Mr. Reynolds and Mr. J. F. Smith; and the letter-press consists chiefly of more or less amusing, and sometimes curious papers on Bells, the Zoological Gardens, a Decimal Coinage, Potatoes, and other matters. The only peculiarity by which the “religious” character of the journal could be discovered is the insertion at the end of each number of a few short passages under such titles as Realities to Come, Momentous Enquiries, or an Anecdote of Felix Neff.

The Sunday at Home is much more curious, and would certainly seem to bear out the notion that its managers consider some things sacred and other things profane—some religious and others secular—without the smallest reference to any but the most arbitrary conventional rule. Except upon this hypothesis, it is impossible to understand the views of its authors as to what you may and what you may not read on a Sunday. For example, many people would think it wrong to read novels on that day; but in The Sunday at Home for April, besides several minor tales, there are four chapters of a novel, called The Adventures of a Pocket-Bible. We are told how the autobiographer —which, by the way, is so strangely personified as to be made, when nearly worn out, to say, “I could not but be conscious that my term of earthly service in the cause of my Great Master was approaching its appointed end"—fell into the hands of “a nameless owner,” whose “dark and brooding imagination was concealed by a smiling countenance,” and who, as a providential punishment for infidelity, lost his child, and got transported—how it afterwards was sold to a bookseller (feebly imitated from Mackaye in Alton Locke), who gave it to a factory hand, who took it to an infidel lecture, where at present the matter rests. The story seems to us unfair, uncharitable, and presumptuous; but this is not our point. We wish to know why, if it is right to read The Adventures of a Pocket-Bible on a Sunday, it is wrong to read any novel on that day which it is not wrong to read on a week-day ? It may be said that it contains a great deal of theology; but so do every one of Mr. Kingsley's or of Miss Young's stories; and if these are admitted, how are we to exclude Walter Scott, or even Mr. James?

The Sunday at Home suggests a great many questions of this kind. Are books of Natural History proper for Sunday reading? We know many families in which Buffon or Goldsmith would be tabooed on that day; yet we find the Religious Tract Society publishing an Account of Crocodiles, illustrated by pictures, and full of references to Waterton's Wanderings, and “the celebrated traveller, Dr. RĂ¼ppell.” The justification for this is, that the crocodile is the leviathan of Job, and that the 41st chapter of that book describes him. This principle would certainly enlarge the sphere of “Sunday, books” very considerably. Job describes the war horse as well as the leviathan. Would this circumstance let in Captain Nolan's book on Cavalry? In another number, the Sunday at Home gives a long account of the burning mountain of Hawaii or Owhyhee, on the strength of its having been worshipped by the natives, who were converted to Christianity by the missionaries. Taking this test, there is hardly any subject which is unfit for Sunday reading. At one time all nations were heathen, and had sacred places of one kind or another. Stonehenge, Delphi, and Irminsul, have been the subjects of books enough to occupy plenty of "leisure hours." Are all of these “Sunday books?” And how is the selection to be made? Questions like these might be multiplied indefinitely. The Sunday at Home is full of biographies, historical essays, and antiquarian inquiries, which seem to have no connecting link whatever, except the circumstance that, in some way or other, they relate to something in the Bible; and if whatever can be considered as illustrating the Bible, or its effects upon the human heart and actions, may legitimately be read on a Sunday, there is probably nothing, from Gibbon to Coke upon Littleton, which may not.

The Sunday at Home appears to us a reductio ad absurdum of one of the most curiously characteristic superstitions which ever distorted and perverted a great truth. It is not our part to inquire into the nature or the origin of the obligations connected with the observance of Sunday, but we feel deeply convinced that its real value will never be understood until its positive and definite character is recognised. Without periodical rest and periodical worship, rich and poor would alike soon become mere slaves to money; but we do not think that either of these great blessings will be fully enjoyed so long as the broad doctrine of a weekly religious festival is obscured by an ill-defined Judaical sentiment about the divine obligation of certain conventional restraints, or by a Manichaean horror of all the common interests of life, as being tainted with some fundamental impurity.

The literary merit of the Sunday at Home and of the Leisure Hour affords a curious proof of the degree in which the power of relishing homely things is destroyed by the sickly feeling that common life is not good enough for Sunday, unless it is described in an unfamiliar phraseology, sprinkled with technical reflections. The Sunday at Home contains a set of “Pages for the Young,” and “Mental Scenes and Pictures,” which appear to us the most morbid self-conscious strainings after self-righteousness that we ever read. We should not wish a child of ours to pass his Sunday in reading fairy tales or playing at cricket, but we had far sooner see him so employed than have him read and relish such flabby irreverence as the following:--
‘The Child-prophet of Shiloh.—Chapter iii. The Mysterious Voice:— Once more, then, the agitated child seeks his couch, but not to sleep. The supernatural character of these occurrences has banished every disposition to slumber. His mind, like his eye, is wide awake as he sinks into the posture of repose. Eagerly he listens to catch the accents of the Divine voice, should it again deign to address him. In the tomb-like hush of the night every sound is audible. Now it is the tread of the watchman, as on his rounds he draws near to the tabernacle; then it is the sighing of the night-breeze; and, again, it is the bleating of sheep coming up from the adjoining pastures. At last, with a clearness that leaves not the shadow of a doubt upon his mind, he hears his own name again pronounced—“Samuel, Samuel!”’
In one of the “mental pictures,” children are called upon to realize the Virgin Mary to themselves as “a young female of prepossessing appearance, gazing at an infant pillowed on her bosom.” In other places there are a variety of death-bed scenes, all described in the same feeble technical strain, forcibly reminding us of a little child, who, on being asked why, on her recovery, she had discontinued the phrases which she had constantly repeated in her illness, replied, “I thought I should die and be put in a tract."

If the Sunday at Home is a fair specimen of the literature supplied by the Society to which we have referred, we can only regret the misdirection of its very well-meant efforts. In one sense, no doubt, it is “pure” enough, but it is the purity not of health, but of disease—the purity of distilled water, or of meat with all its flavour boiled away.

Saturday Review, May 3, 1856.

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