Monday, December 12, 2016

The Edinburgh Review and the modern novelists

The Edinburgh Review, in a powerful and very curious article, has directed attention to the serious mischiefs arising from the growing influence of novels with the half-educated classes, and the growing tendency of novelists to assume the functions of political censors. The topics discussed in this instructive paper have been frequently handled in our own columns, but the space at the command of the Edinburgh Review enables it to give them a fulness of illustration which is scarcely possible with ourselves. The instances selected by the Reviewer are the caricature of the Government offices in Mr. Dickens's Little Dorrit—the libel on Birmingham Gaol, in the novel of Mr. Charles Reade called It is Never too Late to Mend—and that miserable story in the Life of Charlotte Bronte of which Mrs. Gaskell has recently admitted the untruth. The last example evidently stands on a rather different footing from the others. It no doubt shows the completeness with which the literary mind is apt to give itself up to its own foregone conclusions, and illustrates the distinction—a distinction implied in the difference between imagination and reason—which exists between skill in the production of literary effects, and skill in the verification and employment of alleged evidence. But Mr. Dickens and Mr. Reade are, as the Reviewer abundantly proves, deliberate perverters and falsifiers of facts. Mrs. Gaskell is open to no such "accusation; and the worst that can be said of her is, that she allowed herself to assume that the resources of her own art included a faculty which is sometimes only imperfectly acquired by the special training of half a life.

The Reviewer deals rather more harshly, on the whole, with Mr. Reade than with Mr. Dickens. We think there is a little injustice in this, though the bias of the critic is amply explained by the habits of thought to which we have gradually accustomed ourselves. A class of writers—of which Mr. Dickens and the religious novelists are samples at once curiously like and curiously unlike—have almost completely debauched our sympathies and understandings on the subject of the relation which opinions should bear to facts. We have got to think it quite natural and pardonable in a Puseyite romancer to make the exponent of Evangelicalism put the wrong name to a promissory note, or in an Evangelical novelist to send the Puseyite clergyman over to Rome in company with his neighbour's wife. The forgery of facts takes rank with the fine arts, and we have Ruskins who lay down canons to enable us to judge between the comparative values of imaginative flimsy. Few of us have sufficient integrity of mind to perceive that Mr. Dickens was guilty of a moral offence in constructing a set of facts to support his condemnation of the Public Offices. Even the Edinburgh Review speaks in a tone which seems to imply that the writer who invents a falsehood is less guilty than the writer who exaggerates a truth. We cannot admit this. Mr. Dickens's facts are entirely imaginary. The evidence on which his conclusion was really based, consisting, as it did, of ignorant popular rumours and vague newspaper statements, was so worthless as to be absolutely null. But Mr. Reade had really some evidence to second his opinion. Either from sterility of invention, or (as we would hope) from a juster view of the conditions which should govern practical judgments, he took the Report and Evidence of the Royal Commission on the Birmingham Gaol, and formed them into the basis of the elaborate descriptions which fill the greater part of his first and second volumes. The authority was good, as far as it went; but Mr. Reade's offence lay in straining and tampering with every single datum which his authority gave him. This, in our opinion, was extremely culpable; but we cannot agree with the view taken by the Reviewer—rather impliedly, it is true, than expressly—of the ratio which the delinquency bears to those habitually practised by Mr. Dickens. We hold that it is worse to tell a whole lie than half a one. The homage to truth involved in a partial adherence to it ought to be admitted in extenuation.

We are, however, indebted for much instruction to the prominence given to Mr. Reade in this article. Nothing can be more curious than the comparison which the Reviewer has instituted between the facts of the Birmingham Gaol case and the representations of them in the popular novel. In Little Dorrit we have only the result—the concrete phenomenon. Nobody can trace the mental operation by which the Barnacles and the other Circumlocutionists were conceived. It is Mr. Dickens's secret exclusively. But in It is Never too Late to Mend we have the chemistry of modern romance. The salts crystallize, the gases diffuse themselves, the metals agglomerate before our very eyes. The process consists in twisting, perverting, misrepresenting, adding to or taking away from, every single truth which enters into the material basis. Here are specimens of the manipulation which facts must undergo before they become fitted for the novelist's art. The cruel ill-treatment of a youth imprisoned in one of our gaols has to be described for the purpose of assisting prison reform. He had a stiff leathern collar placed round his neck—it has to be changed into a "high circular saw." He had 4000 turns of the crank—4000 is altered to 8000. He was once wetted with a bucket of water—the novel states that he was wetted perpetually. He was hard worked, but managed nearly always to do his allotted task, and sometimes to exceed it—Mr. Reade states that it was physically impossible for him to complete it. He was certainly ill-used, but he gained in flesh during is imprisonment—in the novel he is transformed into "a small but aged man, shambling in the joints, stiffened by perpetual crucifixion and rheumatism." Many more misrepresentations than these, and much more important, are established by the Reviewer in regard to the conduct of Lieutenant Austin, the Birmingham magistrates, and the Home Office. We have merely selected a few which seem to us instructive in their very absurdity. In fact, most of Mr. Reade's exaggerations can be measured arithmetically. He seems to have reversed the policy of the Unjust Steward in the parable. Wherever he found the number 5, he took his paper, sat down quickly, and wrote 50.

Whoever has fairly correct notions of the uses which facts are collected to subserve—whoever has an inkling of tho truth that general propositions are valuable in so far as they cover actual facts, and worthless when they go a hair's-breadth beyond them —may be left to make up his mind as to the propriety of Mr. Reade's method. Unfortunately, long indulgence in a literature which is well described by the Edinburgh Review as "at once a stimulant and an anodyne," has so depraved some of the most necessary faculties of the reading public as to render it almost incapable of applying the laws of inference to the generalizations of novelists. We well know the answer which will be made to the Edinburgh Review. It is one which, in effect, claims for novel-writers an immunity from sobriety of statement and caution in drawing conclusions. The Reviewer has anticipated it, when he suggests this plea for Mr. Dickens:—"How can you suppose that I mean any harm by such representations as these? I am neither a lawyer nor a politician; but I take a fling at the subjects of the day, just in order to give my writings a little local colour and a little temporary piquancy." We are told, in fact, that the paper which the novelist puts off on us is only a note of the Bank of Elegance, and that it is our own fault if we are taken in. We reply, however, that whatever be the nature of the counterfeit which the authors of Little Dorrit and It is Never too Late to Mend attempted to pass, they intended to pocket the change. These gentlemen seriously mean to be listened to as practical teachers; and it is the boast of those who admire their method of instruction, that their romances are more influential than fifty Blue-books. Mr. Dickens's caricature of the Circumlocution Office was originally part of a more comprehensive attack on the administrative system of the country; nor would it have seemed to be isolated if the other part of the campaign had not miscarried so miserably. Just before these chapters of Little Dorrit appeared, its author marched down to Drury Lane, with sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of puffatory music, to pull down the golden image which a series of kings had set up. We hold that he was perfectly justified in doing so. If he subjects himself to the ordinary checks which wait upon political discussion, Mr. Dickens has as clear a right to be heard upon politics as anybody else. But when the Association to which he tried to lend assistance went out like a candle-snuff, Mr. Dickens was not entitled to invent in his novel the data which his associates had failed to establish on the platform; nor are his friends justified in asking for the romance-writer that immunity from deference to truth which it would have been impudence to demand for the spokesman of the Administrative Reformers. As for Mr. Reade, his assertions of the practical effects which are to follow from his novel are vehement and repeated. He prophesies against the Judges and the Home Office, like a sort of milk-and-water Ezekiel. Here is his reversal of the sentence of the Queen's Bench on Lieutenant Austin:—" It now remains for me, who am a public functionary, but not a hireling, to do the rest of my duty. I revoke that sentence . . . Instead of becoming a precedent for future Judges, it shall be a beacon they shall avoid. . . . No Judge shall dare copy it while I am alive; for if he does, . . . . I will buy a sheet of paper as big as a barn-door, and nail him to it by his name, as we nail a polecat by the throat. . . . . The civilized races, and I, their temporary representative, revoke that sentence, from the rising to the setting sun, in every land where the English tongue is spoken."

The disdain of their country which the novels of Mr. Dickens and Mr. Reade reveal, is attributable no doubt to the "scavengering" mission of the present age. We have cleared away so many abuses that some of us regard statesmen as created exclusively to cart off muck, and journalists to ferret it out in neglected corners. The holy and beautiful house in which this purification is but a menial office, has been almost forgotten by those whose hands are deep in dirt, and Mr. Dickens bids us pull it down rather than labour at it any longer. Happily, in the eloquent language of the Reviewer, "we have not gone far in this miserable path; English life is too active, English spheres of action too wide, English freedom too deeply rooted to be endangered by a set of Bacchanals, drunk with green tea, and not protected by petticoats. In the midst of boundless luxury and insatiable thirst for amusement, we have raised a class of writers who show strong sympathies for all that is most opposite to the very foundations of'English life. . . . That they are ignorant of politics and of history is their only excuse. To a mind which s any sympathy with all that is most noble in real, not ideal, human nature, there is something so grand and so touching in that great drama of which the present generation forms a part, that it is hard to speak with patience of those who fail to recognise its existence. The infinite labour which has been expended upon various parts of the social edifice of this country; the vehement discussion which has attended every change in it; the conflicting influences which lives of thought and feeling the most radically opposed have exercised over its various members; the calm forbearance which is daily shown in maintaining our innumerable social compromises; the freedom secured to all just criticism; the good temper and good sense which refuse to push principles partially adopted to inconvenient conclusions—unite to invest English society with an historical dignity." We regret, with the Edinburgh Review, that there are men living in it for no better purpose than to exaggerate and deride its defects.

Saturday Review, July 16, 1857.

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