Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Life of Douglas Jerrold

Review of:
The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold (by Blanchard Jerrold, 1859).

Mr. Blanchard Jerrold begins his life of his father with a reference to Mr. Carlyle's dictum, that a well-written life is as uncommon as a well-spent one. He might advantageously have added the observation that it is either an impossibility or an act of impiety for a son to write his father's life as it ought to be written, if the interest of the book is to turn rather upon the character than upon the actions of the person described. No man is exempt from faults, and no man who is not an utter brute keeps the least amiable side of his character for his own household. It is one of the commonest of all fallacies to suppose that a man's personal and private relations are of necessity those which display his character in the truest light. His conduct towards, and opinions of the world at large are quite as much part of his character as his behaviour towards his wife and children; and if he is dishonest, brutal, ignorant, and treacherous in public, it is no defence to a charge of dishonesty, brutality, and treachery, to show that in private life he was honest, courteous, and upright. A man must be estimated by his acts as well as by the impression which he leaves on the minds of his friends. It is the tendency of almost all modern popular literature to preach the opposite doctrine. Novelists and pictorial historians uniformly attempt to turn the minds of their readers away from what men do, and to fix them, as they say, upon what they are—in more correct language, upon that picture of them which the novelist or historian draws under the pressure of all the rules of artistic composition.

Mr. Jerrold's life of his father is constructed on this principle. It claims to be a picture, and not a history, and it is upon that understanding that it must be judged. It is no imputation upon the author to say that the portrait is of necessity flattering. He would probably admit that it could not be otherwise. There is, however, an excuse for the pictorial character of the book, which cannot be urged in favour of the majority of pictorial biographies. Mr. Douglas Jerrold never appears to have done anything which could form the subject of a history. The prosaic part of his life is told in a very few sentences. He was born in 1803. His father was manager to a company of strolling players. At the close of the war, he served for nearly two years as a midshipman, first in the Namur guard-ship, and afterwards in the Ernest gun-brig, which conveyed some of the wounded men home from Waterloo. He was then bound apprentice to a printer. He wrote plays and magazine articles, which attracted attention, and passed the rest of his life in similar occupations, gaining very considerable popularity. He was one of the original contributors to Punch, and continued to write in that paper till his death. He was also editor of Lloyd's Weekly Journal, and was engaged in a multitude of other enterprises of the same kind, which were more or less successful, but yielded him a steady, and during the latter part of his life a considerable income. He died on the 7th June, 1857, at the age of fifty-four.

To those who knew Mr. Jerrold only by his writings he appeared in as unamiable a light as can possibly be conceived. Indignation vexed him like a thing that was raw, and the fuel which kept his kettle boiling was entirely composed of thorns, Mr. Blanchard Jerrold's book is a protest against this theory of his father's character. He tells us that he was anything but a cynic—that on the contrary, he was full of the warmest and keenest sensibility, that he was a most affectionate friend, a most ardent enthusiast for pure and holy causes—that he was generous, impulsive, and excitable in the highest degree, continuing to the end of his life to be a sort of impersonation of the character of the sailors to whose profession he had been attracted in his early boyhood by a deep sympathy for their easy careless generosity and sensibility.

There are a few points in Mr. Jerrold's life which do not altogether bear out his son's eulogiums upon him. His conduct towards Mr. Leigh Hunt (p.175) and Mr. Charles Kean (p.184) would not seem to have been either very placable or very generous; but, in the main Mr. Blanchard Jerrold's view of his father's character is probably fair enough. The remarkable point about it is, that it is not only entirely consistent with the impression which his writings produce, but enforces and explains it. A man who is totally unable to see the difference between an opinion and a sentiment—who has keen sympathies and antipathies, and is always at the mercy of them—who is always pouring out his mind upon every conceivable subject, and has nothing to pour except expressions of feeling, thrown into more or less grotesque shapes—is to those who do not agree with him an unamiable and unpleasant person; and if he happens to disagree with a large proportion of the world, that large proportion will naturally take the view of him which all but his personal friends appear to have taken of Mr. Jerrold. In fact, after reading his life, our disapproval—we might use a stronger word—of his political, and our dislike of his literary character, are rather increased than diminished.

Of his political opinions some critic, quoted with approbation by his son, has given the following remarkable account:—
‘The Radical literature of England, with few exceptions, was of a prosaic character. The most famous school of Radicalism is utilitarian and systematic. Douglas was emphatically neither. He was impulsive, epigrammatic, sentimental. He dashed gaily against an institution like a picador at a bull. He never sat down, like the regular workers of his party, to calculate the expenses of monarchy or the extravagance of the civil list. He had no notion of any sort of economy. I don't know that he had ever taken up political science seriously, or that he had any preference for one form of government over another. I repeat, his Radicalism was that of a humorist. He despised big wigs and pomp of all sorts, and above all humbug and formalism; but his Radicalism was important as a sign that our institutions are ceasing to be picturesque, of which, if you consider his nature, you will see that his Radicalism was a sign. And he did service to his cause.’
We have sometimes been charged with speaking harshly of the political teaching of that small knot of writers to which Mr. Douglas Jerrold belonged. It is an accusation which can hardly be repeated in the face of such a passage as this. There is something perfectly marvellous in the insolence of the assumption on which it proceeds. That a man is justified in systematically attacking and deriding every institution of his country, both social and political, without any political opinions or any political knowledge, merely because to his eye they “are ceasing to be picturesque,” is surely one of the most singular announcements that ever was made to the world. Mr. Blanchard Jerrold, in his usual stilted manner, observes, in addition to his friend's criticism, that his father “never cared to dabble in statistics proving the exact sum given away in sinecures—to weigh to a scruple the influence of the House of Lords in the House of Commons. He took broad patent facts, great indisputable wrongs, and drove sharp epigrams into the heart of them,” &c. &c. We do not remember that we ever saw so complete an exemplification of the whole faith of what would be the most contemptible, if it were not one of the most dangerous, schools of modern politicians—the bastard Rousseaus of whom Mr. Dickens and Mr. Jerrold were the leaders. Their poetry is a sentimental growl about the virtues of the poor and the wickedness of the rich—their prose a “dabbling in statistics to prove the exact sum given away in sinecures.” Mr. Jerrold's sensibility and Mr. Bright's veracity are considered by popular writers as adequate substitutes for knowledge of the history and respect for the institutions of England. There is a beggarly poverty, shallowness, and ignorance in Mr. Jerrold's conception of the country in which he lived, which is apparently universal in the school to which he belonged, and the spread of which we should regard as one of the greatest calamities that could befal the nation. That there is “nothing picturesque” in English society—that all its ordinary relations are matter either for idiotic laughter, for maudlin lamentations, or for the petty hunting of abuses which is better fitted for a Jew attorney than for a statesman—and that the discoverers and preachers of this new and improved gospel are the very salt of the earth, by whom all social improvements are to be effected—is the sort of creed which Mr. Blanchard Jerrold and other writers of his calibre seem disposed to profess, and to which the great popularity of several able men who were ignorant, febrile, and prejudiced, as well as able, first gave rise. Its impudence is only equalled by its folly. No institutions were ever picturesque when they were seen by contemporaries. If a man lay down on the grandest mountain in Switzerland with his face within a foot of the rock, he would see nothing worth seeing; and it is equally, impossible for a man who takes his notion of England as it is from the daily papers, without any study of larger and more abiding records, to form any notion whatever of the majestic dignity with which history will assuredly invest the society in which we live—the freest, the most peaceful, the strongest, the least corrupt, and, in many respects, one of the happiest that ever existed in the world. To see nothing in all this but bigwigs, humbug, and formalism—to look with the eye of a mere humorist (and a very narrow and shallow humorist) upon the mainsprings of the greatest empire in the world—and to think himself perfectly entitled to express the most violent opinions on all its proceedings, without anything approaching to a logical justification for the censures in which he indulged so freely—was Mr. Jerrold's daily occupation. Surely, it was not the part either of a wise or of a good man to do this.

One of the most instructive and characteristic features in Mr. Blanchard Jerrold's life of his father is its wonderful arrogance. He obviously thinks that to be a popular writer of light literature is to occupy one of the most important positions that any man can hold. He looks upon the small wit and dyspeptic satire which his father contributed to comic periodicals as being among the most important literary productions of the day. If he wrote a few ill-natured sentences about a maid-servant and her mistress, they are criticised in such phrases as this—“The purpose here is clear; and the war is, as ever, in behalf of the weak.” So we are told that Mr. Jerrold's sarcasms “had the wild and deadly glitter of war rockets"—that there was “scorching satire" in what he had to say about bishops' incomes, and so on ad infinitum. It has always appeared to us, and the work before us has not changed our opinion, that the vanity of this way of thinking is only equalled by its absurd folly. No spectacle can be more contemptible than that of a group of comedians and melodramatists complimenting each other upon their gigantic powers and influence, until they really come to think that they are the principal agents in the great social changes which have marked the progress of the resent generation—that they have only got to “dash at an institution like a picador at a bull,” or to “scathe" or “scorch” it with their sarcasm to insure its downfall.

In justice to Mr. Jerrold we ought to say that, though he was a man of most unbalanced mind, and entirely at the mercy of feeling and impulse, his feelings were at times very healthy, and were frequently expressed in a very forcible and even pathetic manner. In a letter to Mr. Dickens there occurs the following remark, which is not only very true, but tender and pathetic:—
Punch, I believe, holds its course. Nevertheless I do not very cordially agree with its new spirit. I am convinced the world will get tired (at least I hope so) of this eternal guffaw about all things. After all life has something serious in it. It cannot be all a comic history of humanity. Some men would, I believe, write a comic Sermon on the Mount. Think of a comic history of England, the drollery of Alfred, the fun of Sir Thomas More, the farce of his daughter begging the dead head and clasping it in her coffin on her bosom. Surely the world will be sick of this blasphemy.’
Mr. Dickens’s answer is equally honourable to him:--
‘Anent the comic and similar comicalities.  I feel exactly as you do.  Their effect upon me is very disagreeable.  Such joking is like the sorrow of an undertaker’s mute reversed, and is applied to serious things with the like propriety and force.’
Unfortunately for both the correspondents, their notion of serious writing hardly went beyond sarcasm and sentimentality.  They have done more in their respective lines to enervate their readers, and to throw discredit upon all the stronger faculties of the mind, than any other pair of English writers.

Saturday Review, January 15, 1859.

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