The British Essayists: The Spectator (Ed. by James Ferguson, 1823).
There are few more instructive branches of literary inquiry than the comparison of the different amusements of different generations. Light literature, in its manifold shapes, has become by far the most popular of modern recreations, and it is curious to trace the various forms which it has worn during different periods of its history. The vast differences between the reign of Queen Victoria and the reign of Queen Anne can hardly be displayed more concisely or more pointedly than by the contrast between the general character of the Spectator and modern fiction. The comparison, like other comparisons, will not go upon all-fours. There are parts of the Spectator to which the multifarious publications of our own day offer hardly any analogy. There are other parts of which it presents the pattern and germ with curious exactness, though the spirit is utterly different. Upon each of these divisions some observations occur which may not be without interest, as evidence of the changes which have come over a very important aspect of the national character.
The principal feature of the Spectator, to which nothing in our own day corresponds, is to be found in the moral essays with which it is so largely sprinkled. Why is it that whereas 150 years ago thousands of readers were delighted to buy and to read a speculation by Addison on Good-nature, or on the Immortality of the Soul, no one thinks of inserting such matter in any of our modern papers? We can hardly imagine how we should feel if we were to read some morning in the Times such a paragraph as this in an article on the vanity of ambition:—
‘There is scarce a thinking man in the world who is involved in the business of it, but lives under a secret impatience of the hurry and fatigue he suffers, and has formed a resolution to fix himself one time or other in such a state as is suitable to the end of his being.’Or what should we think if the Examiner were to inform its readers that—
‘When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire dies out; when I meet with the grief of parents on a tombstone, my heart swells with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow.’Is the disuse of such admonitions to be attributed to a dearth of Addisons, or to a tone of mind hostile to Addisonian reflections? There is probably much ground for each supposition. No one can read the moral dissertations in the Spectator without being sensible that they are conceived in a spirit which no man of genius could enter into now. We should be fully prepared to endorse, with but little qualification, Lord Macaulay’s glowing praises of their beauty, and indeed, no one who is not accustomed to periodical writing can adequately appreciate the all but supernatural freshness and fertility of mind which they display; but it is impossible to read them without a feeling that if we could imagine an Eton boy's themes written with ideal beauty, they would resemble them very nearly both in matter and in manner.
Opening the volumes at random, we find (No. 215) the greatest of English Essayists, under the heading of our old friend “Ingenuas didicisse,” &c., discussing the advantages of education. Four paragraphs introduce the subject, setting forth how the soul is like a block of marble, the colours of which are brought out by the polisher. Then comes the example, in the case of two negro slaves, who murder their mistress because they cannot agree which is to marry her, and then commit suicide in despair. Three paragraphs conclude the dissertation, beginning respectively with the following characteristic observations:—
‘We see in this amazing instance of barbarity what strange disorders are bred in the minds of those men whose passions are not regulated by virtue and disciplined by reason. . . . . . It is therefore an unspeakable blessing to be born in those parts of the world where wisdom and knowledge flourish. . . . . Discourses of morality and reflections upon human nature are the best means we can make use of to improve our minds and gain a true knowledge of ourselves.’In reading such sentences, the Quae cum ita sint, the Quod si, and the Genus humanum of our youth rise dimly before us; bringing with them the recollection that the Spectator was the most productive and the most easily worked of all the mines of what, with unconscious irony, we used to describe as “sense.” It is a curious reflection how such compositions can ever have contributed so much as in fact they have contributed to the reputation of a man who is universally placed high in the list of English classics. The answer to the question is, we think, afforded in a great measure by the whole tone of the Spectator. It indicates the prevalence of a singular lull in the public mind—a state of feeling in which the great problems of life seem to have received a sort of good-humoured solution, and in which there is a general impression that all men of sense are agreed upon all matters of essential importance, so that nothing remains except to explain their sentiments to the mass of mankind as tastefully as possible. The simple gentle theology in which the Psalms, Cicero, Epictetus, and “several heathen as well as Christian authors,” are produced by turns as witnesses to the o of life, the immortality of the soul, and the emptiness of worldly distinctions—and the elegant, but singularly formal and even timid criticism in which it is shown how “artfully” the author of Chevy Chase introduces this and that sentiment, and how he wrote with the high moral object of preventing the feudal nobility from fighting, as Homer wished to show the Greeks the necessity of combination against Persia—are further illustrations of the same temper. The universal sentiment is that there are rules and measures on all subjects, human and divine, which are well understood and ascertained, and which it only remains to enforce by elegant remarks and appropriate classical quotations. It would be needless and almost impertinent in us to enlarge upon the extraordinary felicity and skill with which Addison and Steele betook themselves to this congenial task. We confine ourselves to pointing out that it would be simply impossible for men of their powers in the present day to write as they wrote, because the substratum of belief which enabled them to do so no longer exists. The most ignorant person would in these days steer clear of the marvellous blunder which we have quoted about Homer and Chevy Chase, for it is matter of universal notoriety that there is a whole library of controversy about Homer, his relationship to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the relations of the various parts of those works to each other; whilst, in regard to morals and theology, legions of controversialists, whose premisses and conclusions contradict each other in the wildest manner, lie in wait for any one who is rash enough to vent commonplaces upon the subjects on which they dispute.
The presence of this feeling of repose and security with regard to all the most important subjects of thought unquestionably gives a rather formal and shallow air to the more serious speculations of Steele and Addison; but it is at least equally plain, and equally worthy of our attention, that the same cause enabled them to understand, far better than is the case with their representatives in the present day, the true scope and province of that description of literature to which they devoted themselves. The prototypes of each of the main divisions of modern light literature are to be found in the Spectator. Sir Roger de Coverley and the other members of the Club are the legitimate progenitors of the most conspicuous of our modern novels, more especially of those which appear in parts; whilst the various sketches of manners—the Lovers'-club, the letters about Fulvia and Claudia, patches, snuff-boxes, and the like—contain the germ of that immense mass of comments upon all sorts of small social matters which fill our magazines, and overflow into the morning papers through the activity of the gentlemen whose natural impulse it is, in all the vicissitudes of life, to console themselves by writing to the Times.
It would of course be unfair to institute a comparison, in point of literary skill, between some of the greatest masters of the English language that ever lived and that very miscellaneous crowd of writers who instruct us at the present day; but it is well worth while to attend to the difference between the spirit which pervades the Spectator and that which shows itself under an almost infinite variety of forms amongst so many popular modern novelists. As the business of such writers is to appreciate and to paint delicate shades of feeling, they may be naturally presumed to be possessed of more than the average amount of sensibility, and therefore to participate in and to display more deeply than their neighbours the prevalent temper of the times. We shall accordingly find that no department of literature shows clearer traces of the depth and intensity of modern controversies upon all the most important subjects of inquiry than modern popular novels. The Spectator, as we have already remarked, assumes everywhere the existence of a sort, of average state of feeling and opinion. Its object—as described in the dedication of the first volume to Lord Somers— is “to cultivate and polish human life by promoting virtue and knowledge; and it may be read from end to end without the discovery of a single hint of the existence of anything more than very superficial controversies as to the objects indicated by that comprehensive formula. The great charm of the wit, the pathos, and the playfulness of the Spectator, and especially of Addison's contributions to it, is to be found in the narrowness of their range. They neither prove nor assert anything of much importance, nor are they meant to do so. The provinces of wit and business (perhaps because the writers in question were versed in both) are recognised as fundamentally distinct. The former is never allowed to encroach upon the latter; and, indeed, those who excel in it never show the slightest inclination to do so.
Nothing can afford a greater contrast to this than the present state of the same department of literature. The controversies of the last century have embraced every subject of importance to the welfare of mankind here or hereafter. There is perhaps hardly a single conception, theological, moral, metaphysical, scientific, or political, which they have not profoundly modified. The strong instinctive presumption which used to be felt by almost all men, however lively their fancies, and however quick their sensibilities might be, in favour of any well-established form of thought, has been almost entirely destroyed. Men of taste have all but universally fallen into the way of forming their views of the world around them not according to any fixed rules, but according to the prevailing temper of their own minds for the time being. The extent to which opinion has been superseded by sentiment is almost incredible, but the evidence upon the subject is to be found in every novel on every railway bookstall in the country. Modern novelists universally seem to assume, in a thousand indirect ways, that the principal question with regard to any man, any opinion, or any line of conduct, is not whether it is right or wrong, true or false, wise or foolish, but whether it can be so represented as to enlist the reader's sympathies, or at any rate to make him understand and enter into the feelings of the party concerned. Sir Roger de Coverley is a mere amusement. His character embodies no particular view of life, and it proves nothing except the exquisite skill of Addison; but the case is totally different with Childe Harold, Ernest Maltravers, or Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop. It would be unfair to say that Lord Byron meant to preach up pride and misanthropy—that Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton holds himself out as a serene philosopher, for whom life has no secrets and little interest—or that Mr. Dickens goes round to all the world to be kissed like a child at dessert. But it is not unfair to say that they respectively create characters who do act in this manner, and that they do so in a way which tends—not perhaps very logically, but still most effectively —to produce a certain sympathy with the temper so described. Addison's fictions are like fireworks throwing out different-coloured stars, which can be criticised according to their inherent qualities. Modern novels are like slips of coloured glass interposed between the eye and the face of nature, the effect of which is to give a colour to the common, events of life whilst the attention is quite withdrawn from the colouring medium. Whig or Tory, Hanoverian or Jacobite, High Churchman. or Low Churchman, could equally enjoy most parts of the Spectator without prejudice to their several creeds; but almost every modern novel is more or less a party manifesto, and indicates one of several views of life which would run through and colour opinion upon every subject whatever. If we were told that a man really enjoys and sympathizes with Mr. Thackeray, Mr. Kingsley, Mr. Dickens, or Mrs. Gaskell, we could give a very good guess as to his views upon any subject whatever.
We have often expressed our opinion upon the mischief which sermons in circulating libraries inflict upon society, but in connexion with our present subject it is curious to notice how completely the growth of the new school of fiction changes the whole character which fiction sustains. In former times, fiction, even in its highest form, was in the nature of a plaything. Sir Roger was a Tory, but Addison was a Whig. Falstaff was full of fun and humour, but Shakspeare sees through him, Henry V. casts him off, and we feel that it is as right that our old acquaintance should die in distress and neglect, as that Nym and Bardolph should come to the gallows. Dante loves Francesca, but Francesca is damned. All this is changed in our day. The universal postulate of novelists seems to be that sympathy cannot be wrong, and that hard cases cannot be right. These writers appear to look upon the world as a vast stage, on which there is room for many actors and for many parts, and on which, if a man plays his part consistently and acts after his kind, no further demand is to be made of him. Or, to take another metaphor, they consider life as an equation which presents many roots. You cannot say that one root is more right than another. Any one of them will satisfy the terms of the problem.
There is hardly any department of thought in which this temper may not be traced. It is expressly avowed, and embodied in one of the most popular of modern scientific schools —a school, by the way, from which most novelists shrink with a pathetic and interesting distaste. A fatalistic science which recognises no object of thought except facts and modes of succession is the exact complement of a school of art which substitutes sentiment for opinion. There is the closest possible connexion—we might almost say that there is an absolute identity—between the theory which maintains that the rise, progress, growth, decline, and fall of nations proceed eternally according to a fixed unchangeable decree, and the picture which intimates (though it does not say, for its principle is to say nothing) that the proud and the humble, the licentious and the pure, the energetic and the lazy, act respectively after their kind, without being the objects of express praise or express blame, and in a manner which almost makes it impossible to look upon them as being moral agents at all. Closely connected, too, with this is the whole system of attack and defence by novels. Mr. Disraeli wants to injure Mr. Croker, Mr. Dickens wants to vilify the Government, and they proceed to compose novels which give you a theory (more or less founded on facts) of the man or of the system, the only evidence of the truth of which is the ingenuity and the artistic consistency with which it is put together. It is not amiss to remind authors of this kind that amongst predecessors whom the most exorbitant vanity must recognise as superiors, the province of art was looked upon as being infinitely more narrow than they seem to consider it, whilst the execution of works of art was carried to a pitch of perfection quite inaccessible to writers whose works aim at fulfilling a function for which they are, and from the necessity of the case must continue to be, absolutely unfit.
Saturday Review, August 14, 1858.