Friday, December 16, 2016

The Sunday papers

If the circulation of a newspaper, and the proportion which it bears to the whole extent of the intellectual interests of its readers, afford the true test of its importance, the Sunday papers are almost, if not quite, our most important journals. To a man who labours habitually with his head, Sunday is especially grateful as a day of mental rest. To sit with his family, to take a walk out of London—in some way or other to relieve the strain which has been applied all through the week to his nerves and to his brain—is one, at any rate, of the principal enjoyments which Sunday affords to people engaged in public or professional life. To labouring men an entirely different kind of relaxation is equally indispensable. A man who has passed six days in the week in carting parcels from one railway station to another, in unloading ships, in watching the wheels of a machine, or in any other mechanical occupation, finds far more relief on the seventh day in some kind of occupation which engages organs almost dormant during the rest of his life, than in anything which adds still more to the fatigue of muscles and sinews already overwrought. Go to Kew Gardens, to Richmond Park, to Wimbledon Common on a Sunday, and you will hardly fail to meet a certain number of gentlemen enjoying the fresh turf and fresh air on horseback or on foot; but if you look for the labouring population, you will find them smoking, talking, or reading the newspapers in tea-gardens or public-houses. It is the object of the Sunday papers to afford occupation and amusement on these occasions; and he must be a very rigorous and a very unsympathetic critic who would condemn such an object as wrong. The mind of an uneducated man cannot be a blank—it cannot occupy itself for a whole day with devotional or theological meditation. As a matter of fact, even in those who observe the Sunday most rigidly, this is not the case; and why it should be wrong to recal to the mind by the medium of printed paper what it would not be wrong to recal by the medium of spoken words, we cannot imagine. No human being would hesitate to tell another on a Sunday that he had been present at a trial for murder on Friday, and it is altogether impossible to give any reason why it should be wrong to read what it is not wrong to hear. It is a common objection to these papers that they cause a great amount of Sunday labour; but the fact is not so. They are uniformly, we believe, printed and published on Saturday, and are only read on Sunday. The objection, at any rate, comes with a had grace from those who read in a Monday's Morning Herald denunciations of Sunday amusements, probably written, and certainly printed, on Sunday afternoon and evening. For these reasons we cannot look upon the Sunday papers as a malum in se. We think their object a good one, and if the execution were as good as the design, we should feel great pleasure in their success.

It cannot be doubted that, for good or for evil, their influence is enormous. Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (made familiar to most of our readers by the instrumentality of defaced penny-pieces), according to its own account, has a circulation of no less than 170,000—nearly three times as great as that of the Times. The Dispatch, the News of the World, and the Weekly Times are also to be met with in every town in England.  Constituting, as they do, a great proportion of the reading of those who read little else, on the only day in the week on which they read anything, it is most important to ascertain what is the nature of the influence of these journals. Whether from the circumstance of their publication on Sunday-or from reminiscences of offences charged against some of them in former times-or simply from the jealousy of those who consider themselves the only authorized directors and instructors of poor people-it is certain that there is a general impression abroad that they are unfailing sources of furious political incendiarism, and panders to all kinds of prurient curiosity. Our knowledge of the subject is not extensive enough to warrant a very positive opinion; but if we look at the last week's numbers of the four journals which we have mentioned, nothing can be more unlike the impressions which we get from the papers themselves than the expectations which the general notion to which we have referred would excite. The quality of the news, and the decorum with which it is selected, both appear to us to be unexceptionable. There is, as might have been expected, an absence of that class of intelligence which is essential to the weight and to the circulation of a daily paper—that is to say, home and foreign news, unattainable except at a great expense, and by means of an extensive connexion with persons who are in a position to communicate it. But, after all, the difference between knowing a thing on Monday and knowing it on Thursday—between reading it in the paper in which it first appears, and reading it in some other paper into which it is copied—however important to that small class to whom politics are a profession, is nothing to the enormous class to whom a newspaper is only a luxury. The political information contained in these papers, thou h neither exclusive nor very new, is most abundant, and afford a convincing proof of the interest which, happily for the nation, every class takes in public affairs. The manner in which the information is conveyed is also well worthy of observation. It is for the most part so closely packed as to be by no means very light reading. It is clearly intended for a quiet, serious, reflective class of men. The Dispatch, for example, contains four columns of foreign news, abridged from the morning papers, and similar abridgments, containing six and three and a half columns, respectively, of Parliamentary debates, and of the proceedings of the Crimean Military Commission. To these Lloyd adds an account of the diplomatic relations of the Mosquito Territory, and a series of extracts from the leading articles of the daily papers upon such subjects as the Income-tax, the Austrian occupation of the Danubian Provinces, the Drainage of London, Education, the Management of the National Gallery, and the American question. Among the lighter subjects is a report of a curious meeting of swell-mobsmen, held by Mr. Mayhew, in which the various calamities attending their profession, and the difficulty of emerging from it when once entered, are set forth in a very curious and anything but offensive manner; and we have also, as might have been expected, a very full report of criminal proceedings, both at the assizes and. before the police courts. Here, if anywhere, we should have met with prurience, if it had been characteristic of this class of journals. We have accordingly examined the papers in question with some care. In the Weekly Times there is not a single line that a lady might not read. In the News of the World there is a report of breach of promise case at Gloucester (more fully reported in the daily papers), to which those who consider an absolute ignorance of the existence of vice a good preservative of virtue might possibly object—though, if they did, their objection would exclude from their houses every paper containing news. In Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, and in the Dispatch, a police case is reported, in about eight lines, with the utmost conciseness and propriety, which in the first is headed, “Indecency properly punished,” and in the second, “A Beast." This is all that these four papers contain which a man would feel inclined to skip if he were reading aloud to his wife or daughter. Surely, when we consider t at hardly a session of the criminal courts takes place without the most shocking revelations of the evil which is in the world-and that during the week in question, not only the Assizes but the sittings of the Central Criminal Court, and of the Middlesex Quarter Sessions, were going on—the fact which we have mentioned is extremely creditable to the readers and to the conductors of the journals in question. Another illustration of the same point may be found in the brevity with which all these papers tell a story which would, some years ago, have filled many columns of every paper on every breakfast-table in the West-End —the murder which took place at Islington some weeks since, and for which a miserable woman was sentenced to be hanged at the last Old Bailey sessions.

Of the leading articles of the Sunday papers we cannot speak so highly as of the news. Those of the Weekly Times please us best. They are quiet, sensible, and meal; and one of them, upon the numerous murders which have taken place of late, is extremely kindly and humane, though we cannot agree with the writer's theory of the uselessness of capital punishments, or sympathize with is inclination to infer the insanity of a criminal  from the mere atrocity of the crime. Lloyd’s Weekly Journal enjoys, as its title announces to the world, the doubtful advantage of the editorship of Mr. Douglas Jerrold. Every one of its leaders bears traces of the fact. They have a strong family likeness to those dreary serious articles which are familiar to readers of Punch—articles which read like sermons which were originally unctuous, but which have had gall substituted for the auction, without however, entirely, removing all traces of the original condiment. They are a constant series of growls—growls at the “Immaculate” (satiric inverted commas) Peace, growls about the Jews, about “respectable criminals," about Kossuth and the Austrian Concordat, and about “our Naval sham at Spithead." One characteristic sentence will illustrate the sort of writing to which we allude—we all know where endless columns of the same material may be had:—“Austria's coat is for the present white, white as her liver—who knows how soon it may be red, red as her crimes?”

The Dispatch contains articles which are historically curious. They remind us of a time when journalism was quite a different thing, and journalists quite a different class of people, from what they are now. There is about them an effort to be clever, a jauntiness, an obligate satire, which were common in leading articles when the writers laboured under the consciousness that, unless they could attract notice by some such contrivances, they stood little chance of being read. Our meaning may be gathered from the following example:
‘It was the 5th of the present month,
Wearied with business, labouring at the oar,
Which thousands once fast chain’d to leave no more,
we fairly rebelled against the slavery of town life and city work, and, playing truant from our daily carking cares, mapped our fingers in their face, and, m the true spirit of an eminent pococurante, exclaimed inwardly, “A fire for the world an worldlings base! ’ Between the hawthorn hedgerows just viridating into leaf, we emerged to buffet the bluff West wind over the downs, and sauntered through the fields by the footways. The lark was at heaven's gate, serenading his mate in the furrow; there had been a warm shower, and you could almost see the wheat grow. Everything was clothed in the green of spring, and the bees were already busy among the daffodils. It was high noon, the sun was bright, the ploughman and bird-boys were sitting in the hedges, with their dinner on their knees, while wife and mother wait beside them to return with the emptied prandial vessels. Their horses, unyoked but in their harness, were browsing in the furrows, or pursuing their inquiries into the nosebags.’
A man who knows that he has got things to say which his readers will care to hear, does not introduce an artic e about the undue severity of country justices with this kind of flourish of trumpets. He does not speak of hawthorns as "viridating," nor does he call pots and pans “prandial vessels," or quote “a fico for the world," &c., or “the lark at heaven's gate sings,” apropos de bottes. The rest of the article is just what might have been expected from the beginning. It is all about the severity and cruelty of society against petty offenders, and is composed of such matter as the following:—
‘Lo, where the hunger-bitten wretch in the winter wind gathers a few sticks among the hedges to muster a dismal tire for her shivering little ones against the return of their over-laboured father, wet and hungry, from the gravel-pit or the road. “Off with her to jail," says our law; drag her between policemen; disgrace her among her neighbours; never heed her screaming little ones or her husband’s heart rankling with contempt of society and execration of its authority. See! young Ralph, crossing the fields by the footway, steps aside and up a turnip or gathers a pea or bean-pod; pounce comes Policeman X, hauls him oil to “the Bench.” and “lags" him for fourteen days if it happen to be Justice A, or a month if it be the sterner B. The law of God says, “Forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven;" to society it calls, “Let him that is guiltless cast the first stone;" to the sinner it gently murmurs, “Go in peace, and sin no more!"’

Why is everybody who steals sticks “a hunger-bitten wretch?” Why is a turnip-stealer “young Ralph?" Would the Dispatch wish an Act of Parliament to provide that, if any hunger-bitten wretch steals wood, he shall be acquitted, but that, if such thief is not a wretch, or, being a wretch, is not hunger-bitten (for the meaning of which, see the interpretation clause), he shall undergo so much imprisonment? It is quite in keeping with this, that the article contains a profuse display of legal learning. Amongst other things, the writer has discovered that a child of nine cannot “be held to plead to any charge." If he will look at Russell on Crimes, i.7, he will find that a child was condemned to be hanged at nine, and that another actually was hanged at ten. It is fair to say that, though this article occupies the most prominent place in the paper in which it appears, it is, beyond all comparison, the worst.

One unfailing element of the Dispatch is its correspondence. "Publicola" and “Caustic" are names known in many quarters where the paper itself is not read. Last week, Publicola occupied a column and a-half in discussing the question of women's property, and Caustic devoted the same space to advocating the necessity of preparing for war in the time of peace. Caustic’s letter strikes us as sensible enough, though there is throughout an anxiety to justify the indignant signature, which leads to a curious combination of the quietest substance with a somewhat ferocious phraseology. Publicola's subject is a very difficult and delicate one. He seems to us hardly to appreciate its difficulty, and we think that he might avoid, such strange errors as the assertion that the Roman aw prevails in the South of France, and the Code Napoleon in other parts of that country.

A curious feature in these papers is the "Answers to Correspondents." They are most numerous in the Dispatch. Some are certainly sufficiently quaint. What. for example, would Dr. Cumming think of the following?—“Ezekiel must apply to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs." Had “Ezekiel' been inquiring about the restoration of the Jews? For the most part, however, they contain really very sensible advice, sometimes on questions of some difficulty: or instance, A.B. wants to know how he can find out whether a brother in New Zealand is alive or not, and is advised to “write a letter to be left till called for at the Post Office, and advertise the fact in some New Zealand paper." He could hardly have got more judicious advice, and the answer is not one which would immediately present itself. “Raphael" receives the following reply: “As to the value of the old historical female portrait we can venture no opinion." A man must be in a curious condition, one would suppose, who can find no one more willing to advise him in such a matter than the editor of a newspaper. Some of the answers are leading articles in italics—what they can possibly he answers to, we cannot conceive. For example, a gentleman, called “The Last of the Gallows,” gets half a column of small type, and extremely bad grammar, about the execution of Bousfield; but whether he wrote it himself, or wanted to know something to which it was a reply—and, if so, what his question was—we cannot conceive. The great mass of the questions are about legal matters; and we should think that the attorneys must view the advice gratis columns of the Dispatch with very considerable disgust. It is of course impossible, without seeing the questions, to form an estimate of the correctness of the answers; at some of them relate to subjects of considerable intricacy. There is one in particular, beginning “The Vicar is wrong," on which a great deal might be said. We very greatly doubt whether the Vicar was not right; and we would refer the gentleman who wrote the answer, to Taylor on Evidence, p.1156, and to the cases there cited.

On the whole, we think that there is a very unjust prejudice against the Sunday press.  Its character appears to us to be very creditable to the readers and conductors, and far from discreditable to the writers, of the papers in question.  We are sure, at any rate, that it is most unfair to speak of these journals as if their influence were altogether bad, and their very existence a nuisance.

Saturday Review, April 19, 1856.

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