Rank and Beauty; or the Young Baroness (anonymous, 1856).
It must often have occurred to our readers to ask how the great mass of three-volume novels come to be written, and who their readers can be? Their existence would seem to prove that, somewhere or other, there must be a class of persons who find amusement in reading catalogues of unusual names prefixed to long strings of utterly uninteresting assertions intended for conversations, and interwoven with a quantity of more or less remotely connected statements, affirming, amongst other things, that two people fell in love with each other, and were ultimately married. The mystery involved in the question, Who read the novels? is not unlike that which lies in the problem, "Who read the advertisements?" Every one reads so often of something to somebody else's advantage, and is so frequently beset with inquiries as to whether he bruises his oats, or does several other things equally unfamiliar to himself and to all his acquaintance, that most of us are at times puzzled at the inexhaustible quantity of apparently useless information which is daily provided for the instruction of mankind. To any one to whom reading is either a pleasure or a business, a three-volume novel is a kind of voice crying in the wilderness, of which it is equally difficult to conjecture from whom it proceeds, or to whom it is addressed. The truth is, like the Three Estates of the Realm, trial by jury, a married woman’s right to dower, or a married man's estate by the courtesy of England, the three-volume novel is one of those institutions under which the British Empire has reached its present unexampled pitch of prosperity. The wisdom of our ancestors has erected in every town, village, and watering-place in these islands, certain establishments called circulating libraries, which are supplied by a few central London publishing houses. Let a person once distinguish himself by writing any one thing which obtains the reputation of being amusing, and forthwith there is established an unfailing demand for his writings amongst this class of amusement brokers. No human being, except the keepers of circulating libraries, will buy a copy of his books; but they will buy anything if it is written in three volumes, and printed in large type, with a wide margin. What is more singular still is, that they will not only buy it, but will find means to Eat it out at two- once a volume to a not inconsiderable class of people, who, wit out exercising any discretion of their own, meekly accept whatever the circulating library sends them, and after a certain time return it, more or less read, and ask for more. The quantity of rubbish which comes to be written in this way is incalculable, and the quantity of utter idleness which it produces-idleness compared with which mere vacuity of mind is healthy and energetic employment—is also incalculable. We have undergone the labour of examining a specimen of this kind of literature, characteristically denominate Rank and Beauty, and we will record as well as we can the results of our adventure.
Once upon a time there was a peeress in her own right called Lady Umfraville, who was very young, very rich, and very beautiful. She had an estate in Leicestershire, and a house in London; and she lived with her father Mr. Windham) at Enmore in Somersetshire. They had some neighbours called Lord and Lady Amery, who had a son called Prior Vernon. Mr. Windham and Lad Umfraville went up to town for the season. Evelyn Lady Umfraville was very romantic; and whilst still Miss Windham, she had contrived, by reading the newspapers, to fall hopelessly in love with the Prune Minister of the ay, who was “gradually wrought up by her fancy into the realization of that ideal perfection which is the day-dream of the enthusiastic." This "unseen idol of Evelyn's heart" was Lord Rupert Conway, who had been “called while still a youth to the first situation which a subject can hold in the universe." As the whole plot is laid in the present reign, and as Prime Ministers are few in number, it is impossible not to wonder who is represented by this noble youth. We have only Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Derby, Lord Aberdeen, and Lord Palmerston to choose from. The youthfulness would seem to point to the present Premier; but the chivalry of the following description inclines us to believe that Mr. Windham must have taken in the Morning Herald and the Press, and that Miss Windham must have conceived, let us hope, an unrequited passion for Lord Derby:--
‘Evelyn gave one glance. It was enough-she was not disappointed. It seemed as if a picture on which she had long gazed was suddenly instinct with life, and had stepped from its frame before her. His tall figure, the distinguished simplicity of his air—it [here the grammar breaks down under the burden of the thought] was a living Vandyke, a Cavalier, one of his [whose?] noble cavalier ancestors, or one to whom her fancy had always likened him, who long of ore had with an Umfraville fought with the Paynims far beyond the sea. Was this reality?’We should be rather inclined to doubt whether it was; but as far as we can understand the last sentence, the young lady ought to have remembered the injunction that a woman may not marry her grandfather, for if the gentleman in question had fought “with Paynims" in the Crusades, he must have stood in some such relation to her.
After the introduction of Lord Rupert Conway, there is a certain grave pause in the story, the progress of which through the first volume is something as follows:—
Lady Umfraville went to a party,
Lady Umfraville went to stay with Lord Ipswich (Lord Rupert Conway's father), at Richmond, for some days. She saw Lord Rupert there.
Mr. Windham returned to town.
On the 12th May (the year is not mentioned), Lady Umfraville went to the Horticultural Show with Lady Amery. Lord Rupert Conway, "stepping before a dazzling bank of azalias," said, “Are not these beautiful?" “Beautiful!" answered Lady Umfraville, “and I am so fond of azalias."
Lady Umfraville dined at Lord Amery‘s.
Lady Umfraville went to Almack's.
Lady Umfraville went to the Horticultural Gardens again.
Lady Umfraville went to Wandsworth, to take care of some little girls, giving up a concert, where she might perhaps have seen Lord Rupert, for that purpose. She met the Duke of Plessingham at Wandsworth, who proposed to give a tournament at Plessy Canons in her honour.
Mr. Windham asked Sir Luttrell Wycherley to dinner. He was a man who always tried to attract notice by affecting oddity. He once lived four months in a fire-balloon for that purpose; in which he was, he says, “ at the mercy of the elements; tossed by the winds, a spark would have blazed my habitation like a rocket, and left me to fall like the stick; and more than once, in passing through a cloud, my fire was extinguished, and down I came. It was in the desert."
Lady Umfraville talked to Sir Luttrell Wycherley, and also to Mr. Prior Vernon.
Lady Umfraville sat for her picture.
Lady Umfraville went to Windsor, and met Lord Rupert Conway there-on the top of the Round Tower. “What an unrivalled view!" exclaimed she. "You are pleased with your visit?" said he. “Enchanted! a Queen to live and die under-to live and die for." “Ha! cried he, with sudden emotion, and with an eureka expression of countenance" (we have heard of eureka shirts), “ as if he had found a heart in unison with his own.”
That evening Lady Umfraville went to the Opera. The season in London was over early, because there was a general election.
Lady Umfraville went into Somersetshire, and afterwards into Leicestershire.
Mr. Prior Vernon made her an offer, and was refused.
Lady Umfraville went into Kent, to visit the Duke of Plessingham. She went out in a yacht, which got into a fog and got out again.
This concludes the first volume. In the second, the writer seems to think his book may be a little deficient in life, and gives a good deal of incident. There is a tournament at Plessv Canons, where there is an unknown knight (Lord Rupert .Conway), who fights the Knight of the Scorpion (Sir Luttrell Wycherley) with real swords. “Rushing on the unguarded flank of his antagonist, he struck it with his sword so fierce and strong, that the armour rent, and the sheer-descending blow unhorsed the rider, flinging him, stunned and breathless, to the ground." Sir Luttrell Wycherley and the Duke of Plessingham both make offers to Lady Umfraville, who refuses them both. Several incidents lead Lord Rupert Conway to suppose that she has accepted the Duke; among at which may be mentioned her taking a voyage to Spain in is yacht, to recover from a brain fever caused by Lord Rupert's neglect, and travelling with him from Gibraltar to Cadiz. If our readers have any curiosity to know what came of it all, they must read the book for themselves. We broke down in the second volume, and are quite unable to say whether and when the hero and heroine were married—or, if not, why not, or how otherwise.
We should not have noticed this most absurd rubbish if we had not wished to show what inconceivable twaddle people will imagine to be amusing, if it is put into something which they are accustomed to call a novel. We have done the book no injustice – on the contrary, our abstract is far less dreary than the original, for we have spared our readers hundreds of pages of what is meant for conversation, which dribbles on, to use an expression of Mr. Carlyle’s, “like an everflowing tide of ditch-water,” after the following fashion:--
‘Persons may admire a character that they do not fully understand; and how much devoted attachment has been often shown by those who felt only the attachment, and who cared for the enthusiasm only because they cared for the enthusiast.’We have not a notion who says this; but it appears to us that it does not much matter whether it is put into the mouth of man, woman, or child, or whether it is read backwards, forwards, or beginning in the middle, for we cannot detect in it any meaning, either general or particular. We do not know that Rank and Beauty is worse than other books of its kind—it is probably an average specimen of a detestable genus. To conclude with a long established formula—If our article induces one circulating library not to order this work, our labour will not have been given in vain.
Saturday Review, April 26, 1856.