Tuesday, January 10, 2017


There are a number of commonplaces which are constantly attracting attention under slightly different forms. From time to time they strike the fancy of ingenious writers, who give them a new gloss by the help of some degree of literary talent. One of the most attractive and popular of these is what may be called the anti-respectability commonplace. In every generation—in fact, several times in a generation—it occurs to some lively person who combines power of expression with more than average sensibility, that a certain proportion of those who are condemned, and even stigmatized, by the world at large—who fall, so to speak, under its official censure—are in reality better than others who are rewarded with its smiles and its favours. The approval of mankind; its causes and its effects, are all summed up in the one word, 'Respectable.' To be respectable, whether the object of the feeling is a man or a woman, is to fall under the protection of public opinion—to come up to that most real, though very indefinite standard of goodness, the attainment of which is exacted of every one as a condition of being allowed to associate upon terms of ostensible equality with the rest of the human race. The anti-respectability commonplace or commonplaces are made up of denunciations of the triviality of this standard, and illustrations of the numerous cases in which it fails to secure even that small amount of average virtue which it may be supposed to be intended to secure.

Novels, for very good reasons, are, generally speaking, made the vehicles of denunciations of this kind; and the publication of a popular novel is the commonest mode of bringing forward what is to be said on the subject. Such, at least, is the practice of our own day. Formerly, poetry answered the same purpose. Though at present it is hardly ever so employed, at least in this country, it is the common theme of all satirists from Horace to Pope. Whether Byron sneered or declaimed —whether Childe Harold or Don Juan was in hand—almost all his utterances might be summed up as protests against respectability. This style of writing has, perhaps, been carried farther in France than in any other country. It is the common topic of all the most popular French writers, and especially of Balzac and Victor Hugo, that the monster, Society, is the most oppressive of tyrants, imposing the most absurd tests by the most unreasonable means, on persons who are dwarfed in intellect and character by the discipline to which they are subjected, even if they are not driven into the very vices against which it is professedly directed. The popularity of these writers was such that at one time they no doubt exercised a great influence over the character, and even over the politics and history, of France. In our own country the same tune has been frequently played to audiences far less disposed to listen, and in every respect of a much less malleable constitution. Its characteristic merits and defects have been recently displayed in a very attractive way by Mrs. Norton. In her tale, Lost and Saved, that distinguished authoress has shot one more little arrow at poor old Society, who has in her time been made into a sort of Aunt Sally, eternally battered more or less skilfully by the missiles of a crowd of writers whose exertions are watched by the public at large with keen interest, and are rewarded, if they are in the least degree successful, by an applause which can hardly be said to be strictly proportioned to their merits.

The story itself is probably well known to most of our readers, and for the purpose of extracting and observing upon its moral, which alone, and not the literary merits of the book, is the object of the present article, it may be stated very shortly. Beatrice Brook—all youth, beauty, innocence, and virtue—loves, and is loved, by one Montague Treherne, who is heir—subject to the provisions of an oppressive and absurd will—to a title and an immense estate. Her father, a retired lieutenant in the navy, gets ruined by some unfortunate speculations, and at the height of his misfortunes his daughter, by the infernal arts of a certain Mrs. Grey, who is in league with Treherne, is inveigled into taking a journey on the Continent, under Mrs. Grey's care. At Venice she finds the existing incumbent of the title to which Treherne is the heir; and this formidable old man, armed by the tyrannical will with all manner of authority over Treherne's marriage, utterly forbids him to have anything to do with Beatrice. Treherne thereupon prevails upon Beatrice to elope with him to Trieste, where he expects to get married at all hazards, and the wicked Mrs. Grey helps him therein. Unluckily they get into a wrong steamer, and go to Alexandria, and thence to the middle of the desert, where, between travelling and emotion, Beatrice falls ill, and is likely to die. For the sake of her reputation she is extremely anxious to be married, and no clergyman being available, a passing doctor is dressed up to look like one, and performs the service. Hereupon Beatrice recovers, and, thinking herself Treherne's wife, lives with him as such. They then get back to England, and the whole story being kept very quiet, and especially the marriage, which would have endangered all Treherne's splendid prospects, Beatrice returns to her father, who supposes that she has been spending her time with Mrs. Grey. As, however, it becomes clear that she is going to have a child, she presses Treherne to acknowledge the marriage, and at last, going to his lodging for that purpose, is actually confined there. Her father does not know where she is, and Treherne keeps her as well as he can in the front parlour, promising that when he reaches the period fixed by the will for his majority, he will acknowledge her as his wife. There she and her child live for about a year in a most uncomfortable way, and by degrees she makes the discovery that there is very little sympathy between her lover and herself, and, in short, that she has made a great mistake. During this period a certain Lady Nesdale is put and is kept prominently before the reader. She is the wife of Lord Nesdale, and a niece of the wicked Mrs. Grey, and is the mistress of several men, of whom, at the period of the story, Treherne is the most favoured, and also the most prominent. Lady Nesdale is honoured and respected, while Beatrice pines away in her front parlour, neglected and wretched. Beatrice at last finds out the relations between her lover and Lady Nesdale. There are a variety of scenes of love and rage. Treherne tells Beatrice that the supposed marriage is all nonsense, and that if it were valid she could not prove it, and at last deserts her and her child, and leaves her in her front parlour without even money to pay her rent. As she happened, when she left her father's lodging to go over to Treherne's, to have in her pocket £170 worth of old Brussels lace, which she had a special gift of mending, she contrives to support her child and herself by mending lace, and to keep the £170 in reserve. After a good deal of trouble she is discovered by one Maurice Llewellyn, who, having been rejected by her sister, had immediately taken up with her intimate friend, and who happens also to be a friend of the doctor who celebrated the sham marriage. She is thus restored to her family, who receive her with open arms. Her father, however, dies of paralysis, and her child of epilepsy, and she goes abroad with her sister, and is kindly received by the father and mother of her sister's ex-lover, Maurice Llewellyn. At Genoa she falls in with an Italian count, who is an interesting widower, his wife having deserted him before her death. Treherne, who had married again, being about this time poisoned by Mrs. Grey, Beatrice considers herself as a widow, and marries the count. The public, we are informed, were pretty gracious to her, but were in the habit (surely not an altogether unnatural one) of asking whether in her youth there had not been some odd story about her having a child, and about an elopement?

Such is the story. It was put before the world with a certain stern, uncompromising air. The authoress showed in the preface, in the occasional observations interwoven with the story itself, and in a subsequent letter to the morning papers, that she took a high moral view of what she had done. She obviously regarded the tale by no means as a mere pastime—' a tale like another intended to be a mere elegant toy, destined to go the way of all such toys, and to be forgotten as soon as it had accomplished its purpose of amusing a few idle hours. On the contrary, it was to give the world a lesson, to make it reflect, to lash and expose wickedness in high places, and show the Lady Nesdales and other such sinners of this wicked world that there was one eye upon them which they could not hope to evade, the eye of a three-volume Providence, turned on as required by the monster circulating libraries which in these days provide so large a part of the world with both sentiments and opinions. Such being the pretensions of the book, let us see what it proves, and especially what it proves against the wicked world and the corrupt practices which it was apparently intended to expose and reform.

It proves first of all, or at least it appears to be meant to prove, that whereas Beatrice Brook was very good and perfectly innocent, she underwent great and needless sufferings, cruelly inflicted on her by hypocritical Society. If Mrs. Norton did not mean to say this at least, it is impossible to make out that she did mean anything specific. Is this, then, true? In the first place, was Beatrice Brook very good? No doubt she was attractive. A very pretty girl, accomplished, ladylike, natural, and full of life and animal spirits, is as pleasant an object as is to be found in this poor old world; and whatever the faults of the world may be, want of readiness to recognize that fact is most assuredly not one of them. It is, however, one thing to be charming, and quite another to be good; and though it might be, and no doubt was, not only natural but hardly avoidable to fall in love with Beatrice Brook, there was nothing much to praise in her, taking her at Mrs. Norton's own estimate. No girl of good feeling would have left her father and sister all alone and in great distress, in a wretched lodging in London, to go pleasuring about in France and Italy, with people whom she hardly knew. No woman who had any proper feeling of self-respect and decency would have eloped with her lover in the middle of the night, at half an hour's warning, putting herself entirely in his power, in a foreign country, when she might have received the protection of one of her own sex, and when, at all events, by simply staying where she was, she might easily have obtained some proper guardianship. Surely no one will contend that it is a mere conventional prejudice, not founded on any solid reason, which forbids a girl of eighteen or nineteen to travel about with a young man of twenty-four. To say that there is no great harm in such a step if the girl is in love with the man, is in effect to say that a pretty girl can do no wrong, and is under no moral obligations. The test of goodness, the very meaning of it, is to do right when it is unpleasant to do so; everybody can do right when it is pleasant. If Beatrice Brook had picked a pocket, her beauty would have been no excuse. Why was it an excuse for running away with her lover? She clearly did wrong; and not only wrong, but very wrong indeed, and richly deserved to be severely punished. Then, was the punishment unreasonably severe? The answer is, that whatever it was, it was self-inflicted. Society had nothing to do with it. She suffered great agony by concealing what had happened from her father. But why did she not take him into her confidence? Simply because she did not choose. Would society have blamed her if she had? So far from it, any sensible person whose advice she might have asked would instantly have said, "Tell your father, whatever you do; and lose no time about it. He is your natural protector; and Treherne has no right whatever to compel you to sacrifice your character to his prospects. If you have been foolish enough to promise him secrecy, the facts of the case not only excuse but require a breach of the promise to that extent. It is bare justice to yourself, to your father, and to your child, that you should have proper advice on the subject; and the promise made by you to your lover was clearly made under undue influence, and without reference to the present state of affairs." If this had been done, half the suffering which Beatrice had in fact to undergo, and a large part of the far more grievous suffering which her father and sister had to undergo, would have been avoided, and the rules of society—the ordinary current morality by which the great mass of mankind regulate their conduct—would have been complied with. By keeping her own counsel, Beatrice punished herself; and it is not only absurd, but absolutely impudent, to blame the rules of society for a result which would have been avoided by observing them.

What happens next? Beatrice's child is born under circumstances which are almost grotesquely improbable. After its birth, she lives with its father for more than a year without saying a single word about her marriage, and during this time she has no respectable female friends. She feels herself, in fact, out of the pale of society, and judiciously enough keeps herself to herself. Is society to blame for this? Ought it to lay down the rule, that whenever a young woman lives with a young man who is the father of her child, and to whom she is not known to be married, it is to be presumed that she is privately married to him, and has good reasons for concealing the fact? If not, it is difficult to see what else would have happened to Beatrice Brook than that which is said to have happened. As far as the world knew, she was living with a man who was not her husband, and the world refused, or, rather, if they had known of her existence, would have refused, to call upon her. Was the world so very wrong? So far respectability seems to have the best of it. At last, her sham marriage is proved to have taken place, and, her child being dead, she meets with friends with whom she lives quietly and respectably, though she avoids the world at large; and people who know little about the matter, to some extent avoid her, thereby wounding her pride. What is to be said of this? It would appear on the whole that she was rather leniently treated. Her friends were kind to her, and forgave her for a very serious fault, or, indeed, for more than one. The general public—the half-dozen people who knew her slightly—knew no more than this, that she had eloped with a man with whom she went through the thinnest possible kind of marriage ceremony, lived with him for more than a year, and then allowed him, without any attempt on her own part or the part of her friends to establish the validity of the first marriage, to treat it as a mere nullity, by deserting her and marrying somebody else. This being all that was or could be known upon the subject by the world at large, was the world at large wrong in shaking its head, saying that the story was a very queer and unpleasant one, and declining, upon the whole, to be intimate with the lady to whom it related—at least, until she had established a new position, and for a considerable time behaved herself well elsewhere? Candid observers will probably be of opinion that this was about the least that either could or ought to be expected, and that Miss Brook was treated not only justly, but as leniently as any one could be treated.

It may, however, be said, that Lady Nesdale, who was a thoroughly bad woman and deserved all that society could possibly inflict on her, was treated with every possible mark of respect, whilst Beatrice was excommunicated, and that the injustice lies not in the punishment of the one, but in the contrast afforded to it by the impunity of the other. The answer to this is given in a very few words: Lady Nesdale was not found out, and took good care not to be. She contrived to deceive even her husband, and, of course, persons who had no particular interest in her, and no call to be always watching her proceedings, would be more easily deceived. Her impunity no more proves that society is indifferent to morality than the impunity of a large number of pickpockets proves that there are no laws against theft. Indeed, in one of the scenes of Lost and Saved, Mrs. Norton observes that Lady Nesdale was horrified at the discovery of her secret by Beatrice, because she knew that if she was found out she would be expelled from all the distinctions and amusements which she valued so much, and reduced to the position of a social outlaw. What more could society do? To say that it does not in every case fully execute its own rules is only to say that it is not omniscient.

Cases no doubt occur in every one's experience in which women misconduct themselves, and are known to do so, but in which, owing to the absence of any positive scandal, society does not interfere. This may look like hypocrisy. In some cases it is so, but in general it is a question of evidence. It is of the essence of social penalties that every one should be entitled to the benefit of a doubt, and that nothing short of some notorious fact, the import of which cannot be questioned, should be taken as evidence of the sort of guilt which calls for social excommunication. If it were not so, the world would be at the mercy of malignant gossip, and some of the pleasantest and most useful relations of life would be prohibited. In social as well as legal relations it is always well to require a high standard of proof before you punish. Poena in paucos, metus in omnes, is the true theory; for the real security for good conduct is to be found, not in terror, but in conscience. The manifest, avowed crime is punished for the sake of branding the offence, far more than for the sake of removing a particular offender. The number of fortunate females, who are the objects of suspicion only, will always be considerable; nor shall we ever get rid of what has been well called the undetected class.

This observation shows how far the rules of the world, as to respectability, have a moral foundation. They are not intended to make the world good, still less can they be defended on the ground that it is a moral duty to avoid the society of wrong-doers—a duty which, if it existed, would certainly put each of us in his or her own peculiar corner, and keep us there all the days of our lives. Their real justification is that they tend to prevent certain evils, which always will exist, from rising to a height which would make it impossible for human beings to associate together at all. People who blame the rules of society, and ascribe to them injustice and hypocrisy, are in reality paying to society an extravagant compliment. Their complaints ascribe to it functions to which it has no sort of claim. They suppose it ought to make people good. In fact, it is only a sort of parish beadle, and such writers as Mrs. Norton are angry because it is but a deputy Providence. They are just like the French peasant who blames the Government if he has a bad harvest. Society at large cannot be more moral than its individual members, and, of course, it seeks not to reform the world, but to make its wheels run smoothly.

The only other charge against the world which Mrs. Norton's story suggests is that Treherne was not so severely punished as Beatrice for their common fault, he being, in a moral point of view, far the greater offender of the two. This is not put forward, by any means, so prominently as the other complaints with which it is mixed up; and, indeed, it is not alleged that the public at large had any means of knowledge on the subject. The facts stated are, first, that an ambitious and worldly-minded woman, who did know of the story, saw in it no objection to a marriage between Treherne and her daughter—a marriage by which her daughter would be raised to a position splendid both in rank and fortune; and, secondly, that an honest and upright man, who was intimately acquainted with all the facts, looked upon Treherne ever after as a very contemptible blackguard, and dropped his acquaintance, though they had married sisters. The inference from this appears to be that society, as at present constituted, lays down no specific rules as to the consequences which are to be annexed to immorality in the case of a man, but leaves individuals to judge upon the subject according to their estimate of the moral heinousness of the particular circumstances of every individual case, though, with regard to a woman, it is more severe, punishing mere want of chastity with excommunication, whatever special circumstances of mitigation may be attached to any particular instance of it. There can be little doubt that such, as a matter of fact, is the tacit rule on which society at large generally acts in these cases. It certainly looks at first sight more like a case of injustice than the other instances alleged by Mrs. Norton; but when the matter is considered it soon becomes apparent that the rule rests, at all events, on broad foundations, and that the mere exhibition of a particular instance in which a great moral offender is visited by a lighter punishment than one who is much less wicked than himself, really proves nothing at all.

Any one who has reflected at all on punishments must have been struck with the observation that wherever they are inflicted the relation between moral guilt and the severity of suffering is very slight, and that it often appears not to exist at all. This is equally true of the laws of a nation, the rules of society, the management of a school, nay, the management of the lower animals. It is not the worst kind of dog that gets whipped oftenest or hardest, nor is it the worst boy at a public school that is most severely flogged. An Eton boy goes to a public-house on a hot afternoon and drinks more ale than is good for him. There is or was a law against going to any public-house whatever, and the breach of this law involved (very properly) a sound flogging. It is easy to imagine other acts which would show a thousand times more moral depravity which it would obviously be unwise to punish at all. For instance, a boy who is strong and an excellent swimmer sees another drowning, and, instead of jumping into the water to help him, runs to get assistance, and there is reason to suppose that he would not have been sorry if his companion had been drowned before it came. Morally this would approach to the guilt of murder, yet it is very probable that a sensible schoolmaster would not think it right to punish it. He would leave the offender to his own conscience and the contempt of his schoolfellows. The object of punishment, he would say, is to preserve the discipline of the school, not to make the boys good and courageous. This, indeed, is the true theory of punishment, in whatever sphere it is exercised, legal or social. It acts exclusively by terror, unless, indeed, by some accident the person on whom it is inflicted happens to be of such a disposition and is placed in such circumstances that the mere suffering as such does him good, as an illness or an accident might. These, however, are exceptional cases, nor are the exceptions frequent. In all ordinary instances the primary effects of punishment are exclusively deterrent; hence the propriety of establishing a rule by which it is inflicted turns upon the question whether, if such a rule were established, there would be any reasonable probability that it would effect its purpose.

The social rule in question is, that whenever a woman is manifestly proved to be guilty of particular faults, she is to be socially excommunicated, no excuse being allowed for her conduct; but that this is not to be the case with men, whose offences in that particular are left to be dealt with by individuals according to their individual estimate of the particular circumstances of the case. The suggestion made by such books as Lost and Saved is that the same rule ought to be applied to both sexes. Let that proposal be examined by the test suggested above. As to that branch of the rule which applies to women, it is clear in the first place that women—in the present state of society—are so much more dependent on the opinion of the world than men, and are so much more delicately framed than men in body, mind, and spirit, that there is a far better prospect of producing the desired result in their case than in the case of men. If a woman is put out of the social synagogue, what can she do? She has nothing to give to the world which the world cannot get elsewhere; she is dependent on others for all that makes life not only agreeable, but even tolerable, and being by nature infinitely more susceptible than men to the pleasures and pains produced by the praise or blame of others, she is much more likely to be affected by the prospect of losing the one and incurring the other. Hence there is a reasonable prospect of producing the effect desired by erecting the sentiment in question into a positive rule with inexorable penalties. Nor is this matter of mere speculation. There is no doubt, as a matter of fact, that the existence of the rule in question produces immense results, and that wherever it is vigorously and impartially administered, it produces a very high average level of female virtue, and thereby invests life in general with what is unquestionably the best and greatest of its charms. It may fairly be asked why such a rule should be so stringently enforced and admit of so few exceptions? Why should not the world at large inquire into special circumstances, and admit them in extenuation of punishment, as reasonable people would in their own private relations? The answer is, that the sympathies of the great bulk of people are sure to be so strongly enlisted on the side of the offender, the temptation to undue indulgence is so great, that indiscriminate severity is the only refuge to which men can fly from their own feelings. The features of every individual case admit of being put in such a light that if it were regarded by itself it would be impossible to treat it very severely, and the result would be that there would be no social sanction at all for female virtue. You must draw the line somewhere, and there is only one intelligible way of drawing it.

With regard to men the case is different. If any attempt were made to enforce male chastity by the same sanctions as are and can be applied to women, the social penalties guaranteeing it would be defied by so large and powerful a minority, that the system could not be supported. Men are too strong to be held by such bonds. The attempt to impose them would produce evils which cannot be properly described, but would be felt in every household in the kingdom. The world at large needs its individual members as much as they need it. You can excommunicate a woman by simply refusing to associate with her, for the pleasure which her society gives is the only reason why you do associate with her; she stands in no other relation to the world than the social one. But this is not the case with men. A man is a politician, a country gentleman, a banker, a merchant, a tradesman, an artist, an author, a doctor, or fifty other things, and in this capacity he has something to give to a certain number of his fellow-creatures, which they cannot get without considerable inconvenience elsewhere. For instance, a man's family solicitor, who knows all his affairs, and has done business for him and his predecessors perhaps for generations, who has perhaps lent him money, and keeps numbers of his papers, figures in the Divorce Court in a discreditable way. Whatever the client may think of the matter, he cannot cast off the attorney at a moment's notice, even if he wishes it, and if he did, he would not find it easy to procure a successor who could be warranted immaculate in all his private relations. An eminent banker who is well known as an admirable man of business, and enormously rich, sets the world at defiance in his private relations. Can it be expected, would it be reasonable to expect, that all his customers should immediately withdraw their accounts? It is of course idle to expect anything of the sort. Whether, if the world were inhabited by angels, public opinion would make any distinction between the public and private character of individual angels, may be a carious subject for fanciful speculation, but as long as it is inhabited by men and women, it is clear that the distinction will always exist, and that very little notice will be taken in all the public relations of life of a man's private failings. This being once admitted, it is practically impossible to stop there, for there is no broad distinction between public and private life. The two are so much mixed up together that they cannot be separated. Suppose—as is the case with many men—a man bases his claims to private relations entirely on his public character. Suppose he simply sinks and puts out of sight the fact that he has any domestic relations at all, and goes into society simply on the footing of his being Mr. A., the author, Mr. B., the painter, Mr. C, the well-known traveller, or Mr. D., the member for such a borough. It is obvious that people who choose to associate with such a man on such terms, have no more right to ask whether there i3 or is not a Mrs. A., B., C, or D., or whether if there is, she lives with her husband in the usual way, than they have a right to ask what is their acquaintance's balance at the bank, or whether his bilk are paid. The relationship is altogether occasional, and is restricted in its very nature to some particular department in life. It is of the same kind in principle, though it may be different in degree, as the relationship between people who casually meet on a journey, and who would not, or need not, object to chat together, whatever might be their differences on the most vitally important subjects.

Thus the difference between the social rules which apply to the moral conduct of men and women is by no means a mere piece of unrighteous partiality. It rests on a solid basis, namely, the difference between the relation in which society at large stands to the two sexes, and the different degrees of power which it has over them. No doubt if the extreme views of women's rights, which are advocated by some eminent persons, were ever to prevail; if women were ever to cease to be dependent upon men for support and protection; if they came to sustain public relations and characters, if they had professions, and sat in Parliament, and became merchants and landowners, they would acquire by that very fact as much liberty as to their morals, as men enjoy at present. If a man, for instance, made acquaintance, say with an eminent female barrister, living by herself in chambers in the Temple, he would associate with her on the same terms as with her male neighbours, and would no more think of asking the one than the other whether their moral conduct was always exactly what it ought to be. This is obvious, from the fact that in those walks of life where women are independent, and have quasi-public characters, they stand on much the same footing as men. This is the real reason why the morals of actresses, and, in general, women who maintain themselves by their artistic powers, are under a less rigid censorship than those of the rest of the sex. They have an independent standing ground of their own. They can give something which the world likes to have, and cannot get elsewhere, namely, the pleasure of hearing a fine voice, or seeing graceful gestures, and hence they can wring from the rest of the world a corresponding degree of liberty. Society may be right, or it may be wrong in the position which women hold. It may, and also it may not, be true that we should all be happier and better if women ceased to stand in that dependent relation to men which they occupy at present in all parts of the world; but so long as they do stand in that position, the world will be consistent in enforcing by inexorable sanctions a severe moral discipline upon them, and not upon men.

The result of the whole is that those general social rules, compliance with which constitutes respectability, and which are so much complained of by writers like Mrs. Norton, cannot fairly be represented as grievances, except by persons who are prepared to go much further, and to apply the same name to one at least of the fundamental institutions of society itself, as it is constituted here, and in most other parts of the world. Beatrice Brook was wronged by the comparative social impunity extended to Treherne only upon the supposition that women in general are wronged by being treated on the assumption that men ought to do the work of the world, and women ought to keep house for them. Once admit this maxim as the general rule of life, subject to a very few exceptions of little importance, and the rest follows of course.

The general question raised by Lost and Saved suggests two or three minor questions which are by no means without interest. In the first place, although we may not think that the authoress any more than her predecessors has convicted the world of absurdity or inconsistency, or that she has made the least step towards anything approaching to a suggestion of any sounder rules or principles than those which in fact prevail amongst us, it may be said, not quite without plausibility, that she, like many other writers, has put a momentary gloss on a very old, well-known, and important truth, which is not unfrequently forgotten —the truth, namely, that the opinion which other people have either of a man or woman is a very poor test indeed of the real worth of that man or woman.

It is no difficult matter to put cases of people worthy of every kind of respect and admiration, who are nevertheless under circumstances in which the world at large will infallibly condemn, sometimes even punish, them. Overlook Miss Brook's faults, and suppose that she had been brought to the position in which she was placed quite innocently—as no doubt she might have been, for instance by a real marriage disavowed by Treherne and incapable of being proved by her, and contracted under circumstances which threw no discredit upon her—and there can be no doubt that her reputation would have suffered whilst his would have been but slightly affected. It is impossible to deny such a state of things might exist, and such stories as Lost and Saved no doubt set that admitted fact in a somewhat striking light; but what is the inference from this? That it is very cruel to form such opinions as are formed on such occasions, say, or rather insinuate, the authors of such tales. The reasons already assigned show that the insinuation is not true. The true inference is that the opinions which society at large forms of its individual members are of necessity formed upon scanty and insufficient materials, and would properly be described as very unjust if the justice of an opinion implied its truth. They are in fact no more than guesses, which people are obliged to make for their own protection as well as they can, but which the subjects of them ought to disregard, or, at all events, to view with something very like indifference. Justice, in fact, is a quality not to be expected from society. It is not a judge and is not bound to be just, and it is therefore foolish to reproach it with injustice. The true inference from the sufferings of Miss Brook is, that a wise man or woman will do his or her best to cultivate a certain degree of thickness of skin, and to be as independent of their neighbours' opinions as they can manage to be. No doubt the existing state of things makes it extremely hard for a woman to do this, and the effort to do it, especially if it is successful, will deprive her of some attractions, but this is an inevitable evil. The world is not so constituted that everybody can be happy under all circumstances; and almost all the nonsense that is talked proceeds from a tacit assumption that it is. A beautiful and attractive woman is perhaps the most attractive object in nature. She meets with a degree of attention, deference, flattery, and even of sincere and genuine homage, which to male observers seems enough to turn the strongest head, and to constitute the most intoxicating draught which can be offered to he lips of any human creature. This is very like investing one's money in limited liability companies. You may and perhaps do get 20 per cent, for it, but you may wake up one morning and find yourself destitute. High interest, in enjoyment as well as in trade, means bad security, and Miss Brook, and other young women like her, hold their pleasure by the tenure of being at the mercy of the society which worships them. If the bargain suits both parties, there is no particular harm done. Miss Brook gets her incense, the world at large judges her conduct by a practical rule which gives a right result—say five times in seven—one of the unlucky chances falls to her. It is very proper that the rules of the game should be known, but the players must not want to draw stakes if the luck goes against them, and the bystanders, when asked to pity the losers, may be excused for saying that nobody forced them to try their luck. Those who associate with a small number of intimate friends will for the most part have their conduct fairly judged. If they allow their happiness to depend on the opinion of a large number, they allow it to depend on an opinion which must of necessity be formed on very imperfect materials.

Another observation which such stories as Lost and Saved suggest arises from the common criticisms upon them. They are always attacked by the same thrust and defended by the same parry. What an immoral book this is, says the critic. I must paint the world as I find it, says the author. Yes, but you should not be prurient, says the critic. No more I am, replies the author. The last issue—prurient or not prurient— involves a different question in respect to every book concerning which it is raised, and need not be further noticed here. The other—the general question—whether such books as Lost and Saved are in their own nature objectionable, however well they may be executed, is one of wider interest, and calls for one or two observations which are frequently omitted in discussing it. In the first place it is perfectly clear that nothing but the most wretched prudery would describe as necessarily immoral a work of great genius—the Oedipus Rex, for instance—because it turned upon a revolting incident; but it is equally clear that the ordinary run of novels with a moral purpose have no claim at all to be judged on the principles which are proper in discussing the moral value of books of that order. They are almost universally pamphlets conceived from a sentimental instead of a dogmatic point of view. Such being their position, the true objection to them is not that the doctrine which their author means to insinuate would be immoral if it were advocated in express words, but that by addressing the imagination instead of the reason they tend to set the mind as it were on a wrong scent—to draw it away from the broader and weightier matters of the moral law to dwell upon byways and exceptional cases, which to the great mass of mankind are not only not instructive, but positively injurious. Probably there are cases in which falsehood is justifiable, but if a man were to write a novel the point of which was to show what the cases are in which a good man or lovely woman was wrongfully punished for a laudable lie, it would be a very bad service to morality. The mind had much better be led into other paths. In the same way there may be cases in which the common rules as to the relations of the sexes do not apply, but it is not a wholesome thing to seek them out and dwell upon them. The objections, indeed, are stronger in this than in other cases of immorality, for reasons too obvious to mention. If such matters are to be discussed, they should be discussed in the most direct and abstract manner. A novelist, who is not a person of the highest genius, writing a work to last for all ages, should never forget the old motto—Virginibus puerisque.

Cornhill Magazine, September 1863.

No comments:

Post a Comment