Monday, January 23, 2017

Guy Livingstone

Guy Livingstone is rather a favourable specimen of a class of books which are one of the most characteristic literary products of the present day. It is not a work of art, nor is it a novel with a moral, nor is it a satire, nor a sporting story, though it belongs in some degree to each of these subdivisions of the prolific genus of fiction. An anonymous writer thinks it well to invent a character whose works and ways, and general view of life, he puts before the world, with a sort of tacit request to be informed what the world thinks of such a personage. It is a little difficult to say what is the exact meaning and value of such a proceeding. To some extent, no doubt, the author must be taken to endorse his hero's views, for the mere fact of excogitating and publishing them to the world, gives them a currency which they would not otherwise enjoy; but we are left in the dark as to the real extent of this resemblance, and, as in photographic portraits, there is a scowl on the features which is essentially untrue. The author has always a perfect right to turn round on his reader with the assertion, that he had no intention of recommending his hero either for imitation, or even for sympathy. He may say, as Lord Byron constantly did say, --My ‘Corsairs’ and ‘Giaours’ do not embody my own views. I am a poet and a peer, amusing myself with literature, and caring nothing for the moral fitness of things. But in truth such pleas are merely evasive. All fictions, unless they are composed in an artistic spirit as rare as it is in many respects excellent, have a direct moral, and do, in fact, produce moral results on those who read them. To read an elaborate account of a person's life and conversation, specifying his feelings and motives, is very like associating with him for a certain time; and it is hard to imagine any theory of authorship on which less responsibility attaches to the author of such a work, than that which belongs to a man who, being better acquainted than any one else with the character and conduct of another, introduces him to all his friends, and takes great trouble to make them intimate with him. If the person so introduced is a gambler, a blackleg, and a bully, the introducer would be condemned for his conduct, even though he might himself be the most irreproachable of mankind. It is, perhaps, the fairest and the most convenient method of dealing with such cases, to leave the author entirely out of consideration, to accept, for the time being, the events and persons described as real, to discuss their character upon that supposition, and to leave the author to draw his own conclusions as to the degree in which he himself has been made the subject of praise or blame.

The story of Guy Livingstone is short. He is a young man of considerable wealth and enormous personal strength, which is accompanied with that grimness and ferocity of disposition which has of late years excited so much effeminate admiration. The early part of the book is occupied in stripping him for the ring and showing his postures. We are introduced to his ‘enormous frame, square and stedfast as the keep of a castle,’ though ‘lean in the flanks as a wolf-hound’ — a comparison, by the way, which in these days it is not very easy to appreciate. Moreover, he had ‘a set sternness about the lips and lower jaw,’ and altogether ‘the face of one of those stone crusaders who look up at us from their couches in the Round Church of the Temple.’ We never read of this sort of hero without a wish that we could put a whole batch of them into some convenient arena and leave them to fight it out. Would Brian de Bois Guilbert be a match for Lara? If Dandie Dinmont met Dirk Hatteraick, which would have the best of it? Would Rodolphe, the prince in disguise in the ‘Mystères de Paris,' with his ‘muscles of steel under a skin of velvet,’ have got the better of Livingstone's ‘sinewy arms,’ and which of them all could cope with the mighty Comte de Monte Christo? Livingstone, to be sure, crumpled up a silver cup in his hand, which was ‘all fibre and sinew like an oak-bough;’ but then Dantés, after being, we forget how many years, in a loathsome dungeon, bent a chisel into the shape of a horse-shoe and straightened it out again — a feat, by the way, which speaks ill for the steel, whatever it proves as to the muscle.

After justifying his ‘pitiless sternness’ and other heroic properties, by thrashing a prize-fighter and performing some similar exploits, Livingstone entertains a circle of guests at his ancestral hall — Kerton Manor in Northamptonshire, a sort of temple of grimness. There had dwelt Colonel Livingstone, the hero's father, who, being mortally wounded, smote his assailant to such purpose that his helmet was cut in twain down to the cheek strap; there, too, had lived several other persons, all of whose portraits were remarkable for ‘the same expression ‘of sternness and decision about the lips and lower part of the face: ' to wit, Beau Livingstone of the Court of Queen Anne, Prior Bernard, the friend of the great Earl of Warwick, and Sir Malise, surnamed ‘Poing-de-fer,’ who helped to storm Ascalon. It is rather unlucky that in ancient times people were far less romantic than they are now. “If Sir Malise really was called ‘Poing-de-fer’, it is probable that he owed his name not to a particularly strong arm, but to having lost his hand and supplied its place with an iron hook. [Ordericus Vitalis tells a story of a monk surnamed ‘De manu ferreâ;' which title he gained from the circumstance, that having had his hand cut off for an atrocious crime, he wore a hook instead of it] The circle of friends collected at this stern abode comprised Mr. Forrester, a dandy life-guardsman, Miss Raymond, with whom he is in love, Miss Flora Bellasys, a voluptuous beauty, and Mr. Hammond, a gentleman in delicate health, who tells the story and is Livingstone's intimate friend. To them enters a certain unromantic Mr. John Bruce, a Scotchman, who is engaged to Miss Raymond, and who, though he has a good deal of strength, has no activity and does not care for field sports. The other members of the party hospitably try to make him as uncomfortable as they can, and after a time Mr. Forrester and Miss Raymond elope together, being furnished with money for that purpose by Livingstone.

Before this event takes place Mr. Hammond goes to Ireland, where he falls in with a second edition of Livingstone, one Ralph Mohun, who is even more ferocious than his friend, and very nearly as strong, though his strength is principally illustrated by the fact that when attacked in his house in Tipperary, ‘his bushy beard bristled with rage; ' and when he had occasion to knock a man down in Paris, ‘the grey hair bristled round his savage face like a wild boar's at bay.’ In early life Mohun had run away with a married woman, who died of a broken heart, with that lovely and pious composure which such persons usually show in novels. Inheriting an estate in Ireland, he becomes the terror and horror of the place, butchering a considerable number of rapparees, who make an attack upon his house, with a brutal ferocity which his biographer seems to take singular pleasure in describing. At the house of this savage brute Mr. Hammond hears of Forrester's elopement with Miss Raymond, and of Guy Livingstone's engagement to one Constance Brandon, a young lady of exquisite beauty, and of very high church principles and ascetic habits. Guy, as might have been expected, is rather strong meat for Constance, especially as he has a weakness for flirting with her lovely and extremely voluptuous rival, Flora Bellasys. One unlucky evening a ball takes place, at which Guy, Constance, and Flora are all present. Guy ‘had been dining at the mess of his old regiment.  I guessed from the unusual brilliancy of his eyes, and from the slight additional flush on his brown cheeks, that the wassail had been deep.’ As policemen say, he was not drunk, but had been drinking. In this state of things he waltzes with Flora, and takes her into the conservatory to cool herself .  ‘The fiery Livingstone blood, heated sevenfold by wine and passion, was surging through his veins like molten iron.’ He takes a tempting opportunity of kissing his partner, who enjoys being kissed, and has the additional satisfaction of being seen in that situation by Miss Constance Brandon, at which that young lady is so much disgusted that she casts off her lover on the spot, and, ‘the light dies in her eyes, and the colour in her cheeks, never to return to either again till she shall wake on the Resurrection morning.’ Hammond finds Guy next day in a very dogged frame of mind, about to start for the Continent, where, in the company of Ralph Mohun, he passes the winter in constant debauchery and gambling. Constance pines away, and ultimately dies of consumption. On her death-bed she writes to Guy twice to recall him: Flora intercepts the first letter, the second brings him to her bedside in time to see her once more. An affecting scene takes place, the gist of which is, that she tells him she thinks he will die before long, and gets him to promise not to marry Flora. He goes home in a brain fever; whilst he is convalescent Flora comes to see him, whereupon he swears a great oath that he will never forgive her, nor see her again, if he can help it. ‘I thought,’ says Mr. Hammond ‘and think still, that he erred on the side of harshness.’ We are inclined to think so too; why need he kick her down stairs? After his recovery, Guy goes abroad to Italy, but he is an altered man. A lazzarone is impudent: ‘but the old hardness of heart was wearing away.’ ‘Livingstone only lifted him by the throat ‘and held him suspended against the wall, as you may see the children in those parts pin the lizards in a forked stick. Then he let him drop unhurt, but green with terror.’ Shortly afterwards he actually condescended to save the lives of some boatmen in the Bay of Naples, whom he took on board his yacht to avoid a white squall. ‘You will say that this was only an act of common humanity,’ observes his biographer. ‘If you had known the man you would have thought, as I did, that the words of her who was an angel then, were bearing fruit already’ —crab apples at best. In Italy are the Forresters, and one evening Mr. Forrester is barbarously murdered by Bruce, his rival; Guy tracks him down, and he goes mad with remorse and terror, after making a full confession. Guy thereon returns to England in company with the widow, and the whole melancholy party return to Kerton, where one morning the hero riding his enormous horse Axeine—a brute edition of himself— gets a fall. Axeine rolls on him, and crushes his spine, and after some weeks of horrible torture, grimly endured, he dies, and Miss Brandon's prophecy is accomplished.

Such is the story. Its general tone, as our readers will have observed, is a sort of glorification of strength and ferocity. Mr. Hammond reverences Guy, and more than half excuses Mohun, in consideration of their gifts in these particulars. We shall have a few words to say upon the doctrine immediately; but we are bound in fairness to observe, in the meantime, that the execution of the story is very good indeed. It is long since we have seen a better written novel. It is short, terse, and nervous; the composition is remarkably careful and scholar-like; and it is enlivened by vigorous epigrammatic wit. The character of Flora Bellasys is excellently sustained, and some of the scenes are drawn with great power. We may refer, in particular, to a quarrel between Colonel Mohun and one Horace Levinge, a Jew debauchee, which leads to a duel, in which Levinge is killed, and to the confession made by Bruce of Forrester's murder. We have seldom read anything more horrible, yet it is neither disgusting nor unmanly. The author has a great taste for classical quotations; and the influence of the kind of education which they imply is sufficiently well marked throughout the whole book; but he has learnt from Mr. Thackeray the unpleasant trick of looking at classical characters from an essentially modern point of view. It is not unamusing to criticise pius Aeneas according to the canons of that contempt for respectability which so largely influences all modern novelists; but that is not the way to understand Virgil.

The moral aspect of Guy Livingstone is of more interest than its literary merits. It does not, it is true, represent any particular school of thought or feeling; but it is one of the straws which show characteristically enough the set of that great body of undefined sentiment, which forms so important an element in the incoherent mass collectively known as public opinion. As we have already observed, a novel may be considered as a sort of indirect request by the author to the readers for sympathy, generally for admiration; and the questions suggested by the work before us are such as these: Was not Guy Livingstone a fine fellow? Was he not a very impressive and wonderful person, showing, whatever might be his faults, the inherent raciness and vigour of the stock from which he sprung? Is he not, at any rate, a very model of strength and sternness both of mind and body? Is it not a magnificent thing to be so stern and so strong? Such is the prevailing spirit of the book; and as it is one which is somewhat popular in the present day in more quarters than one, it may be desirable to examine it. Guy Livingstone does not affect us with that kind of mixture of pity and terror which it seems to have been intended to produce. In the first place, we are something more than sceptical about the hero's strength, either of body or of mind; and, in the second, we dislike the system of what may be described as manifesto novels.

It may seem rather paradoxical to argue against the physical strength of a man who can hold people up by the neck like lizards in a forked stick, crumple up silver cups in his hand, thrash prize-fighters, and ride untameable horses, but it is so easy to pile Pelion upon Ossa in this way, in a novel, that we have a right to be critical. Nothing is more easy than to put together all sorts of astonishing feats, and to justify them by direct assertions, that in point of fact the person described was capable of performing them; but this is a very clumsy and unsatisfactory way of proceeding. The true method would, no doubt, be to describe the whole character in such a manner that the physical force of the body might be inferred from the habits of the mind. It is easy to say that a man has a ‘huge frame’ and ‘iron muscles,' and to assign to him all the other conventional proofs of strength which novelists are so much in the habit of lavishing on their heroes, but it is a much more difficult and delicate matter to describe the influence which a constitution of that kind would produce upon habits of thought and feeling. To do this we require a much more intimate acquaintance with physiology, and a much greater exactness of thought, than most novel writers possess. Physical strength, so far from being a very simple thing, is one of which it is by no means easy to form a clear conception. Guy Livingstone, with his enormous stature, immense weight, and power of drinking very hard without suffering any immediate inconvenience, may, in one sense, and for some purposes, have been a very strong man. Looking at him with the gloss off, as he would be at a somewhat later period of life, we can only think of him as an overgrown, unwholesome, irritable, obstinate, country squire, with about the most infernal temper that ever a man was cursed with. If this be so, it shows that the book does not set the whole man before us, but only a glorified vision of one short passage in his life.

It is curious to observe, in connexion with this matter, how very seldom a novelist endows his hero with really durable, or really serviceable, physical endowments. Even to a labouring man great muscular power is a matter of very secondary importance. There is a certain average amount of it which usually accompanies sound health, good food, and the habit of exertion, which it is, no doubt, a misfortune not to possess; but all that a man in that station of life gets by being particularly large and muscular is a qualification for becoming a puddler in a foundry, a blacksmith, a coalheaver, a drayman, or a private in the Guards. The really valuable bodily gifts are gifts which no power on earth can render romantic. They have been tersely described as a large brain and a large heart. To speak in less emphatic language, they consist of a vigorous circulation of the blood, a well-braced nervous system, healthy lungs, and, above all, a good digestion. All this is perfectly consistent with an insignificant figure and a very moderate amount of muscular power.

It is, in fact, perfectly clear that when novelists put on the stage a giant like Guy Livingstone they do not mean to describe physical strength as it is, but merely perpetrate a piece of symbolism, in which the body represents the mental qualities which they propose to celebrate. Livingstone is rigged out with all the machinery of bone, muscle, swarthy complexion, superhuman constitution, and the rest, in order that the outer man may harmonise with the stern ferocity and terrible strength of the inner self; but when we look into the matter, the character is strong only in passion and obstinacy, not in respect of determination, which is the only true form of mental strength. The greatest test of strength of character is the deliberate formation of plans, and their resolute execution. If a man determines to be a politician, an author, a lawyer, a painter, a chess-player, or even a fox-hunter, like the late Mr. Assheton Smith, and carries out his purpose deliberately and vigorously, he shows strength of character. Livingstone does nothing of this sort. His nearest approach to a fixed scheme of life is his plan of marrying Constance Brandon, and of not marrying Flora Bellasys. In every step of this affair he shows weakness of mind proportioned to his strength of mere blind passion. It was a very weak-minded thing to kiss Flora, when he wanted to marry Constance, at all events when Constance was in the room. It was a still weaker thing to refuse, from mere pride, to make matters up, when Constance gave him a chance of doing so; and it was weakest of all to take to drinking and gambling because Constance would not have him. He was stubborn and violent enough, no doubt, but stubbornness and violence are only sham strength; according to Mr. Carlyle's noble phrase, ‘a man in a convulsive fit is not strong though six men cannot hold him.’ Livingstone's strength is merely convulsive. He is hardly ever a really voluntary agent, — a person that is, who acts from a real deliberate judgment towards an end clearly apprehended and distinctly desired.

Apart from the radical defects of the character of the hero of the story, Guy Livingstone contains one remarkable feature, which fits in very appropriately with the worship of strength and audacity pervading the greater part of the book. A strange undertone of melancholy runs through it. The author is always making little semi-pious reflections about his hero, which are evidently sincere, but which have a somewhat ludicrous air when they are compared with the drift of the story. It is tinged, like so many other productions in the present day, by a sort of gentle and half-repentant scepticism. The writer has a remarkable familiarity with the ways of Providence, though such of his characters as he draws with any real vigour and sympathy are as far from being pious people, either in theory or practice, as can possibly be. They are all prodigal sons, wasting their substance in all sorts of riotous living, whilst he is always ready with the consolations of religion to make matters pleasant in a gentle, pathetic way. For example, Caroline Mannering (a married woman) runs away with Ralph Mohun, and lives with him miserably till her death; upon which the author converses with a supposititious Cornelia as follows:—
‘“She was rightly served "' says Cornelia; “such women ought to be miserable.” O rigid mother of the Gracchi! how we all respect you trónante in the comfortable cathedra of virtue inexpugnable, perhaps unassailed. Your dictum must stand for the present. The Court is with you. But I believe other balances will weigh the strength of temptation, the weakness of human endurance, the sincerity of repentance, and the extent of suffered retribution, when the Father of all that have lived and erred since the world began shall make up his jewels. In that day, I think the light of many orthodox virgins and dignified matrons will pale before the softer lustre of Magdalene the Saint.’
On another occasion, Guy gives his pocket-book to a poor girl in the street: —
‘How much did the case contain? Guy himself could hardly have told you; but, be sure, the Recorder of his many misdeeds knew, and reckoned it to the uttermost farthing, when he wrote down that one kind action to the credit side.”
A man who writes like this, ought to remember that the value of such assertions entirely depends on the authority of the speaker. We must candidly own, that the mere fact that a man wrote ‘Guy Livingstone' does not inspire us with much confidence as to the correctness of what he has to say about the day of judgment. If we are to have theology, let a man give his whole heart and soul to it. If we are to have a rattling novel about dogs, horses, boxing, gambling, and Byronic ferocity, perhaps it might be as well to leave Christianity alone. Merely to bow to it in passing, is a sort of insolence. No humane man or woman would make the remark attributed to Cornelia; but it is a strong thing to say, that a woman of whom we are told hardly anything, except that she was pretty, that she committed adultery, and that she fretted herself to death over the loss of her reputation, will eclipse the light of many orthodox virgins and dignified matrons; or that a man who does not know whether he gives a person £20 or £25, will get credit for £5 more in the latter case than in the former. Surely when we cannot possibly know anything, it is best to say nothing; and there is something offensive in stating as a fact the truth of an opinion on such subjects, merely because the person stating it hopes it may be true.

This habit is but one specimen amongst many of the inconveniences which necessarily attend novels written on the principle on which ‘Guy Livingstone’ is written. They, one and all, are meant to express a certain view of life in the loosest and most indefinite form. It is impossible to read such books, without seeing that the author is giving vent to a set of feelings and experiences which he has collected. All of them have a certain blasé air about them. They are a contrivance for enunciating idly, and without taking the trouble of definite arrangement, a set of impressions about the world which have grown up in the mind, and which do not exactly correspond with those which other people have put forward. Such views are, for the most part, crude and almost worthless, and when they are embodied in novels, they are invested with a false brilliancy, a false air of extent and profundity, and a degree of popularity totally disproportioned to their intrinsic value. For one person who has the will or the power to think, a thousand are ready to sympathise; and if a man possesses brilliancy enough to entertain, and imagination enough to interest, he may secure a vast amount of sympathy from vacant but susceptible people. It is an unmanly thing to have the sympathies moulded by such means as these, for, generally speaking, nothing can exceed the slightness and flimsiness of the doctrines thus preached, except the confidence of the preacher. They are a mere mouthful of froth. They say nothing, they prove nothing, they are nothing, but they addle a great many foolish brains, and prompt a vast deal of foolish conduct and unreasonable feeling.

Edinburgh Review, October 1858.

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