The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer (by Charles Lever, 1857).
This is the first volume of a new edition of Mr. Lever's novels. His whole career is a remarkable illustration of the literary tastes of the present day; for there is, perhaps, no writer whose characteristics of style and manner are affected so deeply by the modern habit of publishing novels in parts. Harry Lorrequer is beyond all comparison the best of his works—indeed, its great and not undeserved success was the immediate cause of the adoption by its author of the regular profession of a periodical novel writer. He would seem, like so many other authors, to have been deceived, by a sudden accession of wealth, into confounding capital with income, and to have supposed that because he did in a short space of time write a popular book, he could repeat the experiment indefinitely. The mistake is as common as it is injurious, and it was the more unfortunate in Mr. Lever's case because the soil of his mind was too thin to allow of over-cropping.
His peculiar gifts are of a nature to which it is almost impossible for any criticism to do justice. Punch’s Prize Novelists has exhausted the subject. His faults and merits are almost identical, for both the one and the other consist of exaggerations which are generally amusing and always incredible. Harry Lorrequer is a subaltern in a marching regiment which, at the opening of the story, has just landed at Cork on the conclusion of the peace of 1815. About the beginning of the book he is domesticated at the house of a certain Lord Callonby, who, mistaking him for his cousin, courts his society in the hope that he may ultimately marry his daughter. The young people fall in love, and, after a certain number of difficulties, marry in the usual manner. In the interval which the story fills up, Lieutenant Lorrequer contrives, without any particular relation to the main channel of events, to get into every scrape which can fall to the lot of man. Besides fighting, flirting, and love-making, he does a good deal in the way of gambling. He is suspected of passing forged notes, breaks half the bones in his body, hurls bootjacks at servants, gets drunk in a manner which is so purely ideal that it can scarcely be considered immoral, and is reduced to the strange necessity of masquerading about an hotel in a postilion's jacket and breeches, and making his appearance in a gentleman’s drawing-room dressed like a servant in a play. Mr. Lever makes no pretence to being an artist—his only object is to make his readers laugh, and in that undertaking he signally succeeds. We should doubt whether any modern writer of novels—not excepting Mr. Dickens—has given such intense delight to the whole generation of schoolboys. The colours of the picture are, no doubt, sufficiently glaring, and the features of the characters are wonderfully exaggerated, so that, to an adult reader, the effect of the whole is considerably impaired by the continued repetition of scrapes and exploits which are obviously all coined at the same mint. For example, it is rather too strong a strain on our love of the marvellous to find, in a journey from London to Munich, such a series of incidents as this:—Being at Paris, Mr. Lorrequer breaks the bank, and, with the assistance of three or four others, thrashes the whole company at a gaming-house. He fights a duel a day or two after with a man who shows his skill by cutting off with a pistol ball the thumb of a glove thrown up some twenty paces off; and he has for his second on the occasion “the largest officer in the British army," known, amongst other things, for tearing open the mouth of a French bully in order to spit down his throat, and breaking his jaw in the process. Not to mention some minor adventures of an amatory description, he is mistaken at the Strasburg theatre for a celebrated composer, and crowned with laurels before the assembled multitude. Finally, he goes to Munich, where he is presented to the Kin of Bavaria as chargé d’affaires, because he had accidentally become invested with that functionary's uniform. A few days after, he marries the earl’s daughter, of whom he has been so long in pursuit, obtaining her father's consent by a series of manoeuvres far too curious and surprising to be here narrated.
Readers of the Spectator will no doubt remember a paper in which are described the proceedings of “the Liar's Club." That very ugly name was applied by our forefathers with much less consideration than it is by us. We do not call a man a liar unless his falsehoods, as lawyers would say, “sound in damages." Mere saying the thing that is not, without doing or meaning to do any harm, is a bad habit no doubt; but if we look at it aesthetically rather than morally, it is little more than an exercise of the inventive faculty. Most of our readers must be acquainted with people who, without any sinister object—often without any object at all—constantly tell the most astounding and inconceivable falsehoods, with no possible motive except that of making their neighbours stare. Who is there who has not gravely listened to most marvellous legends of sporting a ventures and athletic feats, with a composed countenance and an unbelieving heart? Gentlemen-especially Irish gentlemen—will tell you, with a certain rich enjoyment and amplitude of detail which a truth-speaking man will hardly ever attain, histories altogether mythical of the dogs they have bred, the horses they have ridden, the splendid properties which they have at various times possessed, and the wonderful resources which they have displayed in inconceivably thrilling dangers and difficulties; and they will do this when they not only know that they are lying, but know that all their audience are as fully aware of the fact as themselves. Yet they are often honourable men in the main, who would be really reluctant to do anything which they knew would inflict loss or suffering on another. The proper field for persons of this kind is novel-writing. What in real life is dangerous, not to as immoral, is a positive merit in a writer of fiction; and we feel that Harry Lorrequer has chosen his field rightly and wisely in adopting this walk of art. It is one which has existed from the earliest times. The Arabian Nights are perhaps the best known illustration of it; and when they are graduated to the notions of the nineteenth century, the machinery of the two classes of stories is substantially the same. Harry Lorrequer is the Sinbad of the period—a rich uncle is the diamond valley—and we have a number of hopelessly incredible feats to represent the roc and his egg. It is not a little singular that books of this class should be so uncommon in an age which lays out such an immense quantity of physical and intellectual capital on amusement; and, perhaps, it would not be hypercritical to say that it is a rather characteristic circumstance that one of the very few authors whose writings belong to it should be an Irishman. An Englishman is never amused unless he is busy. He has always a moral purpose of some sort or other in his head. Captain Marryat's novels are, perhaps, an exception; though even he mixes up with them a good many comments on naval matters, and in one of them, if we are not mistaken, he actually made a suggestion about naval discipline which was afterwards embodied in an Admiralty order. Mr. Dickens, as we have remarked on former occasions, is always in a flutter of dissatisfied philanthropy; and, indeed it would be hard to mention a writer whose literary aims are of the somewhat humble character in question, who does not frequently ignore the limits which divide the leading article from the novel. Mr. Albert Smith, whose wholesome error of every description of cant is one of the best features of his mind, is perhaps entitled to the same praise as Mr. Lever.
Another peculiarity of Harry Lorrequer is, that though both the characters and incidents are altogether remote from ordinary experience, and though they are a most entirely of the noisy and demonstrative class, it would be an injustice to the book to call it vulgar. There is nothing in it that gives the reader the impression that the author is otherwise than a gentleman—a very strange gentleman, no doubt, in a great number of ways, but still a man who has contrived to arrive at a practical solution of the great problem of complying with the ordinary rules of life without forfeiting his self-respect or hurting the feelings of his neighbours. Considering the mass of noisy persons who in these days infest light literature, seeking in every subject food for their own an their neighbours‘ vanity, it is satisfactory to find a man who can give way to the loudest and most uproarious mirth without making his readers despise him. Harry Lorrequer knows his place, and does not suppose that because he is a crack shot, and a marvellous steeple-chase rider, he is entitled to lay down the law upon ever subject that comes in his way. When, by a series of wonderful adventures, he is introduced to the King of Bavaria, he does not think himself bound to mock at kings and courts ; and when he commands a military guard at the assizes, he does not take the opportunity of sneering at the administration of justice, and insinuating that he could have replaced the judge and jury with great advantage to the public at large. He is a light-hearted, good-natured fellow, well pleased with himself and the world, and delighted to find an audience to listen to his wonderful stories. That he will find such an audience we have no sort of doubt; but whether his imitators and juniors will be equally successful is quite another question.
Saturday Review, February 7, 1857.