Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mr. Warren

Review of:
Works of Samuel Warren (1854).

There is something almost pathetic in the feelings with which we once more turn over pages so familiar to us as those of the Diary of a Late Physician and Ten Thousand a Year. Novels are so much the echo of the time in which they are written, and good novels reproduce its passions so graphically, that they are almost like old journals. Perhaps few novels have this quality in a greater degree than Mr. Warren’s. M. Huc tells us that there was a kind of smell which warned him instantly of his return into China—that it pervaded roads, houses, inns, and streets, and that if he had been unconsciously transported thither from France, this circumstance alone would have left on his mind no doubt of the fact. There is something of the same kind in books, especially books of fiction. A very few sentences of an old novel carry us back irresistibly to the scenes in which they were first enjoyed. There is a lazy, holiday atmosphere about them which makes such associations peculiarly pleasant; and we connect Mr. Warren with so many pleasant days voluptuously loitered away in steamers or hotels, that it is a little difficult to criticize him quite impartially.

Apart from such considerations, his books are nearly the most perfect instance with which we are acquainted of the results of the habit of publishing novels in parts. The stamp of Blackwood's Magazine is upon them all. A magazine article has objects essentially different from a complete book. It aims at producing some one strong impression, reflecting, as far as possible, the passions of the time in which it was composed; but it is almost impossible to impart to a collection of such sketches that artistic unity which is indispensable to the excellence of a novel. Several of our great novelists have suffered grievously from this cause; but it has never, so far as we know, operated so strongly upon the writings of any man as upon those of Mr. Warren. There is not one of his works that does not bear the deepest traces of it. The Diary of a Late Physician is, perhaps, the least injuriously affected; for the stories are so short and unconnected that their still further division to suit the magazine in which they were originally published interfered but little with their several lots. In Ten Thousand a Year the result is more obvious. The story is twice as long as it ought to be—the ins and outs of the legal proceedings become extremely wearisome—and the necessity of providing a point or tableau once in every thirty or forty pages distracts the attention. The plot of Now and Then roves the same thin in another way. Though it was, we believe, originally published in its present form, it shows that the habit of writing for a magazine had almost destroyed the writer’s constructive faculty. It is a mere string of tableaux, connected by a plot so meagre as hardly to deserve the name. It is simply this:—A man falsely accused of murder is sentenced to be hanged; his sentence is commuted into transportation for life; and twenty years after his innocence being discovered, he comes back to England in time to see his son take his degree as senior wrangler. It is impossible to consider books so constructed as belonging to the highest class of fictions. The nature of the case debars Mr. Warren from laying claim to any further merit than that of being the writer of picturesque and striking sketches; and it is on this principle that we must attempt to estimate the value of his writings.

With one test of this sort of excellence few books have ever more fully complied—they are, especially with foreigners, among the most successful of English works of fiction. It was only the other day that we read of a translation of Mr. Warren's books into Danish, and we think Russian; and in the preface to his collective edition, he speaks of a Bohemian version. There is no difficulty in tracing the causes of this popularity. The author possesses a certain kind of power in an almost unrivalled degree. What Eugene Sue and Harrison Ainsworth do for vulgar readers, Mr. Warren does for the better educated. The amount of sensation to be got out of the Diary of a Late Physician is almost unparalleled. The diverse diseases, and sundry kinds of death, which terminate most of the stories, are brought out in the most effective style. Mr. Warren is a gentleman, and understands how gentlemen behave themselves; so that, when we arrive at such a termination as this—. . . . “Oh God! Oh horror! Oh my unhappy soul! Despair! Hark! What do I hear? Do I hear aright! . . . . Have I seen aright—or is it all a dream? Shall I awake to-morrow and find it false?" the benefit of the shock is not diminished by preparatory vulgarity, the catastrophe being introduced by a great deal of very passable imitation of the way in which members of the House of Commons talk and write journals. The union of the high seasoning of Mr. Warren's situations, with the behind-the-scenes air of the connecting conversations, is, we suspect, the great cause of his popularity with foreigners. Some of the conjectures of the French translator as to the persons represented in the Diary of a Late Physician are excessively ludicrous. “Lord Alcock," “Lord Williams," &c., are substituted for the various blanks with the most comic bona fides. To English readers the high seasoning of the stories is all the more welcome, because it is rare to find an English author who has not the fear of ridicule sufficiently before his eyes to prevent his indulging in the kind of excitement to who Mr. Warren so liberally treats his admirers. “The Romance of Death”: is the staple of the Diary of a Late Physician; but much as this circumstance has added to the popularity of the book, we cannot allow that it adds to its merits. To sup—morally or physically—on raw pork chops, may produce picturesque dreams, but it spoils the digestion. We must, however, be careful in our criticisms on this subject. Mr. Warren informs one of his critics, who charges him with exaggeration, that he “knows of such a tale as, if told, might make a devil to leap with horror in the fires—one that a man might listen to with quaking heart and creeping flesh, and prayers to God that it might be forgotten.” Perhaps, if we say too much about it, he may be provoked into publishing it—an infliction which we have no desire to provoke.

Ten Thousand a Year is the work on which Mr. Warren's literary reputation principally depends. It appears to us to have some undoubted merits. he plot is a very pleasant innovation upon the almost unbroken chain of precedents which tie novelists down to three volumes of love-making. A novel made out of a law-suit is like honey from the lion’s jaw, and though, as we have already observed, the circumstances under which the book was published destroy its effects as a whole, each part by itself is very lively. Nothing in Dickens can exceed, if anything can equal, the merit of the scenes which describe the hero's early poverty, the insolence which follows his elevation, and the beggarly degradation into which he ultimately sinks; nor can anything be more lifelike than the picture which is drawn of the den of Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap. The scene in which Mr. Quirk entertains the editor of the Sunday Flash and the leaders of the Old Bailey bar at “Alibi Lodge" (a name worthy of Thackeray), and those in which Gammon entraps Quirk into forging evidence, have always appeared to us even better than Mr. Dickens‘s portrait of Messrs. Dodson and Fogg. One of the great charms of the book is, no doubt, the use which it makes of law for the purposes of machinery. This plan gratifies so many people who dabble in that subject, and fancy that they understand it—it affords such a. fair opportunity of introducing all sorts of picturesque and unexpected turns into the story—it enables the author to invest is book with such a half comic, half serious purpose, that we cannot but regard the idea as a very felicitous one. But these great merits are counterbalanced by even greater defects. The book leaves upon the reader's mind the impression that it was written in an irritable, vain, fastidious spirit. Though no such conclusion may be logically deducible from it, it is just the sort of book a person would write who believed all virtue, and almost all talent, to be confined to people of fortune and their dependents. If a man belongs to the favoured caste, he has a beautiful wife and a lovely sister, and there is a white-haired old vicar at his gate, who is a sort of Whole Duty of Man incarnate, and who, with respectful firmness, quotes Scripture to his noble patron, and calls him “my son.” Whenever anything goes wrong with this blessed creature, he bursts into heroics, and uses language which, in any other walk of life, no man would use who was not a born fool. He tells his wife and sister to “play the woman," and the sister answers, “There spoke my own noble brother." In return for all this virtue, Mr. Warren worships the work of his hands with the most ludicrous fondness:—
“My glorious Kate, how my heart goes forth towards you." “Think not, Misfortune, that over this man thou art about to achieve thy accustomed triumphs. Here behold thou hast a Man to contend with; nay, more, a CHRISTIAN MAN, who hath calmly girded up his loins against the coming fight."
Unfortunately, we cannot quite forget that the “Christian man” in small capitals is Mr. Warren himself, and that he has it in his power to “flog'ee and preach'ee too," as far as Misfortune is concerned. In another place, after specifying his suggestions to his hero, Mr. Warren indignantly apostrophizes the Devil as follows:—"Oh, foolish fiend! and didst thou really think that this little matter was enough to make the Christian man doubt,” &c. What the Devil may have thought of Mr. Aubrey, we cannot say, as we have no claims to possessing his confidence; our own opinion of that exemplary Christian man is that he was a very silly fellow, married to a very silly wife. His folly and supineness about his lawsuit can only be matched by the vulgarity which suggests to him to conceal his new place 0 abode from a his former friends, and by the childishness with which his wife sobs, screams, and, in plain words, makes a fool of herself, when he is arrested for debt. The Recorder of Hull must have peculiar notions of his own profession if he considers such a thin-skinned dandy suited for it.

When Mr. Warren has to do with those who are not so happy as to be born with silver spoons in their mouths, he takes a very different tone. A few sentences are here and there thrown in to deprecate the conclusion that all vulgar people are like those whom he describes; but if a man represents only the fools and knaves of a class, he misrepresents the class. There are three dissenting clergymen introduced into Ten Thousand a Year. The parts assigned to them may be inferred from their names, “Mudflint,” "Viper," and “Dismal Horror" Two of them are professional libellers, and one at least a seducer. Poverty, unless it is the poverty of gentlemen or their dependents, is always held up to contempt. The rich people are called—“Aubrey,” "Delamere," “De la Zouch,"Dreddlington," and “Wolstenholme.” The respectable country attorney is “Parkinson;" his respectable agent, “Runnington;" the white-haired vicar, “Tatham," and so on. On the other hand, the Whigs, shopkeepers, tradespeople, and editors, have such names as “ Tittlebat Titmouse," “Oil Gammon,” “Viper," “Horror," “Harkaway Rotgut Wildfire," “Mudflint," “Bloodsuck," “Snake,” “Yahoo,” "Fang," “Snout,” “Diabolus Gander," “Swindell O'Gibbet," “O'Squeal," “Bulfinch,” and "Tagrag." The spirit which suggests such names is bad enough; and it is curious to compare such coarse abuse as this with the delicate satire conveyed by Mr. Thackeray’s nomenclature. Such names as “Fitzurse Castle," “Cubley Park," the “Duke of Stilton," “Lady Jane Sheepshanks," “Mr. Hornblower," and the like, suggest the characteristics of the persons represented, without falling into the error of writing, “This is a fool," “This is a liar," under the principal figures. .

Now and Then is chiefly remarkable for what, in a laudatory advertisement, would be called its “high religious tone." To us, Mr. Warren's religion is about the most unpleasant thin in his books. We do not doubt his sincerity, but there is a hankering after stage effect in all that he writes, which is very ill-suited for such subjects. The venerable peasants and white-haired priests, the lovely girls who place little New Testaments in the way of “my papa,“ and fling themselves upon the bosoms of all sorts of pious friends with floods of tears, are ridiculous to plain people. There is not one trace of this vehement excitement of feeling in the New Testament, and it appears to us quite inconsistent both with truth and sobriety. People may be very good Christians who are essentially vulgar, pursy, squinting, with a keen eye to their business, and an utter incapacity for making scenes. The saponaceous and oleaginous incumbent with the vulgar wife, and Ham, Shem, and Japhet buggy, depicted by Sydney Smith, is a pleasant relief after the innumerable meek though high-bred vicars, with angelic faces, snow-white locks, and hearts softened by early crosses in love, who are in so many novels the standard representatives of the clerical profession.

As for the Lily and the Bee, there are depths into which the most heroic critic shrinks from following his author. We can only say, Si ridiculum quaeris inspice. Two volumes of Miscellaneous Essays, republished principally from Blackwood, form a part of the present edition of Mr. Warren’s works. One of them is occupied almost entirely by a set of articles on Townshend's Modern State Trials—a bad book on a most interesting subject. The articles seem to us hardly worth republishing. Some personal reminiscences please us better. Far the best, in our judgment, are a defence of Mr. Phillips for the manner in which he conducted the case of Courvoisier, and a Memoir of Mr. Smith, the author of Smith's Mercantile Law and Smith’s Leading Cases. The subjects are interesting, and are ably handled.

Mr. Warren's name is not likely to be soon forgotten. He is a great illustration of the truth of the maxim that half is sometimes better than the whole. His comedy is excellent, his tragedy very poor, and his politics chiefly, we think, of the rhetorical and sentimental order. His books contain evidence of many gifts, but they are not precisely those which would fit him either for a place amongst the English classics, or even for that humbler elevation to which his friends wish to raise him—a seat in parliament for Midhurst.

Saturday Review, January 26, 1856.

No comments:

Post a Comment