Monday, January 9, 2017

Novels and Novelists

Review of:
Novels and Novelists, from Elizabeth to Victoria (by J. Cordy Jeaffreson, 1858).

There are some books which deserve notice simply on account of the evidence which they supply as to the tastes and opinions of certain classes of society, and Mr. Jeaffreson's book on novels and novelists is certainly one of them. We have occasionally been charged with dealing too severely with the follies of a small, a noisy, and an arrogant class of persons, which claims a sort of monopoly of the honours due to literature, and which wishes to erect into a quasi-corporate profession those who rely for a subsistence principally upon their contributions to periodical publications. We have uniformly maintained that these gentlemen entirely mistake their own position, and that of other callings, and that it is important to the interests of politics and of literature that they should be made aware of their deficiencies in several important particulars. Mr. Cordy Jeaffreson's book appears to us to have been written as s sort of type of the very temper and of the very defects to which we refer. It illustrates them, indeed, in a. manner at once so perfect and so unconscious, that all we have ever said upon the subject can give but a most imperfect view of it in comparison with a perusal of Novels and Novelists. In most other points of view the book is insignificant. It tells us little that is much worth knowing. The first volume gives lives of, or criticisms upon, twenty-one novelists; and the second performs the same office for no less than eighty-eight, most of whom are still living. We ought, however, to explain that, whilst 335 pages are devoted to the first fifteen lives, no more than seventy-one are assigned to the remaining seventy-three. The style and the importance of these minor biographies will be best appreciated from a few extracts:—
George W. Thornbury.—Among the crowds of young men of ready wit and extensive reading who form the rising generation of authors, Mr. Thornbury stands forth prominently and honourably.  Besides contributing articles wit out number to the leading magazines and the columns of [a weekly contemporary whose name we do not reprint], he has given to the world a succession of distinct works. As a novelist Mr. Thornbury the public, though there are few who have not been delighted with the remarkable tales he has anonymously sprinkled over the pages of serials. But a novel, it is rumoured in literary circles, will shortly appear from his pen, in the orthodox three volumes, entitled Every Man his own Trumpeter.’
This is one of the latest improvements in the art of puffing which we have met with.  Here is a dignified passage:--
‘At one time, while waiting till his pen should enable him to lay aside the profession of surgery, he practiced with some success as a dentist, indeed the first of his poems that we ever heard was one he somewhat indiscreetly fired off whilst removing some tartar from a lady’s teeth.’
Mr. Jeaffreson, in another place, gives a sketch of four brothers, who it appears assist each other in their literary undertakings, and he enlivens it with the following pretty observation:--
‘We feel no slight curiousity as to the mutual relation in private life of this staunch fraternity--this happy family of literature.  It is difficult to imagine that, with so loving a front to the world, they squabble and fight in the background, like all the brothers of our own acquaintance.’
Mr. Jeaffreson is not only deeply infected by the notion that every man who writes novels makes a present of his privacy to the public, but he grovels on the earth before a successful novelist with that sort of veneration which he would be the first to denounce for its snobbishness, if it were offered to any other kind of success. Could the Jeames and Jenkins who are his standard of base adulation go below this:--
‘To follow Mr. Dickens into his private life of course we have not presumed. The privacy of the illustrious ought ever to be held sacred, although perhaps biography would sometimes be more useful to society were those it treats still moving in the world. . . . . Mr. Dickens is a married man, blessed with children, and is the centre of a society as brilliant and distinguished as ever surrounded a man of letters in London. Every now and then little bits of gossip connected with his doings—the theatrical entertainments at his house, his journeyings and his tarryings—find their way into the public papers, and these scraps of intelligence are read throughout the country with not less avidity than the Royal transactions on the Slopes recorded by the court newsman.’
We give these extracts as specimens of the tone of Mr. Jeaffreson’s performance. He is at home in all the gossip of “literary circles," and he thinks that the clique to which he gives the name forms the very cream of literature, discharges its most important functions, and is entitled to its highest honours. He tells us this in so many words in his sketch of Mr. Dickens:—
‘At the outset, novel-writers formed a humble division of the profession of letters; now it would not be too much to arrogate for them, in conjunction with journalists (and a successful journalist is almost always a novelist as well), the dignity of the first in literature . . . . . . At one time the historian was regarded as a literary entity for above the tale scribbler; but to any one endowed with critical discernment, it is evident that the best historians of our generation are the offspring of the novel-writers . . . . . . When questioned on the social standing and condition of authors, we immediately turn to the cases of men who, though they may be exerting themselves strenuously as journalists and critical writers, are chiefly known to the world, and are celebrated as novelists.’
He adds, a little further on, that “the position of Mr. Charles Dickens is the best possible illustration of these observations;" and he attributes the palmy condition of modern, as compared with earlier novelists, to the sympathy which they elicit by the moral and philanthropic purposes to which they address themselves, spurning the base example of Sir Walter Scott, whose avowed object was amusement.

The naiveté with which Mr. Jeaffreson avows views, which so many persons indicate without avowing them, affords a favourable opportunity for pointing out their pernicious folly. It is, indeed, a subject on which it is hardly possible to speak too strongly, for this theory of novel-writing is so flattering to the idle, the ignorant, and the uneducated has attained considerable popularity, and is not likely to lose it. The question at issue is this—Are novels proper vehicles for direct political and social discussions, or is amusement their legitimate object? We cannot understand how any one who has ever seriously entered upon the discussion of political or social questions can entertain a doubt upon the subject. Such discussions universally turn upon questions of fact, and generally upon facts which are at once highly complicated and hotly debated. Let us look at any one of the numberless questions of this order which have lately engaged public attention. There is the question of prison discipline. It is pre-eminently a question oi fact, and one, too, on which it is very difficult indeed to arrive at the truth. How does imprisonment affect those who are subjected to it? How do different systems vary in their effects? Does solitary or does separate confinement drive a man mad? Does the one or the other confirm him in vice? Does the one or the other lead him to reflection and repentance? What are the liabilities to abuse of each of these systems? How far do they place the prisoners at the mercy of a. careless or harsh gaoler? What abuses have, in fact, existed, and how widely have they prevailed? Questions like these must be answered with the greatest care, fulness, and impartiality; and the answers must be weighed with the most deliberate scrutiny before any stable and comprehensive conclusion on the subject can be reached. How is the progress towards such a conclusion forwarded, in the most remote degree, by a man who comes forward with a picturesque but simply fictitious story, in which, with almost frantic violence, he proclaims that he takes one view of the subject, to the exclusion of all others—that separate confinement is a monstrous iniquity, that prisons are hells, gaolers devils, and judges beasts, asses, &c.? He may be right or he may be wrong; but his assertion is simply worthless as evidence of the truth of his theory: and it is excessively mischievous, because inconsiderate people are, by their natural weakness, inclined to believe any one who makes strong assertions in an interesting manner. The fundamental vice of novels, considered as works of instruction, lies in the circumstance that the novelist makes his facts, and that, if he is charged with inaccuracy, he can always plead that he is writing a novel, and not a political treatise. He is always proving a truism for the sake of insinuating a non sequitur. No one doubts that such a prison as the gaol in It is Never too late to Mend, such a Government as the Circumlocution Office, such a Court as is depicted in Bleak House, such a state of society as is drawn in Hawkstone, such a system of slavery as is painted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would be very bad things. That is what these novels really prove; but what the insinuate is, that the system of English prisons, the English Government, the Court of Chance, the state of the manufacturing districts in Yorkshire an Lancashire, and slavery in the Southern States of the Union, are, in point of fact, such as Mr. Reade, Mr. Dickens, Mr. Sewell, and Mrs. Stowe assert them to be. And the dexterity of the novelist is proved by the fact, that he inclines his readers to dispense with evidence the study of which would supersede his unsupported assertions. Such assertions are mere impertinences to which a man of real sobriety and fairness of mind would attach absolutely no importance whatever.

If a novel really were a useful instrument for olitical and social discussion, why should it not be extended to other matters, which turn equally n on questions of fact, though upon questions of a less extended and difficult kind. If Mr. Dickens has in his hand an instrument which enables him to teach us all about the procedure of the Court of Chancery, and to procure its reform, why should he not employ it in criminal as well as civil justice? Why not write a striking tale in a magazine or newspaper, to establish, before trial, the guilt or the innocence of Palmer or Bernard? It would of course be a monstrous absurdity and a gross wrong to an accused person to do anything of the kind. But why is it less unjust in principle to act in a similar way towards bodies of men, and to prejudge questions of great depth and intricacy, by excited, noisy, and constantly reiterated assertions? Of course we know quite well that philanthropic reforms are more important and more dignified pursuits than amusement, but it does not follow that either of them are improved b being mixed up together. To our minds, the consequence is that the one becomes false and the other dull, but there is unhappily no doubt at all that that largo and petulant race which wishes to have the honours and the pleasures without the labour of thought, and to enjoy the feeling of being engaged in a dignified occupation, without preparing themselves for its prosecution by any preliminary education, welcomes the advent of earnest novels as a sort of royal road to the attainment of their wishes. Mr. Jeaffreson supplies evidence on this head which is conclusive. He is a man not without a certain sort of cleverness. He is silly, no doubt, but still he is probably somewhat superior, both in cultivation and in liveliness of mind, not indeed to the common run of people engaged in the ordinary business of life, but to the common run of the flighty part of the world; and this is his view of his relation to Mr. Dickens:—
‘If we attempted to enumerate in succession all the items of the enormous debt of gratitude our nation and all civilized countries owe him, how impossible we should find it to accomplish the undertaking. His benefits to mankind are as innumerable as the flowers that cover the earth. . . . . Was not his influence so invariable for good, that we feel that he is powerless to exercise it for wrong, it would be fearful to contemplate it. Directly we examine our relations with him, we are positively alarmed at the may he has held over us. How we have been in his hands only plastic clay, that he has fashioned to all the honour it was capable of.’
If a man not quite without parts can write this idolatrous folly, it is pretty clear that that large class of persons whose reading is almost confined to novels and the like, must indeed be moulded by their teaching to a most undesirable extent. To form the minds of human beings is as important a task as can be in the hands of any man; and what qualifications for that task has a single one of our popular novelists ever manifested? Sir Edward Lytton is the only one that we can think of who has ever shown himself to possess any solid acquirements whatever. Mr. Warren ought to know something about law, but his knowledge is either merely technical, or else a slobbering imitation of the worst platitudes of Blackstone. Mr. Disraeli has great practical ability, but greater nonsense than his historical or political opinions, as expressed in his novels, no able man ever professed to believe. Of the regular professional novelists there is not one whose opinions would be entitled to the slightest respect, apart from his powers of picturesque description. Recurring to Mr. Jeaffreson's god, who fashioned him into a vessel of fiction, can any one of his admirers point out any one subject which he has seriously and patiently studied, and on which he has arrived at those moderate qualified results which are the best tests of industry and patience? There is hardly any evidence in his works, so far as we know, that he ever read anything except his own novels. His incidental allusions are of a kind which none but an ignorant man would make. Take, for example, the well known joke about Chinese metaphysics, of which one of his characters is said to have composed an account by reading up the articles "Metaphysics" and “China" in a cyclopedia and combining the results. The joke may pass as a joke, but no well-informed man would have made it. Chinese metaphysics is one of the most curious subjects in the world. No nation is so deeply influenced by metaphysics, and certainly none holds so distinct a metaphysical creed. Take, again, Mr. Thackeray as a moral teacher. He preaches a sort of gentle universal doubt, dashed with a kind of sentimental belief founded on the fact that good women are not usually sceptical. Here, indeed, is an enormous doctrine; but where are the facts on which it is sustained? Montaigne, Pascal, Voltaire, or Gibbon had a right to be sceptical, as Dr. Milman has a right to be orthodox; but where is Mr. Thackeray's right? His books show an acquaintance with Horace, and one or two other Latin poets, and they also contain a few references to Gibbon; but it is impossible to believe him to be a man of real learning. We must, however, do him the justice to say that hardly any man knows better the length of his tether. He sometimes puts forward sentiments which he would, we think, be at a loss to justify; but he never advocates positive opinions on subjects which he does not understand. His writings form an honourable exception to those of most modern novelists, for they are emphatically honest.

Surely if these reflections arc just, it is not only a legitimate but an inevitable conclusion that novels are absolutely unfit for the purpose of discussing serious subjects, and it will follow that, in regarding them as mere vehicles of amusement, Sir Walter Scott showed a soundness and power of understanding which must favourably distinguish him from all his successors. The division of labour is as indispensable in literature as elsewhere. Sermons, novels, and leading article are essentially distinct, and to roll the three into one anomalous product is to spoil each and all.

Saturday Review, September  18, 1858.

No comments:

Post a Comment