Essays on Fiction (by Nassau W. Senior, 1864).
Few men who have neither sat in Parliament, nor held permanent official situations, nor written great books, have done so many and such various services to the world as Mr. Senior. He attained sufficient eminence in his profession to justify his appointment as a Master in Chancery at a comparatively early age. He was one of the authors of the New Poor-Law—a measure which, whatever its faults may have been, has done more to elevate the poor than almost any other piece of modern legislation. He was also one of the most efficient promoters of the indispensable complement of the New Poor-Law—popular education; and that at a time when any other education than just as much as would enable a labourer to read his Bible in church was looked upon by many people, not only with suspicion, but with disapproval. He was nearly, if not quite, the most prominent member of the Commission which considered the whole subject between 1858 and 1861. He sat on other Commissions of a philanthropic kind. He has long been recognised as one of the leading political economists of the day, and he filled the Professorship at Oxford upon that subject with distinguished success. He has collected, and redistributed amongst a circle of friends wide enough to form something nearly equivalent to a public audience, a vast mass of interesting information about the contemporary state of nearly every part of Europe, and, besides all this, he has for more than forty years been one of our most distinguished contributors to the best class of periodical literature. We noticed some time ago a singularly interesting volume of biographical articles which he selected for republication from different reviews. These have just been followed by a similar volume, called Essays on Fiction, containing his views on several of our chief novelists—Sir Walter Scott, Sir Edward Lytton, Mr. Thackeray, and Mrs. Beecher Stowe. There is also an article on a novel of the author's brother, Colonel Senior. One page in the volume can be read by no one without the most sincere regret. The preface announces that, when the book was nearly through the press, the author “was seized with illness so serious as to prevent his adding the final touches.” Every one must join in the hope that a life so usefully and vigorously employed may long be preserved.
Mr. Senior's volume is a good illustration of the old remark that men whose occupations are dry and severe have a special liking for reading and criticizing novels. Nearly the first of his writings which attracted any attention were his reviews of the Waverley Novels, written whilst he was still a practising conveyancer. The reason of this is not to be sought entirely in the pleasure of contrast. The fact is due, to a great extent, to the scope which the criticism of novels affords to several of the harder qualities of mind. A novel is a collection of imaginary facts, on which the critic has to make his remarks without the trouble of investigating the truth of the statements before him, or searching into collateral or illustrative topics. He looks the book over and considers what it suggests, what are the propositions which may be extracted from it, and what is their value. It is, in short, an excellent text for as lively a sermon on subjects of general interest as a man happens to have it in him to preach. Hence the criticism of novels often comes to show at least as much of the opinions and feelings of the critic himself as of the novels which are the subjects of his remarks. This is specially the case with Mr. Senior. His articles on the Waverley Novels show a keen relish for their beauties, but the principal interest of them lies, not so much in the descriptions of Sir Walter Scott which they contain, as in the reflections which they suggest to the critic himself. They are vigorous, spirited essays, full of shrewd remarks, connected together by the fact that they were all suggested by different parts of the W. Novels. For instance, the description of the siege of Torquilstone Castle in Ivanhoe leads Mr. Senior to ask how Scott managed to make it so vivid. This suggests a careful inquiry into the way in which descriptions may be made lively, and the special means employed by Scott for that purpose. The method in the present instance is then shown to consist in putting an account of part of the scene to be described into the mouth of a supposed eye-witness, who is supposed to be repeating her own first impressions on the subject to an experienced person who, though prevented from looking on himself, knows from experience enough about the matter to bring out the interesting points by judicious questions. Thousands upon thousands of readers have been charmed with the vigour and beauty of the description, but few indeed would either appreciate the difficulties to be overcome, or the mental resources displayed by Scott in dealing with them, unless they were pointed out by some one who was accustomed, not only to enjoy, but to heighten his enjoyment by analysing its constituent elements.
Perhaps the best part of Mr. Senior's criticism is the fearlessmess with which, when occasion calls for it, he finds fault; and any one who will read his little volume will be able to judge of the fairness of those reproaches which are addressed to all critics who really criticize, when they point out in a vigorous and spirited manner the weak side of popular favourites. The popularity of a popular novelist, in our own time and country, is a love like the love of women. A large section of the public seems to feel that a man capable of so wonderful and marvellous an exploit as that of giving them a keen and quasi-intellectual pleasure ought to be worshipped without reserve or qualification. When the Saturday Review has occasionally presumed to speak of popular writers in a tone which perhaps fell a little short of that standard of servility to which they are accustomed, its criticisms provoked a sort of scandalized Hush! for shame! from papers which thought nothing of denouncing every statesman, every institution, every form even of religious belief, in tones of the most contemptuous abuse. Our unlucky columns gave infinitely greater scandal by free speaking about Mr. Dickens or Sir E. Lytton than they could have given if they had been devoted to systematic attacks upon the Legislature, the Law, and the Church.
Mr. Senior's Essays on Fiction show the absurdity of this dislike to free criticism. No one can possibly accuse him of underrating, or of not enjoying, Sir Walter Scott; yet he sees his faults in the clearest light, and describes them in the most emphatic language. His great forte in this particular lies in the criticism of plots. He takes the narrative as a true one, and asks why this, that, and the other thing was done, in a way which combines strong good sense with practical experience of life. For instance, Why did not Nigel get his mortgage transferred if he was being pressed, for payment? and why was it such a favour to transfer it? Why did he fall in love with Margaret Ramsay after seeing her only twice, and being unable to get her to talk the first time? How did Frank Osbaldistone persuade Diana Vernon to marry him after all, when the original objections to the marriage were rather strengthened than otherwise? Why did Quentin Durward's uncle give up the future Mrs. Durward to his nephew? and why did Quentin the heroic stand behind the curtain ready to commit a most brutal assassination at the orders of Louis XI.? Take the following sentences as an instance of the vigorous blame which a critic who really uses his mind can allot to a writer whom he heartily admires and carefully studies. “Such a story (as Quentin Durward) is almost too weak for criticism. It is a curious union of almost incompatible faults. Its triteness is as offensive as its improbability.” When a man who can and will speak his mind in this way does praise, his praise is worth having; and, on the whole, the praise of Sir Walter far outweighs the blame.
The general dissertations which are suggested to Mr. Senior by the particular works which he reviews are always interesting, but sometimes they are rather a tax on his readers. For instance, he begins a review of a novel by his brother, the late Colonel Senior, with an inquiry into the classification of fictions as “those whose principal aim is excellence in plot, in characters, or in scenery.” me fifteen pages are occupied with this discussion, the greater part of which is illustrated by quotations from Homer. So, in a review of Sir E. Lytton, there is a long discussion of what Sir Edward calls “the Intellectual” school of fiction, and another, and an extremely good one, on the necessity of introducing moral evil into fictions, and the reason why perfect characters are uninteresting. Again, in the article on Mr. Thackeray there is an attempt to classify fictitious characters as the simple, the mixed, and the inconsistent. These incidental essays are full of keen, vigorous sense, but they are a little formal, and some at least are not of much use. Few people would care to give lodging in their memories to the distinction between mixed and inconsistent characters. The real beauty of the essays lies in the shrewd observations which his varied experience of life enables the author to make on fictitious incidents. The best of these occur in the articles on Sir Walter Scott and Sir E. Lytton, The article on Mr. Thackeray appears to us less satisfactory. Mr. Senior thoroughly appreciates and enjoys Sir Walter Scott. If anything, he rather over-appreciates Sir E. Lytton; at least he is less offended than he might have been by the monstrous improbability of the greater part of Sir Edward's plots and by those manifold affectations which more or less disfigure every novel that he ever wrote. His view of Mr. Thackeray is keen and interesting, nor do we think that the author of the preface need have apologised for its character. It will not “seem severe” to any one whose opinion is worth thinking about. The pernicious habit of flattering private friends and public idols has run to such a height as to make a great part of our contemporary criticism a mere complimentary farce. The fact that Mr. Senior has not flattered Mr. Thackeray is not merely creditable to his judgment, but ought to entitle his criticism to special attention from those who are able to appreciate the peculiar excellences and characteristic defects of a most remarkable writer.
Though the article on Mr. Thackeray is good as far as it goes, and is written in an excellent spirit and with praiseworthy impartiality, it appears to us less satisfactory than the criticism on Sir E. Lytton, and decidedly less satisfactory than the reviews of the Waverley Novels. It scarcely appreciates the peculiar flavour of Mr. Thackeray's writings, and their special moral tone. Any one who takes the trouble to observe the phenomena of novels will soon discover that every ten or fifteen years brings with it a change in the moral atmosphere in which novel-writers live, in the point of view which they select, and in the set of problems which appear to them deserving of discussion or illustration. Sir Walter Scott would not, in these days, have written historical romances, or, if he had, he would probably have thought less of the differences of scenery, and more of the moral and political contrasts between other times and our own. No one would compare Mr. Kingsley to Sir Walter Scott, but when Mr. Kingsley parades his passion for Elizabethan giants, and his hatred for Jesuits and priestcraft, he is in reality writing at contemporary opinions and feelings which he does not like, and which he is right in believing to be influential. Though he may not be a satisfactory representative of his generation, he belongs to it, and knows what are the points in which it is interested. This is true of almost every successful novelist, and was more true of Mr. Thackeray than of almost any other writer. He represents with exquisite fidelity the tone of mind which prevailed to a considerable extent amongst a large class of young men of his own position in life, after the excitement caused by the Reform Bill had passed away, and before the series of striking events which began in the year 1854. Pendennis, with his somewhat purposeless and scantily-furnished scepticism, is the most characteristic and typical figure in Mr. Thackeray's books. The slightness, the scepticism, the indifference to great questions, the turn for more or less pensive satire upon all things and people which form the essence of Pendennis's character, are distributed in various forms and in equally various degrees through all Mr. Thackeray's writings. Mr. Senior does not seem to understand this at all. To his experience, no doubt, the twenty years which followed the Reform Bill are associated with anything rather than languid scepticism. They were a period of full vigour, healthy activity, manly interest in questions as important as any that can engage a man's attention, and the consequence is that he is rather too robust and mature a critic to appreciate the peculiar delicacy of the author whom he honestly and vigorously o to understand, and to praise and blame according to his deserts.
The last article in the book is on Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred. It contains a number of instructive observations on slavery, and many extracts from Mrs. Stowe's works which are well worth reading over again, but difficult to abridge. It was written in 1857, and ends with a series of questions as to the prospects of the permanence of the Union, and the success of the parties concerned in the struggle which would follow on its dissolution. They certainly show that their author was fully aware seven years ago of the course which affairs were taking. He ends by saying, “A bond which every four years is on the point of separating must eventually snap.”
The volume may, on the whole, be shortly described as resembling the easy conversation of a most lively and o instructed man on a number of interesting subjects suggested by entertaining books. The defects of the book are that here and there is a little dryness, a little too much elaboration, and some want of readiness in appreciating other men's points of view and the habitual temper of their minds.
Saturday Review, April 23, 1864.