Little Dorrit (by Charles Dickens, 1857).
It is never too late to mend (by Charles Reade, 1857).
The Life of Charlotte Bronte (by E.C. Gaskell, 1857).
To give the young any direct instruction in morals or politics, unhappily forms no part of the customary and established system of modern English education. A youth may pass through our public schools and universities hearing little of his duties to society and to his country. Of classical and theological culture he will, indeed, experience no want, but he can receive no positive moral instruction except what comes to him through theological channels, or from the domestic influences of the society in which he lives. This defect in our higher education is in a great measure peculiar to the present generation. In the last century, a certain set of opinions upon subjects of a political and moral character formed part of the creed of every person of education. That the British Constitution combined the advantages and the defects of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; that the alliance between Church and State secured the liberties of both; that English law was the perfection of reason, and the birthright of every Briton; that every man had by his representatives a share in the government of his country, and that it was his duty and his right to take a corresponding interest in its politics: these, and many other beliefs of a similar kind, were as much part of the training of a gentleman as the doctrine that verbum personale concordat cum nominativo. It certainly is as far from our intention, as it would be out of our power, to attempt to restore the currency of the old coin of political dogmatism, so effectually decried in Bentham's Book of Fallacies. But we think that negative and critical conclusions are not the only results at which we ought to arrive upon these subjects, and that they are worse suited than any others to be made the staple of popular education. It ought not to be our object to instil into the minds of the young a blind admiration, or a blind contempt, of the institutions under which they live. In this, as in all other branches of education, the rule of truth is the only safe rule; and truth is outraged if contempt and ridicule are the only feelings excited in the mind of an educated man by the contemplation of the political and social arrangements of his country.
This doctrine, however, is much in favour amongst one class of writers who are, perhaps, the most influential of all indirect moral teachers—we mean contemporary novelists. The popularity of a form of literature which is at once a stimulant and an anodyne, and which engrosses the imagination, whilst it does not absolutely exclude the exercise of the understanding, needs no explanation; but there is another source of the educational influence of novels which most of us have felt, though it has not, we think, been usually recognised so explicitly as their other attractions. Through novels young people are generally addressed for the first time as equals upon the most interesting affairs of life. There they see grownup men and women described, and the occupations of mature life discussed, without any arrière pensée as to the moral effects which the discussion may have upon their own minds. To an inquisitive youth, novels are a series of lectures upon life, in which the professor addresses his pupils as his equals and as men of the world. There, for the first time, the springs of human actions are laid bare, and the laws of human society discussed in language intelligible and attractive to young imaginations and young hearts. Such teachers can never be otherwise than influential, but in the present day their influence is enormously increased by the facilities which cheap publication affords to them. Upwards of a million of the cheap shilling volumes which ornament railway book-stalls are disposed of annually, and the effect of these publications on the whole mind’ of the community can hardly be exaggerated. Even Mr. Reade's novel, ‘It is never too late to mend,’ is advertised to have reached the twelfth thousand of its circulation, and we believe Mr. Dickens's tales sell about 40,000 copies on publication.
These facts furnish an apology, which we feel to be necessary, for devoting some attention to two books which justify the opinion we have formed on the influence exercised by such novels over the moral and political opinions of the young, the ignorant, and the inexperienced. That opinion is, that they tend to beget hasty generalisations and false conclusions. They address themselves almost entirely to the imagination upon subjects which properly belong to the intellect. Their suggestions go so far beyond their assertions that the author's sense of responsibility is greatly weakened, and by suppressing all that is dull, all that does not contribute to dramatic effect, and all that falls beyond a certain conventional circle of feelings, they caricature instead of representing the world. This applies even to those ordinary domestic relations, which are the legitimate province of novels. Love, marriage, friendship, grief, and joy are very different things in a novel from what they are in real life, and the representations of novelists are not only false, but often in the highest degree mischievous when they apply, not to the feelings, but to the facts and business transactions of the world. We propose to notice the two works before us, as an illustration of these observations, and we shall show before we conclude that Mrs. Gaskell's ‘Life of Miss Brontë’ is in some respects obnoxious to the same criticism, though it claims a place in another branch of literature.
We do not of course undervalue the part which fiction has often played in the inculcation of truth, and a thousand imaginary characters crowd upon the mind which reflect with signal brilliancy the noblest graces and the purest virtues of our race. Where are we to find greater refinement than in Sir Charles Grandison—greater ingenuity and perseverance than in Robinson Crusoe— more pathetic simplicity and devotedness than in Jeanie Deans? But there is a very wide distinction between creations wrought up to the true ideal, and attempts to copy life by throwing a false and distorted light on real incidents. The incidents may in themselves be things which have actually taken place, yet they sometimes give most erroneous and exaggerated impressions when they are pressed into the service of romance.
‘Little Dorrit’ is not one of the most pleasing or interesting of Mr. Dickens's novels. The plot is singularly cumbrous and confused—the characters rather uninteresting—and the style often strained to excess. We are not however tempted, by the comparative inferiority of this production of a great novelist, to forget the indisputable merits of Mr. Dickens. Even those who dislike a good deal of the society to which he introduces his readers, and who are not accustomed to the language of his personages, must readily acknowledge that he has described modern English low life with infinite humour and fidelity, but without coarseness. He has caught and reproduced that native wit which is heard to perfection in the repartees of an English crowd; and though his path has often lain through scenes of gloom, and poverty, and wretchedness, and guilt, he leaves behind him a spirit of tenderness and humanity which does honour to his heart. We wish he had dealt as fairly and kindly with the upper classes of society as he has with the lower; and that he had more liberally portrayed those manly, disinterested, and energetic qualities which make up the character of an English gentleman. Acute observer as he is, it is to be regretted that he should have mistaken a Lord Decimus for the type of an English statesman, or Mr. Tite Barnacle for a fair specimen of a public servant. But in truth we cannot recall any single character in his novels, intended to belong to the higher ranks of English life, who is drawn with the slightest approach to truth or probability. His injustice to the institutions of English society is, however, even more flagrant than his animosity to particular classes in that society. The rich and the great are commonly held up to ridicule for their folly, or to hatred for their selfishness. But the institutions of the country, the laws, the administration, in a word the government under which we live, are regarded and described by Mr. Dickens as all that is most odious and absurd in despotism or in oligarchy. In every new novel he selects one or two of the popular cries of the day, to serve as seasoning to the dish which he sets before his readers. It may be the Poor Laws, or Imprisonment for Debt, or the Court of Chancery, or the harshness of Mill-owners, or the stupidity of Parliament, or the inefficiency of the Government, or the insolence of District Visitors, or the observance of Sunday, or Mammon-worship, or whatever else you please. He is equally familiar with all these subjects. If there was a popular cry against the management of a hospital, he would no doubt write a novel on a month's warning about the ignorance and temerity with which surgical operations are performed; and if his lot had been cast in the days when it was fashionable to call the English law the perfection of reason, he would probably have published monthly denunciations of Lord Mansfield’s Judgment in Perrin v. Blake, in blue covers adorned with curious hieroglyphics, intended to represent springing uses, executory devises, and contingent remainders. We recommend him to draw the materials of his next work from Dr. Hassall on the Adulteration of Food, or the Report on Scotch Lunatics. Even the catastrophe in ‘Little Dorrit’ is evidently borrowed from the recent fall of houses in Tottenham Court Road, which happens to have appeared in the newspapers at a convenient moment.
Mr. Reade is less well known as a writer, but after publishing two popular, though not very edifying stories, he has at last composed a novel of much greater length, which affords a convincing proof of the temptation to falsify and misrepresent the facts upon which such stories are founded. This book has propagated through the length and breadth of the country imputations against the Government, the judges, and private individuals, so grave, so unjust, so cruel, that we think it is the duty of criticism to expose them.
By examining the justice of Mr. Dickens's general charges, and the accuracy of Mr. Reade's specific accusations, we shall endeavour to show how much injustice may be done, and how much unfounded discontent may be engendered, by these one-sided and superficial pictures of popular abuses.
It is not a little curious to consider what qualifications a man ought to possess before he could, with any kind of propriety, hold the language Mr. Dickens sometimes holds about the various departments of social life. Scott, we all know, was a lawyer and an antiquarian. Sir Edward Lytton has distinguished himself in political life, and his books contain unquestionable evidence of a considerable amount of classical and historical reading. Mr. Thackeray hardly ever steps beyond those regions of society and literature which he has carefully explored. But in Mr. Dickens's voluminous works, we do not remember to have found many traces of these solid acquirements; and we must be permitted to say, for it is no reflection on any man out of the legal profession, that his notions of law, which occupy so large a space in his books, are precisely those of an attorney's clerk. He knows what arrest for debt is, he knows how affidavits are sworn. He knows the physiognomy of courts of justice, and he has heard that Chancery suits sometimes last forty years; though he seems not to have the remotest notion that there is any difference between suits for the administration of estates and suits for the settlement of disputed rights, and that the delay which is an abuse in the one case, is inevitable in the other. The greatest of our statesmen, lawyers, and philosophers would shrink from delivering any trenchant and unqualified opinion upon so complicated and obscure a subject as the merits of the whole administrative Government of the empire. To Mr. Dickens the question presents no such difficulty. He stumbles upon the happy phrase of ‘the Circumlocution Office’ as an impersonation of the Government; strikes out the brilliant thought, repeated just ten times in twenty-three lines, that whereas ordinary people want to know how to do their business, the whole art of Government lies in discovering ‘how not to do it;’ and with these somewhat unmeaning phrases he proceeds to describe, in a light and playful tone, the government of his country.
Everybody has read the following chapter of ‘Little Dorrit'; but we are not equally sure that everybody has asked himself what it really means. It means, if it means anything, that the result of the British constitution, of our boasted freedom, of parliamentary representation, and of all we possess, is to give us the worst government on the face of the earth—the clatter of a mill grinding no corn, the stroke of an engine drawing no water.
'CHAPTER X. CONTAINING THE WHOLE SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT.
The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time, without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office.
This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation, and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.
Through this delicate perception, through the tact with which it invariably seized it, and through the genius with which it always acted on it, the Circumlocution Office had risen to overtop all the public departments; and the public condition had risen to be—what it was.
It is true that How not to do it was the great study and object of all public departments and professional politicians all round the Circumlocution Office. It is true that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they had upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering, How not to do it. It is true that from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on hustings because it hadn't been done, and who had been asking the friends of the honourable gentleman in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn't been done, and who had been asserting that it must be done, and who had been pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise, How it was not to be done it is true that the debates of both Houses of Parliament the whole session through, uniformly tended to the protracted deliberation, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech at the opening of such session virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have a considerable stroke of work to do, and you will please to retire to your respective chambers, and discuss, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech, at the close of such session, virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have through several laborious months been considering with great loyalty and patriotism, How not to do it, and you have found out; and with the blessing of Providence upon the harvest (natural, not political), I now dismiss you. All this is true, but the Circumlocution Office went beyond it.
Because the Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion. Because the Circumlocution Office was down upon any ill-advised public servant who was going to do it, or who appeared to be by any surprising accident in remote danger of doing it, with a minute, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions, that extinguished him.
Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office. Unfortunates with wrongs, or with projects for the general welfare (and they had better have had wrongs at first, than have taken that bitter English recipe for certainly getting them), who in slow lapse of time and agony had passed safely through other public departments; who, according to rule, had been bullied in this, overreached by that, and evaded by the other; got referred at last to the Circumlocution Office, and never reappeared in the light of day. Boards sat upon them, secretaries minuted upon them, commissioners gabbled about them, clerks registered, entered, checked, and ticked them off, and they melted away. In short, all the business of the country went through the Circumlocution Office, except the business that never came out of it; and its name was Legion.’
This is no isolated ebullition. The Circumlocution Office forms one of the standing decorations of the work in which it is depicted. The cover of the book is adorned by a picture, representing, amongst other things, Britannia in a Bath-chair, drawn by a set of effete idiots, an old woman, a worn-out cripple in a military uniform, and a supercilious young dandy, who buries the head of his cane in his moustaches. The chair is pushed on behind by six men in fools, who are followed by a crowd of all ages and both sexes, intended, we presume, to represent that universal system of jobbing and favouritism, which was introduced into the public service by Sir Charles Trevelyan and Sir Stafford Northcote, shortly before the time when Mr. Dickens began his novel. The spirit of the whole book is the same. The Circumlocution Office is constantly introduced as a splendid example of all that is base and stupid. Messrs. Tite Barnacle and Stiltstalking are uniformly put forward as the representatives of the twenty or thirty permanent under-secretaries and heads of departments, by whom so large a portion of the public affairs is conducted, and every species of meanness, folly, and vulgarity is laid to their charge.
It is difficult to extract the specific accusations which Mr. Dickens means to bring against the Government; but we take the principal counts in his indictment to be, that the business of the country is done very slowly and very ill; that inventors and projectors of improvements are treated with insolent neglect; and that the Government is conducted by, and for the interest of a few aristocratic families, whose whole public life is a constant career of personal jobs. Most men will consider these rather serious charges.
But the burlesque manner and extravagant language in which they are made are at once Mr. Dickens's shield and his sword. ‘How can you suppose, he might say, ‘that I mean any harm by such representations as these? I am neither a lawyer nor a politician; but I take a fling at the subjects of the day, just in order to give my writings a little local colour, and a little temporary piquancy. Probably enough this is the true account of the matter, and it forms the very gravamen of our complaint. Men of the world may laugh at books which represent all who govern as fools, knaves, hypocrites, and dawdling tyrants. They know very well that such language is meant to be understood subject to modifications; but the poor and uneducated take such words in their natural and undiluted strength, and draw from them practical conclusions of corresponding importance; whilst the young and inexperienced are led to think far too meanly of the various careers which the organisation of society places before them, and to waste in premature cynicism and self-satisfied indolence some of the most precious opportunities which life affords.
It is not necessary to discuss the justice of Mr. Dickens's charges, but it is so much the fashion of the day to speak with unmeasured contempt both of the honesty and ability of the executive government, that We will lay before our readers a few considerations upon the general character of the public service, and upon the principles which ought to govern discussions as to its merits.
The first question which presents itself is, What is the standard of comparison? It would require a knowledge of the details of the administrative system of other countries, which we do not pretend to possess, to institute a detailed comparison between their governments and our own. But without entering on so vast a subject, we think that any person of ordinary fairness and information may easily satisfy himself that the British Government need not shrink from a comparison, either with the transactions of mercantile men, or with those of great public companies. Mr. Dickens, and many other denouncers of the incapacity of the Government, have long indulged in the pleasant habit of looking only at one side of the subject. They read in the newspapers of the failures, the prejudices, and the stupidity of the executive; and it never occurs to them that they do not hear of the cases in which the official mechanism works well. We must have some notion of the magnitude of the operations which the Government has to conduct, before we can duly estimate the immense weight of the testimony in its favour, which is conveyed by the absence of complaint on so many subjects. But the testimony so conveyed is positive as well as negative. Here, as in the other affairs of life, we must look at broad general results; and from them we may readily gather abundant confirmation of our position, that whatever defects may exist in the administration of public affairs, their general condition proves that much capacity and honesty is employed upon them.
If we turn, for example, to the management of the Revenue, is Mr. Dickens aware of the complexity and extent of the operations which are involved in collecting, disbursing, and accounting for, something like £60,000,000, and of making such arrangements with respect to it, that there shall always be enough in hand to make every payment at its appointed period, whatever irregularities may occur in the receipt of the income? Has he any notion of the variety and intricacy of the system of accounts which such transactions render necessary? If any mercantile firm had establishments at every seaport and in every considerable inland town; if they employed several thousand servants of different grades in order to collect an income of the amount which we have mentioned; if they had to adjust their receipts and expenditure with such scrupulous exactness as to be able to pay away about half of their gross income to an immense body of mortgagees by quarterly instalments; and if all the business which these operations implied were conducted with the regularity of clockwork, without gross fraud, with little, if any, peculation, and with such method that the shareholders were annually furnished with accounts embracing the very minutest details of so enormous an outlay, how Mr. Dickens would triumph in contrasting the business-like habits of the middle classes with the blundering stupidity of the Circumlocution Office. Yet this is a literal and most scanty account of the occupations of one single department of that Circumlocution Office which is the subject of Mr. Dickens's extreme contempt.
The administration of the British Empire has no doubt many shortcomings and imperfections, but are we seeking to perpetuate them or to remove them? If a man's house is not to his mind, he either builds a new one or repairs the old one; and whichever of the two operations may be the wisest, there can be no doubt that the English nation have in all constitutional reforms adopted the latter. There has never been at any period of our history a tabula rasa, like that which at the end of the last century existed for a time in France, on which homogeneous and consistent structures, either of law or government, could be raised. The consequence is, that our law is full of fictions, and our public offices full of intricacy. This is, no doubt, an evil to be remedied, but it is one which the present generation inherited, and which earlier generations considered a cheap price for the acquisition of political liberty.
Inefficiency, however, is only one of Mr. Dickens's charges against the Government. Neglect of useful inventions and gross corruption are thrown in by way of makeweight. Thus in the following oracular conversation in ‘Little Dorrit':—
“What I mean to say is, that however this comes to be the regular way of our government, it is its regular way. Have you ever heard of any proprietor or inventor who failed to find it all but inaccessible, and whom it did not discourage and ill-treat?”With respect to the first of these charges, we may mention one or two specific instances of the application of inventive power to the regular objects of administration. What does Mr. Dickens think of the whole organisation of the Post Office, and of the system of cheap postage, which was invented in this country, and has been adopted by almost every State on the Continent? Every branch of this establishment shows the greatest power of arrangement and contrivance even mechanical contrivance. Mr. Dickens can never tear a penny stamp from its fellows without having before his eyes an illustration of the watchful ingenuity of this branch of the Circumlocution Office. To take another special illustration: what does Mr. Dickens say to the London Police? What he has said on the subject, any one may see, by referring to ‘Household Words,’ in which he will find the organisation of the force praised in almost hyperbolical language. It is not a little characteristic that Mr. Dickens should praise one branch of the Circumlocution Office in one of his organs, and shortly afterwards denounce the whole institution as a mass of clumsy stupidity in another. There can hardly be a more delicate administrative problem than that of protecting the persons and property without endangering the liberties of the public; and we should feel some curiosity to see a statement by Mr. Dickens of the comparative value of the solutions arrived at by the French, the Russian, and the English Governments.
“I cannot say I ever have.”’
“Have you ever known it to be beforehand in the adoption of any useful thing? Ever known it to set an example of any useful kind?”
“I am a good deal older than my friend here,” said Mr. Meagles, and I'll answer that. Never.” (P. 88.)
As to the personal corruption, and the neglect of talent, which Mr. Dickens charges against the Government of the country, we can only say that any careful observer of his method might have predicted with confidence that he would begin a novel on that subject within a very few months after the establishment of a system of competitive examinations for admission into the Civil Service. He seems, as a general rule, to get his first notions of an abuse from the discussions which accompany its removal, and begins to open his trenches and mount his batteries as soon as the place to be attacked has surrendered. This was his course with respect both to imprisonment for debt and to Chancery reform; but in the present instance, he has attacked an abuse which never existed to anything like the extent which he describes. A large proportion of the higher permanent offices of state have always been filled by men of great talent, whose promotion was owing to their talent. Did Mr. Dickens ever hear that Mr. Hallam, Mr. William Hamilton, Mr. Phillips, Sir George Barrow, Sir A. Spearman, Sir James Stephen, Sir C. Trevelyan, Mr. Merivale, Mr. Henry Taylor, or Mr. Greg are, or have been, members of the permanent Civil Service? Will he assert that these gentlemen were promoted simply from family motives, or that they are fairly represented by such a lump of folly and conceit as the Mr. Stilt-stalking of his story? Or, to take a single and well-known example, how does he account for the career of Mr. Rowland Hill? A gentleman in a private and not very conspicuous position, writes a pamphlet recommending what amounted to a revolution in a most important department of the Government. Did the Circumlocution Office neglect him, traduce him, break his heart, and ruin his fortune? They adopted his scheme, and gave him the leading share in carrying it out, and yet this is the Government which Mr. Dickens declares to be a sworn foe to talent, and a systematic enemy to ingenuity.
We cannot, however, entirely confine ourselves to looking at the positive side of the question. We must for a moment direct Mr. Dickens's attention to its negative aspects; and we think that it would be a just, though an inadequate, punishment for the language which he has used, if he were obliged to learn from painful experience what other governments are like. If he had to do, for a very little time, with a system in which a set of ill-paid and needy underlings had it in their power to levy black mail upon him, by a hundred petty interferences with the privacy of his house and the freedom of his movements, he might find that King Stork had his faults as well as King Log. It is not agreeable to feel doubts as to the prudence of making a handsome new year's gift to the judge who is to try your cause; nor can it be a pleasant thought for a patriotic mind, that there is not a despatch in any department of the Government of which copies may not be bought from highly efficient clerks at a very moderate premium. We individually should feel uneasy at the reflection, that several hundred thousand persons, in all classes of society, were absolutely dependent on the sic volo sic jubeo of the Central Government for their daily bread; nor would it conciliate our confidence in public men, if rumours were extensively circulated that Ministers were in the habit of making fortunes on the Stock Exchange; and if all these, and many similar features, were extremely common in a great part of the world, and were utterly and absolutely unknown in our own country, we should doubt whether we were much worse governed than our neighbours.
It is one of Mr. Dickens's favourite themes, to compare the modesty, the patience, and the solid business-like sense of his intelligent mechanic, Mr. Doyce, with the blundering inefficiency of the Circumlocution Office. We do not deny the justice of the praise which Mr. Dickens lavishes on Mr. Doyce and his class. It is no doubt well deserved, but we wish to call attention to the fact, that our faith in their good qualities is based entirely upon broad general results, precisely similar to those which, as we say, prove the general ability and honesty of the Government, although the mercantile and mechanical classes have also to account for a vast number of failures of an infinitely more serious kind than those which called into existence Mr. Dickens's extravagant fictions. Look, for example, at any of our great railways. No one who observes the traffic, the organisation, the discipline, and all the various members of those immense establishments, can doubt that a vast deal of skill and energy has been employed in their construction; but if we were disposed to denounce them as utterly corrupt and effete, how superabundant the materials of denunciation would be. Imagine Mr. Dickens idealising Redpath, and filling in the intervals of his story with racy descriptions of the opposition between the North-Western, the Great Northern, and the Great Western; sketches of trucks laid across the line for engines to run into; speculations as to the reasons which induce directors always to send on a coal train ten minutes before they despatch an express; tyrannical invasions of private property, and authentic comparisons of the sums spent in law expenses, with the returns from the branches for which those expenses obtained Acts of Parliament! Let the background of the picture be filled in with broken-hearted lovers mourning over a fall in the price of shares, by which their union is prevented for ever, and angelic widows reading with agonized hearts accounts of the ‘smash' which had deprived them for ever of the society of that virtuous bagman, whose faithful purity and earnestness had for hundreds of pages moved our contempt for the heartless aristocrats with whom he was contrasted. Such a description of English railways would be, neither in kind nor in degree, one whit more unjust, and would not be in its results one-hundredth part as injurious, as the description given in ‘Little Dorrit’ of the Executive Government of this country.
It is as hard to refute a generality as to answer a sneer, and we therefore feel that in combating such statements as those of Mr. Dickens, we expose ourselves to the retort that we are fighting with shadows of our own raising. With respect to Mr. Charles Reade, our task is far simpler. We have in his case an example of the inevitable necessity which this style of composition imposes upon novelists of distorting facts, which may be brought to a very simple issue indeed. Our objection to such novels is, that, inasmuch as facts are seldom or never so romantic as the exigencies of fiction require, the novelist is tempted to exaggerate, and thereby misrepresent, them, for the purposes of his book. This abuse is very strongly exemplified in the production entitled ‘It is never too late to mend.’
Some of our readers are probably aware that about four years ago great complaints were made of the manner in which prisoners were treated in Birmingham Gaol. From disclosures which took place on an inquest held on a boy named Andrews, who hanged himself in that prison, the attention of Government was directed to its management. A commission of inquiry sat upon it in the autumn of the same year, and published a Report, speaking in very strong terms of the conduct of the governor, together with a mass of evidence showing that illegal and cruel punishments had been inflicted on the prisoners during his tenure of office. From the offences thus brought to light, Lieutenant Austin, the governor, was tried and convicted on two indictments at the Warwick assizes in July, 1855, and in the following Michaelmas term was called up for judgment, and, sentenced to three months' imprisonment in the Queen's Prison. Some seven or eight months ago Mr. Reade published a novel based on these facts; in which he has not only charged the governor with cruelties far exceeding any that were proved against him, but made them the ground of accusations against the government and the judges, expressed in language as intemperate as the charges themselves are false.
In order to show that there can be no doubt that ______ Gaol, in ‘It is never too late to mend’, is identical with Birmingham Prison, we need only say that every single incident in the novel is founded upon corresponding incidents related in the evidence taken before the Royal Commissioners; the main features of the story are identical with those which we have stated, and the names of the characters introduced are concealed under transparent disguises. Thus, the governor of the prison, Lieut. Austin, is represented by Mr. Hawes. Freer, one of the warders, is called Fry; Captain Maconochie, the governor who preceded Lieutenant Austin, is O'Connor; Mr. Luckcock, a magistrate, is described as Mr. Woodcock; Taylor, a prisoner, as Naylor; and the boy, Andrews, who hung himself, is (probably with a reminiscence of Fielding) named Josephs.
We do not propose to undertake the defence either of Lieutenant Austin or of the magistrates of Birmingham. Both, we have no doubt, were very greatly to blame. Lieutenant Austin for a severity of discipline, which, in the words of the Report, showed ‘lamentable indifference to human suffering;’ and the magistrates for reposing in him such undue confidence, that they allowed the supervision of the prison to pass almost entirely out of their own hands, and the duty of inspection to degenerate into little more than a formal routine.
Whatever practical defects the law of libel may contain, and they are no doubt many, one main feature of its theory has, by very recent legislation, been brought into complete harmony with common sense. To publish any statement tending to injure another is primá facie criminal, and in order to justify any such publication it is necessary to prove not only the truth of the matters charged, but that for some specific reason it was for the public benefit that they should be published. If it be true that the Government and a variety of public officers of various kinds, conspired to defeat the course of justice, and to protect the criminal, there can be no doubt that it is for the public benefit that the fact should be known; and Mr. Reade might say fairly enough that he was justified in bringing Lieutenant Austin again before the public, if by so doing he could prove that the Government had been guilty of great offences hitherto undetected. But Mr. Austin has already suffered severely, though deservedly, for his offences, both in person, in reputation, and in money; and surely, unless some public purpose is to be subserved by holding him up to execration, an author has neither the moral nor legal right to make him, or any man, the villain of a widely-circulated novel.
Blameable, however, as Mr. Austin's conduct undoubtedly was, it was far from being as bad as Mr. Reade represents it to have been. We have taken the trouble of comparing this novel minutely with the Report and Evidence of the Royal Commission and with the evidence on the trial. The result is highly unfavourable to this romantic mode of following in the track of criminal justice. Most of the cruelties ascribed by Mr. Reade to Lieutenant Aus. tin have some foundation in fact. We have even been able to discover some which have been stated pretty fairly; but he has almost always added just as many incidents as were required in order to make the difference between unjustifiable severity and the required melodramatic devilishness of character. One or two specimens of this style of popular composition will suffice. We select a general description of what Mr. Reade leads his readers to consider the characteristics of prison discipline in English Penitentiaries, for which (if true) the Government, the Parliament, the Magistrates, and the Courts of Law are responsible.
‘A thick dark pall of silence and woe hung over its huge walls. If a voice was heard above a whisper it was sure to be either a cry of anguish or a fierce command to inflict anguish. Two or three were crucified every day; the rest expected crucifixion from morning till night. No man felt safe an hour; no man had the means of averting punishment; all were at the mercy of a tyrant. Threats, frightful, fierce, and mysterious, hung like weights over every soul and body. Whenever a prisoner met an officer, he cowered and hurried crouching by like a dog passing a man with a whip in his hand; and as he passed he trembled at the thunder of his own footsteps, and wished to heaven they would not draw so much attention to him by ringing so clear through that huge silent tomb. When an officer met the governor he tried to slip by with a hurried salute lest he should be stopped, abused, and sworn at.
The earnest man fell hardest upon the young; boys and children were favourite victims; but his favourites of all were poor Robinson and little Josephs. These were at the head of the long list he crucified, he parched, he famished, he robbed of prayer, of light, of rest, and hope. He disciplined the sick; he closed the infirmary again. That large room, furnished with comforts, nurses, and air, was an inconsistency.
“A new prison is a collection of cells,” said Hawes. The infirmary was a spot in the sun. The exercise-yard in this prison was a twelve-box stable for creatures concluded to be wild beasts. The labour-yard was a fifteen-stall stable for ditto. The house of God an eighty-stall stable, into which the wild beasts were dispersed for public worship made private. Here in early days, before Hawes was ripe, they assembled apart and repeated prayers; and sang hymns on Sunday. But Hawes found out that though the men were stabled apart their voices were refractory and mingled in the air, and with their voices their hearts might, who knows? He pointed this out to the justices, who shook their skulls, and stopped the men's responses and hymns. The animals cut the choruses out of the English liturgy with as little ceremony and as good effect as they would have cut the choruses out of Handel's “Messiah,” if the theory they were working had been a musical instead of a moral one.
So far so good; but the infirmary had escaped Justice Shallow and Justice Woodcock. Hawes abolished that.
Discipline before all. Not because a fellow is sick is he to break discipline.
So the sick lay in their narrow cells gasping in vain for fresh air, gasping in vain for some cooling drink, or some little simple delicacy to incite their enfeebled appetite.
The dying were locked up at the fixed hour for locking up, and found dead at the fixed hour for opening. How they had died—no one knew. At what hour they had died—no one knew. Whether in some choking struggle a human hand might have saved them by changing a suffocating position or the like—no one knew.
But this all knew—that these our sinful brethren had died, not like men, but like vultures in the great desert. They were separated from their kith and kin, who, however brutal, would have said a kind word and done a tender thing or two for them at that awful hour; and nothing allowed them in exchange, not even the routine attentions of a prison nurse; they were in darkness and alone when the king of terrors came to them and wrestled with them: all men had turned their backs on them, no creature near to wipe the dews of death, to put a cool hand to the brow, or soften the intensity of the last sad sigh that carried their souls from earth. Thus they passed away, punished lawlessly by the law till they succumbed, and then since they were no longer food for torture, ignored by the law and abandoned by the human race.
They locked up one dying man at eight o'clock. At midnight the thirst of death came on him. He prayed for a drop of water, but there was none to hear him. Parched and gasping the miserable man got out of bed and groped and groped for his tin mug, but before he could drink the death agony seized him. When they unlocked him in the morning they found him a corpse on the floor with the mug in his hand and the water spilled on the floor. They wrenched the prison property out of its dead hand, and flung the carcase itself upon the bed as if it had been the clay cast of a dog, not the remains of a man.
All was of a piece. The living tortured; the dying abandoned; the dead kicked out of the way.’ (Pp. 169, 170.)
We might draw out illustrations of this kind to any length; but as our object is not to discuss the character of Lieutenant Austin, but to illustrate the character of novels founded on fact, we will content ourselves with the most specific misstatements.
The first, refers to the case of the boy Andrews, who hung himself. The punishments inflicted upon him consisted, partly in reducing his diet to bread and water, partly in depriving him of his bed and gas, and partly and principally in the application of an instrument called the punishment-jacket, by which the person punished was attached to the wall by a strap round his arms, which were also confined in a strait waistcoat, whilst a stiff leather collar was fastened round his neck. Mr. Reade's case is, that by excessive application of these punishments, the boy was driven to suicide, and that an excuse for punishing him was found, by setting him tasks of hard labour greater than he could perform, and which in fact he did not perform.
In this story we have detected the following exaggerations:--
1. At p. 173., Mr. Reade calls the leather collar surrounding the boy's neck ‘a high circular-saw; and in another passage he describes it as left unbound at the edges, so as to be jagged. Of this there is no evidence whatever in the Report. The collar was unbound, but not jagged.
2. At p. 84., Mr. Reade says, ‘that the governor gave the lad 8000 turns (of the crank) to do in four and a half hours.’ At p. 170, he says, ‘Between breakfast and dinner' (which would be four and a half hours) ‘he was set 5000 turns of a heavy crank.’ Both of these numbers are exaggerations. The real number was 4000.
3. At the same pages, Mr. Reade says, that ‘Josephs never succeeded in performing these preposterous tasks;’ and that he (Hawes) knew the boy could not do it. It was only a formula he had for punishing the lad.’ At p. xi. of the Report, we find these words: ‘We examined the amount of crank-labour which Edward Andrews had performed, and found a record of his labour at the crank on every weekday, from March 30. to April 23. He was deficient on the 30th and 31st of March, and on the 16th and 19th of April. On all the other days he completed his assigned amount of labour, and on several (seven) days exceeded it.’
4. At p. 171., Mr. Reade describes Josephs as presenting the appearance of ‘a small but aged man, shambling stiffly, with joints stiffened by perpetual crucifixion and by rheumatism, that had been caused by being perpetually wetted through. This is incorrect. Andrews gained two pounds in weight during his confinement, and there were no marks of violence on the body. [Evidence of Mr. Blount, p. 154, supported by affidavit of Mr. Lakin.] As to the perpetual wetting, he was wetted once.
5. At pp. 172–3, Mr. Reade describes Josephs as having been confined in the punishment-jacket on the afternoon before his suicide. He was not so confined for three days before his suicide. This is important, because the proximate cause of his hanging himself was not any punishment inflicted by Lieutenant Austin, but a threat to report him to the magistrates.
6. The governor is represented at p. 172, as abusing him. No such abuse took place, and the habitual use of profane language on the part of the governor was disproved on oath.
7. At p. 176., it is said that Josephs was deprived of his bed for the whole night. He was deprived of it only from eight to ten P.M., which left him eight hours' sleep. This is a most material exaggeration, as will appear immediately.
8. It is asserted in the same page, and at p. 174., that water was thrown over him when in the punishment jacket, and that he was left all night in his wet clothes. It is true that the water was thrown over him, but not that he was kept in wet clothes.
9. It is asserted that when the boy was put into the jacket, the governor ordered the straps to be drawn tighter. This is quite imaginary.
10. It is asserted (p. 177.) that Josephs hung himself at one A.M., watching till the prison officers were out of the way. He hung himself at ten P.M., when the warder would come round to bring in his bed. He was not quite dead when he was cut down; [Report of proceedings in London in R. v. Austin. Birmingham Journal, 28th Nov. 1855.] and—though it was no part of the prison discipline—he had cleaned the can in which he would have received his breakfast next morning. We gather these facts from the subsequent proceedings at the trial, and in London, and not from the Report; so that Mr. Reade is perhaps not to blame for having omitted them, though he is greatly to blame for altering the time of the suicide so as to put beyond all doubt an intention which, on the evidence before the Commissioners, was only matter of conjecture.
After this illustration—and it is only an illustration of Mr. Reade's method—we may notice a few other points in a more concise manner. Mr. Reade, for example, makes a great deal of Mr. Austin's conduct towards a man named Hunt (called in the novel Carter), into whose mouth some salt was put by the surgeon. The exaggerations in this case resemble those which we have already noticed in the case of Andrews so much, that we will only say that Mr. Reade not only exaggerates the story, but omits all mention of the fact that it formed the subject of one of the indictments on which Lieutenant Austin was tried at Warwick, and that he was acquitted on the very same evidence, with an unimportant exception, which was laid before the Commissioners, and acquitted by the same jury which had convicted him of the assaults upon Andrews.
Such is a specimen of the misrepresentations into which a writer of fictions founded upon fact may be led.
The extent of Mr. Austin's criminality, which we have no wish to deny or to palliate, is only to be ascertained by a conscientious and dispassionate inquiry into facts; and it will be apparent from two extracts, —the one from Mr. Reade's novel, the other from Mr. Justice Coleridge's address in passing sentence,—that the way in which that investigation is conducted must make a most serious difference to the person principally concerned.
‘This unhappy dolt, says Mr. Reade of the Governor, ‘must still, like his prisoners and the rest of us, have some excitement to keep him from going dead. What more natural than that such a nature should find its excitement in tormenting; and that by degrees this excitement should become first a habit, then a need? Torture had grown upon stupid, earnest Hawes; it seasoned that white of egg, a mindless existence.’Considering that this is mere matter of inference, it is rather strong language, even for a novelist. Mr. Reade may not attach much importance to the opinion of the judge who passed sentence on Lieutenant Austin, inasmuch as he considers him a ‘dolt’, a ‘fool’, an ‘idiot’, ‘vermin’, and ‘not a lawyer’. The rest of the world, however, have not yet learnt to apply this language to Mr. Justice Coleridge, and will therefore perhaps be glad to hear that, after a careful judicial inquiry into these astounding and revolting charges, that Judge said to Lieutenant Austin, ‘The Court are satisfied, from the character you have borne for a number of years, and from statements in your affidavits, that deliberate cruelty and inhumanity were never conceived by you.’
In quitting this part of the subject, we feel bound to warn our readers that the general conclusion which we have drawn from a careful examination of Mr. Reade's book, with the authorities on which it professes to be founded, is, that it hardly contains a single statement of a matter of fact which can be entirely depended upon, though every statement respecting ______ Gaol, which it contains, is founded upon something mentioned in the Report of the Commissioners who inquired into Birmingham Prison. We will now proceed to show that it has a most important bearing on a subject of far greater public interest.
Besides his attacks upon the governor of the prison, Mr. Reade speaks with the most extreme violence of the conduct of the visiting magistrates, of the supineness of the ‘unconscientious flunkeys, humbugs, hirelings, whom God confound on earth’, usually known as the Home Office; of the inspector of prisons for the district; and of a corrupt conspiracy between a great variety of persons in order to pervert the course of justice; and inasmuch as the description of Lieutenant Austin’s misdeeds affords the principal foundation for these attacks, it is obvious that by exaggerating the facts, additional weight is given to these inferences. The attack upon the magistrates, though exaggerated in one or two very material points, has nevertheless so strong a basis of truth that we shall only refer to it incidentally. There can be no doubt that they grievously neglected their duty in the careless manner in which the gaol was superintended, though several facts which make in their favor are omitted by Mr. Reade, whilst others which make against them are exaggerated, from his usual habit of looking upon the production of melodramatic effect as superior to every other human consideration. We will compare the facts attending the discovery of the mismanagement of the prison, as given by Mr. Reade, with the same facts as they appear in the Report.
Andrews hung himself on the 27th of April, 1853. The inquest on his body followed immediately. On the 3rd of May Mr. Wills, the Chairman of the Board of Visiting Justices, applied to the coroner for his notes of the evidence. He did not get them till the 4th, but from verbal information which the coroner gave him on the 3rd, he immediately went to the prison in company with another magistrate, conversed upon the matter with Lieutenant Austin, gave orders for the discontinuance of the illegal punishments then ascertained to exist, took possession of the leather collars which formed the worst part of the punishment-jacket, and ordered that the strait waistcoat and straps should only be used for purposes of restraint in cases of great personal violence, and not for purposes of punishment; and he made a report to the Committee of Visiting Justices on the very next day (Ev. p. 475–6). Mr. Wills at this time had only been a visiting justice for ten days, though he had previously held that office for some months in the time of Captain Maconochie.
Now how does Mr. Reade represent these facts? The most prominent member (though he is not explicitly called the Chairman) of the visiting justices in the novel is called Mr. Williams, and he is represented as the unscrupulous partisan and advocate of Lieutenant Austin, whose credit he upholds notwithstanding the discoveries of the inspector; so that Mr. Wills is made in the novel to defend the very acts to which he in reality put a stop. [It is fair to Mr. Reade to add, that he may have been misled by a mistake in the Report as to the length of time during which Mr. Wills had held office. The Report, p. xxxvii., states that he had been a visiting justice for several months. It appears from the evidence that this was not the case. We should also remark, that Mr. Wills joined in a report from the visiting magistrates to the Home Office, which would certainly seem to have taken too lenient a view of Lieutenant Austin’s conduct. But, in making that report, the whole of the evidence (partly, no doubt, in consequence of what would seem to have been a mistake in judgment on their part) was not before them; and the Commissioners say, ‘we are satisfied that they (the magistrates) heard the details of the occurrences in the gaol, as they were disclosed before us, with much pain and regret.” (P. xxxvii.)] But Mr. Reade with held from Mr. Wills the credit of the exposure because he is an unpaid magistrate, a class for which Mr. Reade cannot express his contempt in sufficiently forcible language. As, however, it was necessary for the purposes of the novel, that the cruelties of the governor should be brought to light somehow, a totally imaginary chaplain is introduced, who unites all sorts of virtues, physical and moral, and who drags the culprits to punishment.
Mr. Reade always delights to contrast ‘holy Church’ and ‘unholy State’ to the disadvantage of the latter; and we shall point out immediately the manner in which the ‘man of God’ is said to have done what Mr. Wills actually did. In the meantime we will only remark that Mr. Reade's virtuous zeal would go a long way to leave us without any government at all, for he is quite as hard as Mr. Dickens upon the Circumlocution Office, as he is upon the unpaid magistracy. He is extremely indignant about the clerks in public offices, ‘the eighty pounders, who execute England’; and there could not be a more curious illustration of his views on that point than his abuse of Mr. Perry, the inspector of prisons. Not only does he make no complaint against that gentleman, but his representative in the novel, Mr. Lacy, is the Deus ex machiná who turns Mr. Hawes out of the gaol, and sets up Mr. Eden in his stead. Still Mr. Lacy is guilty of the crime of being a public servant, a “hireling, and Mr. Reade feels bound to express his sense of the offence in the following manner:—
‘Then in that gloomy abode of blood and tears Heaven wrought a miracle. One who for twenty years past had been an official, became a man for full five minutes. Light burst on him. Nature rushed back upon her truant son, and seized her long-forgotten empire. The frost and reserve of office melted like snow in summer before the sun of religion and humanity. How unreal and idle appeared now the twenty years gone in tape and circumlocution Away went his life of shadows —his career of watery polysyllables meandering through the great desert into the Dead Sea. He awoke from his desk, and saw the corpse of an Englishman murdered by routine, and the tears of a man of God dripping upon it.
‘Then his soul burst his desk, and his heart broke its polysyllables and its tapen bonds, and the man of office came quickly to the man of God, and seized his hand with both his, which shook very much, and pressed it again and again and again, and his eyes glistened, and his voice faltered.’ (P. 221.)The best reward that Mr. Reade can be. stow upon an efficient public servant is the hope that he may have grace to repent of being one. Mr. Reade brings no charge whatever against Mr. Perry except that of being a public servant who performed his duty. But his antipathies grow like circles in water. After libelling Mr. Wills and abusing Mr. Perry, he goes a step further, and attacks the Home Office. Mr. Eden (the imaginary chaplain) is represented as writing a letter to that department, in which he denounces the abuses of the prison. He is told, after some delay, that the inspector is on his circuit, and that in about six weeks time he will arrive in Gaol. Hereupon Mr. Eden goes up into the seventh heaven of fury, and ‘flesh and blood addresses gutta-percha’ in a series of dithyrambs conceived in a sort of madhouse style, in which, amongst other things, he states his intention of applying to the Queen in person, if he is not attended to. Hereupon he receives what he acknowledges to be a gentlemanlike letter, to the effect that “a person connected with the Home Department would soon arrive; and the much reviled Mr. Lacy comes accordingly. This is the novel. Now for the fact.
The first intimation which the Government, or Mr. Perry, received to the effect that there was anything wrong in the management of the prison, appears to have been derived from the newspaper reports of the inquest on Andrews. As soon as Mr. Perry read this report he wrote to the chaplain, to know whether his evidence was correctly reported, and on hearing that it was, he went down to investigate the subject. The inquest was concluded on May 3rd. Mr. Perry's inquiry began on May 16th, and ended on the 23rd (Ev. p. 492). These proceedings appear to have been known to, and were probably concerted with, the Home Office. (Rep. p. v.) So far therefore from its being true that the Home Office was warned of the misconduct of Lieutenant Austin many weeks before the suicide of Andrews, and that they neglected the warning till it was repeatedly urged upon them, it would seem that without any official intimation of the fact whatever, they directed an inquiry within a few days after it came to light.
Even this is not all. The climax of Mr. Reade's frenzy, as we have already observed, is reserved for the Courts of Law. No language except that of simple quotation can do justice to the indescribable mixture of folly, ignorance, and presumption which is contained in the following passages:
‘A Royal Commission sat on _______ Gaol, and elicited all the butchery I have related, and a good deal more. The journals gave an able sketch of the horrors of that hell, and a name or two out of the long list of the victims done to death by solitude, starvation, violence, and accumulated tortures of soul and body.
The nation cried “shame!” and then all good citizens waited in honest confidence, that next month the sword of justice would fall on the manslayer.
Well, months and months rolled away, and still, somehow, no justice came to poor little murdered Josephs and his fellow-martyrs. Their sufferings, and the manner of their destruction, had made all the flesh and blood in the nation thrill with pity and anger; but one little clique remained gutta-percha – the clerks that executed England.
Then “The Times” raised its lash, and threatened that band of heartless hirelings. ‘You shall not leave us stained with all this blood shed lawlessly,’ said “The Times.” Then these hirelings began to do, for fear of the New Bailey in Printing-House Yard, what they had not done for fear of God, or pity of the deceased, or love of justice, or respect for law and public morals, or for the honour of the nation and the credit of the human race.
They brought an indictment against Messrs. Hawes and Sawyer. But the mannikin who marches towards his duty, because a man's toe is applied to his sense of honour, may show fight, but he seldom fights. Our hirelings of Xerxes illustrated this trait of nature at every step. They indicted Messrs. Hawes and Sawyer for what, do you suppose? He had starved men to death, which the law has, ere this, pronounced to be murder. A gaoler was hanged in Paris for a single murder thus effected. Did they indict this man for murder? No! He had driven men to suicide by illegal bodily tortures, and illegal mental tortures and felonious practices, without number, which is manslaughter. Did they indict him for manslaughter? No! They only indicted him for prisoner-slaughter; and they estimated this act at what? At a misdemeanour!
The misdemeanour of manslaughter in a prison was tried at last in open court at the county assize. The friendly prosecutor brought as few witnesses to Mr. Hawes's misdemeanours – or shall we say breaches of etiquette—as possible. I cannot find that any of the sufferers by his little misconduct were brought into court; yet they might have been; they were not all dead. Like soldiers in battle, there were nine wounded for every one killed. The prosecution seems to have been rested on the evidence of the prisoner's servants and confederates. Whether this arrangement was taken at the express request of the prisoner, or originated with his friendly antagonists, I don't know.
Then came another phenomenon of this strange business. The judge, instead of completing the case, and taking his share in the day's business (as the counsel and the jury had theirs), by passing sentence on the evidence and on the spot, deferred his judgment.
Now this was an act opposed to the custom of English Courts in criminal cases. A judge is a slave of precedents.
Why, then, did the slave of precedent defy precedent?
We shall see.
Three mortal months after the trial, the promised judgment was pronounced. Where? In London, a hundred miles from the jury and the public that had heard the evidence. The judgment was not only deferred, it was transferred. Thus two objects were gained; the honest heart of the public had time to cool; fresh events, in an eventful age, had displaced the memory of murdered Josephs and his fellow-martyrs; and so the prisoner-slayer was to be shuffled away safe, unnoticed, and the absence secured of the English public from a judgment which the judge knew would insult their hearts and consciences.
The judgment thus smuggled into law, delivered on the sly before a handful of people who could not judge the judgment, because they were not the people that had heard the evidence. This judgment—what was it when it came
It was the sort of thing this trickery had led discerning men to expect.
It was three months' imprisonment!’ (P. 462–4.)
Every single imputation contained in this passage is utterly baseless. Its style would, no doubt, protect it from criticism, if it did not deal with facts; but the relation between the facts and the novel is so instructive, that we will answer it at length. There was, says Mr. Reade, a plot to stifle justice, and this is proved by the delay in the prosecution. The report of the Commissioners is dated Jan. 25. 1854, and it was shortly afterwards laid before the two houses of Parliament. Lieutenant Austin was not indicted till the spring assizes of 1855, when the indictment was removed by certiorari in order to obtain a special jury. It was held at the following summer assizes. Thus two opportunities of proceeding against him, afforded by the Lent and Summer Circuits of 1854, were lost. If it be said that owing to the pressure of legal and parliamentary business, the prosecution of Lieutenant Austin was for some months postponed, we should be inclined to found upon this fact the obvious but prosaic conclusion, that we stand greatly in need of a more efficient system of public prosecutors, and of a redistribution of the legal year, arrangements by which the transaction of the criminal business of the country would be much facilitated. This is our conjecture. It is far too tame a solution to suggest itself to Mr. Reade. Nothing will satisfy him but the view that the delay was the result of a wicked conspiracy. Let us compare the probabilities of the two suggestions. The objection to that which we propose is simply that it is not amusing; but in order to arrive at Mr. Reade's, we must suppose that one of the most honourable judges on the bench, the attorney-general, three barristers quite unconnected with party, and occupying a distinguished position in their profession, the solicitor to the Treasury, and one of the largest firms at Birmingham, conspired to pervert the course of justice and to screen from punishment a delinquent in whom they had no conceivable interest; all which appears to Mr. Reade so perfectly natural, as to excite no surprise, and call for no other proof than the fact that the proceedings were tardy. If he were cool enough to reason at all, it ought surely to occur to him to ask, what possible motive could incline so many persons to do an act so disgraceful. Who are the mysterious ‘clerks who could dictate to an English judge, and to members of the English bar, if they had ever so strong a desire to do so? And what clerks were there in any public office in the country who could have the smallest possible motive for shielding Lieutenant Austin? He was not the servant of the Government in any sense whatever. He held his appointment not from the Queen, but from the borough of Birmingham; and it is childish to suppose that the fate of a person, of whom the most that could be said was that he was a half pay lieutenant, and that two years before he had been governor of a gaol, could be a matter of sufficient importance to induce five persons, one of them a judge, and the other four members of the ‘God-like public,’ which, according to Mr. Reade, delights to be governed by the greatest fools in the country, to join in a conspiracy against common humanity and the law of the land.
But Mr. Reade favors us with a little more law. He tells us that the proper witnesses were not called. Lieutenant Austin was indicted on seven indictments, charging him respectively with acts of cruelty to Andrews, to Hunt, to Brown, to Wilks, to Maiden, and to Plant, and with making false entries in the prison books. That in the choice of the cases to be prosecuted, Government showed no lenity to Mr. Austin is conclusively proved, as against Mr. Reade, by the fact that they are identical with those which he has selected for the basis of his exaggerations. Mr. Austin was tried upon two of these indictments, one relating to Andrews, on which he was convicted; and the other to Hunt, on which he was acquitted; and he pleaded guilty to the one which charged him with omitting to make entries in the prison books, stating, at not made from an intention to deceive the magistrates. The counsel for the Crown thereupon (we quote Mr. Whately's affidavit in aggravation of punishment) ‘consented and agreed to enter a nolle prosequi upon the five remaining indictments . . . . the same being, as was then stated by the said counsel, assaults and punishments of a like nature and character with those which had been proved upon the trial of the indictment relating to the case of the said Edward Andrews; and it was then also expressly stated, by said learned counsel, as a condition of not proceeding with the remaining indictments, that the case of said Edward Andrews should not be afterwards presented to this Honourable Court as a single and isolated case.’ Who, then, were the witnesses called for the Crown in Andrews's case? They were Mr. Hillyard, William Brown, Thomas Freer, the Rev. Ambrose Sherwin, Thomas Brooks, John Wood, and William Taylor, who were officers of the prison, and Mr. Underhay, an engineer. In Hunt's case the witnesses were Daniel Hartwell and Alfred Wood. A third man, Pearce, also a warder, was present at the assault, and was before the Commissioners: but at the time of the trial he was in the Crimea. The witnesses in both cases, with the exception of Pearce and Mr. Hillyard (whose evidence was of little importance), and that of Messrs. Austin and Blunt, who by law could not be called against themselves, were identical with those who were examined before the Commissioners. Andrews could not be examined because he was dead. Hunt was mad, and was not examined before the Commissioners. Who else could have been called? This, however conclusive, is not all. The case was surrounded with difficulty. All the principal witnesses against Mr. Austin were technically, though not morally, involved in his guilt, and might have completely defeated the prosecution by refusing to answer questions criminating themselves. Here was a loophole for a friendly prosecutor. If the counsel for the prosecution had entered into the vile compact charged against them, how easy it would have been to have hinted to the counsel for the prisoner the propriety of taking this objection. Did they do so? We call Mr. Reade's particular attention to the following fact, now made public for the first time, which we hope will teach him the value of such random accusations. In order to meet this possible objection a pardon under the Great Seal was procured for all the witnesses in the case, and was in court during the trial, to be used if the same time, that those omissions were the occasion should arise.
‘But why was not sentence passed at the trial?’ says Mr. Reade. ‘An English judge is the slave of precedent; why did he break through it on this occasion?’ Mr. Justice Coleridge not only did not break through precedent, but acted in the strictest conformity with it. When indictments are removed (in order to be tried by a Special Jury), to the Nisi Prius side of the Court, the judges could not, in former times, pass sentence at once; they were only enabled to do so by the 11 Geo. 4., and 1 W. 4. c. 70. §9.; and they only exercise that discretion when the offence is of a sufficiently simple and common nature to enable the judge to decide at once upon the punishment which it requires. The reason why judgment was deferred in Lieutenant Austin's case was, that it was a case of an important and complicated nature, in which punishment could not be fairly apportioned, without reference to the whole of the prisoner's character and conduct; and for this purpose, time was given to the prisoner to produce affidavits in mitigation, and to the Crown to produce affidavits in aggravation, of punishment. This was accordingly done; and we can only say, that if Lieutenant Austin had not felt that his case was one in which further investigation was likely to be beneficial to him, he would hardly have given an opportunity to Sir A. Cockburn of addressing to the Court of Queen's Bench a speech in aggravation of punishment, strongly marked by his extraordinary ability and healthy indignation against wrong doing. It is mere folly and childishness to say, that a judgment given in full term, in the Court of Queen's Bench, after addresses from Sir F. Thesiger and Sir A. Cockburn, was more private than a judgment given at the very fag end of the Warwick Assizes.
Having thus shown that Mr. Reade is wrong in his facts, wrong in his law, and wrong in his logic; we need not insist very much on the probability that he would be wrong in his conclusion upon the justice of the sentence of the Court. We shall therefore conclude our remarks by contrasting the view which Lord Campbell, Mr. Justice Coleridge, and Mr. Justice Earle took of Lieutenant Austin's case, with the grand concluding burst of the petulant littérateur, who has arraigned them at this bar. Mr. Justice Coleridge in passing sentence told the prisoner, that the Court were of opinion, that the omissions in the prison books arose from inadvertency; that if they had been of a contrary opinion, they should have punished him very severely. That they thought his system of punishment was “capable of inflicting great pain, and that it might be feared that it had led to fatal results. That the position of the governor of a gaol was one of great difficulty; that it appeared to the Court that he was not guilty of deliberate cruelty; and that they felt that he ought to be punished for the assaults which he had committed, and not for the
consequences which they might have produced. In consideration of these circumstances, they sentenced him to three months' imprisonment.in the Queen's Prison. The sentence was no doubt lenient, but we think that our readers will agree with us in feeling that it was anything but illusory, and that it was one which the Court had a perfect right to pronounce.
Now for Mr. Reade's view of the case (p. 465.):—
‘The vermin thought they were in the dark, and could do anything now with impunity. Nobody will track our steps any further than the want-of-judgment-seat, thought they, and I confess that I for one was weak enough to track them no further. Fools they had heard of God's eye to which the darkness is no darkness, but did not believe it; but he saw and revealed it to me by one of those things that men call strange accidents.
It now remains for me, who am a public functionary though not a hireling, to do the rest of my duty.
I revoke that sentence with all the blunders on which it was founded. Instead of becoming, as other judicial decisions do, a precedent for future judges, it shall be a beacon they shall avoid. It shall lie among the decisions of lawyers, but it shall never mix with them. It shall stand alone in all its oblique pity, its straightforward cruelty and absurdity; and no judge shall dare copy it while I am alive; for if he does, I swear to him by the God that made me, that all I have yet said is to what I will print of him as a lady's whip to a thresher's flail. I promise him on my honour as a writer, and no hireling, I will buy a sheet of paper as big as a barn door, and nail him to it by his name as we nail a pole-cat by the throat. I will take him by one ear to Calcutta, and from Calcutta to Sydney; and by the other from London via Liverpool to New York and Boston. The sun shall never set upon his gibbet, and when his bones are rotten his shame shall live—Ay! though he was thirty years upon the bench, posterity shall know little about his name, and feel nothing about it but this—that it is the name of a muddlehead, who gained and merited my loathing, my horror, my scorn!
The civilised races, and I their temporary representative, revoke that sentence from the rising to the setting sun in every land where the English tongue is spoken.’In quieter language, if any judge presumes to differ from Mr. Reade he will swear at him so frightfully that he shall never be remembered for anything else. We feel that no language of ours can add to the effect of this hysterical effusion. That a man should write such nonsense in a momentary fit of excitement is credible, though strange; but that he should print it, correct the proofs, and send out five editions of it to the world, and that the book in which it appears should achieve very considerable, and even remarkable success, are curious social phenomena.
We have quoted these passages, as we might quote fifty more, not in order to show the quality of the individual intellect of Mr. Reade, but as a sample of the structure of a mind which has so hearty a contempt for the constituted frame-work of society. Mr. Reade caricatures the views of the world, so often professed by men of his class; he goes, for example, a long way beyond Mr. Dickens, but whether the contempt expressed for society as it stands, is greater or less, it constantly appears in the class of books to which we are referring, and wherever it exists, it is an infallible indication of an irritable fibre and feeble understanding. We need not go far to see what consequences follow from the propagation of this fretful temperament. The French “literature of desperation, which was so popular under Louis-Philippe, is a rather more violent form of the same disease; and we all know what were its consequences. A muliebris impotentia of thought and speech paves the way to profligate morals, religious scepticism, and political tyranny, just as surely as drinking produces delirium tremens. We have not gone far in this miserable path; English life is too active, English spheres of action too wide, English freedom too deeply rooted to be endangered by a set of bacchanals, drunk with green tea, and not protected by petticoats. Still, in the midst of boundless luxury and insatiable thirst for amusement, we have raised a class of writers who show strong sympathies for all that is most opposite to the very foundations of English life. Mr. Reade is so illogical that it is impossible to prove that he would dislike any one form of government less than any other; but his sympathies, like Mr. Dickens's express doctrines, set toward despotism. In ‘Little Dorrit’ Russia is set up as the pattern for England. Our motto is, ‘how not to do it’; theirs ‘how to do it.’ Mr. Reade always invokes some kind of moral ‘big brother’ to come and settle his difficulties. An heroic clergyman, armed with all gifts, physical, moral, and intellectual; who can repeat by heart ‘thousands of pages of Greek and Latin; who is a ‘pupil of Bendigo;’ sets Birmingham Gaol to rights by a sort of tour de force. Unpaid magistrates are an abomination; judges who act by precedent are ‘hirelings.’ A good theatrical government, interfering in domestic affairs, like the virtuous British farmers, at the Adelphi, to give the repentant lovers their blessing and a fortune, and destroy the villain of the piece, without judge or jury, would fulfil the ideal of the authors of ‘Little Dorrit,’ and ‘It is never too late to mend.’ That the ignorant and the young should amuse thernselves with such things, is to be expected, but it is utterly unpardonable in grown-up men, to draw such wretched conclusions as these, from the spectacle afforded to them by England as it is, and England as it has been. That they are ignorant of politics and of history is their only excuse. To a mind which has any sympathy with all that is most noble in real, not ideal, human nature, there is something so grand and so touching in that great drama of which the present generation forms a part, that it is hard to speak with patience of those who fail to recognise its existence. The infinite labour which has been expended upon various parts of the social edifice of this country; the vehement discussion which has attended every change in it; the conflicting influences, which lines of thought and feeling the most radically opposed have exercised over its various members; the calm forbearance which is daily shown in maintaining our innumerable social compromises; the freedom secured to all just criticism; the good temper and good sense which refuse to push principles partially adopted to inconvenient conclusions—unite to invest English society with an historical dignity; and we regret that there are men living in it for no better purpose than to exaggerate and deride its defects.
These observations are more particularly addressed to the misrepresentations and exaggerations resorted to by modern novelists in their descriptions of public institutions and public abuses; but we are compelled to add that they have not always respected the domain of private charity and the recesses of private life. It is impossible to speak without the deepest interest and sympathy of the genius, the trials, and the fate of Charlotte Brontë. Her novels hold, and deserve to hold, a place in English literature from their intrinsic power, from their nervous style, from their daring vigour and subtle analysis, which few books of the same class have ever obtained. But when we learn, from the records of her life, within how dark and narrow a boundary that fiery spirit dwelt and toiled,—when we see how that frail body, that suffering constitution, that half-distracted family, that cheerless home, that scanty household, that still more scanty experience of the pleasures and sympathies of life, crushed the vehement aspirations of a child of genius for love, and happiness, and freedom,-we recur to her works with amazement, and we grudge no portion of the fame which rests upon her melancholy story and her early grave. Yet it must be said that in drawing from her own experiences the materials of her novels—for Miss Brontë's writings partake more of reality than of imagination—she greatly abused the license of her art. The description of the Lowood school in ‘Jane Eyre’, is evidently the result of a morbid impression on the mind of a highly sensitive child of nine years old, wrought by painful associations and great imaginative fervour into a scene of torment; but it is due to the estimable persons who have been connected with that institution, to state that the frightful charges brought against it by Miss Brontë are denied, and that the charitable designs of its founders have not been perverted in the manner she had led her readers to suppose. On this point we are content to take Mrs. Gaskell's own account of her heroine's mode of proceeding.
‘Miss Brontë more than once said to me that she should not have written what she did of Lowood in “Jane Eyre,” if she thought the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan's Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time when she knew it; she also said that she had not considered it necessary, in a work of fiction, to state every particular with the impartiality that might be required in a court of justice, nor to seek out motives and make allowance for human feelings, as she might have done, if dispassionately analyzing the conduct of those who had the superintendence of the institution. I believe she herself would have been glad of an opportunity to correct the overstrong impression which was made upon the public mind by her vivid picture; though even she, suffering her whole life long, both in heart and body, from the consequences of what happened there, might have been apt to the last to take her deep belief in facts for the facts themselves—her conception of truth for the absolute truth. (Life of C. Brontë, vol. i. p. 64.)Again, we are assured by persons who received their education (and a very good education Miss Bronté herself proves it to have been) at the school to which she was attached in Brussels, that nothing can be more unjust than the aspersions she has thrown in ‘Villette’ on that establishment, and on the excellent persons who managed it. The three curates who figure in ‘Shirley, conspicuous for different degrees of folly, vulgarity, and impertinence, are, we are told by Miss Brontë's biographer, three gentlemen well known at the time in the neighbourhood of Howarth, who have had the good taste to accept this caricature as a joke. But if the habits of social intercourse, if personal peculiarities, and even the arrangements of charitable institutions, are to be exhibited to the world in the colours of an auto-de-fe—bedaubed with gamboge and emblazoned with devils—the novelists will become a pest to literature, and they will degrade, as some of them have already degraded, their talents to the service of malignant passions, calumny, and falsehood.
Nor can we, with a due regard to literary justice, pass over in silence the grave offence of a similar character of which Mrs. Gaskell, the biographer of Miss Bronte, has herself been guilty. The life of this remarkable woman has been read with an avidity which does not surprise us, for both the subject and the manner of the book are well calculated to excite the deepest interest. But Mrs. Gaskell appears to have learnt the art of the novel-writer so well that she cannot discharge fróm her palette the colours she has used in the pages of ‘Mary Barton’ and ‘Ruth’. This biography opens precisely like a novel, and the skilful arrangement of lights and shades and colours—the prominence of some objects and the evident suppression of others—leave on the mind the excitement of a highly-wrought drama, rather than the simplicity of daylight and of nature. To heighten the interest of this strange representation, and also to assert her own imperious sense of moral obligations, the biographer has thought it proper and necessary to introduce the episode of Branwell Brontë, a worthless brother of the three mysterious Bells, whose misconduct added a pang to their dreary existence; and in giving the history of this scapegrace Mrs. Gaskell has allowed herself to enter into details affecting the character and conduct of living persons, on whom she proceeds to pass sentence in a tone for which she now feels, or ought to feel, great shame and regret. It turns out that these details were borrowed from imperfect or incorrect evidence; no effort seems to have been made to verify the facts on which Mrs. Gaskell proceeded to consign another woman to infamy and to brand her with maledictions. The name and station of the lady thus assailed were easily identified, and it became known that she is a member of a highly honourable family; legal proceedings were threatened, and we believe commenced, to vindicate her reputation; and on the 30th May a letter appeared in the ‘Times’ newspaper Mrs. Gaskell's solicitor, stating that he was instructed ‘to retract every statement contained in that work which imputes to a widowed lady, referred to, but not named therein, any breach of her conjugal, of her maternal, and of her social duties, &c. All those statements were made upon information which at the time Mrs. Gaskell believed to be well founded, but which upon investigation, with the additional evidence furnished to me by you, I have ascertained not to be trustworthy. I am, therefore, authorised not only to retract the statements in question, but to express the deep regret of Mrs. Gaskell that she should have been led to make them. This apology has been accepted; though the disavowal of the false statements would have been more becoming to both parties, if it had not been conveyed in the studied phraseology of an attorney.
We record these painful details in justice to the injured party, rather than to increase the punishment of this exposure of the biographer. Mrs. Gaskell erred, no doubt, from mistaken information and from mistaken motives; for she appears to have entirely misconceived the duties and the rights of her position as an authoress. She acted on the assumption that she was justified in dragging hidden offences to the bar of public opinion—in arraigning and condemning without trial or notice persons of whose real sentiments and conduct she was ignorant—and in applying the language of an avenging Deity to a being who is perhaps not more frail or liable to error than herself. Nay, she seems even to have thought, as Mr. Reade does, that it is a part of the high commission of literature to try offences which elude the repression of the law, and to denounce with hyperbolical violence actions which may not have been committed at all, or which have been comitted from very different motives. Whether such allegations be true or false, it is perfectly certain that the laws of civilised nations and the usages of society prohibit and punish the publication of them. A man's honour, a woman's virtue, are not to be blown to the winds merely because it suits the humour of a romancer to rake up some imaginary or forgotten transgression— to dress it in the colours of fiction, heightened by the mischievous attraction of personal slander—and to set up a pillory in Paternoster Row. The dignified administration of justice, the assiduous activity of those who are called by the nation to the management of its affairs, and the institutions which give method and order to free government are not to be traduced, vilified, and outraged merely because they do not obey the hasty impulses of novelists or pamphleteers. The law, which might punish such attacks, is seldom put in force against them, and we entirely concur in the wisdom of this forbearance; but, as they are made in the name of literature, it becomes the duty of literary criticism to expose and to disown them; and for this reason we have commented on them more fully than the works before us can themselves be said to deserve.
Edinburgh Review, July 1857.