The majority of those who read for amusement, read novels. The number of young people who take from them nearly all their notions of life is very considerable. They are widely used for the diffusion of opinions. In one shape or another, they enter into the education of us all. They constitute very nearly the whole of the book-education of the unenergetic and listless.
Familiar as the word 'novel' may be, it is almost the last word in the language to suggest any formal definition; but it is impossible to estimate the influence of this species of literature, or to understand how its character is determined, unless we have some clear notion as to what is, and what is not, included in the word.
The first requisite of a novel is, that it should be a biography,—an account of the life, or part of the life, of a person. When this principle is neglected or violated, the novel becomes tiresome; after a certain point it ceases to be a novel at all, and becomes a mere string of descriptions.
The Arabian Nights, perhaps, contain as slight a biographical substratum as is consistent with anything like romance. The extravagance of the incidents and scenery is their principal charm, and the different characters might be interchanged amongst the different stories, almost without notice. Who would relish the Diamond Valley and the Roc's Egg the less, if they were introduced in the History of the three Calendars, or in the Adventures of Prince Caramalzaman? and who would notice the change if either of those personages were to be substituted for Sinbad the Sailor? Who, on the other hand, could interchange the incidents, or the personages, of the Memoirs of a Cavalier, and Robinson Crusoe?
Perhaps the essentially biographical character of novels will be more fully displayed by comparing less extreme cases. In what does the superiority of Fielding over Mr. Dickens consist? Is it not in the fact that Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews are bonâ fide histories of those persons; whilst Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist are a series of sketches, of all sorts of things and people, united by various grotesque incidents, and interspersed with projects for setting the world to rights?
There is a class of books which wants only a biographical substratum to become novels. In so far as it is an account of Sir Roger de Coverley, and the Club, the Spectator is one of the best novels in the language; and if the original conception had been more, fully carried out, that fact would have been universally recognised. It employs fictitious personages to describe manners and characters, and it sustains the interest which they excite by fictitious incidents. Yet no one would call those parts of the Spectator which are not biographical a novel.
Novels must also be expressly and intentionally fictitious. No amount of carelessness or dishonesty would convert into a novel what was meant for a real history. It would, for example, be an unjustifiable stretch of charity to consider the Histoire des Girondins, or the Histoire de la Restauration, as romances. On the other hand, a very small amount of intentional fiction, artistically introduced, will make a history into a novel. All the events related may be substantially true, and the fictitious characters may play a very subordinate part, and yet the result may be a novel, in the fullest sense of the word. In the Memoirs of a Cavalier, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles, and Fairfax occupy the most prominent places. The scenes in which they take part are generally represented with great historical fidelity. The cavalier himself, and his adventures, are only introduced as a medium for the display of the events through which he passes; but they are introduced so naturally as incidents in his life, and the gaps between them are filled with such probable and appropriate domestic occurrences, that the result is the most perfect of all historical novels.
We understand, then, by the word novel, a fictitious biography. Books written primarily for purposes of instruction, or for the sake of illustrating a theory, do not fall within this definition, because they are not, properly speaking, biographies. If we suppose the hero to have been a real person, and then consider whether the object of the book was to deduce some moral, or to illustrate some theory, by his life, or to describe the man as he was, we shall be able to say whether the book is, or is not, a novel.
Thus, we should not call Plato's Dialogues novels, though they resemble them more nearly than any other ancient books. [Apuleiua' Ass is, no doubt, strictly a novel, and Lucian's Dialogues have much of the same character.] Nor should we call the 'Vision,' in Tucker's Light of Nature, a novel, although it would fall expressly within the terms of our definitions, if it were not written merely to illustrate a theory. The miraculous separation of Search's body from his vehicle—the inconvenience which he sustained from the rays of light—his conversation with Locke—his interview with his wife—his absorption into the mundane soul—and his re-introduction into his body, form an imaginary posthumous biography, with a beginning, middle, and end; but it cannot be called a novel, inasmuch as Search and his adventures are introduced solely in order to give life to a philosophical speculation, which is never for an instant lost sight of.
Pilgrim's Progress and the Holy War come nearer to the character of novels. The artistic bias of Bunyan's mind was so strong, that we should be inclined to think that he sacrificed the allegory to the story more frequently than the story to the allegory. The death of Faithful, for example, is an incident which, if the book is a novel, is as well conceived as executed; but it is inconsistent with the allegory, which would have required that Faithful should go to Heaven in the sense of travelling along the actual highroad till he got there. So, too, the Siege of Mansoul is much more like the Siege of Leicester than the temptations of the Devil.
There is another class of books which would be excluded from our definition by the word 'fictitious.' As fiction is sometimes used as a mere vehicle for opinions, so it is sometimes a mere embellishment of facts. There is a class of books in which the life of a real person is made to illustrate some particular time or country, and in which just so many fictitious circumstances are introduced as may be necessary to give a certain unity to the scenes described. The most perfect instance of this form of writing with which we are acquainted is M. Bungener's Trois Sermons sous Louis XV., which is partly a history of French Protestants in the eighteenth century, partly a fictitious biography of the real man Rabaut. It has the inconvenience of constantly suggesting to the reader the impression that the author considers him incapable of taking an interest in the subject unless it is baited with a certain amount of fiction.
It is commonly said that novels supply the place of comedies; and it would perhaps be hard to put into words the distinction between them, otherwise than by the definition which we have suggested. A drama is the representation of an incident—a novel is the history of a life. Thus, the plays which composed an Aeschylean trilogy consisted of the representation of separate incidents in the life of some person or the fortunes of some royal house; but if they had been permitted to run into each other, such an interference would have been a violation of the rules of dramatic art, and would have made them into a novel.
It is not always easy to say what is incident and what is biography. Shakspeare's historical plays do not fall very appropriately under either division. Some, for example, of Crabbe's tales, are miniature novels, others undramatized plays. It cannot, however, be doubted that in cases upon which no one hesitates our distinction holds good. Thus, Waverley is undeniably a novel, and Romeo and Juliet is undeniably a play. We should have been displeased if Shakspeare had introduced into his play anything not bearing upon the single subject of the love of the principal persons in it. It is, on the other hand, one of the beauties of Waverley that it incidentally illustrates a great number of subjects in which the hero of the novel had not personally much interest.
Novels, in the proper sense of the word, are used for a greater number of purposes than any other species of literature. Their influences on their readers may, however, be reduced within a very narrow compass. In early boyhood and in mature life they are read merely for amusement; and indulgence in them will be beneficial, or otherwise, according to the ordinary rules upon that subject. But at that time of life which intervenes between these two periods they exercise a far greater influence. They are then read as commentaries upon the life which is just opening before the reader, and as food for passions which are lately awakened but have not yet settled down to definite objects.
It may be questioned how far the habit of reading novels contributes to knowledge of the world. The undue prominence given to particular passions—such as love, the colouring used for artistic purposes, and a variety of other circumstances, are so much calculated to convey false impressions, that it may be plausibly doubted whether the impressions formed are, in fact, better than none at all.
Such a judgment appears to us too severe. If a young man were, according to Mr. Carlyle's suggestion, to be shut up in a glass case from eighteen to twenty-five, and were, during that period, to be supplied with an unlimited number of novels, he would no doubt issue from his confinement with extremely false notions of the world to which he was returning; but if, during such an imprisonment, he had made it a point of conscience never to open a novel, he would, in the absence of extraordinary powers of observation and generalization, be strangely puzzled on re-entering life. What we call knowledge of the world is acquired by the same means as other kinds of knowledge, and consists not in mere acquaintance with maxims about life, but in applying appropriate ideas to clear facts. This application can only be made by a proper arrangement and selection of the material parts of the facts observed; and this arrangement is effected, to a very great degree, by guesses and hypotheses. No one will be able to make any use of his experience of life, or to classify it in such a manner as to add to his real knowledge, unless he is provided in the first instance with some schemes or principles of classification, which he starts with, and which he enlarges, narrows, or otherwise modifies as he sees cause.
Discoveries, it has been said, [Whewell, Philo. Ind. Sci., vol. ii., p. 41. The quotation is slightly modified.] are not improperly described as happy guesses, and guesses, in these, as in other instances, imply various suppositions made, of which some one turns out to be the right one. We may, in such cases, conceive the discoverer as inventing and trying many conjectures, till he finds one which answers the purpose of combining the scattered facts into a single rule. The discovery of general truths from special facts is performed, commonly at least, and more commonly than at first appears, by the use of a series of suppositions, or hypotheses, which are looked at in quick succession, and of which the one which really leads to truth is rapidly detected, and when caught sight of, firmly held, verified, and followed to its consequences.
Nor does the indistinctness and incompleteness of their suggestions render them useless. The same author observes,—
'A maxim which it may be useful to recollect is this, that hypotheses may often be of service to science, when they involve a certain portion of incompleteness and even of errour. The object of such inventions is to bind together facts which, without them,are loose and detached; and if they do this, they may lead the way to a perception of the true rule by which the phenomena are associated together, even if they themselves misstate the matter. The imagined arrangement enables us to contemplate as a whole a collection of special cases, which perplex and overload our minds when they are considered in succession; and if our scheme has so much of truth in it as to conjoin what is really connected, we may afterwards duly connect, or limit the mechanism of this connexion.' [Ib., p. 60. This is followed by a characteristically beautiful illustration taken from the utility of the false maxim as to nature's fuga vacui, in the progress of science.]φθονερόν ό δαιμων – φίλοι ού φίλος. 'Friends follow fortune,' and a thousand other proverbs, are instances of these hypothetical 'guesses at truth,' which are not intended to be exhaustive, but merely to set in a strong light one lesson gathered from human affairs. Novels, perhaps, offer a greater number of such hypotheses than are to be derived from any other source; and though they give them in a very confused, indefinite manner, they gain in liveliness and variety what they want in precision.
It is, however, by the materials which it affords for self-examination that novel reading enlarges our experience most efficiently. It was, if we are not mistaken, Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son, that if he wished to understand mankind he ought to be always saying to himself,' If I were to act towards that man as he acts towards me, he would feel towards me as I feel towards him. 'The thought that they often do act like characters represented in novels, and that people do in consequence feel towards them as they themselves regard such characters, must occur, we should think pretty frequently, to novel readers. It would be a great effort of self-denial to many of us to read Murad the Unlucky, or To-morrow; and we should think that few men could become acquainted with George Osborne or Arthur Pendennis without acquiring a consciousness of a multitude of small vanities and hypocrisies which would otherwise have escaped their attention. To produce or to stimulate self-consciousness by such means, may not be altogether a healthy process, but it is unquestionably one which has powerful effects.
In a large class of readers, novels operate most strongly by producing emotion. Strange as it seems, many people sympathize more intensely with fictitious than with historical characters. Persons who would read Carlyle's History of the French Revolution unmoved, would not be proof against such books as Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the Heir of Redclyffe; and we suspect that Mr. Dickens has caused a great deal more emotion by some of his luscious death-bed scenes, than by what we have always considered one of the most fearful stories, both in matter and manner, which we ever read, the papers entitled Transported for Life, [They are a simple relation of the experience (we believe) of Mr. Barber, transported twelve or thirteen years since for forgery, and pardoned on the discovery of his innocence. See Household Words, vol. v., p. 455, &o.] in Household Words. Habitual emotion, whatever may be the exciting cause, produces some moral effects. A man who had really seen a negro flogged to death, or had attended a young man on his wedding tour, in a fatal illness, would probably be in some respects altered for a longer or shorter time afterwards. Whatever would be the effect of habitually witnessing such scenes, the same effect would follow in a much slighter degree from habitually reading descriptions of them; but in order to make the parallel complete we must suppose the witnessing of the scenes to be as much a matter of choice as the reading of the novels; a person who went to see a man die because he liked it would receive very different impressions from one who saw such a sight because he could not help it.
It is sometimes broadly stated that emotion produced by fiction is an evil, and tends to harden the heart. This statement goes further than its authors suppose. The parables are fictions, but we do not think any one was ever hurt by emotion produced by reading the parable of the Prodigal Son, or that of Dives and Lazarus. Emotion, also, is of many kinds. Laughter implies emotion. Is it wrong to laugh at Falstaff or Mrs. Quickly? Admiration is an emotion. Even amusement, in so far as it involves interest, and is not a mere suspension of thought, implies emotion. So, too, wonder is an emotion. No one thinks it wrong to produce these emotions by fiction. In fact, the emotions of tenderness or terror are the only ones which are objected to; and since the objection will not lie against producing emotion by fiction, but only against producing those particular emotions, it must be contended that the emotions are bad in themselves, and ought only to be submitted to when unavoidably forced upon the mind. Few people would maintain this proposition when nakedly set before them.
It may, however, be remarked, that it is not easy to say what is and what is not fiction for these purposes. Is the story of Lucretia fiction, within the meaning of this objection? Or has it only become so since the publication of Niebuhr's History, and as to so many people as have read it? Or would it cease to be fiction if its substantial truth were to be established by new evidence?
Would Mansfield Park cease to be fiction for the purposes of the objection, if it were to appear that Miss Austen had drawn from the life, and that 'the grouping and connexion alone of the circumstances were invented by her? Or, if the intention of the author be considered as the test of fiction, it would be necessary to contend that a description of incidents which in all essential particulars occurred as described, ought not to produce emotion, merely because the person describing them was not aware of the degree in which his description coincided with the facts.
The moral effects of novel reading being the enlargement of the reader's knowledge of the world, and the excitement of his feelings, in what respects do such effects differ from those which similar objects might excite in real life? In other words, what adjustments and allowances must we make before the suggestions of novels can be accepted as additions to our experience?
If novels were perfectly-executed pictures of life, they would increase the reader's knowledge of life, just as paintings add to his knowledge of scenery and of incident; but no information, or only very false information, is to be derived from the pictures either of novelists or of painters, unless proper allowance is made, not only for the limitations imposed on them by the rules of their art, but also for the faults of conception and of execution most common amongst them.
One of the most obvious causes which makes novels unlike real life is the necessity under which they lie of being interesting, an object which can only be obtained by a great deal of suppressio veri, whence arises that suggestio falsi of which it is our object to point out the principal varieties.
Who would infer from one of the trial scenes which occur in almost every one of the Waverley Novels, what a real criminal trial was like? The mere coup d'oeil presented by the judges, the barristers, the prisoner, the witnesses, and the crowd of spectators, might be pretty accurately represented to any sufficiently imaginative reader by the account of the trial of Fergus Mclvor and Evan Dhu Maccombich. The State Trials would give a juster notion of the interminable length of the indictments, the apparently irrelevant and unmeaning examinations and cross-examinations of witnesses, the skirmishing of the counsel on points of law, and the petitions of the prisoners, often painfully reasonable, for some relaxation of the rules of evidence, or procedure; but to any one who seeks mere amusement, such reading is intolerably tedious, and even when accomplished, it gives a very faint representation of the actual scene as it appeared to those who sat or stood, day after day, in all the heat, and dust, and foul air of the court-house at Carlisle or Southwark, half understanding, and—as the main points at issue got gradually drowned in their own details—half attending to the proceedings on which the lives and deaths of their friends depended. A man really present on such an occasion, and personally interested, would probably bring away impressions which a life-time would not destroy. In a novel, such a scene is at once more and less interesting than it is in fact. There are more points of interest, more dramatic situations; the circumstances are more clearly defined, and more sharply brought out than they ever would be in real life; but at the same time, that from which such circumstances derive their interest is wanting: the necessity of thought and attention, the consciousness that what is passing is most real and serious business, which it is not open to the spectators to hurry over, or to lay down and take up again at pleasure. In one word, the reality. It is in order to supply the absence of this source of interest that recourse is had to the other.
If we imagine a novel written for a reader seeking, not amusement, but information, it would be not only insupportably dull, but would be more laborious reading than any other kind of literature. Suppose that in addition to the present novel of Waverley, we had the muster-roll of Captain Waverley's troop, with extracts from the Army List of that time as to Gardiner's dragoons;—suppose we had full statements of the route of the Pretender's army, short-hand writers' notes of the proceedings of all his councils of war;—suppose the MSS. of the Jacobite divinity of Waverley's tutor, or at any rate, the plan of the work, with copious extracts, were actually printed, and all the proceedings against Fergus McIvor, and respecting the pardon of Waverley and the Baron incorporated in the book;—and suppose on the part of the reader sufficient interest and patience to go through all this mass of matter, no one can doubt that he would know much more about Waverley and his fortunes than ordinary readers do know. If, however, Waverley had been composed upon this principle, the conversations and descriptions, which give it all its charm, would have been greatly curtailed. A person who had toiled, notebook and atlas in hand, through all sorts of authorities, geographical, historical, antiquarian, and legal, about the Highland line, black-mail, and the heritable jurisdictions, would have little taste for the conversations between Waverley, Bradwardine, Evan Dhu, and the Baron, upon the same subjects. They contemplate a frame of mind altogether different.
[It has indeed become a sort of commonplace, or what may perhaps be called a secondary commonplace (for which the authority of M. A. Thierry may be pleaded), to extol the representations of novelists and memoir writers over the more authorized mediums of obtaining historical and social knowledge. This surely is confounding facts and possibilities. It may be very true that more knowledge about the relations of the Saxons and Normans after the Conquest is gained from Ivanhoe than from Hume's History, but that is surely owing to the fact that, for one person who studies Hume and Hume's authorities with sufficient attention to place a clear picture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries before his mind, thousands will read Ivanhoe. It is not because Mr. Macaulay's prefaces to his ballads contain more information than Niebuhr's History that they have informed a far greater number of people of the nature of the sources from whence we derive our knowledge of early Rome.]
The suppressio veri which occurs in novels may therefore be considered as an essential feature of that kind of literature, but it involves a suggestio falsi which is not so obvious, and has more tendency to mislead readers.
It requires but very little experience of life to be aware that the circumstances stated in a novel form a very small part of what must have actually occurred to the persons represented; but it requires more experience to see in what respects the fact that all dull matter is suppressed, falsifies the representation of what is actually described.
The most remarkable of all the modifications with which novels represent real life consists in the way in which such suppressions distort their representations of character.
These representations differ from the thing represented much as a portrait differs from a real face. A child would probably prefer the portrait to the face, because its colours are more definite, smoother, and less altered by the various disturbing causes which act upon the living body. This difference is a consequence of yielding to the temptation, under which novelists continually labour, of taking an entirely different view of character from those who seek not to represent, but to understand it.
The easiest way of representing character is to represent it as a set of qualities which belong to different men, as colour, weight, and form belong to different substances; to represent brave actions as resulting from a quality of courage in one man, or wise actions from a quality of wisdom in another, just as knives cut because they are sharp, or lead sinks because it is heavy. No one who takes his views of character from life would accept this as a fair representation of it. Whatever ultimate differences not resolvable by any analysis there may be between one man and another, no one can seriously doubt that far the most important differences between men are differences of habit. "What we call character is little else than a collection of habits, whether their formation is to be traced to original organic differences or to any other causes.
Almost everybody likes and dislikes the same things. Everybody likes praise, everybody likes knowledge, everybody likes distinction, everybody likes action; but everybody likes rest, and ease, and safety, and. dislikes trouble, risk, and defeat. The difference between different people is that in some, for whatever reason, the passions which involve immediate self-denial conquer those which involve immediate self-indulgence, whilst in others the opposite happens, and thus some habits are acquired with great ease and completeness, others at the expense of a good deal of effort and self-restraint, and therefore much less completely. A man may be a very brave man, and yet do very cowardly things, as he may be very prudent, and yet do very foolish things.
Probably no one can look back upon his own history without recalling innumerable inconsistencies in his own conduct and in the conduct of those about him, with the principles which it has been their most earnest desire to recognise, and the habits which they have been forming for years. But though life is full of shortcomings and inconsistencies arising from this cause, novels are not. The difficulty of conceiving or representing differences which vary in every case would of course be very great, and the flow of the story would be interrupted by them. Character, in novels, therefore, is represented as far more homogeneous and consistent than it ever really is. Men are made cowards or brave, foolish or wise, affectionate or morose, just as they are represented as being tail or short, redhaired or black-haired, handsome or ugly.
It is to this origin that we are indebted for the mass of melodramatic or merely conventional characters, which form the staple of some novel writers, and which appear in greater or less numbers even in the most distinguished.
The heroes of the Waverley novels, one and all, belong to this class. They have certain characters assigned to them, and act accordingly throughout the whole story, never rising above or falling below a certain ill-defined, but well-understood, level of thought and conduct which is appropriated to such persons. There is no effort, no incompleteness, about these characters. Any one of them could be described by a certain number of adjectives. All of them possess certain muscular and amatory qualifications for their office of hero, all of them are brave, most of them generous, some determined, and some irresolute, but none of them display the variety, the incompleteness, the inconsistency, which almost all men show in real life.
If we look either at history or at the very highest class of fiction, we shall find it impossible to exhaust a man's character by adjectives. Who could describe Cromwell, or William III., or Voltaire, or Falstaff, or Hamlet in this manner? It is only by reflection and comparison that we can tell what kind of persons Shakspeare's characters were intended to represent, just as it is only by studying and reflecting upon the different actions of their lives that we can become acquainted with any real personage whatever, historical or contemporary. The great mass of characters in novels may be weighed and measured, and their qualities may be enumerated, with as much ease and precision as we could count the squares in a chessboard, and describe their colours.
A novelist always has some kind of scheme in his mind, according to which he draws his picture; and this scheme becomes sufficiently obvious to the reader long before he has finished the novel. In real life, on the contrary, we are obliged to take people as they come, and to form our opinions of their characters as time and opportunity happen to display them to us.
Men whose opinion is worth anything upon such matters are very cautious indeed in describing characters by a few broad phrases; for no lesson is sooner learnt than that such general language requires to be modified in innumerable ways before it can, with any kind of correctness, be applied to any individual case. In life character is inferred from actions, in most novels actions are ascribed to particular people in order to illustrate the author's conceptions respecting their character. Language, therefore, is as inadequate, when applied to real persons, as it is adequate and exhaustive when applied to the common run of fictitious ones.
Even the most prominent figures in a novel are represented in a very imperfect manner. The object of a fictitious biography is to enlist the curiosity, which a real biography presupposes. It therefore seeks to lay before the reader rather a vivid picture than an historical account of a character. To exhibit a great man as he really is the novelist would have to be himself a greater man than the person represented, and the few cases in which this has really been done are universally recognised as the very highest efforts of genius. Hamlet, King Lear, and Henry V., Satan in Paradise Lost [Satan's rebellion is made the subject of a substantive description, which is not the case with the theft of Prometheus.] and to some extent perhaps Prometheus, not only act as people capable of great things might act, but they absolutely do the great things themselves before us. It is, however, only in the very highest class of fiction that this is possible. In ordinary novels the labour necessary to effect such an object would be improvidently invested. If any one of the numerous biographies of popular clergymen which are so common in the present day were from beginning to end an entire fiction, it would be no doubt the most extraordinary feat of imagination ever performed. But few people, and those members of a very limited class, would care to read it. Novelists, therefore, are generally in the habit of representing people rather by their behaviour in the less than in the more important affairs of life. They say, A. B., being otherwise a remarkable man, acted thus or thus in relation to his marriage. We assume, for the purposes of the novel, that he was a remarkable man aliunde, and we consider the representation successful or not according as it corresponds or otherwise with this assumption.
There is always, however, a certain amount of risk that the reader will suppose that the author means to describe a man as he is, instead of giving a mere sketch, more or less perfect, of certain features in his manners. Hence they might come to draw a wider inference from the book than it was calculated to support, and to suppose that, because in this or that particular case, certain qualities were displayed by particular symptoms, there is, therefore, a necessary and universal connexion between the characters and the symptoms. Thus Byron suggests to many persons an association between misery and gloom on the one hand, and genius on the other, though, if we look at the books themselves, we have only Lord Byron's own word for the power or capacity of any kind, of Lara, and the Giaour, and the rest. No doubt he only exercised an author's prerogative in making such statements respecting them as matter of fact; but all that he shows of their characters is not in any way inconsistent with their having been as weak as they were bad. Byron's is an extreme case, but almost every writer who has obtained any considerable popularity has, more or less, misled his readers in this manner. To be able to do so is a proof, which few people can give, of the power of interesting and enlisting sympathy.
The most remarkable instance of this is afforded by Mr. Thackeray. As there is no writer who has shown greater genius in representing a particular view of life, so there is none whose books contain greater omissions, or whose omissions are more likely to mislead, on account of the wonderful impartiality and many-sidedness of his characters. The first impression received from reading almost any one of his books is, that it exhausts the subject to which it refers; but a very little experience will show that the perfection of the observation, so far as it goes, is only equalled by the narrowness of its range. In the whole of Mr. Thackeray's books, there is hardly a hint of such a thing as the serious business in life. All his characters are represented either in their leisure moments, or as men whose whole life is leisure. Hardly any important transaction of any kind whatever (except the usual number of marriages) enters into any one of his books. Even when the course of his story brings him near an event in which the stronger passions and energies are displayed, he instinctively avoids it, often with consummate skill. The wonderful description of the scenes which passed at Brussels, during the battle of Waterloo is, perhaps, the most striking instance of this. Scriberis Vario is his constant motto; and we have the actors in one of the greatest scenes in history set before us, as they flirted, and danced, and lounged—not as they planned, and felt, and fought.
There is not in all Mr. Thackeray's novels a character who is described by his great qualities; all are described by their small peculiarities. Yet a man of his genius cannot have failed to observe that men differ from each other far more radically in the great leading habits which they have acquired than in the small affectations or weaknesses by which he generally specifies them. In Pendennis, for example, the principal characters are literary barristers, but nothing turns upon their law or their literature, except that it is stated as a matter of fact, that they earned an income by the last. Warrington is represented as being a man of great originality —full of powerful thought, scholarship, and knowledge of various kinds; but we have none of the powerful thought, or scholarship, or knowledge, produced in the book; still less are any incidents introduced to give scope to them. We certainly get the impression that Warrington was a man of vigorous understanding; but we get it from learning that he behaved in the commonest affairs of life as such a man might be supposed to behave, not from any description of the remarkable things which he did. To prove that he really was what Mr. Thackeray calls him, we ought to have had an account of his social, political, and legal opinions, and the reasons why he adopted them. We ought to have had specimens of his reviews and leading articles.
Suppose two writers had invented, out of their own heads, such a character as Lord Chatham, and that one of them had described him talking to his sons, rehearsing his orations, flannel and crutch all prepared, keeping five or six dinners cooking all at once, and so forth; and that the other had invented the whole scheme of his policy in relation to the Seven Years' War, and had composed and put into his mouth the speeches which he made about the American Revolution. The first would have shown how a great man might behave, and the second would have shown what a great man was. The mistake into which such novels as Mr. Thackeray's might easily lead an inexperienced person, is the supposition that he had read a book of the second, and not of the first kind.
We do not venture to criticise Mr. Thackeray's choice of characters. We only wish to point out that the very perfection with which parts of them are represented might lead some persons to suppose that the representation is more complete than Mr. Thackeray meant it to be.
It would be difficult to find in Mr. Thackeray's works an example of another fault, very common amongst novelists, and perhaps more fatal than any other to the correctness of their representations of life. In fact, his whole career may be considered as a protest against it. This is what Mr. Macaulay has called the lues Boswelliana, applied to the creations of a man's own brain.
The hero-worship of authors is a love passing the love of women. The hero of a novel is the child of the author's experience, of his love, of his passions, of his vanity, of his philosophy; yet he is not a picture of himself in such a sense as to establish between them that unlimited liability for each others' shortcomings which is the essence of partnership. A hero is an embodied day-dream, with paper and ink for flesh and blood; and all of us know how large a part we ourselves play in our own day-dreams. The hero of a novel may not be like the author. He may be ludicrously unlike; but it is hardly possible that the furniture of his mind should not have been supplied by the author from his own mental stores, although its arrangement in the two men may differ. The reason is, that we know our own feelings, but we only know other men's actions, and infer from them that they feel as we should feel if we were to act in the same manner. Therefore, when we are to describe feelings as they present themselves to us upon introspection, and not as we view them in, or infer them from, other people's acts, we must necessarily draw from ourselves, as we have no other models. I know that when A. was angry he spoke harshly, that B. imputed ungenerous motives, that C. misrepresented, and so on; but I can only infer the feelings of A., B., and C, when they so acted, from my own experience of my own feelings when I acted in the same way. But though a writer cannot but invest his characters with many of his own feelings, he by no means necessarily identifies himself with all or any of them. Conscious that he is likely to be charged with drawing from himself, he probably avoids doing so explicitly and consciously, whilst he allows the favourite points of his own character to look out upon him, more or less, from his canvas. An author, under such circumstances, has some resemblance to an artist colouring a photograph. The main lines are drawn for him, and recal his own features, but he is at liberty to add what he pleases. Sometimes, probably, he paints his hero as he would wish to be, sometimes as he would wish not to be; but, unless such characters as he represents at full length, with all their feelings and mental peculiarities, have some relation to him, it is hard to say to what they are related.
Whatever may be the origin of the fact, we take the fact to be quite certain, that there is a large class of novels in which all the incidents are arranged so as to give prominence to one particular view of life, and to present it, as it might be supposed to present itself to the eyes of some one person, who, (with some modifications) acts as hero in a whole series of novels.
Perhaps there is no one thing which so entirely distorts facts as this habit. It is like looking at the world through coloured spectacles; and it engenders a wretched class of imitators, who, as we seriously believe, do harm in society.
The vexed question, as to the morality of representing bad characters in a novel, is possibly to be solved upon this principle. If it is universally true that the representation of wicked characters is objectionable, it would be hard to deny that all representation of human character is objectionable; inasmuch as there is no character which does not contain some admixture of wickedness. On the other hand, it is impossible to deny that there are some vices which can hardly be represented without mischief both to the writer and the reader. It would appear that the morality or immorality of such representations by no means depends upon the heinousness of the characters described. It would be difficult to imagine a more wicked character than Iago, or a less immoral play than Othello. The Bible is full of descriptions of most atrocious crimes of all sorts, and it would be natural to suppose that the fact that they are related historically would make them more, and not less, injurious than they would be if related as fictions, because the interest is greater.
The moral effect of men upon each other depends upon their intimacy. No one is made wicked by knowing that bad people exist. Most people would become wicked if all their intimate friends were so. Characters in novels may be considered as being more or less intimate acquaintances, and as they are represented upon two different principles, they may be divided into two classes.
The characters of one class are represented from without— those of the other class from within. The classification is neither exact nor complete, because almost all characters are depicted partly from one point of view, partly from the other; but these are the limits towards which such representations approximate in a greater or less degree. We should say that the latter class exercise very little moral influence over any one. They are merely more or less honest and accurate representations of facts. The other class of characters exercises the same kind of influence over readers as actual acquaintance with the living persons. In order .to ascertain the degree of influence, wo must not only suppose the acquaintanceship to have been limited to the time consumed in reading or thinking over the novel, and to the circumstances mentioned in it, but as existing subject to those deductions which we have indicated above is implied in the existence of novels. How far such acquaintanceship is injurious or otherwise, is a question for individuals.
It is to be observed, however, that the immoral writing which gives the greatest and most reasonable offence, is immoral specifically, and consists of detailed descriptions of subjects on which (lie mind cannot be suffered to rest without injury. This class of offences is mostly of a sufficiently obvious kind. It is nearly allied to what, in our own time and country, is a far more probable evil—a conscious delicacy, which suggests improper thoughts by carefully avoiding all mention of vices which must he referred to if life is to be depicted at all, and which would excite no improper feelings if referred to without unnecessary detail.
The secondary characters in a novel are, perhaps, even more distorted than the heroes. The existence of a plot makes it necessary to represent men and women in their relation to the groups of which they form parts, and not substantively. I once the different personages have apparently a much closer connexion, and more intimate sympathy with each other, than they would have under similar circumstances in real life.
If The Antiquary, for example, had been a real history, it would have been incorrect, amongst other things, in representing Lovel, the antiquary, Sir Arthur Wardour, and the rest of the characters, as taking a much deeper interest in each other than they did in fact. If Jonathan Oldbuck had been a real man, he would have had, after a very few years, to consider and recollect himself before he could say precisely in which year it was that Miss Wardour was married, and he would have been far more likely to have fixed the date of her marriage by its coincidence with some of his every-day business, than to have dated his dissertations from it. This is not the impression which the novel leaves on the reader's mind.
He considers all its characters as forming one group, and as taking that kind of intimate interest in each others' fortunes which they would take if they formed such a group by nature, instead of being compressed into it for artistic purposes. The connexion stated between the different characters of a novel, is generally such as in real life would attract but little attention; but the fact that nothing is known of such characters, except what is contained in the novel, makes the reader forget that in real life the secondary characters would have histories of their own, and suggests to him the conclusion, that they had nothing else to love or care for in life except the hero and heroine, and nothing to look forward to except their marriage. If a distant mountain range forms the background of a picture, it is represented by very few and very slight strokes of the brush; but if the rest of the picture were cut away, no one would know that these strokes were intended to represent mountains, nor would any one, on seeing real mountains, recognise them by their resemblance to those so represented.
In the same way the less prominent characters of a novel are only like one particular aspect of the real persons, and not only throw almost no light at all upon such characters in real life, but sometimes mislead people into the notion that, by reason of their acquaintance with some of their prominent peculiarities, they are better acquainted with them than is, in fact, the case.
For example, there is, in one of Sir E. Lytton's novels, an old soldier whose character it is, to boast of his selfishness and knowledge of the world. In another, the hero lodges with a man whose character it is to keep constantly making the same pun about rolls and swallows. In a third, there is a strolling vagabond, whose character it is to quote scraps of Shakspeare. All of these men would, in real life, have had a great deal more in them than this; they would have had schemes, objects in life, connexions, talents—in a word, characters,—and such caprices as these would go but a very little way towards displaying them.
It is a great beauty in a novel to give glimpses of the life which the secondary characters lived when they were not within the field of the novelist's camera obscura. In Pendennis we get a most ingeniously contrived glimpse of the career of the gentleman who lent his chambers to the hero. How he was presented at court, and entangled himself in a lady's train, who turned out to be the daughter of 'that eminent Queen's Counsel, Mr. Kewsy,' who subsequently became his wife, and he a county-court judge. Many writers would have left on their readers no other impression about this person than that he had lent Mr. Pendennis his chambers, and was in the habit of making some pet speech, or indulging some whimsical caprice.
The incompleteness, and consequent incorrectness of the information conveyed by novels, distorts facts even more than characters. The most familiar of all illustrations of the defect is to be found in novels of adventure. Captain Marryat, Cooper, and other writers of that class, not only suppress a great many facts for the sake of interest, but, by the very fact of such suppression, they entirely falsify the characters of those which are represented.
Thus, Captain Marryat leaves on the mind the impression that curious companions, strange adventures, and ever-changing excitement, in one shape or another, are the staple of a sailor's life, instead of being exceptional occurrences. Compare Southey's Life of Nelson, with its dreary tracts of blockading, cruising, delay, and disappointments of all kinds,—or a volume of James's Naval History, with its indecisive, unromantic actions and enterprises,—with Peter Simple or Midshipman Easy, which are one continued series of wonderful storms and battles, and the nature of the varnish applied by novelists to reality will become curiously evident. This is an extreme case, but the same principle must be applied more or less to all novels before their suggestions can be accepted as fair representations of life. Even Miss Austen, whose books convey an impression of reality altogether extraordinary, culls out and pieces together a succession of small incidents, so contrived as to develop, step by step, the characters of the persons represented. Each incident, taken by itself, is so exquisitely natural, and so carefully introduced, that it requires considerable attention to detect the improbability of the story. That improbability consists in the sequence of the incidents wanted. It is likely enough that incidents should sometimes happen which throw a light on character, hut it is not probable that a series of incidents should occur, one after the other, all throwing light on different parts of the same character, as if they had been arranged for the express purpose of bringing out every feature of it in succession. Nor must it be forgotten that the importance and significance of an incident is much greater when it is one in a series, as in a novel, than where it stands by itself, as in real life.
The circumstances which, when combined and arranged, form a novel, would, in reality, lie widely scattered over the surface of life, the attention of the actors in them being diverted to other affairs, quite unfit for the purposes of a novelist. Thus, when any of these events occurred, it would not strike those who were concerned in it, or who were witnesses of it, as being in any degree a romantic incident. Its connexion with the other circumstances which impart to it its romantic character, would be so overlaid by the other affairs of life, that their relation to each other would escape observation.
Few novels have been written with a plot more elaborately contrived, or dexterously brought out, than Caleb Williams; but would the circumstances have impressed themselves upon the mind of a person who witnessed their real occurrence in the connected pictorial manner in which they appear to the readers of the novel?
Caleb Williams is taken into the service of a rich gentleman, Mr. Falkland, whom he discovers to have murdered Mr. Tyrrel, some years before. Incautiously informing his master of his discovery, he tempts him to take advantage of an opportunity of accusing him, with every appearance of truth, of committing an aggravated robbery. His master, satisfied with destroying his character, offers no evidence against him at the trial, and he is acquitted. Wherever he goes he is followed by Falkland's agents, who expose his character and deprive him of one situation after another, until, at last, he resolves to turn upon his master in self-defence, reiterates accusations (which he had formerly made and retracted) of the murder of Tyrrel, and choosing his time for the accusation ingeniously, extorts from Mr. Falkland a confession, not only of his murder of Tyrrel, but of the falsehood of his accusations against himself.
[It is a curious instance of the almost universal inability of novelists to write about law without making mistakes, that Godwin, who had a considerable acquaintance with criminal law, forgets that Falkland could not be tried a second time for the murder of Tyrrel, although he Beems quite aware that Williams could not be tried twice for the theft.
In Miss Bronte's remarkable novel, Wuthering Heights, the legal relations of the different characters towards the close of the book are most perplexed. They involve a perfect wilderness of questions about disseisin, forcible entries, mortgages, and the wills and marriages of minors. Even Mr. Thackeray, generally so careful in such matters, falls, we conceive, into a legal mistake in The Newcomes. Mrs. Newcome leaves behind her a letter to her attorney written on the day of her death (before 1838) saying in effect, 'I desire to bequeath' £5000 to Clive Newcome. 'Prepare a codicil to my will to that effect, and bring it on Saturday.' This is written on Tuesday, on which day she dies. Mr. Pendennis, on the discovery of the letter, tells Miss Newcome that' it is not worth a penny,' being only ' a wish on the part of Mrs. Newcome,' and Mr. Luce, the attorney, confirms this.
Now, in Passmore v. Passmore, I Phillim. 218, Sir J. Nicholl expressly says, ' That the instrument as in the form of a letter is no conclusive objection to it,—nor has it been held necessary that they' (such instruments) 'should be in direct and imperative terms, wishes and requests have been deemed sufficient.'
In Allen v. Manning, 2 Add. 490, instructions to an attorney to prepare a will were admitted to probate on the ground that the testator died five days after giving them, and before he could execute the will. See, too, Torre v. Castle, 1 Curt. 303, and Hattat v. Hattat, 4 Hagg. 411. This would be somewhat minute criticism, if it were not for the fact, that Mr. Pendennis gives his opinion expressly as a lawyer.
Nothing can be more remarkable than the skill with which this story is developed step by step, each leading to, and each bearing upon the next. But if we suppose the events really to have occurred, would any ordinary person have remarked their connexion? In the novel, Caleb Williams's introduction to Falkland's house, and the story he hears from the steward about his master's history, at once arrest the reader's attention, and introduce all that follows. In real life, the gossip of two servants about their master's affairs would attract no attention at all, or would only be noticed as one of the little vexations incidental to keeping a large establishment. When Falkland has been introduced in a manner calculated to awaken attention and curiosity, a variety of small characteristic conversations and allusions—immediately detected by the least experienced novel reader as being characteristic and important—are introduced in order to heighten the mystery and curiosity. In real life, such things would have passed unnoticed, or, if noticed, any one but a confirmed meddler and gossip would have set them down to the account of casual ill-temper or bad digestion, or to any other insignificant cause. The transaction about the robbery would have amounted to this—that there was strong reason to suppose a clerk had robbed his master; that there was a kind of possibility that the master wanted to get rid of the clerk; and so the matter would have stood for many months, and in the meantime Falkland, and his relations, and servants, and acquaintance would have hardly given a thought to Caleb Williams and his affairs. They would have had business, and formed habits and connexions far more interesting to themselves than any in which Williams had a part, and he and his trial would have subtended a very small angle indeed in their range of vision, instead of forming, as by the novelist's art they are made to do, the centre upon which all their fortunes depend.
Perhaps the necessity of modifying the representation made by novels of the different events which occur in them, may be more fully illustrated by supposing that the story of Caleb Williams is only his way of accounting for, and connecting, certain admitted facts: such as the fact that Mr. Tyrrel was murdered; that Mr. Falkland was tried for the murder, and acquitted; that he led a retired life; that Caleb Williams was taken into his service, and left it under an accusation, true or false, of robbery; that Williams was committed to gaol; that he escaped, was retaken, tried, and, by the kindness of his prosecutor, acquitted; that he wandered about the country, and lost situations from a report of his conduct; that he went to Mr. Falkland's house during his last illness, accused him of murder, and caused him to make certain statements. Might it not be open to Mr. Falkland's friends to contend, and would they not contend with the greatest force, that the story was all false from beginning to end, and that it bore upon it every mark of being so; that all the tales about Falkland's conversations with Williams were mere fictions, artfully constructed on information obtained from a gossiping old man, in order to supply a means of explaining conduct which was in fact a treacherous robbery of a master by a confidential servant; that Williams's escape from prison was a confession of guilt; that his subsequent acquittal was simply owing to his master's reluctance to have him hanged; that his loss of his situations was the natural and necessary consequence of his crime; that his report of Falkland's last conversation was a garbled account of the weak, confused language of a dying man about matters in which he had at any rate suffered most cruelly; and that to suppose Falkland guilty of murder merely because a discharged servant, who had formerly made and retracted the same accusation, a probable robber, and a man who, according to his own confession, associated with a gang of highwaymen, said that his master had chosen him of all mankind as his confessor, would be to consider the solemn verdict of a jury as less cogent than the unsupported evidence of a single interested and untrustworthy witness.
This, however, is not the impression which the mere perusal of the novel leaves upon the mind. It is of the essence of a novel to assume not only the infallibility of the narrator as to the matters of fact which he relates, but also as to the bearing of the facts related upon each other; and it would lead to constant mistakes to suppose that the circumstances which in a novel prove the guilt, or the love, or the wisdom, which the novelist attributes to his hero, would prove the same things in real life. A still more curious illustration of this is the alterations of facts which occur in historical novels. As novels cannot be taken to be histories without a good deal of management and allowance, so history cannot be readily woven into novels without corresponding distortions.
Two curious instances of this are to be found in Colonel Everard, the hero of Woodstock, and Henry Morton, the hero of Old Mortality. Characters of that stamp were not likely to be found amongst Puritans or Covenanters. Sir Walter Scott was not the man to enter into the feelings either of Cromwell or of Balfour of Burley, in such a manner as to make their passions real objects of interest. Inasmuch, however, as some hero with whom his readers could sympathize was necessary, he provides two young men who talk the language and think the thoughts of the end of the eighteenth century to the men of the seventeenth, with a sort of unconscious simplicity and bona fide belief in their own superiority over those amongst whom they live, which is not only curious in itself, but is especially curious as an illustration of the radical differences between romance and history.
There is something in the quiet, easy, plausible solution of all the difficulties, which seemed so vital to all the greatest men of their time, at which Everard and Morton have arrived, and in the calm superiority with which they estimate and patronize them, with more or less disapproval, which in real life would be contemptible, but which in a novel does not exactly shock us, because we understand, or at any rate feel, its congruity with the scope of such books. Far the most curious illustration of this predominance of the novel atmosphere over fact which we can remember, is to be found in Mr. Lockhart's novel of Valerius. The curious Paleyan process by which Valerius, on reading a MS. of one of the Gospels lent him by a Christian under persecution, becomes convinced of 'the candour and veracity of the author,' would have astonished the contemporaries of Origen about as much as the acquisition of an estate worth something like a million and a half sterling as the providential reward of a pagan's conversion to Christianity.
Somewhat similar in its effects is the habit of supposing that the importance of events in real life is commensurate with their importance in novels. The well-known dogma of Aristotle, that the object of a tragedy is to excite terror and pity, might be paraphrased by saying that it is the object of a novel to describe love ending in marriage. Marriage in novels occupies almost always the position which death occupies in real life: it is the art of transition into a new state, with which novelists (with some very rare exceptions) have little or nothing to do. No doubt, a happy marriage is to a woman what success in any of the careers of life is to a man. It is almost the only profession which society, as at present constituted, opens to her. The mistake of novelists lies not so much in overrating the importance of marriage, as in the assumed universality of the passion of love, in their sense of the word. The notion which so many novels suggest—that if two people who have a violent passion for each other marry, they have necessarily acted wisely,—is as unfounded as the converse, that if two people marry without such a passion, they act unwisely.
It would be impossible for any one to dispute altogether the existence of some such passion as is the foundation of most novels; but it may safely be affirmed that it is very uncommon, that it is a very doubtful good when it exists, and that the love which the Prayer Book seems to consider as a condition subsequent to marriage, is something much more common and very different. In novels it is considered as the cause, in the Prayer Book as what ought to be the effect of marriage; and we suspect that the divines have been shrewder observers of human nature than the men of the world. In the morality of almost all novelists, the promise ought to be, not ' I will love,' but 'I declare that I do love. ' The wisdom or otherwise of a step upon which so much of the happiness of life must turn, is made to depend, not on the mutual forbearance and kindly exertions of the two persons principally interested, but upon their feeling an exceptional and transitory passion at a particular moment.
To attempt to give an accurate definition, or even description of love, would be presumptuous, if not pedantic; but it may safely be affirmed that one of its most important constituent parts, if not its essence, is to be found in a willingness to discharge the duties implied in the relation of the persons loving, in order to please or benefit each other. Love between the sexes is not the only kind of love in the world. Its specific peculiarities arise, like the specific peculiarities of all other kinds of love, from the peculiar relations and duties implied in the relation of husband and wife, which, however, operate principally by giving colour to the common sentiments of friendship and confidence, and, above all, to those which spring from the habits of society. To use the language of a very great man (employed in maintaining a proposition which to some may seem questionable)—
It must be carefully remembered, that the general happiness of married life is secured by its indissolubility. When people understand that they must live together, except for a very few reasons known to the law, they learn to soften, by mutual accommodation, that yoke which they know they cannot shake off, and become good husbands and good wives from the necessity of remaining husbands and wives. For necessity is a powerful master in teaching the duties. If it were once understood that, upon mutual disgust, married persons might be legally separated, many a couple who now pass through the world with mutual comfort, with attention to their common offspring, and to the moral order of civil society, might have been at this moment living in a state of mutual unkindness, in a state of estrangement from their common offspring, in a state of the most licentious morality. [Judgment of Lord Stowell in Evans v. Evans. 1 Hagg. Cons. Rep. 36, 37.]
The habit of finishing a novel with the marriage of the hero and heroine, is quite in accordance with the view of love which we have been reprobating. It would seem ludicrous to conclude the history of a man's professional career with the act of his entering upon his profession; but it is an all but universal practice to conclude a representation of him, as a social and feeling being, with his marriage. Why? Because a person is supposed to enter on a profession in order to do something in it, and to marry only to gratify his passions.
The necessity of interesting the reader by what is represented, and the necessity of suppressing all that is dull, taken together, are the reasons why novelists fall into the habit of distorting facts in order to produce an unnatural excitement of feeling.
In real life, the announcement of a person's death, or marriage, produces a certain effect, varying with our attachment to the person concerned. The same announcement about a fictitious character would produce no effect at all by its own weight; therefore, in order to make it affecting, novelists are obliged to have recourse to what we now call sentimentality. 'Affectation,' if the word were used in a more restricted sense than it generally bears, would be a more correct, though perhaps less expressive, name for the habit of mind which we wish to describe.
Etymologically, 'sentimental' ought to mean, capable of sentiment; and, inasmuch as sentiment is nothing else than feeling, every man, and indeed every animal, might be described as being in that sense 'sentimental;' but the meaning which we popularly attach to the word has become considerably extended in some respects, and much narrowed in others. It denotes, not a capability of any sort of feeling, but the habitual indulgence of one particular class of feelings; that is to say, tenderness, and principally tenderness by way of association, and it is seldom used without implying disapprobation. There are certain secondary pleasures attendant upon almost all kinds of sorrow. Sorrow calls out many good qualities, the recollection of which is in itself pleasant. The sorrow of others furnishes an occasion for the feelings of pity and generosity, as well as for that less amiable gratification implied in the 'Suave mari magno.’ There is a certain interest and sympathy of which people in unfortunate circumstances are the object, both at their own hands and at the hands of others, such as Charles Lamb has very agreeably described in his essay on the Pleasures of Sickness. Now, when a man describes sorrow in writing, painting, or speaking, not substantively, but with an eye to these alleviations and associations, we call such a description sentimental. Thus, the description of Lefevre's death, in Tristram Shandy, is sentimental, because it is impossible to read it without feeling that it is introduced in order to set off Uncle Toby's generosity and Lefevre's affection for his son; but no one would call Burns' address to Mary in Heaven sentimental, because there the grief is the substantive part of the poem, and the description of scenery merely an accessory.
For our present purposes, therefore, 'sentimentality' may be described as being that way of writing which makes use of emotions of tenderness or the like, as accessories for the purpose of heightening an artistic effect, whether that effect is to be produced by the description of other feelings, or merely by the skilful handling of details. The state of human affairs is probably such that no one could conceive a consistent story without being naturally and unavoidably led to describe many painful things, and no one can be blamed for describing such subjects in a spirited manner, if he describes them gravely, and because they lie straight in his path; but we do not know of a habit more likely to injure the interests, both of art and of morals, than that of describing death and kindred subjects as accessories to matters of inferior importance, or for the sake of displaying skill in handling details.
There is one writer in our own day who entirely exemplifies our meaning: this is Mr. Dickens.
We will take only one instance of his sentimentality,—his treatment of the subject of death. There are some aspects of death of which we wish to say nothing; but if we consider it simply as it affects the survivors, it cannot be regarded as connected exclusively with painful associations. The feelings excited by the death of a friend are, first, a feeling of solemn awe, which is not deepened, but weakened, by anything which diverts the attention from the naked fact. 'He is dead, ' is all that is to be said upon the subject; and any phrases whatever beyond that or its equivalents have a tendency to distract the mind, and so far to lessen the solemnity of the feelings excited. It would not be true to say that this sensation is entirely painful. To a sluggish imagination, the mere excitement is far from being altogether unpleasant. The dim view of a world of mysteries, in the midst of which we live and move, has something in it which relieves the tedium and ennobles the trivialities of common life; but when we weigh this against the utter separation, the end—for aught we know, the final end—of so many kindly sympathies and warm activities, there is something loathsome in the notion of a man's being willing to call up the one set of associations for the sake of playing with the other; and when we recollect the lighter associations which accompany death, the expressions of affection, the leave-takings, the little touching incidents to which the unconscious simplicity of the dying person may give rise, we cannot but feel that the mere recollection of such things involves an unutterable, an almost sacred sadness, and that there is an absence of feeling in displaying that which gives them all their sadness in order to set off their beauty, which reminds us of nothing so much as the mumbling satisfaction of the old Grandmother in the Antiquary, at the wine and cakes handed round at her grandson's funeral. Now, Mr. Dickens, not once or twice, but continually, brings death upon the stage, apparently for no one reason but that of showing his skill in arranging affecting details so as to give them this horrible pungency. Paul Dombey, Eleanor Trent, Dora Copperfield, Richard Carstone (who dies partly to spite the Court of Chancery, and partly to give Miss Summerson an opportunity of showing how conscious she is of her unconscious sweetness and piety), Oliver Twist's mother, and Smike, are a few of the instances which occur to us of this toying with the disgrace of our nature. [A list of the killed, wounded, and missing amongst Mr. Dickens's novels would read like an Extraordinary Gazette. An interesting child runs as much risk there as any of the troops who stormed the Redan.] We do not wish to write lightly on such a subject; but let us compare Mr. Dickens's treatment of death with some others.
Having to describe the death of a young woman who dies very unnecessarily, after rambling about the country with her grandfather, Mr. Dickens first introduces a little boy dying quietly enough, then he brings in an old sexton of seventy-nine, whose peculiarity is that he does not die, and does not expect to do so. Appended to the sexton are a church and out-houses, with carved wainscots, and windows looking out on the graves. Having arranged the scene, we have the time—a winter night and a snow-storm,—and the chorus, in the shape of all sorts of anxious admirers; then comes the scene over which so many foolish tears have been shed, and which reminds us of nothing so much as the hackneyed quotation about the difficulty of driving a dog from a greasy hide. He gloats over the girl's death as if it delighted him; he looks at it from four or five points of view; touches, tastes, smells, and handles as if it was some savoury dainty which could not be too fully appreciated.
The description consists of six paragraphs (some in blank verse) of which three begin with the words, 'She was dead.' The first is introductory; the second describes her as being asleep; the third relates to the bed; the fourth to a certain bird; the fifth to the subject's beautiful appearance; and the sixth to its face. The whole concludes with a questionable statement as to what the angels will look like, which suggests that even upon artistic grounds it is as well not to intrude into things which we have not seen.
Perhaps the prophet Ezekiel thought of death as solemnly as Mr. Dickens, and loved his wife as much as Mr. Dickens cared for his little tragedy queen; but he tells us nothing of her bed, nor of what he put on it, nor about her face, nor her bird—
Ezekiel xxiv. 15-18.—'Son of man, behold I take from thee the desire of thine eyes with a stroke, yet neither shalt thou mourn nor weep, neither shall thy tears run down. Forbear to cry, make no mourning for the dead, bind the tire of thy head upon thee, and put on thy shoes upon thy feet, and cover not thy lips, and eat not the bread of men. So I spake unto the people in the morning, and at even my wife died; and I did in the morning as I was commanded.'Though Ezekiel was commanded not to mourn, it does not appear that he was forbidden to linger on the details of his wife's death, to describe her face, her bed, her ornaments, and to put little bits of pretty simplicity into her mouth. But he was not only an inspired prophet, but a brave man, who wrote with modesty and self-respect.
This is but one illustration out of ten thousand, of the spirit which leads people to indulge their timidity or their love of luxury, by disregarding the essential points of observation for the sake of accessories, and instead of looking death, and grief, and pain in the face, to trifle with the dramatic incidents by which they may be attended.
Another consequence of the suppression of so large a proportion of the facts which in real life carry on the business of the world is to be found in the invention of masses of what the critics in the last century used to call 'machinery,' and what is perhaps better known in the present day under its theatrical slang name of ' business.' Almost every author has his Di minorum or majorum gentium in reserve for such knots as may occur in his story. Scott or Sir E. Lytton have generally some funny man—some Andrew Fairservice, or Corporal Bung —hanging about the story, ready to help matters on as a kind of prose comic chorus, or to disentangle any embarrassment which may arise, by throwing an air of absurdity over it.
If hardship, or poverty, or sickness is to be represented, almost all writers of novels bring in a Caleb Balderstone, to invent shifts for filling his hero's larder, or a Mrs. Flanagan, to steal his spirits under pretence of giving him medicine, that the reader's mind may not be unduly shocked.
Mr. Dickens seems to us the greatest master of this kind of artifice, but his method is most peculiar. It consists in giving an entirely factitious prominence to minute peculiarities. He constantly gives expression, almost personality, to inanimate objects. He invests the most ordinary affairs of life with a certain charm and poetry. It is abundantly clear that this is what none but a man of genius could do. Nor is it an illusion which would be likely to deceive any one. Nobody ever lived in the world without finding plenty of dulness in it, and no quantity of verbal artifice would make him forget it; but though artifices like these may not deceive, they are still deviations from reality, and are to be allowed for before a novel can be considered as a picture of life.
There are dwarfs in real life, and the circumstance of bodily deformity no doubt exercises a powerful influence over character, but a little imp, with some slight resemblance to a man and a vast preponderance of the devil, like Quilp, or a 'recluse,' like the Black Dwarf, are what Addison calls 'machines' peculiar to novelists, and without representatives in real life.
Descriptions of scenery, especially in modern novels, often act as machines. We are tolerant of improbability and of gaps in a story, such as 'Five years elapsed,' &c. &c., when they are covered by pictures of still life, such as the charming descriptions of South America, which fill up about half a volume and three very uneventful years in the wanderings of Sir Amyas Leigh, knight. Such, too, are some of Mr. Dickens's descriptions of nature, which contain extremely picturesque sentences, but generally offend our taste by their obvious effort and elaboration; such, for example, is the account of the great storm at Yarmouth or of the Swiss valley, in David Copperfield. They would furnish very good drop-scenes to a theatre; but in the history of a man's life we can dispense with drop-scenes.
[It may be worth while to remark that Mr. Dickens often writes unintentional verse, like the 'Urbem Romam aprincipio regen habuere,' or the iambics, which occur sometimes in Thucydides. For example:
'Yoho, beside the village green,
Where cricket players linger yet,
And every little indentation made
In the fresh grass
By bat or wicket, ball, or player's foot,
Sheds out its perfume on the night. Away,
With four fresh horses from the Bald-faced Stag.'
The last line is wonderfully Tennysonian. The following description of the shadow of a mail-coach might have well been written by Wordsworth:—
'Yoho, yoho, through ditch and brake,
Upon the ploughed land and the Bmooth,
Along the steephill-side and steeper wall,
As if it were a Phantom Hunter. ]
The descriptions of nature in Gil Bias, in Defoe, occasionally in Fielding, and continually in Smollett, are never obtrusive or over elaborate. They are the simple vivid impression left by striking scenery upon men who had no inclination to go about the world in the spirit of landscape painters, but who could appreciate a fine view when it came in their way. Gil Bias' journey through the Asturias, the Cavaliers' wanderings in Yorkshire, the hill on which Tom Jones and Partridge lost their way, and the infinite variety of pictures hinted at rather than drawn, in Roderick Random's journey to London, are instances of our meaning.
It is a great beauty in a novel, when the story, as it were, tells itself, without the introduction of machines to help it out.
Perhaps the most remarkable result of the arbitrary power which novel writers exercise in the selection of facts to be represented and facts to be suppressed, is to be found in the morality which they teach.
Nothing is more common than for novel writers to set out with the assumption of the truth of certain maxims of morality, and to arrange the facts of their story upon the hypothesis that every violation of those maxims entails all sorts of calamity; instead of looking at the world, and seeing for themselves whether, in point of fact, experience confirms them in the notions which they have formed as to the sanctions provided for the enforcement of such maxims. Those who act thus do not see that the honour which they intend to pay to morality is mere lip-service, and conceals a real doubt as to whether there is such a thing as a natural sanction of morality at all. If they believe that human nature and society are so constituted that the laws of morality are self-executing, they ought to recollect that the sanctions are adjusted by some fixed rule, and if so, the question, what those sanctions are, can be learnt only from experience.
Miss Edgeworth affords perhaps the most complete instance of this fault, and it is almost the only blemish which we can think of in her admirable works. Indeed, her morals are so good, so kindly, and so wise, that it seems unnatural to find fault with them. The number of capital punishments for small offences in her moral tales and tales of fashionable life is dreadful. No one, we suppose, would doubt the evils of procrastination, but it is not a fair representation of life to call as a witness to its bad effects a man of great talents and many opportunities, who is five or six times on the point of making his fortune, and is as often baffled by putting something off which he might have done before. The character might, we apprehend, be objected to on artistic grounds. No one would be so inveterately and invariably procrastinating as the unhappy Mr. Lowe; but independently of this, secondary punishments would, we think, have answered Miss Edgeworth's purpose quite as well, and have been much more true to nature. She might have made him miss one or two openings in life, and succeed less well in others than a more punctual man; but in her anxiety to preach up punctuality, she seems to forget that there is no good in being punctual if a man cannot do his business when he has kept his appointment.
A novel with a moral bears the same relation to other novels as a panegyric to a biography. Instead of illustrating the particular virtues of his subject simply and naturally, the novelist is always on the watch for opportunities of bringing them in at any cost, and, if we may trust our own experience, seldom fails to make the reader utterly rebel against the maxim, or hero, as the case may be.
There are, indeed, cases in which morals become absolute Juggernauts, and the more questionable they are the bloodier are the sacrifices which they obtain. We do not recollect a more salient example of this than the fate of all the low-churchmen, freethinkers, and Jesuits introduced into Hawkstone. The account stands thus:—
Bentley. For being an evangelical clergyman, and for having belonged to a debating club at Cambridge—Subjected to extortion of money by threats of false accusations, unlawfully detained in custody, twice nearly murdered, and thrown at last into a quasi convent, by way of restitution.
Webster. For Atheism—Falls into melted lead, falling on his hands in the first instance, and sinking slowly on his face.
Pearce. For being a Jesuit—Eaten by rats in a secret passage of his own contrivance. From the position of what was left of him, it appeared that the vital parts had been attacked last.
The old French penal code was merciful compared to this. Webster, perhaps, might have met with treatment not materially milder at the hands of the judges who sentenced Damien and La Barre, but the fate of Jesuits in the time of Louis XV., or of Jansenists in that of Louis XIV., was far more tolerable than that of heretics convicted by the inexorable and infallible author of Hawkstone.
A parallel instance is that of Eugene Sue, whom the author of Hawkstone so much resembles, and with whom, we suppose, he so fully sympathises. Jesuits, hypocrites, and immoral persons generally, get their poetical justice served out, like the boiling pitch which Robinson Crusoe's cook distributed amongst the Chinese. Dying of recondite diseases, having holes burnt in their flesh with blow-pipes, being blinded, and kicked in tender parts,—and in some of the less serious cases, drowning, hanging, guillotining, and other not very painful forms of death, are the punishments with which M. Sue visits the crimes which he takes so much pleasure in describing; and no doubt it is fair enough to hang all the characters, if the scene is always laid in Newgate.
Poetical justice is, however, not confined to such instances as these: it extends far higher, and is a taint from which few authors have escaped. Sir Edward Lytton generally puts on the black cap when his hero and heroine are, or are about to be, married. Surely the execution of Randal Leslie, in the last chapter of My Novel, is very unnecessary. The character is certainly abundantly mean and base; but his very selfishness and insensibility of conscience would have prevented him from throwing up the game of life, which he had played so unscrupulously, merely because he was discovered in discreditable tricks by a set of people who must have kept their discoveries to themselves, for fear of compromising the character of their connexions. Leslie must have known very well that the wish to protect the character of the lady whom he had injured from public discussion, would have been quite motive enough to prevent his exposure by his former friends; and that many paths of life were open to him in which he might gratify his ambition. Instead of doing so, he utterly ruins himself, taking some trouble to do it, and takes to drinking, merely from a sense of duty to Sir E. Lytton; and because he feels that if a wicked man in a novel were to become rich, all the foundations of morality would be out of course. George Sand's works abound in curious instances of an inverted poetical justice. We think it would be hard to prove that the arrangements of life, and the existing notions of morality, uniformly produce misery.
In this, as in almost every department of novel literature, Mr. Thackeray appears to us to have conferred immense benefits on novel readers. He is the only writer that we know who does not shrink from allowing all kinds of villany to go unpunished, except by its own badness, and who makes his readers feel without preaching or effort how complete a punishment that is. The reason of this may perhaps be, that few authors feel so strongly as Mr. Thackeray that mere wealth and success in life are not all that we ought to live or to wish for; and that it is a beggarly reward, after all, for goodness, to make it heir to a large estate and a fine house. We think that Mr. Morgan 'living to be one of the most respectable men in the parish of St. James's,' and Becky Sharpe keeping one of the most well-conducted stalls in Vanity Fair, are really far more edifying representations than any number of saints, pampered, very strangely to all readers of the New Testament, with all sorts of luxury, and any number of sinners consigned to a fate to which they certainly were not accustomed, when they were not plagued like other men, nor afflicted like other men,—when they had children at their desire, and left the rest of their substance to their babes.
We would recommend to all who think it necessary to warp facts in order to justify morality, the words of one of the greatest of English wits and poets:—
‘Think we, like some weak prince, th' Eternal CauseIn conclusion, we will indicate—it would require a book to do more—a few of the principal historical causes of the imperfect representations of life by novelists.
Prone for his favourites to reverse his laws?
. . . . . . . .
'If' sometimes virtue wants while vice is fed,
What then? is the reward of virtue bread?
That vice may merit, 'tis the price of toil,
The knave deserves it when he tills the soil;
The knave deserves it when he tempts the main,
Where folly fights for kings, or dives for gain.
. . . . . . . .
What nothing earthly gives, or can destroy—
The soul's calm sunshine, and the heart-felt joy,—
Is virtue's prize: a better would you fix?
Then give humility a coach-and-six,
Justice a conqueror's sword, or Truth a gown,
Or public spirit its great cure—a crown. ‘
The most remarkable of these are traditional plots, the requisitions of which can hardly be complied with without a considerable warping of facts. The great majority of these plots are composed of two elements,—the adventurous, and the amatory.
The oldest European form of the adventurous element in novels, and its introduction into modern literature, has been curiously described by M. Guizot:—
‘Independently (he says) of the satisfaction which they afforded to morality and to human sensibility, the condition of which in the external world was so bad, the legends corresponded to other faculties and other necessities. We hear much in the present day of the interest, the movement, which in the course of what is vaguely called the middle ages, gave animation to common life. It seems as if great adventures, spectacles, and histories constantly excited the imagination; as if society were a thousand times more varied, more amusing, than it is with us. This might be the case with a few men who belonged to the higher classes, or were thrown into singular situations; but, for the mass of the population, life was, on the contrary, prodigiously monotonous, insipid, tiresome. It was destined to pass in one place, amidst the constant repetition of the same scenes. With hardly any external movement, and still less from within, it had as little pleasure as happiness, and the condition of its intelligence was not more agreeable than its material existence. There was no nourishment for the active imagination and love of adventure which have so much empire over men, except in the lives of the saints. To the Christians of this time—I may be allowed a merely literary comparison,—the legends were what the long stories, the brilliant and varied histories of which the Thousand and One Nights are a specimen, were to the Orientals. It was there that the popular imagination wandered freely in an unknown and wonderful world, full of action and poetry. It is difficult for us, at the present day, to share all the pleasure which they afforded twelve hundred years ago. Habits have changed, amusements besiege us; but we can at least understand that this kind of literature derived hence a powerful interest.’ [Civilisation en France, Leçon 17me, p. 276, 277. Bruss. Edn. 1843.]In the authors of the Legends of the Saints are probably to be found the literary ancestors of our modern novels of adventure; and possibly their miracles may have had some connexion with the habit of mind which leads so many novelists to suppose, or at least to suggest, that the divine government of the world is carried on entirely ex machina, and not by the orderly operation of general laws. It would of course be fanciful to rate very highly the influence of the legends on the writers of the present day. We merely refer to them as being the earliest instances of the operation of causes which are still in full vigour, and as having exercised some influence over those who were the earliest professors of the art of novel writing.
The commonest form of the combination of the adventurous and amatory element is pleasantly described by Mr. Thackeray:—
‘I suppose, as long as novels last, and authors aim at interesting their public, there must be in a story a virtuous and gallant hero, a wicked monster his opposite, and a pretty girl who finds a champion. Bravery and virtue conquer beauty; and vice, after seeming to triumph through a certain number of pages, is sure to be discomfited in the last volume, when justice overtakes him, and honest folks come by their own. There never was, perhaps, a greatly popular story, but this simple plot was carried through it. Mere satiric wit is addressed to a class of readers and thinkers quite different to those simple souls who laugh and weep over a novel.’This description (although strangely inapplicable to the four most popular novels ever written—Don Quixote, Pilgrim's Progress, Gil Bias, and Robinson Crusoe), seems to us to characterise very happily a vast proportion of the plots of novels, which are often constructed in neglect of the principles which distinguish them from plays. A play is addressed to an audience, a novel to readers; therefore many deviations from nature are necessary in plays which are clumsy in novels. In a play, situations which form tableaux, surprises, mistaken identity, coincidences, and so forth, are unavoidable, because without their help the audience would not be able to take in the whole bearing of the piece, during its representation; but their improbability makes them displeasing in a novel, which presumes a certain amount of attention and leisure on the part of the reader.
If, indeed, a novel is merely an unacted play, like Monte Christo, its plot is good in proportion to the exactness with which dramatic principles are employed in its construction; but where it is professedly a picture of life, an incident borrowed from the stage is out of place. Take from Monte Christo the plots of Dantes and the Abbe, the discovery of the treasure, the intrigues against Dantes' enemies, and all the list of catastrophes at the end, and the book is not worth reading.
If, on the other hand, we take from David Copperfield the surprising recognitions of old acquaintance, the poetical justice, and the Magdalene and death-bed 'business' of Emily, Martha, and Dora, the reminiscences of the hero's youth and childhood, the sketch of the Yarmouth boatmen, and the gentleman who is always expecting 'something to turn up,' become sketches as exquisite in their playfulness and humour as anything in Household Words. It would be hard to give them higher praise.
It has always seemed to us that the confusion of the two classes of plots of which we have spoken, spoils all novels in which it exists. The wonderful superiority of Swift and Defoe over all succeeding novelists, is owing, to a great extent, to their almost absolute freedom from this fault. Grant Gulliver his postulates, and his book is as sober, dignified, and probable as Arthur Young's Travels in France. Smollett and Fielding have but very little of the dramatic element in their plots. The Vicar of Wakefield has a sort of sentimental, operatic atmosphere cast over it by Burcham's incognito, and Squire Thornhill's marriage. If Olivia's character had never been reinstated at all, the story would have been far more life-like.
Next to those of Swift and Defoe, we should most unquestionably place the plots of Fielding. They are marvellous in their simplicity and nature; and the various adventures by which they are illustrated form, as they would in real life, not the ground-work of the story told, but mere ornaments and episodes.
The whole story, for example, of Joseph Andrews may be told in a sentence: Joseph Andrews being dismissed from his place in London, goes into the country and marries Fanny Williams. The adventures related are merely incidental, and might all be struck out of the book without disarranging the continuity of the story. Most novels are, as it were, articulated by means of various more or less well-known dramatic contrivances.
Another curious case of an extrinsic disturbing force acting upon novels is to be found in the habit, which of late years has become so common, of using novels to ventilate opinions.
It is a common, but not, we think, a very fair objection to such books, to complain that the author does not give his critics a fair shot—that he shelters himself behind his hero, and expresses, not his own, but his puppets' opinions.
To those who consider authors as a sort of waste, over which they are entitled to common of abuse, some comfort may be given by the reflection, that by abusing the hero instead of the author, and by abusing him for those qualities which he shares with the author, they may still inflict a reasonable amount of pain; but those who are willing to consider that the object of such novels is rather to display the manner in which opinions act upon those who hold them, than to inculcate the opinions on their own grounds, will probably be content with considering how far the representation is honest.
Opinions and states of mind may, no doubt, be as legitimately made the subjects of representation as adventures, but the dangers of partiality, of dishonesty, of false morality on the part of authors, and of hasty misconception on the part of readers, is obviously at a maximum in this class of books. Pendennis is, perhaps, the most notable and trustworthy specimen of the class which could be mentioned. The irresolute, half-ashamed, sceptical hero, conscious of his own weakness, conscious of his own ignorance, conscious, too, of his capacity for both power and knowledge,—half envious of the vigorous delusions with which he sees one part of mankind possessed, half sympathizing with the vigorous pleasure-hunting of another class,—governed by tastes and circumstances instead of principles, but clinging, firm to old habits, to traditional lessons of truth and honour,—jotting down, sketch-book in hand, all the quaint irregularities or picturesque variations of the banks as he drifts, half-pleased, half-melancholy, down the river of life, not very bad, nor very good, nor very anything,—looking, half-respectfully, half-derisively, at what the world venerates,—despising, more or less, though on other grounds, what it hates,—is one of the saddest, as it is one of the most masterly memorials of the times in which he lived which any writer ever drew for posterity.
Our most remarkable writer of this kind, after Mr. Thackeray, appears to us to be, beyond all comparison, Mr. Kingsley. That he is a poet and a man of genius, that he has almost unrivalled power of description, and that he reproduces, with a fidelity almost marvellous, the feelings of that particular generation and class in which his lot is cast, no one, we think, who belongs to the same class and generation can doubt. The perplexities of Lancelot Smith, the certainties of Amyas Leigh —who is a Lancelot Smith without perplexities,—the opinions, or rather sentiments of Alton Locke and his friend—who may be like tailors, but are most unquestionably like gentlemen accidentally reduced to that occupation,—are most undeniable likenesses of the genus Englishman, species Cantabrigian tempore 184-. Mr. Kingsley knows much more about Alexandria in the days of Cyril, and about England in the days of Elizabeth, than we do; therefore we shall only say that it is very curious that their inhabitants should have so exactly, so curiously, and intimately resembled that particular class to which we have referred, as, from Mr. Kingsley's novels, we find they did.
Novels are also made use of at the present day, as social or political argumenta ad misericordiam,—when they fall within the remarks which we have made upon novels written with a moral. Such, for example, are Mrs. Gaskell's novel of Mary Barton, written in order to bring forward certain observations of the author, and apparently to advocate a particular set of feelings respecting the condition of the poor in Manchester; and her novel of Ruth, written, apparently, to show that the regulations of society, with respect to female virtue, sometimes produce hardship. We have already expressed our opinion upon the general question of the introduction of morality into novels; historically considered, all these novels will have to be read with large allowances, on the score of their having been, to a great extent, party pamphlets. It is curious to observe how the artistic bias of the writer's mind gets the better of her theories. Mary Barton remains an excellent novel after its utter uselessness, politically speaking, is fully recognised. That poor people out of work in Manchester were very discontented and very miserable, and that being so, they behaved much as the authoress of Mary Barton describes their behaviour, will continue to be a fact worth representing, however notorious it may always have been, long after everybody has recognised the truth, that that fact has little or nothing to do with either the cause or the remedy of their wretchedness.
Ruth has much in it that is beautiful, even in the eyes of those who cannot see that if it were literally true it would prove anything at all. All that it shows is, that it is possible to put a case of a person who, for violating the letter, and not the spirit of the law, gets more severely punished than she would have been if the law had been made to provide for her individual case. This must be the case with all human laws. What has to be proved is that the punishments of the social law, on the subject to which Ruth refers, are too severe, when not only the letter, but the spirit also, of the law is violated. You do not prove that imprisonment is too severe a punishment for theft by putting the case of a child being so punished, though it had hardly realised the notion of property: you must show that it is unjust to imprison a commonplace London pickpocket.
A person who reads either Ruth or Mary Barton without notice of the various social and political discussions which suggested these novels, will hardly be able to derive much experience from them. It is like reading Caleb Williams without knowing that Godwin was the author of Political Justice.
The personal character of the authors is the last disturbing force which is to be taken into account.
Life puts on very special colours when it is looked at through the medium of the feelings of a man like Swift, who seems to have been, in sober earnest, very much the kind of person that Byron wished himself to be thought. The sava indignatio which prompted him constantly to write what, if not inscribed with, is continually suggestive of lamentations, and mourning, and woe—showed him all things in a sort of glare, which, like the light of some distant conflagration, forms a background to all the playfulness and irony of Gulliver's Travels, and becomes, at last, their one great characteristic; so that after being amused at Lilliput, interested in Brobdignag, and astonished at Laputa, we feel the same kind of relief on finishing the account of the Houyhnhms as we experience on passing into the open air and cheerful streets from the ulcers and abortions of a medical museum.
Goldsmith, on the other hand, saw everything couleur de rose. If young Primrose has to travel through Europe, he makes rather a pleasant business of it. He enjoys himself more, as he tells us, with his crown piece over a bowl of punch, than the old crimp to whom he has just paid its last companion with his fifty thousand pounds. When he lands on the continent he finds ways and means to see the world, not unpleasantly; he gets his board and lodging from ' those who are poor enough to be very merry, ' and disputes his way cheerfully through university towns as yet unknown to tourists.
Now if anyone were to draw from Swift's book the moral that life was utterly foul and monstrous, or from Goldsmith the conclusion that even to a penniless vagabond it was a pleasant amusement,—he would be transferring to the picture the colour of the glass through which he looks at it. It would be a curious thing to construct a scale of the allowances necessary to be made in the books of different authors on this ground, like the rates of going which are ascertained for chronometers at the Greenwich Observatory.
We do not know a better corrective for timidity and despondence than the tone of 'unabashed' Defoe. Most men would have described Robinson Crusoe's career as something between life in a mad-house and life in gaol. So, too, Lockhart's Life of Scott is a not uninstructive commentary on the Waverley Novels. There is another side to that prosperous, easy-going enjoyment of life, and fine scenery, and middle-age costume, which is to be taken into account before we can let the stalwart heroes—who are constantly "accompanying their thanks with a kiss," and plausibly settling all the difficulties of the world,—walk out of the canvas into real life. All those volumes of correspondence about plate, linen, and furniture—all the adding house to house, and field to field— the final bankruptcy—the tragical and fruitless efforts which followed it—and the gradual breaking up of a great genius and an iron frame, are melancholy proofs that the world has more in it after all than is to be solved by the sort of boisterous, noisy, straightforward sense—sense in more ways than one—which the Waverley Novels seem to suggest as that sum of the whole matter which the Wise Man expressed somewhat differently.
In conclusion, we will take as an illustration of the manner in which the disturbing forces of which we have spoken may be minimized, an instance of a novel which appears to us to be, in these particulars, almost faultless; and which adds to the information and excites the feelings of its readers in a manner almost as natural and complete as if it were a real history of real facts. We allude to Robinson Crusoe.
Whichever of the tests we have been discussing is applied to this book, we shall find it equally sound. Consider it with reference to the variations from real life introduced into it for artistic purposes. It is almost impossible to point out a single such variation. There is no factitious completeness in the incidents or scenery; characters come and go, and are mentioned and criticised as they happen to affect Crusoe's career, but they are never brought in for any other purpose, nor are their separate adventures followed farther than the occasion requires. Sir Walter Scott remarked, very justly, that the elder brother, who was colonel of the regiment of German infantry, and the boy Xury, both vanish from the book just as they would have vanished from the history of a real man's life, and are not brought in at the end, as they would have been in any ordinary novel, to rejoice in the hero's fortunate catastrophe. One of Mr. Dickens's critics praised Bleak House because it was so like life, in containing such an infinite variety of characters. Compare Bleak House with Robinson Crusoe. The old English gentleman—the eccentric bachelor, the surgeon, the heroine, Joe the sweeper, the law-writer, all the parties concerned in the Chancery suit, Mr. Jarndyce, the philanthropic lady, the attorney's clerk—who wants to make an offer of marriage 'without prejudice'—and fifty others, are all woven into one series of adventures, in which they are all interested, and from which, when they have performed their several tasks, they all depart in different dramatic positions, each with his appropriate piece of poetical justice. Can any one pretend that this is like life? Thousands of people affect us, and we affect thousands of others; but each of us works out the romance or history of our own life with but very occasional and fragmentary assistance from each other. Men are not, as Mr. Dickens seems to think, like characters in a play; they far more resemble a complicated set of forces, each acting in its own direction, and each influenced by, though independent of the others. In Robinson Crusoe this truth is far more fully apprehended. After the skipper of the Hull trader has been wrecked in Yarmouth Roads, and has given Crusoe some good advice, he goes on his way, and we see him no more. The old sailor who takes him a Guinea voyage dies when he returns. The Sallee rovers remain in the Mediterranean; the Portuguese captain and the Brazilian planters all stay at home; and when Crusoe wants them for a specific purpose, he has to go and look for them as any common person would. A modern novelist would have rolled them all into one mass; would have made the Portuguese captain marry the English captain's widow, who would have turned out to be connected with Friday, and to have a secret sorrow pressing on her on account of the bad behaviour of the colonel of Lockhart's foot, and the book would have closed with eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, according to the universal practice in that behalf.
If we examine Crusoe's character, we shall see that it is a simple ordinary character, in no respect distorted for the purposes of art. What a picture of a stern, swarthy youth, scowling or smiling in horrible sympathy at the winds and the waves, and displaying the most heroic courage when the oldest sailors quailed, would many modern authors have painted if they had had to draw Crusoe on his first voyage. Defoe simply represents him as 'most inexpressibly sick both in mind and body'—as making all sorts of good resolutions only to break them,—as cheering up and 'pumping as well as another,' when there was something actually to be done.
Is there any modern novelist who, wishing to represent a very brave, adventurous, young man, would have sufficient confidence in himself to make him beat his breast, and sob and cry like a madman, trusting to his resources to prove that such conduct was a part of the bravest, hardiest, and most indomitable character that genius ever conceived? Defoe knew that courage is not a positive quality which some men have and others want; that it is that willingness to do disagreeable things which we have all acquired in some measure, but that there are acts of courage which the very bravest are only just able to do, and in which even they falter and tremble. How nobly is this brought out in Crusoe's behaviour on the island. At first he is in a passion of grief almost amounting to madness,—' but I thought that would do little good, so I began to make a raft,' &c. Little by little he calms down, often fairly giving way to the horrors of his situation, but always, after a time, setting to work manfully on whatever comes next to hand, until at last his mind grows into a state of settled content and cheerfulness, to which none but a man ribbed with triple steel would have attained. There is a fearless humility about the whole conception of Crusoe, of which we have almost lost even the tradition.
There is perhaps no novel which affords so little excuse for hasty generalisation on the part of readers. The admirable fidelity to nature with which the book is executed would prevent anyone from supposing that it represented a larger section of society than it really does represent; and the plan of the work affords constant hints of states of society quite unconnected with each other or with the main purpose of the book.
No one passion is invested with an exaggerated importance. Even Crusoe's love for wandering is made to arise principally out of his unsettled circumstances. It is not a bad test of the propriety with which passions are represented in a novel, to look upon the novel as an autobiography of the hero, and to consider what would be the feelings with which we should look upon a man who so described the events of his own life. If we apply this test to Robinson Crusoe, we shall see with what self-respect and consistency the story is told. First in order comes the serious business of his life—his trade, his travels, his management of his affairs in his island. Then come the principles upon which he lived, his reflections upon Providence, and the Divine plans of which he conceived himself to be the subject. His purely personal matters, his marriage, his wife's death, and the like, are modestly kept in the background, as matters which he had no particular wish to publish to the world at large.
Contrast this with David Copperfield's memoirs, 'which he never meant to have been published on any account.' If David Copperfield had been a real man, we think his intention would have been eminently judicious. What would be thought of a real autobiography disclosing all a man's most secret thoughts and most sacred affections. It would be considered a great breach of decency: and why is this less an offence in a novel than it would be in real life? It is seldom wholesome to dwell upon descriptions of those thoughts and feelings in others which we should instinctively veil if they were our own.
It is observable that Defoe never worships his hero. He does not in the least degree warp facts, or allow them to be coloured by his own peculiarities. It is impossible to read the book without feeling that it is, to use a much-abused word, eminently objective; that is, the circumstances are drawn from a real study of things as they are, and not in order to exemplify the workings of a particular habit of mind.
With respect to the manner in which Defoe's work acts upon the feelings, a few very simple instances will be sufficient to show his superiority over modern pathos. On gay subjects he is gay, on pathetic subjects pathetic, but he never goes out of his way to look for affecting incidents or details. When he returns to England, after nearly forty years' absence, he simply says, 'I went down to Yorkshire to look for my relatives.' We are not even told whether he went on horseback or by coach, whom he met on the road by a series of surprising coincidences, how many shops had been rebuilt, or young people grown old.
When he has occasion to speak of his wife's death he does it simply and quietly. We are not told whether there were any, and what, reflections of the sun upon the wall on the occasion, nor what his wife wore, nor who told him of her death, nor what the angels had to say upon the subject, nor, indeed, anything but the essential facts and the eternal feelings—
‘But in the middle of all this felicity one blow from Divine Providence unhinged me at once. This blow was the loss of my wife. She was, in a few words, the stay of all my affairs, the centre of all my enterprises, the engine that, by her prudence, reduced me to that happy compass I was in, and from the most extravagant and ruinous project that fluttered in my head as above, and did more to guide my rambling genius than, a mother's tears and a father's instructions, a friend's counsel, or all my own reasoning powers could do. I was happy in being moved by her tears and in listening to her entreaties, and to the last degree desolate and disconsolate in the world by the loss of her. When she was gone, the world looked awkwardly round me.’As for his descriptions of nature, we give but one instance in illustration of our remarks on that subject:—
‘Accordingly, we set out from Pampeluna, with our guide, on the 15th of November; and, indeed, I was surprised, when, instead of going forward, he came directly back with us on the same road that we came from Madrid, about twenty miles, when, having passed two rivers, and come into the plain country, we found ourselves in a warm climate again, where the country was pleasant, and no snow to be seen; but on a sudden turning to his left, he approached the mountains another way; and though it is true the hills and precipices looked dreadful, yet he made so many turns, such meanders, and led us by such winding ways, that we insensibly passed the height of the mountains without being much incumbered with the snow; and, all of a sudden, he showed us the pleasant fruitful provinces of Languedoc and Gascony, all green and nourishing, though, indeed, at a great distance, and we had some rough way to pass still.’Perhaps the most extraordinary part of Defoe's book is its morality. The continual speculations upon the subject of Providence may seem, at first sight, to fall within the limits of that eagerness to justify existing notions which we have criticised. We apprehend, however, that this is not the case. All the incidents described are to the last degree simple, natural, and regular. The story is told so well, that the author can make the hero comment upon his own life as simply and quietly as if he were a real man commenting upon real occurrences. To invent facts in order to justify a theory is one thing,—to apply facts fairly represented in a particular manner is quite another thing. That a sailor should be cast upon a desert island, escape from it, and travel over the world afterwards, is not in itself improbable. That he should have the piety and good sense to make such observations upon it as Crusoe makes, is much to be desired.
A somewhat similar justification may be offered for his constant introduction of omens and presentiments. It is well known, from other quarters, that Defoe had a strong belief in the existence of such warnings. Believing in them as matters of fact, it is natural that he should introduce them into a picture of life; but it is remarkable that the omens are not very specific. He arranges the details of the facts as is most suitable to the story; and introduces considerable variations between the facts and the presentiments. He dreams, for example, that a savage will run into his wood, but he says, 'I did not let my dream come true in this, for I took him another way, ' &c. A common writer would have made the details match exactly, in order to heighten the supernatural character of the warning, but Defoe gives the impression of not going beyond experience and reason, even where his opinions of what experience and reason teach are most peculiar to himself.
The historical and personal disturbing forces to be allowed for in reading Robinson Crusoe are few. There is hardly anything conventional in the structure of the story. The book is written to serve no turn—moral, political, or religious. It might probably be inferred, from the general character of the religious speculations contained in it, that it had been written by a man to whom the Act of Toleration was the announcement of a new era, and who thought and felt upon those subjects as a contemporary of Locke would naturally think and feel.
We have already remarked that the charm of Crusoe's adventures is owing to the circumstance that they are described by a man who had, as he says,' undergone as great risk as a grenadier on a counterscarp, ' through a great part of his life, and who was by nature pre-eminently qualified to run such risks; and that, described by a man more dependent on society—by Fielding, for example—they would have been a series of awful calamities and miseries.
Taken as a whole, there is probably no book in the range of novel literature which would form an addition to the experience of its readers so nearly equivalent to that which it would have formed if it had been literally true. In so far as a novel is a poem, or a satire, or a play, or a depository for beauties, Robinson Crusoe has been surpassed again and again; but if a novel is properly and primarily a fictitious biography, and if we have fairly stated its general objects and effects, it is not only unsurpassed, but we may almost say unsurpassable.
It may perhaps be regretted that novels should form so large a part of the reading of young men, though it is doubtful whether in any case they are an unmixed evil. Those who idle over novels would, in their absence, idle over something else; those who are unnaturally excited by them would find a vent for that habit of mind elsewhere. But be they good or bad, useless or necessary, they circulate over the land in every possible form, and enter more or less into the education of almost every one who can read. They hold in solution a great deal of experience. It would therefore surely be a most useful thing to provide rules by which the experience might be precipitated, and to ascertain the processes by means of which the precipitate might be made fit for use. We are not so vain as to suppose that we have done much towards the accomplishment of such a task. We have done our best to point out the limits and directions of the instructions which are wanted.
Cambridge Essays, 1855.