Monday, January 9, 2017

The Revue des Deux Mondes on English romance

Burns’ prayer that we might be enabled to see ourselves as others see us, has been answered by the great modern diffusion of periodical literature to a very surprising extent. We receive from day to day, from week to week, from month to month, and from quarter to quarter, endless information as to what different people think of us. To say nothing of novels--the  principal aim of which may be described as that of giving brilliant exhibitions of almost every conceivable type of character, accompanied by the broadest hints as to the opinion which the writer entertains of them--writers of every calibre are constantly racking their ingenuity to discover points of national or individual character which they may take for the texts of direct special disquisition. An instance of this is afforded by an article in the last number of the Revue des Deux Mondes, in which a writer, who adopts the signature of Arthur Dudley, gives us a dissertation on “Anglo-Saxon Romance," suggested by a review of Mr. Charles Reade's novel, It’s never too Late to Mend, and Mr. Emerson's English Traits. The general purport of the article is that the two books which we have mentioned may be accepted as faithful accounts of the English—or rather, to use the author's own phrase, of the Anglo-Saxons—and that Mr. Reade, in particular, has succeeded in seizing and in portraying very happily the leading points in our national character. The writer is of opinion that the basis of this character is rightly indicated in these works as being a combination of great romance with immense force of will, and that its most characteristic sphere of action in the present day is to be found in colonization, and whatever is analogous to it. Love, we are told, is the great mainspring of all English conduct. To marry the woman he loves is the great object which every young Englishman proposes to himself. It is this which drives young Englishmen all over the world, and inclines them to undertake every sort of difficult and dangerous enterprise, and gives the nation that intense energy of will which distinguishes it from every other race in the world. Towards the end of the article, the author qualifies the romance of this theory by bringing us down to very prosaic considerations. If emigration ceased to be available for “les cadets de famille," we should have to give up the "law of primogeniture;" and that would involve the sacrifice of love-matches, which would degrade the national character and desire the force of the national will. It is curious to find that, after all, the rule in Shelley's case and Fearne on Contingent Reminders are the true basis of our national greatness.

The whole theory, from be inning to end, is an odd instance of that ingenious, moderate, an cultivated extravagance which is so common in the present day, and which the popularity of such writers as Mr. Emerson and Mr. Reade—and  they have much in common—has a strong tendency to produce. Every single member of the theory is a caricature of the most delusive nature. To begin at the beginning, why substitute the word “Anglo-Saxon" for “English?" It is a mere American vulgarism, and a very incorrect one. There neither is, nor ever was, such a race as the Anglo-Saxons. The Angles lived in one part of England, and the Saxons in another; they were mixed up with Celts, Danes, and Normans; and all these and some other tribes had been fused into a stock as completely national and individual as any race in the world, and radically distinct from any one of its component members, for full 500 years before there was a single English colony in North America. The Americans might as well call themselves Welsh, Scotchmen, or Yorkshiremen, as Anglo-Saxons ; and as there is no more difference between an Englishman and an Anglo-Saxon, in the modern and vulgar sense of the word, than there is between a Frenchman and a native of France, we infinitely prefer the older, the simpler, and the more honourable title. Passing from this common but somewhat offensive misnomer, can anything be more characteristic of the loose way in which people speculate in the present day about national character than the choice of two such writers as Mr. Reade and Mr. Emerson as guides on the subject? Mr. Emerson's English Traits is a mere set of oratorical commonplaces, such as American lecturers delight in, made to look striking by the artifice of turning them into direct assertions. Mr. Emerson had obviously filled his head with a conception of the regular stage Englishman—a man of immense will and vigour, full of quick feeling and animal spirits, a sort of incarnation of the lust of the eye and the pride of life. So completely had he taken up this notion, that he implies in different passages of his book that Englishmen either do or lately did habitually sell their wives, that we man our fleet by press-gangs, and that we still visit heretics with secular punishment. Having got his theory of England and the English, he coolly affirms that he derived it from his observations made during a visit to England, which, if we remember rightly, lasted only a few months. His book is mere words. It would take many years to collect the evidence necessary to prove a single page of it.

As for Mr. Reade’s novels, if there is one thing about them clearer than another, it is that they are written entirely on French models. The violent situations, the glaring colours, the short sentences, the swagger and the bombast are all imitations of M. Dumas. It is hard to understand the simplicity which can accept It's Never too late to Mend as a series of pictures of English men and women as they are. We will venture to say that not a single character nor a single transaction in the whole book can be accepted as a fair representation of English life. The most favourable account which can be given of it is that it is a clever and well-constructed but violent melodrama, always trembling upon the verge of absurdity, and not unfrequently falling over it. It closely resembles the Comte de Monte Cristo or the Trois Mousquetaires, and it would be just as absurd to draw general conclusions about the French character from the sayings and doings of Dantes, or Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, as to attach any importance to the proceedings of the many heroes of It's Never too late to Mend. It is, however, upon this foundation that the criticisms of the writer in the Revue des Deux Mondes principally repose, though their relation to them is rather that of a sermon to a text than that of a verdict to evidence. For example, Mr. Reade makes George Fielding, the farmer, emigrate to Australia with Mr. Winchester the young squire, because both of them are in love, and want to make money enough to marry; and M. Dudley remarks that nothing can be more “typical” than the way in which the young aristocrat and the farmer understand each other, or than the motive which acts upon each of them. We do not blame Mr. Reade for following the canons of his art. Of course, every one is in love in a novel, and all his actions flow from that fact. Of course, moreover, people make confidences to each other in such situations which they never make in real life. If they did not do so, how could the readers of the novel know what they were about? But it is surely the height of simplicity for a serious writer in a journal like the Revue des Deux Mondes to found upon such transparent literary artifices the strange conclusions to which we have referred. Can any reasonable person seriously maintain that the great bulk of the emigrants who have left this country for the colonies went there because they were in love? A large proportion of the early settlers went because they could not help it. Felony, and not love, was their ruling passion, and the Crown Courts had much more to do with their exodus than the law of primogeniture. Love is, indeed, referred to in the literature of the emigrants, but it is not in an exulting tone. The following was one of the most popular utterances of the early colonial muse:
‘My Curse rest on you, Justice Bailey,
And gentlemen of the jury also,
For transporting me from the arms of my Polly
For twenty long years, as you know.’
Even when we come to what one of the Governors called with exquisite, and, let us hope, unconscious irony, “the undetected part of the population," We shall find that they belonged, for the most part, to a class which has little to do with romance. The hundreds of thousands who left this country in 1847 and 1848 were mostly composed of starving Irishmen, who had loved not too wisely, but too well—as their enormous families and the potato famine conclusively proved. The Emigration Office had plenty of work in those days, but it was not, either as related to England or to Ireland, of a very romantic character. Many thousands of poor men and women went to Canada, or to Australia, not in order to marry, but in order to live. The next great tide of emigration set in with the gold discoveries; and there, again, there could be no possibility of mistake as to the motive which took people abroad. It was the combined action of the thirst for excitement and the thirst for rapid and doubtful gain. There were, no doubt, a considerable sprinkling of cadets de famille amongst this class of emigrants, but it would be absurd to suppose that any large number of them went abroad in order to return and marry at home. In every instance it was a daring, and for educate men it was generally a rash action to go to the gold diggings, but it would in almost every case have been more hair-brained folly for such a man to go there if he meant to come back rich enough to be married. In almost every case such a step would have been equivalent to breaking off an engagement, for it amounted simply to investing a man's whole property in buying a lottery-ticket at the antipodes, and going there to look after it. There is one kind of emigration which is confined to persons who may be called cadets de famille, and it is worth noticing that, in deciding upon it, the prospect of marriage has never in any instance any influence whatever. No one goes to India to marry. Till quite lately, the choice of the civil service as a profession had to be made at sixteen or seventeen, and the young civilian was on his way out before he was twenty.

No one, of course, either can deny, or would wish to deny, that the adoption of the principle that marriage ought to be based on mutual attachment, and not on money considerations, is a most important element in the English character, nor that it tends to enrich and fortify it; but instead of its being the basis of our national energy it is only one of its manifestations. No one would marry for money, instead of marrying for love, if he had confidence in his power of earning what money he wanted. It is the energy which causes the marriages, and not the marriages which cause the energy; and both the one and the other would survive, with perfect indifference, the repeal of that wonderful “law of primogeniture " which is in the singular position of being the palladium of all that we hold most dear, though it is not encumbered with the attribute of existence.

Even with respect to the energy of the English character, we must altogether repudiate Mr. Reade's evidence in favour of it. A man who writes a novel gives people strong characters, just as he gives them great muscular strength, but the one is just as unreal as the other. M. Dudley accepts all Mr. Reade's personages with a good faith which is astounding. He even goes so far as to assert that when Mr. Eden, the handsome and noble clergyman, writes letters full of the most elaborate unction and apostolic benignity to a pretty girl who is engaged to be married to a man in Australia, he is doing nothing but what is perfectly right and natural in an “Anglo-Saxon " point of view, and that such "holy friendships" are both common and honourable in England. “Tell it not to the fathers and brothers of England," as the Times observed to Mr. Greeley. If Susan's letters had been discovered by her father or mother, the “holy friendship" would have had to come to a very orthodox, or to a very abrupt conclusion upon the shortest possible notice. In his saintliness, as in his energy and his love, Mr. Reade is a sort of literary Jack Pudding. He makes English people do all sorts of surprising things, just as he made French people, elephants, and hyenas exaggerate what he conceived to be their natures. But the exaggeration only attracts by its extravagance--it conveys no notion of the truth. A person who had seen a picture of a giant as tall and black, as the song says, as Rouen steeple, would have no better notion of a tall man than his neighbours. Strength of character, like strength inferred from any number of novels. They are not the materials from which sound opinions can be formed as to the character of a great nation. Long personal experience and very wide reading is the only means of obtaining that knowledge, and, in point of fact, no one does possess it except in a very limited and partial manner.  No human creature can say what the English national character really is, any more than he can tell what the Atlantic Ocean looks like. If a man will look into himself, he will find that even in that microcosm there are mysteries enough to reduce him to helpless silence; and how is it possible that he should ever know what is the aggregate result of the twenty or thirty millions of inaccessible mysteries which collectively constitute the nation to which he belongs, except in their broadest and vaguest results?

Saturday Review, October 2, 1858.

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