Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Ring of Amasis

Review of:
The Ring of Amasis (by Owen Meredith, 1863).

The Ring of Amasis has a certain sort of resemblance to Sir E. Lytton's Strange Story, for it is based upon supernatural incidents, and is more or less garnished with something in the nature of metaphysics. Stripped of various flourishes, the story is, that one Count Edmond R— (it may save a little trouble to cut the hero's name down to an initial, but it does not make the book look more real) travelled in Egypt, and dug up a mummy which had an amethyst ring on its finger. The mummy was that of Amasis, and whilst Count R— was looking it over, a ghost in the shape of an Arab Sheikh came up, who took the ring off the mummy, put it on Count R—'s finger, and explained the inscription on it. The ghost, it appears, was one Sethos, who had been brother to Amasis, and had more or less murdered him, for there is some obscurity left on this part of the story. Why the name of Amasis should be chosen is not clear. The King of Egypt of that name described by Herodotus, instead of being murdered in his youth, governed Egypt for forty-four years; and his mummy, instead of being left to be dug up by a German Count, was dug up by Cambyses, who put it to the torture, However, after a time, “being tired,” says Herodotus, “because the body, being embalmed, resisted and was not destroyed, he ordered it to be burnt.” However this may be, Count R— goes home with his ling to his ancestral castle, where he and his brother are both in love with a ward of their mother's who had been brought up with them. It comes out through a variety of mystic intimations that the ring and the lady are to go together; and the ring being lost, Felix, the younger brother, finds it, and is engaged to the lady. Edmond, the elder, is almost heartbroken, but shows intense self-control, and pretends to be engaged to another woman, in order that his brother's marriage may be perfectly happy, for their rivalry had been suspected by all the three, although they were not quite aware of the nature of their own feelings. Edmond and Felix, however, being out in a boat, Felix falls overboard, and Edmond lets him drown when he might have saved him by giving him his hand. Hereupon he begins to be haunted by the hand and the ring of the drowned man, which continually prevent him from being killed when he wants to be killed in battles, and otherwise interfere in his affairs in a very unpleasant way. After two years, he persuades the young woman to marry him, , and , is specially vexed by seeing his brother's land instead of his own in hers at the ceremony. He commands his feelings at the moment, but on the first opportunity goes into a brain fever, in the course of which he lets out the secret before his wife, who never will forgive him for his crime. The German physician who is the nominal author of the book falls in with the Count and his implacable wife on several more or less picturesque occasions, and is at last, and after a deal of trouble, made acquainted with the mystery on which their relations are founded. As these mysterious meetings are put first, and as the story itself is introduced afterwards, in the form of journals delivered by the dying Count to his friendly physician, the story takes occasional fresh starts, and is made to run out its proper length.

Upon the whole, the tale is not a very bad one, though it is the sort of story which justifies its authoring interposing two aliases between himself and his performance. It is easy to understand the feeling which would lead him to ascribe it to a German physician and to call himself Owen Meredith. There is a certain sort of absurdity in the position of a grown-up man who sits down to flavour a mess of this kind with two Egyptian ghosts, an amethyst ring with a rigmarole in hieroglyphics about the Hand of Destiny inscribed upon it, and a variety of tricks performed by the hand of a murdered man. However, if a man has made up his mind to devote himself to this kind of writing, he must be taken at his own estimate. A little novel can hardly be of much importance, under any circumstances; but be its merits or failings what they may, it ought to be about human beings. Ghosts are, after all, very bad machinery. It is quite, impossible to believe in them, and the only effect of their introduction into a story, is to destroy the illusion which it ought to be the first object of the writer to produce. The main incident of the book, though rather old, is by no means wanting in tragic force. The contrast between the gay, light-hearted youth who wins the heroine's affections, and the stern, thoughtful philosopher who treacherously lets him die, and afterwards marries his mistress, is by no means ill-managed; but by leaving out the diablerie, and showing how, in the natural order of things, such a marriage would have been a source of endless and exquisite misery to the guilty person, the force of the story might have been much increased. A really powerful writer might make a great deal of the torture which would be endured by a man with a conscience, who had obtained a woman's affections and admiration by false pretences. The most cutting sarcasm, the most wearing ill-temper, would be more tolerable than fondness and confidence felt by the object of them to be given, not to him, but to his mask. To be incurably jealous of oneself would be the worst kind of jealousy, and the most horrible sustained torture that could well be inflicted on any one. Imagine the feelings of a man who had to be constantly saying to himself, “This woman's love would be the most precious of all possessions to me, but if she had the faintest notion of the way in which I put myself into a position to gain it, it would not only be withdrawn, but be changed into horror and loathing.” Any number of incidents might be contrived to set this sentiment in various lights, and to produce its gradual development. Something like this forms the main interest of Mrs. Gaskell's novel, Sylvia's Lovers. The ghosts only confuse such a sentiment. It is quite impossible to say how a man would feel who was haunted by an amethyst ring and a spiritual hand, constantly turning up whenever his affairs came to a crisis. His terrors would be almost exclusively physical, and his sufferings would lose all moral interest.

There is, of course, as there always is in ghost stories, a certain quantity of theory mixed up with the story. The author introduces an ingenious speculation about the cause of apparitions, which, as he hints in a note, was suggested by Mr. Lewes' Physiology of Common Life. The theory is that, as an outward act is produced by, and is, so to speak, the culminating point of, a set of thoughts, and as the act of seeing is made up of certain sensations and of the inferences which the mind unconsciously draws from them, so, by a sort of reverse action, the recollection of an act, especially if it is horrible and impressive, may assume the character of sensation, and may lead the mind to infer an external subject of sensation from the internal sensation itself. Thus, the murderer might come to be haunted by the bloody knife, the dead body, &c. There is a considerable degree of very queer logic about this, “A horrible sensation produces a horrible idea. The horrible idea reproduces a horrible sensation.” Of course, experience might show us that the fact is so, but, as the statement stands, it is like saying—The horse precedes the cart, and the cart in its turn precedes the horse; or, all Englishmen are men, and all men in their turn are Englishmen. As a general rule, ideas do not produce sensations—at least, not sensations of sight and hearing. They produce sensations of a totally dissimilar character; and it is by the difference between the sensations so produced and those produced by external objects that we know the difference between the external and the internal world. It wants no ghost or ghost story to tell us that people sometimes confound the two; but, with every respect to Owen Meredith, the probability is that Mr. Lewes meant to say something very different from that, and better worth saying.

The book has a certain quantity of moral as well as philosophical speculation. Edmond Count R—. is one of the stock characters of a certain class of novel-writers. He is the firm, self-contained philosopher, inclined by nature towards profound speculation and solitary brooding, capable of intense practical activity, a presumptuous sceptic, being a law to himself, and scorning all the common laws of morality and religion. In the latter part of the second yolume there is a long account of his scepticism and his faith. They are not very intelligible, particularly the faith:—
‘He had built up for himself an elaborate edifice of internal law suggested by and based upon the analogy of the visible organism of forces acting on external nature. In this system the relations of cause and effect were so close as to admit no place for passivity. Action only was considered capable of consequence. Causation could not exist in that which had no action. The thing that was not done was not at all. What effect could be attributed to that which itself had no existence?’
It further appears that this gentleman had “cautiously considered each active expression of his will,” and “scrupulously weighed every action of his life.” He thought that—
‘The sum of effects must be equal to the sum of causes, and as he thought that he could precisely predicate [?predict] the first if he carefully calculated the last, he assumed for certain that he could never be the slave of a passion.’
The reason was that passion, the effect, could not be greater than action, the cause. A good deal of charity is required in reviewing novels, and it is certainly right to exercise it when one asks whether a novelist may not possibly have imagined that he had some sort of meaning in his mind before he began fiddling with the words which he supposes to express what he meant; and in that view of the matter it may be o that Owen Meredith did mean to express something not absolutely absurd about his Count R—. But that any human creature out of a madhouse should really think what Count R— is said to have thought is barely conceivable. He thought, we are told, that he could not be the slave of passion, unless he had in the first instance acted in such a way as to produce the passion to which he was to be enslaved. He ought, in consistency, to have supposed that he could never have a toothache unless he had acted in such a way in the first instance as to get a bad tooth. Did any sane man, ever doubt that pleasure and pain are passions, or suppose that the capacity of feeling pleasure and pain depends on the active will of the person who feels them? What Owen Meredith meant to say was probably no more than that his hero was a proud man, and especially proud of his own powers of self-control, and that he counted too much upon his strength. Why not say so plainly? Perhaps one reason for choosing fine words on the occasion is to be found in the moral, or one of the morals, which our author is kind enough to draw. Edmond, we are told, “had overleaped those stages in a man's life which are perhaps perilous to traverse, but which cannot be left out nor avoided with impunity—that is, the Sturm und Drang period— the season of storms." This is followed by a couple of pages all about the “ardours of youth.” We learn that “in youth Desire can claim by right and title its natural and legitimate satisfaction.” . . . . “If at that time the breath of error should obscure with its light and fleeting cloud the clear mirror of the soul's purity, remorse at least is without bitterness, and even pain caresses where it wounds.” In plain words, if Edmond had been less moral as a lad, and put less restraint than he did on his relations with women, he would not have murdered his brother for the sake of marrying his bride. This is the plain English of Owen Meredith's jargon. It is very natural that a man who writes such things should like to himself Owen Meredith, and to put a sham German doctor between his pseudonym and his novel. He might have put himself still further from it by leaving it unwritten. This is, after all, the criticism which most novels suggest, and The Ring of Amasis is open to it like many of its betters.

Saturday Review, August 29, 1863.

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