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Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. A number of obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the end of this document.
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MODERN ENGLISH BOOKS OF POWER
BY GEORGE HAMLIN FITCH
"A GOOD BOOK IS THE PRECIOUS LIFE-BLOOD OF A MASTER SPIRIT, EMBALMED AND TREASURED UP ON PURPOSE TO A LIFE BEYOND LIFE." MILTON: AREOPAGITICA
BARSE & HOPKINS NEW YORK NEWARK N.Y. N.J.
Copyright, 1912 by BARSE & HOPKINS
The articles in this book appeared originally in the Sunday book-page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The privilege of reproducing them here is due to the courtesy of M.H. de Young, Esq.
TO AMERIQUE WHOSE LOVE AND ENCOURAGEMENT HELPED ME TO WRITE THIS BOOK
THE VITAL QUALITY IN LITERATURE xi
To Get the Spiritual Essence of a Great Book One Must Study the Man Who Wrote It—The Man Is the Best Epitome of His Message.
MACAULAY'S ESSAYS IN EUROPEAN HISTORY 3
Foremost English Essayist—His Style and Learning Have Made Macaulay a Favorite for Over a Half Century.
SCOTT AND HIS WAVERLEY NOVELS 11
Greatest Novelist the World Has Known—Made History Real and Created Characters That Will Never Die.
CARLYLE AS AN INSPIRER OF YOUTH 20
Finest English Prose Writer—His Best Books, Past and Present, Sartor Resartus and the French Revolution.
DE QUINCEY AS A MASTER OF STYLE 30
He Wrote the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater—Dreamed Dreams and Saw Visions and Pictured Them in Poetic Prose.
CHARLES LAMB AND THE ESSAYS OF ELIA 38
Best Beloved of All the English Writers—Quaintest and Tenderest Essayist Whose Work Appeals to All Hearts.
DICKENS, THE FOREMOST OF NOVELISTS 47
More Widely Read Than Any Other Story-Teller—The Greatest of the Modern Humorists Appeals to the Readers of All Ages and Classes.
THACKERAY, GREATEST MASTER OF FICTION 56
The Most Accomplished Writer of His Century—Tender Pathos Under an Affectation of Cynicism and Great Art in Style and Characters.
CHARLOTTE BRONTE; HER TWO GREAT NOVELS 66
Jane Eyre and Villette are Touched With Genius—The Tragedy of a Woman's Life That Resulted in Two Stories of Passionate Revolt Against Fate.
GEORGE ELIOT AND HER TWO GREAT NOVELS 76
Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss—Her Early Stories Are Rich in Character Sketches, With Much Humor and Pathos.
RUSKIN, THE APOSTLE OF ART 87
Art Critic and Social Reformer—Best Books Are Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps and The Stones of Venice.
TENNYSON LEADS THE VICTORIAN WRITERS 96
A Poet Who Voiced the Aspirations of His Age—Locksley Hall, In Memoriam and The Idylls of the King Among His Best Works.
BROWNING, GREATEST POET SINCE SHAKESPEARE 106
How to Get the Best of Browning's Poems—Read the Lyrics First and Then Take Up the Longer and the More Difficult Works.
MEREDITH AND A FEW OF HIS BEST NOVELS 115
One of the Greatest Masters of Fiction of the Last Century—The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Diana of the Crossways and Other Novels.
STEVENSON, PRINCE OF MODERN STORY-TELLERS 123
His Stories of Adventure and Brilliant Essays—Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde His Most Popular Books.
THOMAS HARDY; HIS TRAGIC TALES OF WESSEX 131
Greatest Living Writer of English Fiction—Resenting Harsh Criticisms, the Prose Master Turns to Verse.
KIPLING'S BEST SHORT STORIES AND POEMS 140
Tales of East Indian Life and Character—Ideal Training of the Genius That Has Produced Some of the Best Literary Work of Our Day.
Short Notes of Both Standard and Other Editions, With Lives, Sketches and Reminiscences.
Charles Dickens Reading The Chimes at 58 Lincoln's Inn Fields on the Second of December, 1844. From a Sketch by Daniel Maclise, R.A. Title
Thomas Babington Macaulay at the Age of Forty-nine—After an Engraving by W. Holl, from a Drawing by George Richmond, A.R.A. 6
Sir Walter Scott—This Portrait is taken from Chantrey's Bust now at Abbotsford, which, according to Lockhart, "Alone Preserves for Posterity the Expression most fondly Remembered by All who Ever Mingled in his Domestic Circle." 12
White Horse Inn—From an Illustration to Waverley, Drawn by G. Cattermole and Engraved by E. Finden 14
Thomas Carlyle—From the World-Famed Masterpiece of Portraiture by James McNeill Whistler 20
Archhouse, Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, the Birthplace of Thomas Carlyle—From a Photograph in the Possession of Alexander Carlyle, M.A., on which Carlyle has Written a Memorandum to Show in which Room he was Born 26
Thomas De Quincey—From an old Engraving 30
De Quincey with Two Daughters and Grandchild—From a Chalk Drawing by James Archer, R.S.A., made in 1855 34
Charles Lamb—From the Portrait by William Hazlitt 38
Mary and Charles Lamb—From the Painting by F.S. Cary made in 1834 44
Charles Dickens at the Age of Twenty-seven—From the Portrait by Daniel Maclise, R.A. 48
Original Pickwick Cover Issued in 1837 with Dickens' Autograph—Most of Dickens' Novels were Issued in Shilling Installments before being Published in the Complete Volume 52
William Makepeace Thackeray—From a Drawing by Samuel Laurence, Engraved by J.C. Armytage 56
Title-page to Vanity Fair, Drawn by Thackeray, who Furnished the Illustrations for Many of his Earlier Editions 58
William Makepeace Thackeray—A Caricature Drawn by Himself 62
Charlotte Bronte—From the Exquisitely Sympathetic Crayon Portrait by George Richmond, R.A., now in the National Portrait Gallery of London 66
Mrs. Gaskell—From the Portrait by George Richmond, R.A. Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Bronte is one of the Finest Biographies in the Language 72
George Eliot in 1864—From the Etching by Mr. Paul Rajon—Drawn by Mr. Frederick Burton—From the Frontispiece to the First Edition of George Eliot's Life, by Her Husband, J.W. Cross 76
George Eliot's Birthplace, South Farm, Arbury, Nuneaton 80
John Ruskin—From a Photograph Taken on July 20, 1882, by Messrs. Elliott & Fry 88
John Ruskin—From the Semi-Romantic Portrait by Sir John E. Millais 92
Lord Alfred Tennyson—After an Engraving by G.J. Stodart From a Photograph by J. Mayall 96
Facsimile of Tennyson's Original Manuscript of Crossing the Bar. (Copyright by the Macmillan Company) 100
Robert Browning—From a Photograph by Hollyer after the Portrait by G.F. Watts, R.A. 106
Elizabeth Barrett Browning—After the Portrait by Field Talfourd 110
George Meredith with His Daughter and Grandchildren—From a Photograph Taken Shortly Before His Death 118
Flint Cottage, Boxhill, the Home of George Meredith—His Writing was done in a Small Swiss Chalet in the Garden 120
Robert Louis Stevenson—The Author's Intimate Associates Pronounce this Photograph a Perfect Presentation of His Most Typical Expression 126
Stevenson's Home at Valima, Samoa, Looking Toward Vaea 128
Thomas Hardy—A Portrait Which Brings Out Strikingly the Man of Creative Power, the Artist, the Philosopher and the Poet 132
Rudyard Kipling—A Striking Likeness of the Author in a Characteristic Pose 140
Rudyard Kipling—From a Cartoon by W. Nicholson 144
My aim in this little book has been to give short sketches and estimates of the greatest modern English writers from Macaulay to Stevenson and Kipling. Omissions there are, but my effort has been to give the most characteristic writers a place and to try to stimulate the reader's interest in the man behind the book as well as in the best works of each author. Too much space is devoted in most literary criticism to the bare facts of biography and the details of essays or novels or histories written by authors. My plan has been to arouse interest both in the men and their books so that any reader of this volume may be stimulated to extend his knowledge of the modern English classics.
These chapters include the greatest English writers during the last one hundred and fifty years and they have been prepared mainly for those who have no thorough knowledge of modern English books or authors. They are of limited scope so that few quotations have been possible. But they have been written with an eager desire to help those who care to know the best works of modern English authors. In the same spirit the most appropriate illustrations have been secured and a helpful bibliography has been added. If this book helps readers to secure one lasting friend among these authors it will have done good missionary work; for to make the books of one man or woman of genius a part of our mental possessions is to be set on the broad highway to literary culture.
The Vital Quality in Literature
To Get the Spiritual Essence of a Great Book One Must Study the Man Who Wrote It—The Man Is the Best Epitome His Message.
In this volume as in its predecessor, "Comfort Found in Good Old Books," my aim has been to enforce the theory that behind every great book is a man, greater than the best book that he ever wrote. This strong spiritual quality which every one of the great authors puts into his best books is what we should strive to secure when we read these great classics. Unless we get this spiritual part we miss the essence of the book.
Hence it has been my aim in this volume to make clear what manner of men wrote these books which serve as the landmarks of modern English literature.
The scope of this book is limited, but from Macaulay to Kipling the effort has been to include those representative modern English authors who both in prose and verse best reflect the spiritual tendencies of their age. Whether essayists, historians, novelists or poets each of these writers has furnished something distinctive; each has caught some salient feature of his age and fixed it for all time in the amber of his thought.
And what a bead-roll is this of great English worthies: Macaulay, the most brilliant and learned of all English essayists; Scott, the finest story-teller of his own or any other age; Carlyle, the inspirer of ambitious youth; De Quincey, the greatest artist in style, whose words are as music to the sensitive ear; Dickens, the master painter of sorrows and joys of the common people; Thackeray, the best interpreter of human life and character; Charlotte Bronte, the brooding Celtic genius who laid bare the hearts of women; George Eliot, the greatest artist of her sex in mastery of human emotion; Ruskin, the first to teach the common people appreciation of art and architecture; Tennyson, the melodious singer who voiced the highest aspiration of his time; Browning, the greatest dramatic poet since Shakespeare; Charles Lamb, one of the tenderest of essayists; George Meredith, the most brilliant and suggestive novelist of the Victorian age; Stevenson, the best beloved and most artistic story-teller of his day; Hardy, the master painter of tragedies of rural life; and Kipling, the interpreter of Anglo-Indian life, the singer of the new age of science and discovery, the laureate of the gospel of blood and iron.
The work of each of these men and women who make up the splendid roll of English immortals varies in quality, in style, in capacity to touch the heart and inspire the thought of the reader of to-day. But great as are their differences, all meet on the common ground of a warm-hearted, sympathetic humanity that knows no distinctions of race or creed, no limitations of time or place. The splendid sermons on the gospel of work that Carlyle preached after long wrestlings of the spirit are as full of inspiration to the youth of to-day as they were when they came out from the mind of the man who actually lived the laborious life that he commended; the little lay discourses that may be found scattered through Thackeray's novels and essays are born of agony of spirit, and it is their spiritual power which keeps them fresh and full of inspiration in this age of doubt and materialism.
And so we might go down through the whole list. Each of these great writers had his Gethsemane, from which he emerged with the power of moving the hearts of men. So when we read that most beautiful essay of Lamb's on "Dream Children," our hearts ache for the lonely man who sacrificed the best things in life for the sake of the sister whom he loved better than his own happiness. And when we read Thackeray's eloquent words on family love we know that he wrote in his heart's blood, for the dearest woman in the world to him was lost forever in this world, when the light of her reason was clouded.
And so I have tried in these essays to show how bitter waters of sorrow have strengthened the spirit of all these masters of English thought and style, until they have poured out their hearts in eloquent words that can never die. Far across the gulf of years their sonorous voices reach our ears. Pregnant are they with the passionate earnestness of these men and women of genius, these bearers of the torch of spiritual inspiration passed from hand to hand down the centuries.
When our souls are moved by some great bereavement then the words of these inspired writers soothe our griefs. When we are beaten down in the dust of conflict they come with the refreshment of water from springs in the everlasting hills. When we are bitter over great losses or sore over hope deferred or stricken because friends have proved faithless, then they soften our hearts and give us courage to take up once more the battle of life.
MODERN ENGLISH BOOKS OF POWER
MACAULAY'S ESSAYS IN EUROPEAN HISTORY
THE FOREMOST ESSAYIST IN ENGLISH LITERATURE—HIS STYLE AND LEARNING HAVE MADE MACAULAY A FAVORITE FOR OVER A HALF CENTURY.
Macaulay belonged to the nineteenth century, as he was born in 1800, but in his cast of mind, in his literary tastes and in his intense partisanship he belonged to the century that includes Swift, Johnson and Goldsmith. He stands alone among famous English authors by reason of his prodigious memory, his wide reading, his oratorical style and his singular ascendancy over the minds of young students. The only writers of modern times who can be classed with him as great personal forces in the development of young minds are Carlyle and Emerson, and of the three Macaulay must be given first place because of a certain dynamic quality in the man and his style which forces conviction on the mind of the immature reader. The same thing to a less extent is true of Carlyle, who suffers in his influence as one grows older. Emerson is in a class by himself. His appeal is that of pure reason and of high enthusiasm—an appeal that never loses its force with those who love the intellectual life.
Many famous men have testified to the mental stimulus which they received from Macaulay's essays. Upon these essays, contributed to the EDINBURGH REVIEW in its prime, Macaulay lavished all the resources of his vast scholarship, his discursive reading in the ancient and modern classics, his immense enthusiasm and his strong desire to prove his case. He was a great advocate before he was a great writer, and he never loses sight of the jury of his readers. He blackens the shadows and heightens the lights in order to make heroes out of Clive and Warren Hastings; he hammers Boswell and Boswell's editor, Croker, over the sacred head of old Dr. Johnson; he lampoons every eminent Tory, as he idealizes every prominent Whig in English political history. Macaulay's style is declamatory; he wrote as though he were to deliver his essays from the rostrum; he abounds in antithesis; he works up your interest in the course of a long paragraph until he reaches his smashing climax, in which he fixes indelibly in your mind the impression which he desires to create. It is all like a great piece of legerdemain; your eyes cannot follow the processes, but your mind is amazed and then convinced by the triumphant proof of the conjuror's skill.
Macaulay had one of the most successful of lives. His early advantages were ample. He had a memory which made everything he read his own, ready to be drawn upon at a moment's notice. He was famous as an author at the early age of twenty-five; he was already a distinguished Parliamentary orator at thirty; at thirty-three he had gained a place in the East Indian Council. He never married, but he had an ideal domestic life in the home of his sister, and one of his nephews, George Otto Trevelyan, wrote his biography, one of the best in the language, which reveals the sweetness of nature that lay under the hard surface of Macaulay's character. He made a fortune out of his books, and in ten years' service in India he gained another fortune, with the leisure for wide reading, which he utilized in writing his history of England. He died at the height of his fame, before his great mental powers had shown any sign of decay. Take it all in all, his was a happy life, brimful of work and enjoyment.
Thomas Babington Macaulay was born October 25, 1800, the son of a wealthy merchant who was active in securing the abolition of the slave trade. His precocity is almost beyond belief. He read at three years of age, gave signs of his marvelous memory at four, and when only eight years old wrote a theological discourse. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at eighteen, but his aversion to mathematics cost him college honors. He showed at Cambridge great fondness for Latin declamation and for poetry. At twenty-four he became a fellow of Trinity. He studied law, but did not practice. Literature and politics absorbed his attention. At twenty-five he made his first hit with his essay on Milton in the EDINBURGH REVIEW.
This was followed in rapid succession by the series of essays on which his fame mainly rests. In 1830 he was elected to Parliament, and in the following year he established his reputation as an orator by a great speech on the reform bill. But financial reverses came when he lost the lucrative post of Commissioner in Bankruptcy and his fellowship at Trinity lapsed. To gain an income he accepted the position of secretary of the Board of Control of Indian Affairs, and soon after was offered a seat in the Supreme Council of India at Calcutta at $50,000 a year. He lived in India four years, and it was mainly in these years that he did the reading which afterward bore fruit in his History of England.
At thirty-nine Macaulay began his History of England, which continued to absorb most of his time for the next twenty years. While he was working on his history he published Lays of Ancient Rome, that had a success scarcely inferior to that of Scott's Lady of the Lake or Byron's Childe Harold. He also published his essays, which had a remarkable sale. His history, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1848, scored a success that astounded all the critics. When the third volume appeared in 1855, no less than twenty-six thousand, five hundred copies were sold in ten weeks, which broke all records of that day. Macaulay received royalties of over $150,000 on history, a sum which would have been trebled had he secured payment on editions issued in the United States, where his works were more popular than in his own country. His last years were crowded with honors. He accepted a peerage two years before his death. When the end came he was given a public funeral and a place in Westminster Abbey.
With Carlyle, Macaulay shares the honor of being the greatest of English essayists. While he cannot compare with Carlyle in insight into character and in splendor of imagination, he appeals to the wider audience because of his attractive style, his wealth of ornament and illustration and his great clearness. Carlyle's appeal is mainly to students, but Macaulay appeals to all classes of readers.
Macaulay's style has been imitated by many hands, but no one has ever worked such miracles as he wrought with apparent ease. In the first place, his learning was so much a part of his mind that he drew on its stores without effort. Scarcely a paragraph can be found in all his essays which is not packed with allusions, yet all seem to illustrate his subject so naturally that one never looks upon them as used to display his remarkable knowledge.
Macaulay is a master of all the literary arts. Especially does he love to use antithesis and to make his effects by violent contrasts. Add to this the art of skilful climax, clever alliteration, happy illustration and great narrative power and you have the chief features of Macaulay's style. The reader is carried along on this flood of oratorical style, and so great is the author's descriptive power that one actually beholds the scenes and the personages which he depicts.
Of all his essays Macaulay shows his great powers most conspicuously in those on Milton, Clive, Warren Hastings and Croker's edition of Boswell's Johnson. In these he is always the advocate laboring to convince his hearers; always the orator filled with that passion of enthusiasm which makes one accept his words for the time, just as one's mind is unconsciously swayed by the voice of an eloquent speaker. It is this intense earnestness, this fierce desire to convince, joined to this prodigal display of learning, which stamps Macaulay's words on the brain of the receptive reader. Only when in cold blood we analyze his essays do we escape from this literary hypnotism which he exerts upon every reader.
The essays of Macaulay are full of meat and all are worth reading, but, of course, every reader will differ in his estimate of them according to his own tastes and sympathies. It is fine practice to take one of these essays and look up the literary and historical allusions. No more attractive work than this can be set before a reading club. It will give rich returns in knowledge as well as in methods of literary study. Macaulay's History is not read to-day as it was twenty years ago, mainly because historical writing in these days has suffered a great change, due to the growth of religious and political toleration. Macaulay is a partisan and a bigot, but if one can discount much of his bias and bitterness it will be found profitable to read portions of this history. Macaulay's verse is not of a high order, but his Lays are full of poetic fire, and they appeal to a wider audience than more finished verse.
Of all the English writers of the last century Macaulay has preserved the strongest hold on the reading public, and whatever changes time may make in literary fashions, one may rest assured that Macaulay will always retain his grip on readers of English blood.
SCOTT AND HIS WAVERLEY NOVELS
THE GREATEST NOVELIST THE WORLD HAS KNOWN—HE MADE HISTORY REAL AND CREATED CHARACTERS THAT WILL NEVER DIE.
It is as difficult to sum up in a brief article the work and the influence of Sir Walter Scott as it is to make an estimate of Shakespeare, for Scott holds the same position in English prose fiction that Shakespeare holds in English poetry. In neither department is there any rival. In sheer creative force Scott stands head and shoulders above every other English novelist, and he has no superior among the novelists of any other nation. He has made Scotland and the Scotch people known to the world as Cervantes made Spain and the Spaniards a reality for all times.
But he did more than Cervantes, for his creative mind reached over the border into England and across the channel to France and Germany, and even to the Holy Land, and found there historical types which he made as real and as immortal as his own highland clansmen. His was the great creative brain of the nineteenth century, and his work has made the world his debtor. His work stimulated the best story teller of France and gave the world Monte Cristo and The Three Guardsmen. It fired the imaginations of a score of English historical novelists; it was the progenitor of Weyman's A Soldier of France and Conan Doyle's Micah Clarke and The White Company.
Scott's mind was Shakespearean in its capacity for creating characters of real flesh and blood; for making great historical personages as real and vital as our next-door neighbors, and for bursts of sustained story telling that carry the reader on for scores of pages without an instant's drop in interest. Only the supreme masters in creative art can accomplish these things. And the wonder of it is that Scott did all these things without effort and without any self-consciousness. We can not imagine Scott bragging about any of his books or his characters, as Balzac did about Eugenie Grandet and others of his French types. He was too big a man for any small vanities. But he was as human as Shakespeare in his love of money, his desire to gather his friends about him and his hearty enjoyment of good food and drink.
It has become the fashion among some of our hair-splitting critics to decry Scott because of his carelessness in literary style, his tendency to long introductions, and his fondness for description. These critics will tell you that Turgeneff and Tolstoi are greater literary artists than Scott, just as they tell you that Thackeray and Dickens do not deserve a place among the foremost of English novelists. This petty, finical criticism, which would measure everything by its own rigid rule of literary art, loses sight of the great primal fact that Scott created more real characters and told more good stories than any other novelist, and that his work will outlive that of all his detractors. It ignores the fact that Thackeray's wit, pathos, tenderness and knowledge of human nature make him immortal in spite of many defects. It forgets that Dickens' humor, joy of living and keen desire to help his fellow man will bring him thousands of readers after all the apostles of realism are buried under the dust of oblivion.
Scott had the ideal training for a great historical novelist. Yet his literary successes in verse and prose were the result of accident. It is needless here to review his life. The son of a mediocre Scotch lawyer, he inherited from his father his capacity for work and his passion for system and order. From his mother he drew his love of reading and his fondness for old tales of the Scotch border. Like so many famous writers, his early education was desultory, but he had the free run of a fine library, and when he was a mere schoolboy his reading of the best English classics had been wider and more thorough than that of his teachers.
Forced by boyish illness to live in the country, he early developed a great love for the Scotch ballads and the tales of the romantic past of his native land. These he gathered mainly by word of mouth. Later he was a diligent student and collector of all the old ballads. In this way his mind was steeped in historical lore, while by many walking tours through the highlands he came to know the common people as very few have ever known them.
Thus for forty years, while he was a working lawyer and a sheriff of his county, he was really laying up stores of material upon which he drew for his many novels. His literary tastes were first developed by study of German and by the translation of German ballads and plays. This practice led him to write The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and its success was responsible for Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake. But great as was his triumph in verse, he dropped the writing of poems when Byron's work eclipsed his own.
Then, in his forty-third year, he turned to prose and began with Waverley; that series of novels which is the greatest ever produced by one man. The success of his first story proved a great stimulus to his imagination, and for years he continued to produce these novels, three of which may be ranked as the best in English literature. The element of mystery in regard to the authorship added to Scott's literary success. It was his habit to crowd his literary work into the early hours from four to eight o'clock in the morning; the remainder of the day was given up to legal duties and the evening to society. His tremendous energy and his power of concentration made these four hours equal to an ordinary man's working day. His mind was so full of material that the labor was mainly that of selection. Creative work, when once seated at his desk, was as natural as breathing. Scott came to his desk with the zest of a boy starting on a holiday, and this pleasure is reflected in the ease and spontaneity of his stories.
But much as he liked his literary work, Scott would not have produced so great a number of fine novels had he not been impelled by the desire to retrieve large money losses. His old school friend, Ballantyne, forced into bankruptcy the printing firm in which Scott was a secret partner. The novelist was not morally responsible for these debts, but his keen sense of honor made him accept all the responsibility, and it drove him to that unceasing work which shortened his life. He paid off nearly all the great debt, and he gave in this task an example of high courage and power of work that has never been surpassed and seldom equaled. You may read the record of those last years in Lockhart's fine Life of Scott. Get the one volume edition, for the full work is too long for these busy days, and follow the old author in his heroic struggle. It will bring tears to your eyes, but it will make you a lover of Scott, the man, who was as great as Scott, the poet and novelist.
Ruskin, when he was making up a list of great authors, put opposite Scott's name, "Every line." That bit of advice cannot be followed in these strenuous times, but one must make a selection of the best, and then, if he have time and inclination, add to this number. To my mind, the four great novels of Scott are Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, The Talisman and The Heart of Midlothian. The first gives you feudal England as no one else has painted it, with a picture of Richard the Lion-Hearted which no historian has ever approached. It contains some of the most thrilling scenes in all fiction.
James Payn, who was a very clever novelist, relates the story that he and two literary friends agreed to name the scene in all fiction that they regarded as the most dramatic. When they came to compare notes they found that all three had chosen the same—the entry of the unknown knight at Ashby de la Zouch, who passes by the tents of the other contestants and strikes with a resounding clash the shield of the haughty Templar. This romance also contains one of Scott's finest women, the Jewess Rebecca, who atones for the novelist's many insipid female characters. Scott was much like Stevenson—he preferred to draw men, and he was happiest when in the clash of arms or about to undertake a desperate adventure.
Quentin Durward is memorable for its splendid picture of Louis XI, one of the ablest as well as one of the meanest men who ever sat on a throne. The early chapters of this novel, which describe the adventures of the young Scotch soldier at the court of France, have never been surpassed in romantic interest. The Talisman gives the glory and the romance of the Crusades as no other imaginative work has done. It stands in a class by itself and is only approached by Scott's last novel, Count Robert of Paris, which gives flashes of the same spirit.
Of the Scotch novels it is difficult to make a choice, but it seems to me The Heart of Midlothian has the widest appeal, although many would cast their votes for Old Mortality, The Antiquary or Rob Roy because of the rich humor of those romances. Scott's dialect, although true to nature, is not difficult, as he did not consider it necessary to give all the colloquial terms, like the modern "kailyard" writers.
If you read three or four of Scott's novels you are pretty apt to read more. It is an easy matter to skip the prolix passages and the unnecessary introductions. This done, you have a body of romance that is far richer than any present-day fiction. And their great merit is that, though written in a coarse age, the Waverley novels are sweet and wholesome. One misses a great source of enjoyment and culture who fails to read the best of Scott's novels. Take them all in all, they are the finest fiction that has ever been written, and their continued popularity, despite their many faults, is the best proof of their sterling merit.
CARLYLE AS AN INSPIRER OF YOUTH
THE FINEST ENGLISH PROSE WRITER OF THE LAST CENTURY—HIS BEST BOOKS, "PAST AND PRESENT," "SARTOR RESARTUS" AND THE "FRENCH REVOLUTION."
As an influence in stimulating school and college students, Macaulay must be given a foremost place, but greater than Macaulay, because of his spiritual fervor and his moral force, stands Thomas Carlyle, the great prophet and preacher of the nineteenth century, whose influence will outlast that of all other writers of his time. And this spiritual potency, which resides in his best work, is not weakened by his love of the Strong Man in History or his fear of the rising tide of popular democracy, in which he saw a dreadful repetition of the horrors of the French Revolution. It was the Puritan element in his granite character which gave most of the flaming spiritual ardor to Carlyle's work. It was this which made him the greatest preacher of his day, although he had left behind him all the old articles of faith for which his forefathers went cheerfully to death on many a bloody field.
Carlyle believed a strong religious faith was vital to any real and lasting work in this world, and from the day he gave out Sartor Resartus he preached this doctrine in all his books. He was born into a generation that was content to accept the forms of religion, so long as it could enjoy the good things of this world, and much of Carlyle's speech sounded to the people of his day like the warnings of the prophet Isaiah to the Israelites of old. But Carlyle was never daunted by lack of appreciation or by any ridicule or abuse. These only made him more confident in his belief that the spiritual life is the greatest thing in this world. And he actually lived the life that he preached.
For years Carlyle failed to make enough to support himself and his wife, yet he refused a large income, offered by the LONDON TIMES for editorial work, on the ground that he could not write to order nor bend his opinions to those of others. He put behind him the temptation to take advantage of great fame when it suddenly came to him. When publishers were eager for his work he spent the same time in preparing his books as when he was poor and unsought. He labored at the smallest task to give the best that was in him; he wrote much of his work in his heart's blood. Hence it is that through all of his books, but especially through Past and Present and Heroes and Hero Worship, one feels the strong beat of the heart of this great man, who yearned to make others follow the spiritual life that he had found so full of strength and comfort.
Carlyle's life was largely one of work and self-denial. He was born of poor parents at the little village of Ecclefechan, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. His father, though an uneducated stone-mason, was a man of great mental force and originality, while his mother was a woman of fine imagination, with a large gift of story telling. The boy received the groundwork of a good education and then walked eighty miles to Edinburgh University. Born in 1795, Carlyle went to Edinburgh in 1809. His painful economy at college laid the foundation of the dyspepsia which troubled him all his days, hampered his work and made him take a gloomy view of life. At Edinburgh he made a specialty of mathematics and German. He remained at the university five years.
The next fifteen years were spent in tutoring, hack writing for the publishers and translation from the German. His first remunerative work was the translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, a version which still remains the best in English. After his marriage to Jane Welsh he was driven by poverty to take refuge on his wife's lonely farm at Craigenputtock, where he did much reading and wrote the early essays which contain some of his best work. The EDINBURGH REVIEW and FRASER'S were opened to him.
Finally, in 1833, when he was nearly forty years old, he made his first literary hit with Sartor Resartus which called out a storm of caustic criticism. The Germanic style, the elephantine humor, the strange conceits and the sledge-hammer blows at all which the smug English public regarded with reverence—all these features aroused irritation. Four years later came The French Revolution, which established Carlyle's fame as one of the greatest of English writers. From this time on he was freed from the fear of poverty, but it was only in his last years, when he needed little, that he enjoyed an income worthy of his labors.
Carlyle's great books, beside those I have mentioned, are the lives of Cromwell and of Frederick the Great. These are too long for general reading, but a single volume condensation of the Frederick gives a good idea of Carlyle's method of combining biography and history. Carlyle outlived all his contemporaries—a lonely old man, full of bitter remorse over imaginary neglect of his wife, and full also of despair over the democratic tendencies of the age, which he regarded as the outward signs of national degeneracy.
Carlyle's fame was clouded thirty years ago by the unwise publication of reminiscences and letters which he never intended for print. Froude was chosen as his biographer. One of the great masters of English, Froude was a bachelor who idealized Mrs. Carlyle and who regarded as the simple truth an old man's bitter regrets over opportunities neglected to make his wife happier. Everyone who has studied Carlyle's life knows that he was dogmatic, dyspeptic, irritable, and given to sharp speech even against those he loved the best. But over against these failings must be placed his tenderness, his unfaltering affection, his self-denial, his tremendous labors, his small rewards.
When separated from his wife Carlyle wrote her letters that are like those of a young lover, an infinite tenderness in every line. One of her great crosses was the belief that her husband was in love with the brilliant Lady Ashburton. Her jealousy was absurd, as this great lady invited Carlyle to her dinners because he was the most brilliant talker in all England, and he accepted because the opportunity to indulge in monologue to appreciative hearers was a keener pleasure to him than to write eloquent warnings to his day and generation. Froude's unhappy book, with a small library of commentary that it called forth, is practically forgotten, but Carlyle's fame and his books endure because they are real and not founded on illusion.
Carlyle opens a new world to the college student or the ambitious youth who may be gaining an education by his own efforts. He sounds a note that is found in no other author of our time. Doubtless some of this attraction is due to his singular style, formed on a long study of the German, but most of it is due to the tremendous earnestness of the man, which lays hold of the young reader. Never shall I forget when in college preparatory days I devoured Past and Present and was stirred to extra effort by its trumpet calls that work is worship and that the night soon cometh when no man can work.
His fine chapter on Labor with its splendid version of the Mason's Song of Goethe has stimulated thousands to take up heavy burdens and go on with the struggle for that culture of the mind and the soul which is the more precious the harder the fight to secure it. I remember copying in a commonplace book some of Carlyle's sonorous passages that stir the blood of the young like a bugle call to arms. Reading them over years after, I am glad to say that they still appealed to me, for it seems to me that the saddest thing in this world is to lose one's youthful enthusiasms. When you can keep these fresh and strong, after years of contact with a selfish world, age cannot touch you.
In this appeal to all that is best and noblest in youth, Carlyle stands unrivaled. He has far more heart, force and real warm blood than Emerson, who saw just as clearly, but who could not make his thought reach the reader. A course in Carlyle should be compulsory in the freshman year at every college. If the lecturer were a man still full of his early enthusiasms it could not fail to have rich results. Take, for instance, those two chapters in Past and Present that are entitled "Happy" and "Labor." In a dozen pages are summed up all Carlyle's creed. In these pages he declares that the only enduring happiness is found in good, honest work, done with all a man's heart and soul. And after caustic words on the modern craving for happiness he ends a noble diatribe with these words, which are worth framing and hanging on the wall, where they may be studied day by day:
Brief brawling Day, with its noisy phantasms, its poor paper-crown's tinsel-gilt, is gone; and divine everlasting Night, with her star-diadems, with her silences and her veracities, is come! What hast thou done, and how? Happiness, unhappiness; all that was but wages thou hadst; thou hast spent all that, in sustaining thyself hitherward; not a coin of it remains with thee; it is all spent, eaten; and now thy work, where is thy work? Swift, out with it; let us see thy work!
Sartor Resartus is very hard reading, but if you make up your mind to go through it you will be repaid by many fine thoughts and many noble passages of impassioned prose. Under the guise of Herr Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, Carlyle tells the story of his early religious doubts, his painful struggles that recall Bunyan's wrestlings with despair, and his final entry upon a new spiritual life. He wrote to let others know how he had emerged from the Valley of the Shadow of Pessimism into the delectable Mountains of Faith. Carlyle was the first of his day to proclaim the great truth that the spiritual life is far more important than the material life, and this he showed by the humorous philosophy of clothes, which he unfolded in the style of the German pedants. Carlyle evidently took great pleasure in developing this satire on German philosophy, which is full of broad humor.
The French Revolution has been aptly called "history by lightning flashes." One needs to have a good general idea of the period before reading Carlyle's work. Then he can enjoy this series of splendid pictures of the upheaval of the nether world and the strange moral monsters that sated their lust for blood and power in those evil days, which witnessed the terrible payment of debts of selfish monarchy. Carlyle reaches the height of his power in this book, which may be read many times with profit.
The sources of Carlyle's strength as a writer are his moral and spiritual fervor and his power of making the reader see what he sees. The first insures him enduring fame, as it makes what he wrote eighty years ago as fresh and as full of fine stimulus as though it were written yesterday. The other faculty was born in him. He had an eye for pictures; he described what he saw down to the minutest detail; he made the men of the French Revolution as real as the people he met on his tour of Ireland. He made Cromwell and Frederick men of blood and iron, not mere historical lay figures. And over all he cast the glamour of his own indomitable spirit, which makes life look good even to the man who feels the pinch of poverty and whose outlook is dreary. You can't keep down the boy who makes Carlyle his daily companion; he will rise by very force of fighting spirit of this dour old Scotchman.
DE QUINCEY AS A MASTER OF STYLE
HE WROTE "CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER"—DREAMED DREAMS AND SAW VISIONS AND PICTURED THEM IN POETIC PROSE.
Of all the English writers Thomas De Quincey must be given the palm for rhythmical prose. He is as stately as Milton, with more than Milton's command of rhythm. If you read aloud his best passages, which are written in what he calls his bravura style, you have a near approach to the music of the organ. De Quincey was so nice a judge of words, he knew so well how to balance his periods, that one of his sentences gives to the appreciative ear the same delight as a stanza of perfect verse.
Ruskin had much of De Quincey's command of impassioned prose, but he never rose to the same sustained heights as the older author. In fact, De Quincey stands alone in these traits: the mass and accuracy of his accumulated knowledge; the power of making the finest distinctions clear to any reader, and the gorgeous style, thick with the embroidery of poetical figures, yet never giving the impression of over-adornment. And above all these merits is the supreme charm of melodious, rhythmical sentences, which give the same enjoyment as fine music.
Forty years ago De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was read by everyone who professed any knowledge of the masters of English literature. To-day it is voted old-fashioned, and few are familiar with its splendid imagery. His other works, which fill over a dozen volumes, are practically forgotten, mainly because his style is very diffuse and his constant digressions weary the reader who has small leisure for books.
No one, however, should miss reading the Confessions, the Autobiography and some one essay, such, for instance, as "Murder as One of the Fine Arts," or "The Flight of a Tartar Tribe," or "The Vision of Sudden Death" in An English Mail Coach. All these contain passages of the greatest beauty buried in prolix descriptions. The reader must be warned not to drop De Quincey because of his digressions. With a little practice you may skip those which do not appeal to you, and there is ample sweetness at the heart of his work to repay one for removing a large amount of husk.
De Quincey has always impressed me as a fine example of the defects of the English school and college training. Although he could write and speak Greek fluently at thirteen, and although he had equally perfect command of Latin and German, he was absolutely untrained in the use of his knowledge and he knew no more about real life when he came out of college than the average American boy of ten. With a splendid scholarly equipment at seventeen, when thrown upon his own resources in London, he came to the verge of starvation, and laid the seeds of disease of the stomach, which afterward drove him to the use of opium.
All his training was purely theoretical; in the practical affairs of life he remained to the day of his death a mere child. As he says in his Confessions, he could have earned a good living as a corrector of Greek proofs in any big London publishing house, but it never occurred to his schoolboy mind that his mastery of this difficult classical language was of any practical value. In our day De Quincey would have been the greatest magazinist of the age, because his best work was in the short essay; but it is to be feared that the publishers of his time fattened on the good things which he produced and gave small sums to the man who turned out these masterpieces with so little effort.
De Quincey was born in 1785 and died in 1859. His life was peculiar and its facts became very well known even in his own time because in his Autobiography and his Confessions he disclosed its details with the frankness of a child. These works are surcharged with some exaggeration, but in the main they ring true. As precocious as Macaulay, he had much of that author's fondness for books, and when he first went to public school at eleven years of age he had read as much as most men when they take a college degree. His mind absorbed languages without effort. At fifteen he could write Greek verse, and his tutor once remarked, "That boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one."
He lost his father at the age of seven, and his mother seems to have given little personal attention to him. He was in nominal charge of four guardians, and at seventeen, when his health had been seriously reduced by lack of exercise and overdosing of medicines, the sensitive boy ran away from the Manchester Grammar school and wandered for several months in Wales. He was allowed a pound a week by one of his guardians, and he made shift with this for months; but finally the hunger for books, which he had no money to buy, sent him to London. There he undertook to get advances from money-lenders on his expectations. This would have been easy, as he was left a substantial income in his father's will, but these Shylocks kept the boy waiting.
In his Confessions he tells of his sufferings from want of food, of his nights in an unfurnished house in Soho with a little girl who was the "slavey" of a disreputable lawyer, of his wanderings in the streets, of the saving of his life by an outcast woman whom he has immortalized in the most eloquent passages of the book. Finally, he was restored to his friends and went to Oxford. His mental independence prevented him from taking a degree, and chronic neuralgia of the face and teeth led him to form the habit of taking opium, which clung to him for life.
De Quincey was a close associate of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb and others. He was a brilliant talker, especially when stimulated with opium, but he was incapable of sustained intellectual work. Hence all his essays and other work first appeared in periodicals and were then published in book form. It is noteworthy that an American publisher was the first to gather his essays in book form, and that his first appreciation, like that of Carlyle, came from this country.
Much of De Quincey's work is now unreadable because it deals with political economy and allied subjects, in which he fancied he was an expert. He is a master only when he deals with pure literature, but he has a large vein of satiric humor that found its best expression in the grotesque irony of "Murder as One of the Fine Arts." In this essay he descants on the greatest crime as though it were an accomplishment, and his freakish wit makes this paper as enjoyable as Charles Lamb's essay on the origin of roast pig.
De Quincey's fame, however, rests upon The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. This is a record unique in English literature. It tells in De Quincey's usual style, with many tedious digressions, the story of his neglected boyhood, his revolt at school discipline and monotony that had shattered his health, his wanderings in Wales, his life as a common vagrant in London, his college life, his introduction to opium and the dreams that came with indulgence in the drug. The gorgeous beauty of De Quincey's pictures of these opium visions has probably induced many susceptible readers to make a trial of the drug, with deep disappointment as the result. No common mind can hope to have such visions as De Quincey records.
His imagination has well been called Druidic; it played about the great facts and personages of history and it invested these with a background of the most solemn and imposing natural features. These dreams came to have with him the very semblance of reality. Read the terrible passages in the Confessions in which the Malay figures; read the dream fugues in "Suspira," the visions seen by the boy when he looked on his dead sister's face, or the noble passages that picture the three Ladies of Sorrow. Here is a passage on the vision of eternity at his sister's death bier, which gives a good idea of De Quincey's style:
Whilst I stood, a solemn wind began to blow—the saddest that ear ever heard. It was a wind that might have swept the fields of mortality for a thousand centuries. Many times since upon summer days, when the sun is about the hottest, I have remarked the same wind arising and uttering the same hollow, solemn, Memnonian, but saintly swell; it is in this world the one great audible symbol of eternity.
It is a great temptation to quote some of De Quincey's fine passages, but most of them are so interwoven with the context that the most eloquent bits cannot be taken out without the loss of their beauty. De Quincey was a dreamer before he became a slave to opium. This drug intensified a natural tendency until he became a visionary without an equal in English literature. And these visions, evoked by his splendid imagination, are worth reading in these days as an antidote to the materialism of present-day life; they demonstrate the power of the spiritual life, which is the potent and abiding force in all literature.
CHARLES LAMB AND THE ESSAYS OF ELIA
THE BEST BELOVED OF ALL THE ENGLISH WRITERS—QUAINTEST AND TENDEREST ESSAYIST WHOSE WORK APPEALS TO ALL HEARTS.
Of all the English writers of the last century none is so well beloved as Charles Lamb. Thirty years ago his Essays of Elia was a book which every one with any claim to culture had not only read, but read many times. It was the traveling companion and the familiar friend, the unfailing resource in periods of depression, the comforter in time of trouble. It touched many experiences of life, and it ranged from sunny, spontaneous humor to that pathos which is too deep for tears. Into it Lamb put all that was rarest and best in his nature, all that he had gleaned from a life of self-sacrifice and spiritual culture.
Such men as he were rare in his day, and not understood by the literary men of harder nature who criticised his peculiarities and failed to appreciate the delicacy of his genius. Only one such has appeared in our time—he who has given us a look into his heart in A Window in Thrums and in that beautiful tribute to his mother, Margaret Ogilvie. Barrie, in his insight into the mind of a child and in his freakish fancy that seems brought over from the world of fairyland to lend its glamour to prosaic life, is the only successor to Lamb.
Lamb can endure this neglect, for were he able to revisit this earth no one would touch more whimsically than he upon the fads and the foibles of contemporary life; but it's a great pity that in the popular craze about the new writers, all redolent with the varnish of novelty, we should consign to the dust of unused shelves the works of Charles Lamb. All that he wrote which the world remembers is in Elia and his many letters—those incomparable epistles in which he quizzed his friends and revealed the tenderness of his nature and the delicacy of his fancy.
Robert Louis Stevenson is justly regarded as the greatest essayist of our time, but I would not exchange the Essays of Elia for the best things of the author of Virginibus Puerisque. Stevenson always, except in his familiar early letters, suggests the literary artist who has revised his first draft, with an eye fixed on the world of readers who will follow him when he is gone. But Lamb always wrote with that charming spontaneous grace that comes from a mind saturated with the best reading and mellow with much thought. You fancy him jotting down his thoughts, with his quizzical smile at the effect of his quips and cranks. You cannot figure him as laboriously searching for the right word or painfully recasting the same sentence many times until he reached the form which suited his finical taste. This was Stevenson's method, and it leaves much of his work with the smell of the lamp upon it. Lamb apparently wrote for the mere pleasure of putting his thoughts in form, just as he talked when his stammering tongue had been eased with a little good old wine.
It is idle to expect another Lamb in our strenuous modern life, so we should make the most of this quaint Englishman of the early part of the last century, who seemed to bring over into an artificial age all the dewy freshness of fancy of the old Elizabethan worthies. Can anything be more perfect in its pathos than his essay on "Dream Children," the tender fancy of a bachelor whom hard fate robbed of the domestic joys that would have made life beautiful for him? Can anything be more full of fun than his "Dissertation on Roast Pig," or his "Mrs. Battle's Opinion on Whist"? His style fitted his thought like a glove; about it is the aroma of an earlier age when men and women opened their hearts like children. Lamb lays a spell upon us such as no other writer can work; he plays upon the strings of our hearts, now surprising us into wholesome laughter, now melting us to tears. You may know his essays by heart, but you can't define their elusive charm.
Lamb had one of the saddest of lives, yet he remained sweet and wholesome through trials that would have embittered a nature less fine and noble. He came of poor people and he and his sister Mary inherited from their mother a strain of mental unsoundness. Lamb spent seven years in Christ's Hospital as a "Blue Coat" boy, and the chief result, aside from the foundations of a good classical scholarship, was a friendship for Coleridge which endured through life. From this school he was forced to go into a clerkship in the South Sea house, but after three years he secured a desk in the East India house, where he remained for thirty years.
Four years later his first great sorrow fell upon Lamb. His sister Mary suddenly developed insanity, attacked a maid servant, and when the mother interfered the insane girl fatally wounded her with a knife. In this crisis Lamb showed the fineness of his nature. Instead of permitting poor Mary to be consigned to a public insane asylum, he gave bonds that he would care for her, and he did care for her during the remainder of her life. Although in love with a girl, he resolutely put aside all thoughts of marriage and domestic happiness and devoted himself to his unfortunate sister, who in her lucid periods repaid his devotion with the tenderest affection.
Lamb's letters to Coleridge in those trying days are among the most pathetic in the language. To Coleridge he turned for stimulus in his reading and study, and he never failed to get help and comfort from this great, ill-balanced man of genius. Later he began a correspondence with Southey, in which he betrayed much humor and great fancy. In his leisure he saturated his mind with the Elizabethan poets and dramatists; practically he lived in the sixteenth century, for his only real life was a student's dream life. He contributed to the London newspapers, but his first published work to score any success was his Tales From Shakespeare, in which his sister aided him. Then followed Poets Contemporary With Shakespeare, selections with critical comment, which at once gave Lamb rank among the best critics of his time. He wrote, when the mood seized him, recollections of his youth, essays and criticisms which he afterward issued in two volumes.
Twenty-five essays that he contributed to the LONDON MAGAZINE over the signature of Elia were reprinted in a book, the Essays of Elia, and established Lamb's reputation as one of the great masters of English. Another volume of Essays of Elia was published in 1833. In 1834 Lamb sorrowed over the death of Coleridge, and in November of the same year death came to him. Of all English critics Carlyle is the only one who had hard words for Lamb, and the Sage of Chelsea probably wrote his scornful comment because of some playful jest of Elia.
Charles Lamb's taste was for the writers of the Elizabethan age, and even in his time he found that this taste had become old-fashioned. He complained, when only twenty-one years old, in a letter to Coleridge, that all his friends "read nothing but reviews and new books." His letters, like his essays, reflect the reading of little-known books; they show abundant traces of his loiterings in the byways of literature.
Here there is space only to dwell on some of the best of the Essays of Elia. In these we find the most pathetic deal with the sufferings of children. Lamb himself had known loneliness and suffering and lack of appreciation when a boy in the great Blue Coat School. Far more vividly than Dickens he brings before us his neglected childhood and all that it represented in lonely helplessness. Then he deals with later things, with his love of old books, his passion for the play, his delight in London and its various aspects, his joy in all strange characters like the old benchers of the Inner Temple.
The essay opens with that alluring picture of the South Sea house, and is followed by the reminiscences of Christ's Hospital, where Lamb was a schoolboy for seven years. These show one side of Lamb's nature—the quaintly reminiscent. Another side is revealed in "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist," with its delicate irony and its playful humor, while still another phase is seen in the exquisite phantasy of "Dream Children," with its tender pathos and its revelation of a heart that never knew the joys of domestic love and care. Yet close after this beautiful reverie comes "A Dissertation On Roast Pig," in which Lamb develops the theory that the Chinese first discovered the virtues of roast suckling pig after a fire which destroyed the house of Ho-ti, and that with the fatuousness of the race they regularly burned down their houses to enjoy this succulent delicacy.
The Last Essays of Elia, a second series which Lamb brought out with a curious preface "by a friend of the late Elia," do not differ from the earlier series, save that they are shorter and are more devoted to literary themes. Perfect in its pathos is "The Superannuated Man," while "The Child Angel" is a dream which appeals to the reader more than any of the splendid dreams that De Quincey immortalized in his florid prose. Lamb in these essays gives some wise counsel on books and reading, urging with a whimsical earnestness the claims of the good old books which had been his comfort in many dark hours. It is in such confidences that we come very close to this man, so richly endowed with all endearing qualities that the world will never forget Elia and his exquisite essays.
DICKENS THE FOREMOST OF NOVELISTS
MORE WIDELY READ THAN ANY OTHER STORY TELLER—THE GREATEST OF THE MODERN HUMORISTS APPEALS TO THE READERS OF ALL AGES AND CLASSES.
Charles Dickens is the greatest English novelist since Scott, and he and Scott, to my mind, are the greatest English writers after Shakespeare. Many will dissent from this, but my reason for giving him this foremost place among the modern writers is the range, the variety, the dramatic power, the humor and the pathos of his work. He was a great caricaturist rather than a great artist, but he was supreme in his class, and his grotesque characters have enough in them of human nature to make them accepted as real people.
To him belongs the first place among novelists, after Scott, because of his splendid creative imagination, which has peopled the world of fiction with scores of fine characters. His genial humor which has brightened life for so many thousands of readers; his tender pathos which brings tears to the eyes of those who seldom weep over imaginary or even real grief or pain; his rollicking gayety which makes one enjoy good food and good drink in his tales almost as much as if one really shared in those feasts he was so fond of describing; his keen sympathy with the poor and the suffering; his flaming anger against injustice and cruelty that resulted in so many great public reforms; his descriptive power that makes the reader actually see everything that he depicts—all these traits of Dickens' genius go to make him the unquestioned leader of our modern story tellers. Without his humor and his pathos he would still stand far above all others of his day; with these qualities, which make every story he ever wrote throb with genuine human feeling, he stands in a class by himself.
Many literary critics have spent much labor in comparing Dickens with Thackeray, but there seems to me no basis for such comparison. One was a great caricaturist who wrote for the common people and brought tears or laughter at will from the kitchen maid as freely as from the great lady; from the little child with no knowledge of the world as readily as from the mature reader who has known wrong, sorrow and suffering. The other was the supreme literary artist of modern times, a gentleman by instinct and training, who wrote for a limited class of readers, and who could not, because of nature and temperament, touch at will the springs of laughter and tears as Dickens did. Dickens has created a score of characters that are household words to one that Thackeray has given us.
Both were men of the rarest genius, English to the core, but each expressed his genius in his own way, and the way of Dickens touched a thousand hearts where Thackeray touched but one. Personally, Thackeray appeals to me far more than Dickens does, but it is foolish to permit one's own fancies to blind or warp his critical judgments. Hence I set Dickens at the head of modern novelists and give him an equal place with Scott as the greatest English writer since Shakespeare.
Take it all in all, Dickens had a successful and a happy life. He was born in 1812 and died in 1870. His boyhood was hard because of his father's thriftlessness, and it always rankled in his memory that at nine years of age he was placed at work pasting labels on boxes of shoe blacking. But he had many chances in childhood and youth for reading and study, and his keen mind took advantage of all these. He was a natural mimic, and it was mere blind chance that kept him from the stage and made him a great novelist. He drifted into newspaper work as a shorthand reporter, wrote the stories that are known as Sketches by Boz, and in this way came to be engaged to write the Pickwick Papers, to serve as a story to accompany drawings by Seymour, a popular artist. But Dickens from the outset planned the story and Seymour lived only to illustrate the first number.
The tale caught the fancy of the public, and Dickens developed Pickwick, the Wellers and other characters in a most amusing fashion. Great success marked the appearance of the Pickwick Papers in book form, and the public appreciation gave Dickens confidence and stimulus. Soon appeared Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop and the long line of familiar stories that ended with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, left unfinished by the master's hand.
All these novels were originally published in monthly numbers. In these days, when so many new novels come from the press every month, it is difficult to appreciate the eagerness with which one of these monthly parts of Dickens' stories was awaited in England as well as in this country. My father used to tell of the way these numbers of Dickens' novels were seized upon in New England when he was a young man and were worn out in passing from hand to hand. Dickens first developed the Christmas story and made it a real addition to the joy of the holiday season. His Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth still stand as the best of these tales that paint the simple joys of the greatest of English Holidays. Dickens was also a great editor, and in HOUSEHOLD WORDS and ALL THE YEAR ROUND he found a means of giving pleasure to hosts of readers as well as a vehicle for the monthly publication of his novels.
Dickens was the first to make a great fortune by giving public readings from his own works. His rare dramatic ability made him an ideal interpreter of his own work, and those who were fortunate enough to hear him on his two trips to this country speak always of the light which these readings cast on his principal characters and of the pleasure that the audience showed in the novelist's remarkable powers as a mimic and an elocutionist.
Most of the great English writers have labored until forty or over before fame came to them. Of such were Scott, Thackeray, Carlyle and George Eliot. But Dickens had an international fame at twenty-four, and he was a household word wherever English was spoken by the time he was thirty. From that day to the day of his death, fame, popularity, wealth, troops of friends, were his portion, and with these were joined unusual capacity for work and unusual delight in the exercise of his great creative powers.
In taking up Dickens' novels it must always be borne in mind that you will find many digressions, many bits of affectation, some mawkish pathos. But these defects do not seriously injure the stories. You cannot afford to leave Pickwick Papers unread, because this novel contains more spontaneous humor than any other of Dickens' work, and it is also quoted most frequently. The boy or girl who cannot follow with relish the amusing incidents in this book is not normal. Older readers will get more from the book, but it is doubtful whether they will enjoy its rollicking fun with so keen a zest. Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller and his father, Bob Sawyer and the others, how firmly they are fixed in the mind! What real flesh and blood creatures they are, despite their creator's exaggeration of special traits and peculiarities!
After the Pickwick Papers the choice of the most characteristic of Dickens' novels is difficult, but my favorites have always been David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, the one the most spontaneous, the freshest in fancy, the most deeply pathetic of all Dickens' work; the other absolutely unlike anything he ever wrote, but great in its intense descriptive passages, which make the horrors of the French Revolution more real than Carlyle's famous history, and in the sublime self-sacrifice of Sidney Carton, which Henry Miller, in "The Only Way," has impressed on thousands of tearful playgoers. That David Copperfield is not autobiographical we have the positive assertion of Charles Dickens the younger, yet at the same time every lover of this book feels that the boyhood of David reproduces memories of the novelist's childhood and youth, and that from real people and real scenes are drawn the humble home and the loyal hearts of the Peggottys, the great self-sacrifice of Ham, the woes of Little Emily and the tragedy of Steerforth's fate. One misses much who does not follow the chief actors in this great story, the masterpiece of Dickens.
Other fine novels, if you have time for them, are Nicholas Nickleby, which broke up the unspeakably cruel boarding schools for boys in Yorkshire, in one of which poor Smike was done to death; or Our Mutual Friend which Dickens attacked the English poor laws; or Dombey and Son, that paints the pathos of the child of a rich man dying for the love which his father was too selfish to give him; or Bleak House, in which the terrible sufferings wrought by the law's delay in the Court of Chancery are drawn with so much pathos that the book served as a valuable aid in removing a great public wrong, while the satire on foreign missions served to draw the English nation's attention to the wretched heathen at home in the East Side of London, of whom Poor Jo was a pitiable specimen. In other novels other good purposes were also served.
But several pages could be filled with a mere enumeration of Dickens' stories and their salient features. You cannot go wrong in taking up any of his novels or his short stories, and when you have finished with them you will have the satisfaction of having added to your possessions a number of the real people of fiction, whom it is far better to know than the best characters of contemporary fiction, because these will be forgotten in a twelvemonth, if not before. The hours that you spend with Dickens will be profitable as well as pleasant, for they will leave the memory of a great-hearted man who labored through his books to make the world better and happier.
THACKERAY GREATEST MASTER OF FICTION
THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED WRITER OF HIS CENTURY—TENDER PATHOS UNDER AN AFFECTATION OF CYNICISM AND GREAT ART IN STYLE AND CHARACTERS.
Of all modern English authors, Thackeray is my favorite. Humor, pathos, satire, ripe culture, knowledge of the world and of the human heart, instinctive good taste and a style equaled by none of his fellows in its clearness, ease, flexibility and winning charm—these are some of the traits that make the author of Vanity Fair and Esmond incomparably the first literary artist as well as the greatest writer of his age. Whether he would have been as fine a writer had he been given a happy life is a question that no one can answer. But to my mind it has always seemed as though the dark shadow that rested on his domestic life for thirty years made him infinitely tender to the grief and pain of others. Probably it came as a shock to most lovers of Thackeray to read in a news item from London only three or four years ago that the widow of Thackeray was dead, at the great age of ninety years. She had outlived her famous husband nearly a full half century, but of her we had heard nothing in all this time. When a beautiful young Irish girl she was married to the novelist, and she made him an ideal wife for a few years. Then her mind gave way, and the remainder of her long career was spent within the walls of a sanatorium—more lost to her loved ones than if she had been buried in her grave. The knowledge of her existence, which was a ghastly death in life, the fact that it prevented him from giving his three young girls a real home, as well as barred him under the English law from marrying again—all these things to Thackeray were an ever-present pain, like acid on an open wound. It was this sorrow, from which he could never escape that gave such exquisite tenderness to his pathos; and it was this sorrow, acting on one of the most sensitive natures, that often sharpened his satire and made it merciless when directed against the shams and hypocrisies of life.
Thackeray's fame rests mainly on two great books—Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond. The first has been made very real to thousands of readers by the brilliant acting of Mrs. Fiske in Becky Sharp. The other is one of the finest historical novels in the language and the greatest exploit in bringing over into our century the style, the mode of thought, the very essence of a previous age. Thackeray was saturated with the literature of the eighteenth century, and in Esmond he reproduced the time of Addison and Steele as perfectly as he made an imitation of a number of the SPECTATOR. This literary tour de force was made the more noteworthy by the absolute lack of all effort on the novelist's part. The style of Queen Anne's age seemed a part of the man, not an assumed garment. While in the heroine of Vanity Fair Thackeray gave the world one of the coldest and most selfish of women, he atoned for this by creating in Esmond the finest gentleman in all English literature, with the single exception of his own Colonel Newcome.
Strict injunctions Thackeray left against any regulation biography, and the result is that the world knows less of his life before fame came to him than it does of any other celebrated author of his age. The scanty facts show that he was born in Calcutta in 1811; that he was left a fortune of $100,000 by his father, who died when he was five years old; that, like most children of Anglo-Indians, he was sent to school in England; that he was prepared for college at the old Charter House School; that he was graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, and that while in college he showed much ability as a writer of verse and prose, although he took no honors and gained no prizes. After reading law he was moved to become an artist and spent some time in travel on the Continent.
But this delightful life was rudely cut short by the loss of his fortune and he was forced to earn his living by literature and journalism. Under various pseudonyms he soon gained a reputation as a satirist and humorist, his first success being The Great Hoggarty Diamond. Then years of work for PUNCH and other papers followed before he won enduring fame by Vanity Fair, which he styled "a novel without a hero."
Charlotte Bronte, who gained a great reputation by Jane Eyre, added to Thackeray's vogue by dedicating to him in rarely eloquent words the second edition of her novel, against which preachers fulminated because of what they called its immoral tendencies. Then in rapid succession Thackeray wrote Pendennis, Henry Esmond, The Newcomes, The Virginians, Lovel the Widower and The Adventures of Philip. All these are masterpieces of wit, satire and humor, cast in a perfect style that never offends the most fastidious taste, yet they are neglected to-day mainly because they do not furnish exciting incidents.
Thackeray, like Dickens in his readings, made a fortune by his lectures, first on "The English Humorists," and later on "The Four Georges," and, like Dickens, he received the heartiest welcome and the largest money returns from this country.
He died alone in his room on Christmas eve in the fine new home in London which he had recently made for himself and his three daughters.
Thackeray was a giant physically, with a mind that worked easily, but he was indolent and always wrote under pressure, with the printer's devil waiting for his "copy." He was a thorough man of the world, yet full of the freshness of fancy and the tenderness of heart of a little child. All children were a delight to him, and he never could refrain from giving them extravagant tips. The ever-present grief that could not be forgotten by fame or success made him very tender to all suffering, especially the suffering of the weak and the helpless. Yet, like many a sensitive man, he concealed this kindness of heart under an affectation of cynicism, which led many unsympathetic critics to style him hard and ferocious in his satire.
Like Dickens, Thackeray was one of the great reporters of his day, with an eye that took in unconsciously every detail of face, costume or scene and reproduced it with perfect accuracy. The reader of his novels is entertained by a series of pen pictures of men and women and scenes in high life and life below stairs that are photographic in their clearness and fidelity. Dickens always failed when he came to depict British aristocratic life; but Thackeray moved in drawing-rooms and brilliant assemblages with the ease of a man familiar from youth with good society, and hence free from all embarrassment, even in the presence of royalty.
Thackeray's early works are written in the same perfect, easy, colloquial style, rich in natural literary allusions and frequently rhythmic with poetic feeling, which marked his latest novel. He also had perfect command of slang and the cockney dialect of the Londoner. No greater master of dialogue or narrative ever wrote than he who pictured the gradual degradation of Becky Sharp or the many self-sacrifices of Henry Esmond for the woman that he loved.
Howells and other critics have censured Thackeray severely because of his tendency to preach, and also because he regarded his characters as puppets and himself as the showman who brought out their peculiarities. There is some ground for this criticism, if one regards the art of the novelist as centered wholly in realism; but such a hard and fast rule would condemn all old English novelists from Richardson to Thackeray.
It ought not to disturb any reader that Defoe turns aside and gives reflections on the acts of his characters, for these remarks are the fruit of his own knowledge of the world. In the same way Thackeray keeps up a running comment on his men and women, and these bits of philosophy make his novels a storehouse of apothegms, which may be read again and again with great profit and pleasure. The modern novel, with its comparative lack of thought and feeling, its insistence upon the absolute effacement of the author, is seldom worth reading a second time. Not so with Thackeray. Every reading reveals new beauties of thought or style. An entire book has been made up of brief extracts from Thackeray's novels, and it is an ideal little volume for a pocket companion on walks, as Thackeray fits into any mood and always gives one material for thought.
Of all Thackeray's novels Vanity Fair is the best known and most popular. It is a remarkable picture of a thoroughly hard, selfish woman whom even motherhood did not soften; but it is something more than the chronicle of Becky Sharp's fortunes. It is a panoramic sketch of many phases of London life; it is the free giving out by a great master of fiction of his impressions of life. Hence Vanity Fair alone is worth a hundred books filled merely with exciting adventures, which do not make the reader think. The problems that Thackeray presents in his masterpiece are those of love, duty, self-sacrifice; of high aims and many temptations to fall below those aspirations; of sordid, selfish life, and of fine, noble, generous souls who light up the world and make it richer by their presence.
Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, has sixty characters, yet each is drawn sharply and clearly, and the whole story moves on with the ease of real life. Consummate art is shown in the painting of Becky's gradual rise to power and the great scene at the climax of her success, when Rawdon Crawley strikes down the Marquis of Steyne, is one of the finest in all fiction. Though Becky knows that this blow shatters her social edifice, she is still woman enough to admire her husband in the very act that marks the beginning of the decadence of her fortunes. Vanity Fair, read carefully a half-dozen times, is a liberal education in life and in the art of the novelist.
Personally, I rank Pendennis next to Vanity Fair for the pleasure to be derived from it. From the time when the old Major receives the letter from his sister telling of young Arthur's infatuation for the cheap actress, Miss Fotheringay, the story carries one along in the leisurely way of the last century. All the people are a delight, from Captain Costigan to Fowker, and from the French chef, who went to the piano for stimulus in his culinary work, to Blanche Amory and her amazing French affectations. But Pendennis is not popular.
Nor is Henry Esmond popular, although it is worthy to rank with The Cloister and the Hearth, Adam Bede and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. There is little relief of humor in Esmond, but the story has a strong appeal to any sympathetic reader, and it is the one supreme achievement in all fiction in which the hero tells his own story. Thackeray's art is flawless in this tale, and it sometimes rises to great heights, as in the scenes following the death of Lord Castlewood, the exposure of the Prince's perfidy, the selfishness of Beatrice and the great sacrifice of Esmond.
Space is lacking to take up Thackeray's other works, but it is safe to say if you read the three novels here hastily sketched you cannot go amiss among his minor works. Even his lighter sketches and his essays will be found full of material that is so far above the ordinary level that the similar work of to-day seems cheap and common. Happy is the boy or girl who has made Thackeray a chosen companion from childhood. Such a one has received unconsciously lessons in life and in culture that can be gained from few of the great authors of the world.
CHARLOTTE BRONTE AND HER TWO GREAT NOVELS
"JANE EYRE" AND "VILLETTE" ARE TOUCHED WITH GENIUS—TRAGEDY OF A WOMAN'S LIFE THAT RESULTED IN TWO STORIES OF PASSIONATE REVOLT AGAINST FATE.
Charlotte Bronte is always linked in my memory with Thackeray because of her visit to the author of Vanity Fair and its humorous and pathetic features. She went to London from her lonely Yorkshire home, and the great world, with its many selfish and unlovely features, made a painful impression on her. Even Thackeray, her idol, was found to have feet of clay. But this "little Puritan," as the great man called her, was endowed with the divine genius which was forced to seek expression in fiction, and nowhere in all literature will one find an author who shows more completely the compelling force of a powerful creative imagination than this little, frail, self-educated woman, who had none of the advantages of her fellow writers, but who surpassed them all in a certain fierce, Celtic spirit which forces the reader to follow its bidding.
He who would get a full realization of the importance of this Celtic element in English literature cannot afford to neglect Jane Eyre and Villette, the best of Charlotte Bronte's works. Old-fashioned these romances are in many ways, oversentimental, in parts poorly constructed, but in all English fiction there is nothing to surpass the opening chapters of Jane Eyre for vividness and pathos, and few things to equal the greater part of Villette, the tragedy of an English woman's life in a Brussels boarding school.
Who can explain the mystery of the flowering of a great literary style among the bleak and desolate moors of Yorkshire? Who can tell why among three daughters of an Irish curate of mediocre ability but tremendously passionate nature one should have developed an abnormal imagination that in Wuthering Heights is as powerful as Poe's at his best, and another should have matured into the ablest woman novelist of her day and her generation? These are freaks of heredity which science utterly fails to explain.
Charlotte Bronte was born in 1816 and died in 1855. She was one of six children who led a curiously forlorn life in the old Haworth parsonage in the midst of the desolate Yorkshire moors. The outlook on one side was upon a gloomy churchyard; on the other three sides the eye ranged to the horizon over rolling, dreary moorland that looked like a heaving ocean under a leaden sky. One brother these five sisters had, a brilliant but superficial boy, with no stable character, who became a drunkard and died after lingering on for years, a source of intense shame to his family. The girls were left motherless at an early age. Four were sent to a boarding school for clergymen's daughters, but two died from exposure and lack of nutritious food, and the others, starved mentally and physically, returned to their home. This was the school that Charlotte held up to infamy in Jane Eyre.
The three sisters who were left, in the order of their ages, were Emily, Charlotte and Anne. They, with their brother, lived in a kind of dream world. Charlotte was the natural story-teller, and she wove endless romances in which figured the great men of history who were her heroes. She also told over and over many weird Yorkshire legends. These children devoured every bit of printed matter that came to the parsonage, and they were as thoroughly informed on all political questions as the average member of Parliament.
At an age when normal girls were playing with their dolls these precocious children were writing poems and stories. Their father developed the ways of a recluse and never took his meals with his children. Living in this dream world of their own, these children could not understand normal girls. They were terribly unhappy at school and came near to death of homesickness. Finally Emily and Charlotte found a congenial school and in a few years they both made great strides in education. Charlotte tried teaching and also the work of governess, but finally both decided to open a girls' school of their own. To prepare themselves in French, Emily and Charlotte went to a boarding school in Brussels.
This was the turning point in Charlotte's life. Intensely ambitious, she worked like a galley slave and soon mastered French so that she wrote it with ease and vigor. There is no question that she had a girlish love for her teacher, as passionate as it was brief, and that her whole outlook was broadened by this experience of a world so unlike the only one that she had known.
The story of Charlotte's life is told beautifully by Mrs. Gaskell, the well-known author of Cranford. It is one of the finest biographies in the language, and also one of the most stimulating. The reader who follows Charlotte's stormy youth is made ashamed of his own lack of application when he reads of the girl's tireless work in self-culture in the face of much bodily weakness and great unhappiness.
Read of her experiences in Brussels and you will get some idea of the tremendous vitality of this frail girl with the luminous eyes and the fiery spirit that no labor could tire. Mrs. Gaskell has drawn largely upon Charlotte's letters, which are as vivid and full of character as any of her fiction. Genius flashes from them; one feels drawn very close to this woman who raged against her physical infirmities, but overcame them bravely. When the spirit moved her she poured out her soul to her friend in words that grip the heart after all these years.
The boarding-school project fell through, and for some years the three sisters lived at home and devoted themselves to literary work. The first fruits of their pen was a small volume of poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the pseudonyms of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. This book fell practically stillborn from the press, but the sisters were undaunted and each began a novel. Without experience of life it is not strange that these stories lacked merit.
Charlotte drew her novel from her Brussels experience and called it The Professor. Though it was far the best, it was rejected, but Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Gray were published. Emily's novel revealed a powerful but ill-regulated imagination, with scenes of splendid imaginative force, yet morbid and unreal as an opium dream. It received some good notices, but Anne's was mediocre and fell flat. Nothing daunted by the refusal of the publishers to bring out her first book, Charlotte began Jane Eyre, largely autobiographical in the early chapters, and this book was promptly accepted and published in August, 1847.
Jane Eyre was a great success from the day it came from the press. It was an epoch-making novel because it dragged into the fierce light of publicity many questions which the English public of that day had decided to leave out of print. To us of today it contains nothing unusual, for modern women writers have gone far beyond Charlotte Bronte in their demands for freedom from many strict social conventions. What makes the book valuable is the glimpse which it gives of the wild revolt of a passionate nature against the coldness, the hypocrisy and the many shams of the social life of England in the middle of the last century.
This novel is also noteworthy for its intense picture of the sufferings of a lonely, unappreciated girl, who felt in herself the stirrings of genius and who hungered and thirsted for appreciation. The terrible pictures of Lowood, the fiction name of the Cowan's Bridge School, where her two sisters contracted their fatal illness, are stamped upon the brain of every reader, as are those of the humiliations of the governess. The style of this book was a revelation in that period of formal writing. Like Stevenson, Charlotte Bronte wrought with words as a great artist works with his colors, and many of her descriptions in Jane Eyre have never been surpassed. Hers was that brooding Celtic imagination which, when given full play, takes the reader by the hand and shows him the heights and depths of human love and suffering.
The success of Jane Eyre opened wide the doors of London to the unknown author. For a time her identity was hidden, but when it was revealed she was induced to go up to London and see the great world. Thackeray was especially kind to her, but his efforts to entertain this Yorkshire recluse were dismal failures. Nothing is more amusing than his daughter's story of the great novelist, slipping out of the house one night, when he had asked several celebrities to meet Charlotte Bronte. The party was a terrible fiasco, and so he escaped, putting his finger to his lips as he opened the front door to warn his daughter that she must not reveal his flight. Charlotte's correspondence with her publisher is also full of pathos. It shows how keenly she felt her aloofness from the world, which she could not overcome.