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Studies in Literature and History
by Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall
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STUDIES IN LITERATURE AND HISTORY

by the Late

SIR ALFRED C. LYALL

P.C., G.C.I.E., K.C.B., D.C.L., LL.D.



London John Murray, Albemarle Street, W. 1915



PREFACE

In the Second Series of his Asiatic Studies the late Sir Alfred Lyall republished a number of articles that he had contributed to various Reviews up to the year 1894. After that date he wrote frequently, especially for the Edinburgh Review, and he left amongst his papers a note naming a number of articles from which he considered that a selection might be made for publication.

The present volume contains, with two exceptions, the articles so mentioned, together with one that was not included by the author.

A large number of Sir Alfred Lyall's contributions[1] to the Reviews deal, as might be expected, with India—with its political and administrative problems, or with the careers of its statesmen and soldiers. He appears, however, to have regarded such articles as not of sufficient permanent value for republication, and his selection was confined almost exclusively to writings on literary, historical or religious subjects. He made an exception in favour of an essay on his old friend Sir Henry Maine; but as the limitations imposed by the publisher made it necessary to sacrifice one of the larger articles, this essay was, with some reluctance, excluded. It dealt chiefly with Maine's influence on Indian administration and legislation; and would more appropriately be included in a collection of his writings on India, should these ever be published.

While Indian official subjects have been excluded, readers of the earlier 'Studies' will recognise that many of the writings in this volume follow out lines of thought suggested in the earlier works, or apply in a larger sphere the results of observations made when the author was studying Indian myths and Indian religions in Berar, or the 'rare and antique stratification of society' in Rajputana. The two addresses on religion placed at the end of the volume form the most obvious example, but there is a close connection between a group of the other articles and the views developed in Asiatic Studies.

In the last edition of that work a chapter on 'History and Fable' was inserted because of its bearing on the author's general views 'regarding the elementary commixture of fable and fact in ages that may be called prehistoric.' In this chapter the author made a rapid survey of the 'kinship between history and fable,' tracing it through the times of myth and romance to the period of the historic novel. 'At their birth,' he says, 'history and fable were twin sisters;' and again, 'There is always a certain quantity of fable in history, and there is always an element of history in one particular sort of fable.' The reviews of English and Anglo-Indian fiction, and of 'Heroic Poetry' in the present work, give opportunities of further illustrations from fiction of his views: which reappear from another standpoint in the 'Remarks on the Reading of History'—a short address, which it has been thought worth while to reprint, though it was not specially indicated by the author for publication.

Several of the other articles contain criticism of a more purely literary character; the article on 'Frontiers,' which recounts exciting but little-known episodes in the Russian advance in Asia, has an important bearing on a branch of Indian policy in which Sir Alfred Lyall to the end of his career took a deep interest, and of which he had a profound knowledge; and 'L'Empire Liberal' may, it is thought, be found to contain much that is of special interest at the present time.

These articles have not had the benefit of any general revision by their author, but in a few cases he had indicated in the printed copies alterations or additions that he desired to be made.

The Quarterly. The Anglo-Saxon. The Edinburgh. The Fortnightly.

Except that the two essays on 'Race and Religion' and 'The State in its Relation to Religion' have been brought together at the end of the volume, the chronological order of original publication has been observed. The source from which each article is drawn has in all cases been indicated, and this opportunity is taken of acknowledging the permission to republish that has courteously been accorded by the editors or proprietors of the Reviews concerned.

Permission has also been given to publish the article on 'Sir Spencer Walpole' written for the British Academy, and the address on the 'Reading of History.'

John O. Miller

December 1914.



CONTENTS

PAGE

NOVELS OF ADVENTURE AND MANNERS 1

ENGLISH LETTER-WRITING IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY 34

THACKERAY 76

THE ANGLO-INDIAN NOVELIST 121

HEROIC POETRY 155

THE WORKS OF LORD BYRON 177

THE ENGLISH UTILITARIANS 210

CHARACTERISTICS OF MR. SWINBURNE'S POETRY 263

FRONTIERS ANCIENT AND MODERN 291

L'EMPIRE LIBERAL 328

SIR SPENCER WALPOLE 368

REMARKS ON THE READING OF HISTORY 377

RACE AND RELIGION 399

THE STATE IN ITS RELATION TO EASTERN AND WESTERN RELIGIONS 427

INDEX 454



NOVELS OF ADVENTURE AND MANNERS[2]

Mr. Raleigh[3] very rightly goes back to mediaeval romance for the origins of English fiction. In all countries the metrical tale is many generations older than the prose story; for prose writing is a refinement of the literary art which flourishes only when reading has become popular; while verse, being at first a kind of memoria technica used for the correct transmission of sacred texts and the heroic tradition, strikes the ear and fixes the recollection of an audience. The exploits of mighty warriors and the miracles of saints—love, fighting, and theology—form the subject matter of these stories in verse. They are, as Mr. Raleigh says, epical in spirit though not in form: 'they carry their hero through the actions and adventures of his life ... they display a marked preference for deeds done, and attempt no character-drawing.... A sense of the instability of human life, very present to the minds of men familiar with battle and plague, is everywhere mirrored in these romances.' Then came Chaucer, who not only wrote prose tales, but also carried far toward perfection the art of narration in verse; and 'in the fifteenth century both of the ancestors of the modern novel—that is, the novella or short pithy story after the manner of the Italians, and the romance of chivalry—appear in an English prose dress.' But the genius of English fiction was still loaded with the chains of allegory and pedantic moralisation; and in the Gesta Romanorum, the most popular collection of English prose stories which had been translated from the Latin at the end of the fifteenth century, 'human beings are mere puppets, inhabiting the great fabric of mediaeval thought and mediaeval institution.... It was the work of the Renaissance to recover the literal and obvious sense of human life, as it was the work of the closely-allied Reformation to recover the literal sense of the Bible.'

The playwright has always been a formidable rival to the novelist, insomuch that in a period of dramatic activity the novel, as our author remarks, can hardly maintain itself. But from the middle of the seventeenth century the stage had fallen low, while the formal and fantastic romance, the long-winded involved story, was losing its vogue. So the heroic romances, we are told, 'availed themselves skilfully of the opportunity to foster a new taste in the reading public—a delight, namely, born of the fashionable leisure of a self-conscious society, in minute introspection, and the analysis and portraiture of emotional states.' We are inclined to suspect that these words, which would serve well enough to describe the taste for the analytic novel of our own day, must be taken with considerable reserve in their application to the writings and the readers of two centuries ago. But we may agree that certain tendencies of style and developments of feeling which are now predominant may be traced back to this time. And when, toward the end of the seventeenth century, Mrs. Aphra Behn began to enlist incidents of real life into the service of her fiction, she was making a distinct attempt, as Mr. Raleigh points out, to bring romance into closer relation with contemporary life, although a conventional treatment of facts and character still overlay all her work. Mr. Raleigh holds, however, that this attempt was abortive; that it failed at the time; and that the great eighteenth-century school of English novelists, with Richardson and Fielding at their head, took its rise, quite independently of predecessors in the seventeenth century, out of the general stock of miscellaneous literature—plays, books of travel, adventures, satires, journals, and broadsides—which had been drawn at first hand from observation and experience of the various forms of surrounding life.

We are quite ready to agree that the eighteenth-century Novel of Manners belongs to a family distinct from that of the Romantic story, or is at any rate very distantly connected with it. But when Mr. Raleigh goes on to say that the heroic romance died in the seventeenth century and left no issue, although it was revived again in the latter half of the eighteenth century, to this view we are much inclined to demur. Such complete interruptions in the transmission of species are as rare in the intellectual as in the physical world; and we prefer to maintain that the romance, although it was for a time eclipsed by the brilliancy of the writers who described the manners and sentiments of contemporary society, was never extinguished, but became transformed gradually, by successive modifications of environment, into the modern novel of adventure. It is true that Defoe entirely rejected the marvellous, while Horace Walpole, fifty years later, dealt immoderately in the elements of mystery and wonder; yet, notwithstanding these violent oscillations of style and method, we believe that the great historical novels of the early nineteenth century, and the tales of stirring incident which flourish at the present day, descend by an unbroken filiation from the fabulous romance of elder times.

Mr. Raleigh does not carry his brief yet instructive history of the English novel beyond the time of Walter Scott, with whom, he says, 'the wheel has come full circle,' the Romantic revival was victorious, prose finally superseded verse as the vehicle of adventurous story, and realism was wedded to romance. We trust that in some future work he will carry on up to a later date his survey of the course and currents of imaginative fiction. In the meantime, it may not be irrelevant to follow up further and a little more closely the ruling characteristics and the formative influences that have contributed toward the production of English light literature as it exists at the present day.

The novels with which our fortunate generation is so abundantly supplied may be divided broadly into two classes, overlapping and interlaced with each other, yet on the whole distinguishable as separate species—the Novel of Adventure and the Novel of Manners. The former class has a very long pedigree. The early romance writer drew his incidents from the field of heroic action and marvellous enterprise; he revelled in noble sentiments, astonishing feats, and the exhibition of all the cardinal virtues in tragic situations; his mission was to preserve and hand down to us magnified figures of mighty men, or the pictures of great events, as they had impressed themselves upon the popular imagination. For such material he was obliged to travel abroad into remote countries, or backward to bygone ages; but if his images of gallant knights and fair damsels were well modelled, if the language was superb, and the deeds or sufferings sufficiently astonishing, no one cared about anachronisms, incongruities, or improbabilities.

But as the heroic romance dwindled and withered under the dry light of precise knowledge and extending erudition, the purveyors of fiction, accommodating themselves to a more exacting taste, applied themselves seriously to the reproduction of famous scenes and portraits by the aid and guidance of historic documents and antiquarian research. The modern romantic school, of whom the master, if not the founder, is Scott, represented a clear step forward to what is now called Realism, and a proportionate abandonment of the classic convention, or the method of drawing from traditional or imaginary models. To Scott may be ascribed the authoritative introduction of descriptions of landscape, of storms, sunsets, and picturesque effects; not the artificial scene-painting of Mrs. Radcliffe, but artistic delineations of the aspects of earth, sea, and sky which gave depth and atmosphere to his dramatic situations. From this period, also, may be dated the practice, so entirely contrary to the spirit of true romance, of verifying by documentary evidence the details of a story. It was Scott who, in the first years of this century, set prominently the example of appending copious notes to his stories in verse or prose, wherein he displayed his archaeologic lore and produced his authorities for any striking illustration of manners or characteristic incident. This practice, which was largely adopted by others, was at least an improvement upon the old unregenerate system of seasoning the conversation of warriors and peasants with uncouth phrases picked up at random, or trusting to mere fancy or accepted formula for the description of battles or of the ways of folk in mediaeval castles and cottages. But the process savoured too much of the workshop. A novel or poem that required an appendix of notes and glossaries must be of high excellence to avoid suspicious resemblance to an elaborate literary counterfeit, since open and avowed borrowing from dictionaries of antiquities or volumes of travel must damage the illusion which is the indispensable element of romance. In Moore's fantastic metrical romance of Lalla Rookh the system was carried to an extent that now seems ridiculous, for certain passages are loaded with outlandish phrases or metaphors that are unintelligible except by reference to the notes. Nevertheless the English public, being then quite ignorant of the true East, tolerated Moore's sham Orientalism, even though Byron's fine poems were just then exposing the difference between working up the subject in a library and wandering in Asiatic countries. Byron's language seems in the present day turgid, and his Greeks and Turks may have a theatrical air, but his splendid descriptive passages were drawn by a master hand straight from nature, while his colouring, landscape, and costume are usually excellent; so that his work also is a distinct movement in the direction of realism. Yet it is to be observed that after Byron and Scott the metrical romance, that most ancient form of tale-telling, fell rapidly into disuse. The fact that Byron's latest poem, Don Juan, belonged essentially to the coming realistic school, is a significant indication of transition; and Scott's abandonment of poetry for prose, which was a necessary consequence of his advance toward realism, gave its death-blow to the earlier fashion.

By this time, indeed, the conventional writer of adventures, though he held his ground up to or even beyond the middle of the century, was in a state of incurable decadence. He was losing the confidence of the general reader, who had picked up some precise notions regarding appropriate scenery, language, and costume in sundry periods and divers places, from China to Peru; and he was persecuted by that mortal foe of the old romancer, the well-informed critic, who trampled even upon a commonplace book well filled with references to standard authorities, insisting upon careful study of the whole environment, the dexterous incorporation of details, and delicate blending of local colours. Severe pedagogic handling of a historic novel, as if it were a paper done at some competitive examination, was too much for the old school, which finally subsided into cheap popular editions, making way for a new class of writers that adapted the Novel of Adventure to the requirements of latter-day taste, to the widening of knowledge, and the diversified expansion of our national life. The prevailing tendency was now to confine the range of scene and action more and more approximately to the contemporary period, to insist on genuine materials, and to observe a stricter canon of probabilities, wherein the discriminating reader fancied himself to be a judge. The use of notes was discarded as contrary to the high artistic principle that in fiction everything must resemble reality while nothing must be demonstrably matter of fact. The appearance of famous personages must be occasional, after the manner of gods in an epic poem; they must not be, as formerly, the leading characters and chief actors in the drama. And great battles, instead of marking the grand climacteric of a story's development, were now merely traversed, so to speak, on their outskirts, or were only approached near enough to throw a glowing sidelight on certain groups and situations. The gradual adoption of these limitations may be traced back to the naval and military novels that reflect the traditions of the great French war. No one even then thought of writing a romance with Nelson or Bonaparte as the hero, or of finishing off in the full blaze of Trafalgar or in the rout of Waterloo; although with Marryat and Lever the English reader revelled in the dashing exploits or bacchanalian revels of sailors and soldiers. Lever did indeed give glimpses of Wellington or Napoleon; but his business was with Connaught Rangers and French guardsmen; while Marryat and Michael Scott gave us daring sea-captains and reckless sailors with inimitable vigour and animation.

But as the echo of thunderous battles by sea and land died away, this particular offshoot of modern romance ceased to flourish, and has never had any considerable revival. The tale-teller of adventure, like his ancestor the epic poet, requires a certain haziness of atmosphere; he must have elbow room for his inventive faculty; and he is liable to be stifled in the flood of lucid narrative and inflexible facts let loose upon recent events in our day by complete histories, personal memoirs, public documents, war correspondence, and all-pervading journalism. This is probably the main reason why the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, which broke for brief intervals the long peace of England, have furnished no fresh material contribution of importance to the romance of war, either in prose or poetry, to stamp the memory of a long weary siege, or of a short and bloody struggle, upon the popular imagination. Another reason must be, of course, the non-appearance in England of the vates sacer; for Tolstoi has shown us that within and without Sebastopol there might be found material for work of the highest order. However this may be, it is a remarkable fact that just about that time the novel of adventure turned back for a moment, in Kingsley's hands, to the spacious times of great Elizabeth, to the Armada and the legends of filibustering on the Spanish main; and at the present time we may observe that the leading writer of this school goes back at least a hundred years for the field of his best stories. The eighteenth century, whose politics, philosophy, and literature seemed to Carlyle's somewhat bookish conception to be flat, prosaic, and comparatively uninteresting, was in truth for Englishmen pre-eminently the age of energetic activity, which touched the high level of romantic enterprise at two points, the Scottish rebellions and the exploits of famous buccaneers. Mr. Stevenson has reopened, with great skill and success, these mines of literary ore that had been discovered but only partially worked by Walter Scott. His rare artistic instinct divined the rich veins which they still contained; while in other stories his intimate acquaintance with actual life and circumstance on the coasts and islands of the Pacific Ocean has provided him with those elements of distance and unfamiliarity which are essential, as we have suggested, to the composition of the novel of adventure. Other less original writers have travelled in search of these elements to the Australian bush or the outlying half-explored regions of South Africa.

This very cursory survey of the main influences and circumstances that have shaped the course and set the fashion of our modern novel of adventure may be useful in explaining its actual position at the present moment. Scepticism and research have effectually retrenched the very liberal credit formerly assigned to romance writing; the art now consists in spinning a long narrative out of authentic materials which must be disguised or kept hidden; while its leading features are a delight in elaborate accessories and that very modern sentiment, a horror of anachronism. A few living artists, like Mr. Shorthouse and Mr. Stevenson, can still excel under these difficult conditions, which have driven a crowd of second-rate novelists into the extreme of minute realism. Into this retreat, however, they have been followed by a host of readers; for in these days of universal instruction and flat uneventful existence nothing satisfies the average mind like photographic detail, which is a commodity to be had of every industrious or studious composer. As the range of accurate information extends, as the dust heap of old records, private as well as public, is sifted more narrowly, as the antique habit of taking things readily for granted disappears, the novel becomes more and more an arrangement of genuine facts and circumstances, interleaved by such fiction as the skill and imagination of the author can produce. It may be worth observing that this demand for exact verification has affected the use of the early chronicles in two contrary ways; they are relied upon implicitly or they are arbitrarily discredited, in proportion as the facts stated appear credible or not credible to critics or professors who are working upon them. All the particulars of a great battle or of some famous event that can be gleaned out of some ancient monkish annalist, who must always have collected his information by hearsay and often after many years, are treated as authentic so long as they do not sound improbable; but if they offend against the canon of probability set up by a library-hunting student, they are liable to be summarily rejected. We may venture upon the conjecture that the true result of this process is to assimilate the work of the critical historian much more nearly than he would for a moment allow to that of a skilful historic novelist. A romancer of insight and imaginative power, who studied his period, would be quite as likely to make a lucky selection of real incidents, motives, and characters, in a story of the Roman Empire or of England under the Plantagenets, as an erudite writer of history. Perhaps the best measure available to us of what we may believe in regard to far-off times is afforded by observation of what now happens in rough societies or remote places; and this test the novelist is rather more apt, on the whole, to employ than the historian.

In the novels, as upon the stage, this demand for minute accuracy of scenic or historical details has necessarily elicited an abundant supply; though whether the entire picture is rendered much more natural and real by an accumulation of correct particulars may be questioned. 'La recherche exageree du vrai peut conduire au faux.' It is most doubtful whether laborious research can reconstruct a life-like presentation of a vanished society, its modes of life, its ways of thinking and acting. In vain the novelist or the painter studies archaeology, takes a journey to the Holy Land for his local colouring, reads up the records of the time, or works in museums. The result may be ingenious and even instructive; but there are sure to be great errors and anachronisms, although they may now be undiscoverable; while the general tone, point of view, and balance of motives are nearly certain to be obscured or distorted. For the modern novelist, like the ancient myth-maker, is necessarily the child of his time; his work takes the bent of his personal temperament, and is moulded by the environment of ideas and circumstances within which he lives. The Myth, the Romance, the Historic Novel, each in its successive period, did at least this service to later generations: they preserved and handed down to us the popular impressions, the figures or pictures of great men and striking events, as they were reflected upon the imagination of subsequent ages. It can never be discovered, and it does not very much matter, whether these images have any close resemblance to the lost originals; it may be that some artists in some periods saw far more clearly than in others. The true criterion for estimating the true value of romantic fiction, of tales of action and adventure, must be always its artistic and intellectual qualities, the question whether it succeeds in filling a broad canvas, in dealing with masculine sentiment and stirring action, in striking the deeper chords of human emotion and energy.

But the historic novel of our day strives principally after exact reproduction, as may be seen even in a book of such incontestable talent as Marius the Epicurean, and very notably in Archdeacon Farrar's book, Darkness and Dawn, or Scenes in the Days of Nero (1891), which may stand as the type and complete specimen of Erudite Fiction. In his preface he tells us that

'those who are familiar with the literature of the first century will recognise that even for the minutest allusions and particulars I have contemporary authority. Expressions and incidents which to some might seem startlingly modern, are in reality suggested by passages in the satirists, epigrammatists, and romancers of the (Roman) Empire, or by anecdotes preserved in the grave pages of Seneca and the elder Pliny.'

Here we have reached, in this conscientious explanation of method, the extreme point of remoteness from the original spirit of historic romance. Archdeacon Farrar's figures and descriptions are worked out upon the pattern of a mosaic, by piecing together the loose fragmentary bits of our knowledge regarding life and society under Nero. A glance at these books shows that they belong to the latest school of nineteenth-century fiction, to a period when careful scholarly accumulation of accessories and adroit adaptation of history have taken the place, not only of convention and clumsy invention, but also of the free untrammelled handling of types and traditions which gave freshness and originality to the simpler forms of early romance.

We believe, then, that these attempts at exact reproduction, this method of the multiplication of particulars, involve a fallacy, and are detrimental to the more enduring forms of art. But the people is willing to be deceived; the general reader has acquired a taste that must be gratified; with the result that the elder romancers in prose and verse, including Scott and Byron, are falling out of fashion with the middle classes, though Scott holds his own in the sixpenny edition. The rule of Realism is becoming so despotic that the story of adventure is reverting more and more to that shape which lends itself most completely to life-like narrative, the shape of a Memoir. And it may be pointed out accordingly that in France the Editor of Memoirs has lately entered into substantial rivalry with the Novelist of Adventure.

It must have been noticed by those who attend to the course of French literature, that of late years the publication of Memoirs relating to the period of the Revolutionary war, and especially of the First Empire, has rather suddenly increased. The causes are undoubtedly to a considerable degree political, connected with the reorganisation of the French army and navy, which has revived the military ardour of the nation, and has given an edge to the deep-seated spirit of rivalry with Germany on land and with England at sea. Whatever immediately interests a nation gives a sharp turn to its literature, and the immense success of General Marbot's book, containing the extraordinary personal experiences of one who passed through the most famous scenes of the heroic era, exactly hit off the public taste at a moment when various motives combined to revive the Napoleonic legend. The historians of that era had done their harvesting; the crop had been reaped, raked, and gleaned; the time was too near and too thoroughly known for fiction; and yet there never was a finer field for the production of romance. No one can doubt that if Napoleon Bonaparte had conquered half Europe, won his tremendous battles, and founded his empire in an illiterate prehistoric age, he would have taken everlasting rank with Alexander the Great and Charlemagne as the central figure of a third world-wide cycle of heroic myths; nor is it necessary to read Archbishop Whately's Historic Doubts to perceive how readily Napoleon's real story lends itself to extravagant myth-making. At a later period he might have been the leading character in some prolix and pedantic romance, and still more recently his life and deeds would have been built up into the scaffolding within which the historic novelist used to construct his love idylls, his tragic situations, or even his illustrations of some social theory. All these methods and devices have become obsolete; and though the spirit of hero-worship that animated those who listened to the ancient tales still possesses mankind at certain seasons, Romance must now submit to the hard conditions of modern Realism. In this predicament it finds a new and satisfactory embodiment in the form of Memoirs concerning the great Emperor and his companions, which dispense copious anecdotes of his court and camp, his sayings and doings, his domestic habits, his private manners and peccadilloes. If these particulars can be served up as sauce to the description of mighty events, the contrast renders them all the more savoury. But there is now a large class of readers who care less about Jena and Austerlitz than for such books as Napoleon Intime, Napoleon et les Femmes, which have all the attraction always possessed by the intermixture of love and war, and by the blending of arms with amours in the conventional style of historic fiction. The lowest depth is reached when the reminiscences of an Emperor's valet, to whom he is still a kind of hero, are served up with that succulent dressing of vivid particularity which is swallowed with relish because it brings down a great man to the level of the most trivial experience.

How far these Memoirs are genuine in the sense which makes them so attractive—that is to say, as literally authentic pictures of a great man's interior life, of his actual words and behaviour as witnessed by his intimates—must always remain doubtful to the sceptical mind. True reminiscences are naturally somewhat cloudy in outline, hanging loose together with gaps and interruptions; whereas these are all coherent, clear-cut, and written in a style that gives superior polish and setting to every scene and anecdote. That they are compiled upon a solid substratum of truth need not be questioned; nevertheless some of them seem to differ only in degree from the realistic novel of the very latest type, such as Zola's Debacle, which contains a very strong and pervading mixture of pure historical fact.

But whatever may be the exact proportion of authenticity which this class of Memoirs can justly claim, they completely fulfil the prime conditions of popularity prescribed for the modern novel, which must work out minute details with the greatest possible resemblance to actual life and circumstance. Upon this ground, indeed, the ablest professors of fiction might despair of competing with those who exhibit a mighty man of valour in undress, who lead us where we may hear him talk, watch him eat or shave, and study his conjugal relations. It is to be feared that if the multiplication of such Reminiscences continues, they will seriously trench upon the province of the novelist, who will be left no scope for the employment of his craft in a field that has been thoroughly ransacked, and who must inevitably retire before writers who have discovered the art of making truth quite as amusing as fiction, than which it must always be more interesting. The brilliant success of Marbot's Memoirs, which were undoubtedly written by himself, seems to have warmed into activity and circulation various other volumes of similar reminiscences that must have been hibernating for one or two generations in the family archives, or have otherwise fallen into temporary oblivion; for in many cases one is inclined to wonder why authentic documents of such value and interest were not sooner produced.

The latest example of this class of Memoirs, belonging to the Revolutionary or Napoleonic cycle, is to be found in the Adventures of A. Moreau de Jonnes, who died in 1870 at the age of ninety-two, having been for fifty years a member of the Institut and a great authority on statistics. 'We should never have supposed,' says M. Leon Say in his preface to this book, 'that Moreau had been the hero of warlike adventures, or that he might possibly have been placed in a line with Marbot.' The men of M. Say's generation who knew Marbot were quite unaware, he adds, that here was a naval and colonial Marbot, whose fighting life was one of the strangest of stories. M. Say's preface seems to be intended as a guarantee of this story's authenticity, though he notices casually the remarkable fact that 'on every occasion when Moreau is on the brink of destruction, it is his luck to be saved by a pretty girl'; also that 'a charming portrait-gallery might be made of the women who, between 1793 and 1805, rescued this hardy rover, who was both sailor and soldier, from death by sword or sickness in divers parts of the world,' from the West India Islands to the banks of the Thames. His guarantee must be accepted; yet if this book had not been the genuine autobiography of a known personage, there would really be nothing to distinguish it from the historic novel, in which an imaginary person, such as Thackeray's Esmond, describes well-known scenes of history as an eye-witness and actor in them. Moreau was present at the great naval engagement of June 1, 1794; at the hanging of Parker, the ringleader of the famous mutiny at the Nore, when he was saved by Parker's widow; he was in Bantry Bay with the ships of Hoche's unlucky expedition; he landed with Humbert in Donegal, and saw the Race of Castlebar; he had some marvellous experiences in the West Indies, and everywhere the devotion of women facilitated his hairbreadth escapes. There need be no irony in repeating that avowed fiction can have no chance at all in competition with literature of this class.

'Times are changed,' observes M. Leon Say in his preface. 'The taste of the public of our own day grows more and more keen for the romance of the cloak and rapier, when the heroes relate their own adventures. The authentic Memoirs of the d'Artagnans of our own century are now preferred even to the works of Alexandre Dumas, so dear to our youth.' Undoubtedly they must be preferred, for being more real than the most realistic novel, and just as full of fascinating adventures, the Memoir is superior precisely at those points which have given the modern romance an advantage over its more conventional predecessors. There may be consolation for the novelist in the reflection that the fund from which these Memoirs are drawn must soon be running low, whereas the resources of fiction are comparatively inexhaustible. In the meantime one result, already perceptible, will be that the novel will tend more and more to imitate the personal memoir, by reverting to the autobiographical form which, since Defoe's day, has always been fiction's most effective disguise, permitting the author to efface himself completely, while it gives the whole composition an air of dramatic vigour. It will have been observed that the most vivid modern English romances, from Barry Lyndon and Esmond to John Inglesant, Kidnapped, and The Master of Ballantrae, are all written as the direct narratives of men who have taken a comparatively secondary or even humble share in great transactions. On the other hand, the famous characters who stand in the foremost line of history, and who were the delight and ornament of the elder romances, must now be struck out of the repertory of the modern story-teller, since the public now will no longer tolerate ancient or mediaeval heroes, while the great men of recent times have been too often photographed. The only novelist of our own day who has attempted with some success to draw thinly-veiled portraits of contemporary celebrities is Disraeli, and his whole style and treatment show him to be a true-bred descendant of the old romantic stock.

Our argument is, therefore, that various causes and tendencies, the change of environment, the limitation of the average reader's experiences, his taste for accuracy, his rejection of tradition, convention, anachronism and improbabilities, the extension of exact knowledge and the critical spirit, have all combined to limit the sphere of the Novel of Adventure and to check the free sweep of its inventive genius. To these conditions the first-class artist can accommodate himself; but for the average writer they serve fatally to expedite his descent into the regions of everyday life, among all the emotions known to middle-class folk, from murders, bankruptcies, and railway accidents down to their religious doubts and the psychology of their love-making.

* * * * *

Against all these adverse circumstances the Novel of Adventure strives gallantly, and, of late years, with such conspicuous success, that it is difficult to decide whether the tide of popular inclination has not turned against the Novel of Manners. This branch of the great story-telling family has, as we know, a long descent and an illustrious pedigree, although for our present purpose we need not go back further than the eighteenth century, to Gil Blas in France and Tom Jones in England. It will be found that these masterpieces consist principally of a series of scenes and comical or semi-tragical situations, rather loosely strung together on the thread of the experiences undergone by the principal personages. The main object is not so much ingenuity of plot as the presentation with much humour, some strokes of caricature, and a touch of pathos, of morals and manners, of public abuses and private vices, the way of living and standard of thinking, the distinctive prejudices and ingrained beliefs, that characterised different classes at a time when their ideas and habits were often in sharp contrast. The sketches are admirably done, the conversation is full of wit, the whole work may be relied upon as a faithful though coarsely drawn picture of contemporary society. Fielding constantly makes a halt in his narrative to moralise and discourse ironically with the reader, in a vein that was reopened a century later by Thackeray, and by him pretty nearly exhausted, for at any rate it has since been closed.

Mr. Raleigh's book contains a just and discriminating appreciation of Fielding's place in the line of great novelists, and of the strong formative influence that his work exercised over the early development of what is now called Naturalism. This note is struck, as he points out, in the invocation at the beginning of the thirteenth book of Tom Jones, addressed to Experience, to the inspiration which is derived from what one has actually seen and known among all sorts and conditions of men:

'Others before him had seen and known these things, but in Fielding's pages they are for the first time introduced, with no loss of reality, to subserve the ends of fiction; common life is the material of the story, but it is handled here for the first time with the freedom and imagination of a great artist.'[4]

And here, we may add, is the fruitful and vigorous stock out of which has since radiated that immense growth of realistic novels which now tends to overshadow and supersede the earlier species of romance literature.

But Fielding's style is unblushingly masculine; his scenes are in the street, the tavern, the sponging-house, and other places unmentionable. By the end of his century the Novel of Manners had fallen into very different hands, and to these it owes mainly the shaping, both as to tone and subject, that decisively laid down its course of future development. The electricity of that stormful period which comprises the last years of the eighteenth and the opening of the nineteenth century seems to have generated an efflorescence of high original capacity in the department of imagination as well as of action. Nevertheless nothing is more remarkable, probably nothing was less expected, than the sudden accession of women to the first rank of popular novelists. Miss Burney, Miss Edgeworth, Miss Austen (not to mention Miss Ferrier), entered upon the same field from different points and divided it among them. They may be said to have virtually created the decent story of contemporary life, the light satirical pictures of familiar folk, the representation of ordinary society in the form of a delicate comedy, which rose to the pitch of racy humour when the scenes and characters were Irish. Under the touch of this feminine genius convention vanishes altogether; the painting is direct from nature; the plot and incidents are saturated with probability; the personages might be met at the corner of any street in town or village; the very voice, gesture, and language are almost ludicrously familiar. No heroics, not much use of the pathetic; very slight landscape-painting and background; no psychology; there is no systematic attempt to introduce, under the story's disguise, the serious discussion of social, political, or polemical questions.

For an artist who deals so largely with country life, the absence of landscape-painting in Miss Austen is very noticeable. The fine vein of satire that pervades all her work, the constant presence of the human element, leave her no room for expatiating on the aspects of nature; and indeed she was manifestly impatient with enthusiasts over the picturesque. She only touched upon such tastes in order to bring out character:

'"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind; and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning."

'"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fair prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles; I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower, and a troop of tidy happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world."'[5]

There can be no doubt, indeed, that in the novels of this period two main features of the modern story, the word-painting of scenery and the analysis of subjective emotions, are conspicuously absent. Yet among the manifold causes to which may be ascribed the wide recent expansion of the Novel of Manners, we may well reckon the decisive impulse that it received from these famous authoresses. They were, in fact, the founders of the dominion which women bid fair to establish over this class of fiction, where they are already extending it to a degree that threatens to evict the men. Various circumstances have co-operated toward this curious literary revolution. The conventional romance, though apparently flourishing, was in their time on the brink of a decline; and as women have never succeeded in the Novel of Adventure—for the obvious reason that their tastes and experiences are opposed to success—they had no difficulty in abandoning a decaying school, and in throwing all their freshness of mind and subtlety of observation into the department which precisely suited their idiosyncrasy. The spread of education among female readers and writers has undoubtedly aided them. And thus the rise of feminine novelists has operated as a formidable contingent of fresh troops that has joined the camp of Manners, to which alliance it may be noticed that, with very few exceptions, the women have faithfully adhered. For although in the last century Mrs. Radcliffe had revived, as Mr. Raleigh observes, the Romance proper, and Miss Jane Porter claimed in the first years of this century the honour of having invented the historical romance, women have been practically superseded in this class of literature, so far as it survives, by men, George Eliot's Romola being the only notable exception. The true representatives of female novelists are now the leaders of that school which confines itself to minute observation, whether of outward facts or inward feeling, and which is above all things devoted to the close delineation of contemporary society. The analysis of character within the range of ordinary experience, the play of civilised emotion, the vicissitudes of grief or joy in the parsonage, the ball-room, and the village, the troubled course of legitimate love-making, have all contributed the congenial material whereby the Novel of Manners treated realistically, as the phrase goes, has been moulded by the adroit hands of women.

We do not forget that the most remarkable Mannerists that have appeared in this century were male authors—Thackeray and Dickens. But we are not now attempting to survey the whole field of modern English fiction, or to assign to every star its place in that wide firmament. Our aim is only to indicate the main lines of filiation that have produced the prevailing novel of the day. The permanent influence of the two great artists who have been mentioned has not been, we think, proportionate to the rare and original value of their work. Both of them had many imitators in their lifetime and for a little time afterward; but before they died they were both showing symptoms of loss of power; and one could see that the special fibre or faculty that distinguished them was becoming overstrained; it was betraying effort and exaggeration. In their latest productions their peculiar qualities became mannerisms, of which readers soon began to be weary; and this may partly account for the speedy subsequent diversion of the popular taste into other channels. At any rate they did not found an enduring school, like Jane Austen, of whom it may be said that a great proportion of those novels of ordinary society which fill annually the lists of circulating libraries may be referred to her work as their type and forerunner. The novels of Anthony Trollope, for example, follow very much the same range of subject, the same level of emotion and incident; they consist mainly of satirical yet good-humoured descriptions of middle-class life in the country, the suburbs, and occasionally in the higher walks of society—they are always decorous and never dull, but they never rise to the note of romance or adventure. It may even be added, in further proof of Trollope's literary ancestry, that the predominant quality of these very clever but eminently commonplace stories, with their interminable flirtations and their amusing dialogues which might have been reported by phonograph, is essentially feminine.

Our view is, therefore, that three famous women authors accomplished for the Novel of Manners very much what Scott at the same period did for the Novel of Adventure; they stamped its lasting form and shaped its subsequent development. And in both classes, in tales of adventure as of society, we may detect clearly the rising spirit of what has been since called Realism or Naturalism, the discarding of convention, the abandonment of mere attitudes for action studied from the life, the direct appropriation of material from surrounding facts and perceptible feelings, from the familiar humours and concerns of everyday existence. In Le Roman Naturaliste, by M. Brunetiere, one chapter is allotted to English Naturalism, and the author declares that the standard of Naturalism was raised in 1859 by the author of Adam Bede, quoting certain passages in which George Eliot, he says, has distinctly preached the fundamental doctrines of that school. Undoubtedly George Eliot declared her purpose to be the rendering of a faithful account of men and things as they mirrored themselves in her mind. 'I feel as much bound,' she says, 'to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box narrating my evidence on oath'; and she set up as her ideal 'this rare precious quality of truthfulness, for which I delight in many Dutch paintings.' But the cardinal virtue of this fine and sombre genius lay in her power of raising Realism to a high artistic level, of diffusing a poetic light over humble scenes, of touching the deeper and vital relations of common things. In Charlotte Bronte, again, we have Naturalism throwing out a fresh shoot of great vigour and originality; the old-fashioned masculine hero is supplanted by a heroine who strives against adverse circumstance upon an ordinary, often an humble, plane of society, never travelling for a moment beyond the possibilities of everyday existence. This ominous dismissal of the male hero from his previous position in the centre of the story's movement may be taken as a sign that he is not of so much account in the sphere of domestic fiction as he was erst in the arena of perilous adventure. It is true that mankind is still glorified by Ouida, a lady who may yet be occasionally found sitting, almost alone, by the shores of old Romance; but with Mrs. Gaskell, Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Broughton, and even Miss Braddon, the majority of their leading characters may be said to be female. And the most deservedly popular of our latest novels by women is Marcella.

We must not be understood to maintain that the Novel of Manners has been, or is being, completely monopolised, as a department of light literature, by women, for of course there are many men who are achieving success in that field, among whom Henry James holds a high place for distinction and delicacy of workmanship. And among certain special branches in which women have not as yet competed at all, we may mention the Sporting Novel, where provincial manners and the humour of the coverside have been portrayed by Surtees with wonderful exactitude and a kind of coarse yet irresistible comicality that remind one of Fielding. It is true that he never moralises, as Fielding does; but then the interjection by the author of moral reflections went out, as we have said, with Thackeray. The description of landscape drawn from nature occupies large and extending space in the latter-day novel of manners, where it is used very sparingly as subservient to character or situation, but commonly as an illustration or pictorial background. Let us compare the two following extracts. The first is from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park:

'Now we shall have no more rough road, Miss Crawford; our difficulties are over. The rest of the way is such as it ought to be. Mr. Rushworth has made it since he succeeded to the estate.—Here begins the village. Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great House as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. There is the parsonage, a tidy-looking house, and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people. Those are almshouses, built by some of the family. To the right is the steward's house; he is a very respectable man. Now we are coming to the lodge gates; but we have nearly a mile through the park still. It is not ugly, you see, at this end; there is some fine timber, but the situation of the house is dreadful. We go down hill to it for half a mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill-looking place if it had a better approach.'

The second is from the opening pages of Mrs. Humphry Ward's Marcella:

'She looked out upon a broad and level lawn, smoothed by the care of centuries, flanked on either side by groups of old trees—some Scotch firs, some beeches, a cedar or two—groups where the slow selective hand of Time had been at work for generations, developing here the delightful roundness of quiet mass and shade, and there the bold caprice of bare fir trunks and ragged branches, standing back against the sky. Beyond the lawn stretched a green descent indefinitely long, carrying the eye indeed almost to the limit of the view, and becoming from the lawn onwards a wide irregular avenue, bordered by beeches of a splendid maturity, ending at last in a far distant gap where a gate—and a gate of some importance—clearly should have been, yet was not. The size of the trees, the wide uplands of the falling valley to the left of the avenue, now rich in the tints of harvest, the autumn sun pouring steadily through the vanishing mists, the green breadth of the vast lawn, the unbroken peace of wood and cultivated ground, all carried with them a confused general impression of well-being and of dignity. Marcella drew it in—this impression—with avidity. Yet at the same moment she noticed involuntarily the gateless gap at the end of the avenue, the choked condition of the garden paths on either side of the lawn, and the unsightly tufts of grass spotting the broad gravel terrace beneath her window.'

In the former passage, which is brimful of humorous suggestion, the writer is exclusively intent upon setting out points of human character in an effective light. The latter is a highly-finished piece of word-painting, taken direct, as an artist would take a picture, from a landscape that lay before the writer, and as such it is excellently done; but, except for the slight indication of a neglected estate, it stands apart from the plot or the play of character, and might be bound up with the volume or omitted like a woodcut. Undoubtedly the art of descriptive writing, which demands poetic feeling and a delicate hand upon the organ of language, is practised finely by the best of our modern novelists, and is a valuable element of their popularity. Yet there are signs that it is already threatened by the inexorable demands of the lower realism, which takes slight account of the intimations that can be conveyed or the emotions that may be roused by using language as an instrument for the interpretation of nature, and requires to be shown the thing itself, as it is seen in a photograph. 'The tendency of the times,' we are told, 'seems to be to read less and less, and to depend more upon pictorial records of events.' And the author from whom we quote[6] proceeds to show how a few lines of sketch at once elucidate and vivify whole pages of word-painting. He goes further, and relates how 'the fallacy of the accepted system of describing landscapes, buildings, and the like in words,' was proved experimentally by reading slowly a description of a castle, mountains, and a river winding to the sea, from one of the Waverley novels, before a number of students, three of whom proceeded to indicate on a black board the leading lines of the mental picture produced by the words. The drawings were all different and all wrong, as might indeed have been confidently foretold; for the two sister arts of the pen and of the pencil cannot possibly interpret each other reciprocally after this fashion, or produce identical effects by their widely differing methods.

Yet it is not impossible that the lower ranks of writers, who exaggerate the prevailing fashion of exactly reproducing what any one can see and hear, may find themselves outbid and overpowered on this ground by illustration in line and colour. In this direction, indeed, lies the danger of extreme Realism. It wages war against Romance, which subsists upon idealistic conceptions of noble thought and action; it pretends to hold up a true mirror to society, because it reflects faithfully and without discrimination, like a photograph, the street, the club, or the drawing-room, and arranges dramatically the commonplace talk of everyday people. All this is fatal to high art, in writing as in painting; nor can very clever dialogue, ingenious situations, variety of style and subject, or even a high average morality, preserve such literature from triviality and gradual degradation.

* * * * *

It is the saying of a French writer, that the novel of to-day has abjured both the past and the future, and lives wholly in the present. We are so far of his opinion in regard to the past, that we doubt, for reasons already given, whether the reading public can be induced to travel backward into distant periods and unfamiliar scenes, even though facts, anecdotes, costume, and other accessories be scrupulously and historically exact. The future is a domain upon which the novelist has rarely trespassed; but in close propinquity to it lies theologic speculation, and we have not long ago witnessed the fascination that can be exercised over a multitude of readers by a novel which described the unhappiness brought upon the peaceful home of an Anglican clergyman who was driven forth from his parsonage by imbibing some tincture of modern Biblical criticism. The sensation, for so it must be called, produced by Robert Elsmere, illustrated the degree to which in these days popularity depends on hitting the intellectual level of the general reader, and on touching the fancy or the conscience of that very numerous class whose culture is of the medium sort, neither high nor low. For while it seems certain that to a great many people the views and arguments which overthrew Elsmere's orthodoxy and brought him to martyrdom must have seemed profound, daring, and novel, to others they are but too familiar and by no means fresh. To some of us, indeed, the overpowering effect produced on Elsmere's mind by his remarkable discoveries may be not unlike the awe and gratitude with which an African chief receives the present of an obsolete cannon. But the main reason why the future is no better field than the distant past for the modern novelist, is that in both cases there is a want of actuality, and that the positive temper of the age requires in either case something more definite and verifiable.

It may be affirmed, moreover, as a general observation, that the spirit of realism is hostile to the Novel with a Purpose, whether it be that species which undertakes to argue or instruct under the cloak of agreeable fiction, or that other species, much cultivated by Dickens in his later works, which attacks antiquated institutions and public abuses in a story so contrived as to expose their absurdity and injustice. There is an air of artificiality about such compositions which damages the artistic illusion, the photographic rendering of actual life, upon which the author relies, because it throws over the stage a shadow of his own personality. For one tendency of excessive realism is to encourage an approximation between literary and theatrical effects, since the whole interest becomes concentrated upon figures acting and moving under a strong light in the foreground of scenes carefully adjusted, so that anything which betrays the author's presence interrupts the performance.

Yet although our contemporary novelist is thus subjected, in respect of his period and his repertory, to limitations from which his predecessors were free, there has never been a time when English fiction has exhibited, in competent hands, greater fertility of invention and resource, or so high an average proficiency in the art of writing. The vastly increased demand for amusement in modern life has stimulated the production of light literature, which is now cultivated far more widely than heretofore, like tea, and the market is flooded with an article of sound moderate quality. At this moment we have in very truth a democracy of letters, for while no mighty masters overtop the rest, the number of writers who stand on an equality of merit, who can produce one or more excellent stories, is very large. Their field has widened with the expansion of British enterprise; they can draw their plots, descriptions, and characters from the colonies, from Africa, from the South Sea Islands, or from India; and it will be observed that not only the tale of adventure, but also the quiet story of domestic interiors and family troubles, is easily acclimatised, and gains something from a sparing use of variety of dialect and landscape. As for the Novel of Adventure, it is drawing copious sustenance from these outlying regions. For although it is only from first favourites that the home-keeping reader will tolerate an elaborate romance about Africa or the Pacific, he has taken a very strong liking to short stories of scenes and actions strictly contemporaneous, written in a rough, vigorous, and utterly unconventional style, which convey to his mind impressions as distinctly as a set of pictorial sketches.

We believe that this style, which retains a strong flavour of its American origin (it can hardly be dated earlier than Bret Harte), may be reckoned to be peculiar to the light literature of the English language. We are not aware that it prevails to any extent in other countries; for although the short story of love, intrigue, and manners in general has flourished from mediaeval times, and at this moment is almost exclusively confined to these subjects in France, the class of works to which we are now referring differs entirely in subject and style. In England and America the roving life of the colonies, the backwoods, the Western States, and the Indian frontiers has created an unique school of realistic fiction in which Mr. Kipling is at this moment the chief professor. There is moreover a manifest affinity between these short prose narratives and the strain of racy strenuous versification upon the quaint unvarnished notions and hardy exploits of the bush, the prairie, or the frontier, by which Bret Harte, Lindsay Gordon, and again Kipling have attained celebrity. As these poems echo the far-off ring of the ancient ballad, so we may venture to surmise that the short prose story of adventure, which appeals to modern taste by its vivid reality, its terseness of style, and its picturesque outline, represents the latest form reached by Romance in its long evolution. Such a tale will squeeze into fifty or a hundred pages what Fenimore Cooper or G. P. R. James would have distended into three volumes of slow-moving narrative, whereby infinite labour is saved to the hasty and indolent reader of these railroad days.

Here, in short, we perceive the influence of that very characteristic school of contemporary art, which we know to have always existed, but to which men have recently given the exceedingly modern title of Impressionist,—the school of authors who desire to strike the imagination vividly and with a few sharp strokes, grouping their figures in a strong light, rounding off their compact story upon a small canvas, and rejecting every detail that is not strictly accessory to the main purpose. Already it is beginning to be said in France that Zola with his laborious particularism has passed his climacteric of fashion, and that the swift impressionist is sailing in on a fair wind of spreading popularity. Now in France, though no longer in England, the critics still do their duty; they are not merely, to borrow a phrase from Coleridge, the eunuchs who guard the temple of the Muses; they are often prolific authors who exercise great influence upon public opinion, so that their forecast of the course and tendencies of fiction is worth bearing in mind. We ourselves are ever a restless, bustling, far-wandering folk, great lovers of fiction and travel, who not only carry forth the English language into the uttermost parts of the earth, to be moulded in strange dialects to queer uses, but also bring back fresh ideas and incidents, and various aspects of a many-sided world-ranging life. If, as has been often asserted, literature be the collective expression of the ideas and aspirations, the tastes, feelings, and habits of the generation which produces it, we may not be altogether wrong in treating the short highly finished story, whether of adventure or manners, as the impress and reflection of modern English society. But no operation is more delicate than the endeavour to trace the subtle connection between constant modifications of literary form and the pressure of its ever-changing moral and material environment.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The list of these contributions at page 477 of his Life is not complete.

[2] (1) The English Novel. By Walter Raleigh. Being a short Sketch of its History from the Earliest Times to the Appearance of 'Waverley.' London, 1894. (2) Aventures de Guerre au temps de la Republique et du Consulat. Par A. Moreau de Jonnes. Preface de M. Leon Say. Paris, Guillaumin et Cie., 1893.—Quarterly Review, October 1894.

[3] Now Sir Walter Raleigh.

[4] Page 179.

[5] Sense and Sensibility.

[6] The Art of Illustration, by Henry Blackburn, 1894.



ENGLISH LETTER-WRITING IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY[7]

The preservation and posthumous publication of private correspondence has supplied modern society with one of its daintiest literary luxuries. The art of letter-writing is, of course, no recent invention; it reached a high level of excellence, like almost every other branch of refined expression in prose or verse, in the older world of Rome. Nevertheless, the exceeding rarity of the specimens that have come down to us from those times is an important element of their value; while in our own day the letters of eminent persons fill many book-shelves in every decent library, and their quantity increases out of all proportion to their quality.

It may be said, generally, of fine letter-writing that it is a distinctive product of a high civilisation, denoting the existence of a cultured and leisurely class, implying the conditions of secure intercourse, confidence, sociability, many common interests, and that peculiar delight in the stimulating interchange of ideas and feelings which is one characteristic of modern life. The language of a country must have thrown off its archaic stiffness, must have acquired suppleness and variety; the writer's instrument must be a style that combines familiarity with distinction, correctness of thought with easy diction. It is from the lack of these conditions that the Asiatic world has given us no such letters; the material as well as the intellectual environment has been wanting. For similar reasons the middle ages of Europe produced us none of the kind with which we are now dealing; the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries have left us very few samples of them; and since in this article we propose to treat only of English letter-writers, we may affirm that the art did not flourish in England until the eighteenth century, when according to certain authorities it rose to something like perfection. It is a notable observation of Hume's that Swift is the first Englishman who wrote polite prose; and Swift is one of the earliest, as he is still one of the pleasantest, writers of private correspondence that has taken a permanent place in our literature.

We can understand without difficulty why the eighteenth century was a period favourable to the growth of excellent letter-writing. There were very few newspapers, and those which appeared were low in tone and ill-informed—political pamphleteers abounded and the essayists on morals and manners were numerous—but it was chiefly by private hands that accurate information and ideas were circulated in a small and highly cultivated society with an exquisite taste in literature, with a keen interest in public affairs, and a very strong appetite for philosophic discussion. Side by side with the intellectual conditions we may take into account the national circumstances of that age. The post was expensive, with a slow and intermittent circulation, so that letters, being infrequent, were worth writing carefully and at length; while correspondents were nevertheless not separated by distances of time and space sufficient to weaken or extinguish the desire of interchanging thoughts and news. For it is within the experience of most of us that the difficulty of keeping up regular correspondence increases with distance; that friends who meet seldom write to each other rarely; and that, although letters are most valued by those who are far from home and long absent, yet it is precisely in the case of prolonged separation that the chain of friendly communication is apt gradually to slacken until it becomes entirely disconnected. So long, indeed, as men depended for news on private sources, there was always a kind of obligation to write; but the telegraph and the newspaper have now monopolised the Intelligence Department. On the whole, it may be concluded that the art of letter-writing flourishes best within a limited radius of distance, among persons living neither very near to each other nor yet far apart, who meet occasionally yet not often, and who are within the same range of social, political, and intellectual influences. Its best period is probably before the advent of copious indefatigable journalism, before men have taken to publishing letters in the morning papers, and when they have not yet acquired the economical habit of reserving all their valuable ideas and information for signed articles in some monthly review.

It was under these conditions that the letters of eminent men in the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century were generally written. In the former century letter-writing was undoubtedly a recognised form of high literary workmanship, with close affinities on one side to the diary or private journal, and on another to the essay. Long, continuous, and intimate correspondence, as in the case of Swift and Walpole, gravitated toward the journal; dissertations on literature, politics, and manners were more akin to the essay; while in the hands of the novelist the journalistic series of letters took artificial development into a method of story-telling. On the other side, the tendency of epistles to become essays reached its climax in the letters of Burke, some of which are only distinguishable from brilliant pamphlets by the formal address and subscription.

With the nineteenth century begins an era of amusing and animated letter-writing. The classic and somewhat elaborate style of the preceding age falls into disuse; the essayist draws gradually back into a department of his own; the new school reflects, as is natural, the general tendency of English literature toward a livelier and more varied movement, with a wider range of subjects and sympathies. In his letters, as in his poetry, the precursor of the Naturalistic school was Cowper, who could be simple without being trivial, was never prosy and often pathetic, and who possessed the rare art of stamping on his reader's mind an enduring impression of quiet and somewhat commonplace society in the English midlands. That poets should usually have been good letter-writers is probably no more than might have been expected, for imagination and word-power must tell everywhere; yet the list is so long as to be worth noticing. Swift, Pope, Gray, and Cowper in the last century, and in the present century Scott, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Southey, have all left us distinctive and copious correspondence. Wordsworth may, perhaps, be classed as a notable exception; for Wordsworth's letters are dull, being at their best more like essays or literary dissertations than the free outpouring of intimate thought. They have none of the charm which comes from the revelation of private doubt or passionate affection that is ordinarily stifled by convention; they are, on the contrary, eminently respectable, deliberate, and carefully expressed. 'It has ever been the habit of my mind,' he writes, 'to trust that expediency will come out of fidelity to principles, rather than to seek my principles of action in calculations of expediency.' This is what the Americans call 'high toned'; but the metal is too heavy for the light calibre of a letter.

Whether Tennyson had the gift of letter-writing we shall be able to judge when his biography appears; though we may anticipate that it will contain some things worthy of a great master in the art of language. The publication of letters deriving their sole or principal interest from the general reputation of the writer is indeed quite legitimate and intelligible. They are often biographical documents of considerable value, apart from all questions of style and intellectual quality; they can be handled and arranged to exhibit a man's character; they may be used as negative proofs of reserve and reticence, as showing his mental attitude toward various subjects, his domestic habits and virtues, or merely as annals of where he went and what he did. They may be carefully selected and revised for occasional insertion at different stages of a long biography, where the editor sees fit to let the dead man speak for himself; they may be employed as an advocate chooses the papers in his brief, for attack or defence. Or they may be produced without commentary, sifting, or omissions, as the unvarnished presentation of a man's private life and particular features which a candid friend commits to the judgment of posterity. Or, lastly, they may be mere relics, not much more in some instances than curiosities, valued for much the same reasons that would set a high price on the autograph or the inkstand of a celebrated man, on his furniture, his house, or anything that was his. In proportion as little or nothing is known of such a man's private life, every scrap of his writing increases in value; and so a letter of Shakespeare or of Dante would be priceless. But of Shakespeare no letter has come down to us; and of Dante not even, we believe, his signature; though we do know something of what Dante did and thought, for his religion and his politics are manifested in his poems; whereas Shakespeare's works have the divine attribute of impersonality. Here is one supreme poet of whom the world would gladly hear anything; but nothing remains to feed the modern appetite, which is never so well gratified as when a rare and sublime genius stands revealed as the writer of ordinary letters upon petty domesticities.

It is evidently impossible to draw a line that shall accurately divide the interest that men feel in a celebrated person from the interest that they take in his posthumous correspondence; so as to determine how far the letters are good in themselves. When the writer is well known, he and his writings are inseparable. Yet some attempt must be made, for the purposes of this article, to distinguish critically between letters that are readable and will survive by their own literary quality, as fine specimens of the art, and those which are preserved and published on the score of the writer's name and fame, with little aid from their merits. In which category are we to place the letters of Keats, including those that have been very recently unearthed by diligent literary excavation? His poetry is so exquisite, so radiant with imaginative colour, that to see such a man in the light of common day, among the ordinary cares and circumstances of the lower world, is necessarily a descent and a disillusion. He was young, he was poor, he had few acquaintances worthy of him; he roved about England and Scotland without adventures; his letters were perfectly familiar and unsophisticated. As Mr. Sidney Colvin has written, in an excellent preface to an edition of 1891, 'he poured out to those he loved his whole self indiscriminately, generosity and fretfulness, ardour and despondency, boyish petulance side by side with manful good sense, the tattle of suburban parlours with the speculations of a spirit unsurpassed for native gift and insight.' Every now and then the level of his easygoing discourse is lit up by a flash of wit, and occasionally by a jet of brilliant fancies among which some of his finest poetry may be traced in the process of incubation. His whole mind is set upon his art; for that only, and for a few intimate friends, does he care to live and work; his letters often tell us when and where, under what influences, his best pieces were composed; one likes to know, for example, that the Ode to Autumn came to him on a fine September day during a Sunday's walk over the stubbles near Winchester. His criticisms are always good, and their form picturesque. He compares human life to a chamber that becomes gradually darkened, in which one door after another is set open, showing only dim passages leading out into darkness. This, he says, is the burden of the mystery which Wordsworth felt and endeavoured to explore; and he thinks that Wordsworth is deeper than Milton, though he attributes this, justly, more to 'the general and gregarious advance of intellect, than individual greatness of mind.' So far as spontaneity and the free unguarded play of sportive and serious ideas, taken as they came uppermost, are tests and conditions of excellence in this kind of writing, Keats's letters must rank high. Nevertheless there is still room for doubt whether these juvenile productions would have left any but a most ephemeral mark apart from their connection with his poetry.

In the case of other poets, who were his contemporaries, the verdict will be different. They are all to be classed, though not in the same line, as writers of letters that have great original and intrinsic value. Scott's letters exhibit his generous and masculine nature; the buoyancy of his spirits in good or bad fortune; and that romantic attachment to old things and ideas which hardened latterly into inveterate Toryism. Southey's prose writings will probably survive his metrical compositions, which indeed have already fallen into oblivion. There is life in a poet so long as he is quoted; but no verses or even lines of Southey have fixed themselves in the popular memory. And whereas the letters of Keats disclose a mind filled with the sense of beauty and rich with poetic seedlings that blossomed into beautiful flowers, in Southey's correspondence we discern only an erudite man of taste labouring diligently upon epics which he expected to be immortal. The letters of Byron stand upon broader ground, because Byron was so much more of a personage than either Keats, or Southey, or Wordsworth. They supply, in the first place, an invaluable, and indeed indispensable, interpretation of his poetry, which is to a great extent the imaginative and romantic presentation of his own feelings, fortunes, and peculiar experiences. Secondly, they are full of good sayings and caustic criticism; they touch upon the domain of politics and society as well as upon literature; they give the opinions passed upon contemporary events and persons, during a stirring period of European history, by a man of genius who was also a man of the world; they float on the current of a strangely troubled existence. In these letters we have an important contribution to our acquaintance with literary circles and London society, and with several notable figures on either stage, during the years immediately before and after Waterloo. They were published in an introduction to the works of a famous poet; yet, although they cannot be detached from his poetry, they possess great independent merits of their own. They echo the sounds of revelry by night; they strike a note of careless vivacity, the tone of a man who is at home alike in good and bad company, whose judgment on books and politics, on writers and speakers, is always fresh, bold, and original. We may lament that the spirit of reckless devilry and dissipation should have entered into Byron; and the lessons to be drawn from the scenes and adventures in Venice and elsewhere, described for the benefit of Tom Moore, are very different from the moral examples furnished by the tranquil and well-ordered correspondence of our own day. Yet the world would have been poorer for the loss of this memorial of an Unquiet Life, and the historical gallery of literature would have missed the full-length portrait of an extraordinary man.

The letters of Coleridge, like their writer, belong to another class, yet, like Byron's, they have the clear-cut stamp of individuality. Here again we have the man himself, with his intensity of feeling, his erratic moods and singular phraseology, the softness of his heart and the weakness of his will. He belongs to the rapidly diminishing class of notable men who have freely poured their real sentiments and thoughts out of their brain into their letters, who have given their best (without keeping their worst) to their correspondents, so that the letters abound with pathetic and amusing confessions, and with ideas that bear the stamp of the author's singular idiosyncrasy. The Memorials of Coleorton are a collection of letters written to the Beaumont family by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, and Scott; the reader may pass from one to another by taking them as they come; the book is like the menu of a dinner with varied courses. Wordsworth's letters are the product of cultivated taste, a fine eye for rural scenery, and lofty moral sentiment. Southey is the high-class litterateur, with a strong dash of Toryism in Church and State; in both there is a total absence of eccentricity, but in neither case is the attention forcibly arrested or any striking passage retained. When Coleridge is served up the flavour of unique expression and a sort of divine simplicity is unmistakable; he is alternately indignant and remorseful; he soars to themes transcendent, and sinks anon to the humble details of his errors and embarrassments. Uncongenial society plunged him into such dark depression that he is not ashamed to confess that he found 'bodily relief in weeping.'

'On Tuesday evening Mr. R——, the author of ——, drank tea and spent the evening with us at Grasmere; and this had produced a very unpleasant effect upon my spirits.... If to be a poet or man of genius entailed on us the necessity of housing such company in our bosoms, I would pray the very flesh off my knees to have a head as dark and unfurnished as Wordsworth's old Molly's.... If I believed it possible that the man liked me, upon my soul I should feel exactly as if I were tarred and feathered.'

And so on through the whole letter, with a comical energy of phrase that scorns reserve or compass in giving vent to the misery caused by uninteresting conversation. We may contrast this melancholy tea-drinking with Byron's rollicking account of a dinner with some friends 'of note and notoriety':

'Like other parties of the same kind, it was first silent, then talking, then argumentative, then disputatious, then unintelligible, then altogethery, then articulate, and then drunk. When we had reached the last step of this glorious ladder it was difficult to get down again without stumbling; and, to crown all, Kinnaird and I had to conduct Sheridan down a damned corkscrew staircase, which had been certainly constructed before the invention of fermented liquors, and to which no legs, however crooked, could possibly accommodate themselves. Both he and Coleman were, as usual, very good; but I carried away much wine, and the wine carried away my memory, so that all was hiccup and happiness for the last hour or so, and I am not impregnated with any of the conversation.'

We are, of course, not reviewing Byron or Coleridge; we are only giving samples by the way. Here are two great poets, remote from each other as the two poles in social circumstances and habit of mind, but at any rate alike in this one quality—that their life is in their letters, and that in such passages as these the genuine undisguised temperament of each writer stands forth in a relief that could only be brought out by his own unintentional master-strokes. For neither of them was aware that in these scenes he was describing his own character—though Byron may have intended to display his wit, and Coleridge may have been to some extent conscious of his own humour. In the way of literary criticism, again, Coleridge throws out the quaint and uncommon remark upon Addison's Essays, that they 'have produced a passion for the unconnected in the minds of Englishmen.' And he touches delicately upon the negative or barren side of the critical mind in his observation that the critics are the eunuchs that guard the temple of the Muses.

Of Shelley's letters, again, we may say that they are unconsciously autobiographical; they are confessions of character, spontaneous, unguarded, abounding with brilliancies and extravagances. They betray his shortcomings, but they attest his generosity and courage; they are the outpourings of a new spirit, who detests what would now be called Philistinism in literature and society; who does not stop to pick his words, or to mix water with the red wine of his enthusiasm. He abandons himself in his letters to the feelings of the moment; he ardently pursues his immediate object by sophistical arguments which convict himself but could never convince a correspondent, and which astonish and amuse the calm reader of after days. 'A kind of ineffable, sickening disgust seizes my mind when I think of this most despotic, most unrequired fetter which prejudice has forged to confine its energies.... Anti-matrimonialism is as necessarily connected with scepticism as if religion and marriage began their course together,' for both are the fruit of odious superstition. He was endeavouring to persuade Harriet Westbrook to join him in testifying by example against the obsolete and ignoble ceremony of the marriage service, which he held to be a degradation that no one could ask 'an amiable and beloved female' to undergo. In Shelley's case, as in Byron's, the letters are of inestimable biographical value as witnesses to character, as reflecting the vicissitudes of a life which was to the writer more like the 'fierce vexation of a dream' than a well-spent leisurely existence, and as the sincere unstudied expression of his emotions. For all these reasons they are essential to a right appreciation of his magnificent poetry.

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