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On the modern productions in this walk of literature I am not, for many reasons, disposed to enlarge. I can not however omit paying a just tribute to the merit of two female writers of the
present day. Miss Burney, now Madame D'Arblay, is not without a portion of those talents which distinguished Smollett and Fielding, particularly the art of delineating character, with a better style ; and the ingenuity of Mrs. Radcliffe cannot be too much admired, particularly in the happy solutions which she affords of those tremendous scenes of horror with which she so successfully agitates the feelings of her readers. The Cæcilia of the former, and the Mysteries of Udolpho of the latter, are, in my opinion, their best performances.
It would be trifling to take notice of the shoals of novels which are annually thrown out upon the public; they are the wretched productions of brain-sick females just escaped from boarding-schools, or of miserable garretteers, who want genius and learning to gain a livelihood in any other department of literature.
Of the serious productions termed novels, the Rasselas of Dr. Johnson deservedly holds the first place; and among the shorter tales, those in the Spectator, Guardian, Rambler, and Adventurer, are excellent. Perhaps one of the best told stories in our language is that of Fidelia in the Adventurer, hy my late estimable friend Mrs. Chapone.
I cannot dismiss this subject without remarking on the excellence of one fictitious narrative, with which I know you to be well acquainted, I mean Robinson Crusoe. Admitting that the author might have received a hint from the adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the merit of the work is entirely independant to the outline of the story. It consists in the excitement which is afforded to industry, and the curious exercise of invention, exemplified in the various expedients of the hero for the supply of his necessities in the forlorn situation to which he is reduced. In this view the work is of inestimable value to the young; and not less so perhaps in the moral and religious reflections which are occasionally interspersed. The delineation of the feelings of the unhappy exile, at certain periods, is the work of a master, and it is the more forcible because perfectly natural.
Shall I mention under this head that extraordinary performance, “GWliver's Travels ?” It was evidently begun as a jeu d'esprit in ridicule of Dampier's Voyages, and the rage for reading the most exaggerated accounts of foreign countries, which at that time prevailed. The author, however, at last extended it to a political satire, and even to a satire on human nature itself. The two first voyages to Lilliput and Brobdignag, undoubtedly display the fancy of the author to the highest advantage. There is something there in which the imagination of the reader can accompany that of the author. When he transforms men into horses, and horses into men, the fiction is too violent, and no picture can be formed in the mind to realize the description. Without this, every effort of imagination must fail in the effect; and I believe most writers turn with disgust from this part
of the adventures of Gulliver. The voyage to Laputa, and the flying island, contains some excellent ironical animadversions on the science of his time, and I belicve would even excite a smile in a mathematician. Yet more I apprchend might have been made of the subject in the hands of Swift, if he had possessed a more profound acquaintance with the subjects he ridicules or been less in a hurry. Whiat would Swift have donc with the modern-self-created philosopher? But the task has been executed with scarcely less spirit, and in a more engaging style, by my excellent friend Miss Hainilton, in her “ Modern Philosophers.”
It is evident that the epistolary style may be adapted to alınost any of the departments of literature. In that may be taught all that is important in science and useful in life. A charming specimen we have of didactic epistles in the Letters of Lord Chesterfield to his Son; und of the narrative and descriptive in those already mentioned, of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Its force in historical composition is happily exemplified by the
History of England in a series of letters, originally attributed to Lord Lyttleton, but really written by a man of superior genius, Dr. Goldsmith; and in biography, in a work undeservedly neglected, Lord Orrery's Letters on Swift.
Epistolary writing, however, in the common, and therefore the just acceptation of the word, is confined to those compositions which serve to transact the common business of life, or to promote its most pleasing intercourses. In this point of view letter-writing is the most necessary, at the same time it is happily the most casy, of all literary accomplishments. All that is necessary is some perspicuity in arrangement, and a style unblemished by glaring faults.
I have in general found one caution only necessary to young persons of a tolerable education, in order to enable them to write a good letter, and that is not to attempt to be fine; but to let the current of their thoughts ilow naturally as they would in conversation, to endeasour to practice Swift's maxim of using “ proper words in their proper places.” Persons endued with much genius and fancy may play with metaphors and similies; but they must be managed with infinite address, not to destroy the simplicity, and even to obscure the spirit of a faniiliar çpistle. I cannot in this place onit to mention a most excellent rule of Mr. Shenstone's, from which I have often profited; if you wish to answer it letter with spirit, answer it as soon as possible after you have received it.
When I speak of letters of business, I would not be understood to recommend the usual forms of mercartile correspondence. The are too technical, too full of expletives, and not always clear. The best rule for a Jusiness letter is, to express the object in as few words as possible, in plain but not vulgar phrascology; and this I am convinced any well-bred man, who has clear ideas of his subject, may easily do, only using the phraseology which commonly occurs in genteel society.
A lctter of business is long or short according as the subject may require. On an occasion somewhat out of
the course of common affairs, there cannot be a finer specimen than the Epistle of Paul to Philemon, where there is not one redundant word, nor a sentence ill placed. But, without a prejudice from religion or education, St. Paul was the greatest master I have read, in all the excellencies of composition.
As it was very early necessary to men occaionally to communicate their thoughts to each other when separated by distance, examples of epistolary writing occur very early; there are several instances even in the Scriptures. The best collections of letters left us by the ancients are those of Cicero, Seneca and Pliny, all of them evidently written with a view immediate or remote to publication. The letters of Cicero are chiefly valuable as far as they are explanatory of events which occurred at a most important period of the history of Rome. They are the productions of an accomplished orator, who, however, from having been long in the habits of composition, probably wrote them with little previous study. But this must be admitted, that they are at least as highly polished as any other of his writings. Perhaps a man, who has a character at stake, ought not to be more slovenly in his letters than in any composition intended for the public.
Pliny is, ! confess, a more interesting writer than Cicero, though he chiefly treats of domestic scenes, or matters of taste and literaiure. More is to be learned from him of the private life an<l manners of the Romans than from any other writer. The letters of Pliny ure, however, more laboured than those eren of Cicero; wni i am inclined to think, that cpisiolary correspoirdence was at that period of infinitely more consejuence than at present. As the art of printing was then unknown, it was one of the modes which men of talents adopted for conveying their sentiments to posterity; and as the learned and the great all corresponded with each other, letters upon interesting subjects were certain to be preserved by others, if not by the authors themselves. Thus Seneca's epistles are to be regarded as a collection of essays or treatises on moral and philosophical
subjects. They are however less read than they deserve. They contain a morality so pure and so sublime, that I am inclined to credit the opinion that the author was at hear: a Christian. Besides this, you will find in thom many excellent practical precepts for the regulation of the studies as well as the conduct of young per
It is very remarkable that Seneca, who was the richest subject of his time, is in these letters continually declaiming in favour of poverty,
Among the French, Balzac and Voiture were long regarded as models of epistolary writing ; but the forIner is pompous and inflated; and in the latter there is such a continual affectation of wit and quaintness, that I have seldom read any thing that appeared to me more disgusting. Madame Sevigny has also been much extollel ; but I must differ from those who find much pleasure in drndging through the long series of her letters. I once attempted the task, but I found them so exquisitely trifling; so little of any thing to interest the understanding or to attract attention ; such an accumulation of empty chit-chat and idle gossip, that I conceived the perusal of them to be an absolute waste of time. Our Lady Mary Wortley Montague is a writer of a superior cast. There is thought, and wit and genius in all her letters, whether she relates her travels, or treats of any subject of taste and literature.
Mr. Pope seems to have formed his epistolary style upon the model of Voiture. It is therefore no wonder that it should in some measure partake of the faults of that writer. Indeed all the brilliancy of Mr. Pope's style, (and no man ever possessed more powers of language than he did) cannot compensate for the studied sentences, and constant affectation of wit, which disfigure the correspondence of Mr. Pope. In fact his letters are by far the most inferior of all his productions. The letters of Dean Swift, Bishop Atterbury, Lord Bolingbroke, and Lord Peterborough, published in the same collection, are more natural, and consequently better.