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ON BRITISH NOVELS AND ROMANCES, INTRODUCTORY TO A SERIES OF CRITICISMS ON THE LIVING NOVELISTs.
[New MonTHLY MAGAZINE.]
WE regard the authors of the best novels and romances as among the truest benefactors of their species. Their works have often conveyed, in the most attractive form, lessons of the most genial wisdom. But we do not prize them so much in reference to their immediate aim, or any individual traits of nobleness with which they may inform the thoughts, as for their general tendency to break up that cold and debasing selfishness with which the souls of so large a portion of mankind are encrusted. They give to a vast class, who by no means would be carried beyond the most contracted range of emotion, an interest in things out of themselves, and a perception of grandeur and of beauty, of which otherwise they might ever have lived unconscious. Pity for fictitious suf. ferings is, indeed, very inferior to that sympathy with the universal heart of man which inspires real self-sacrifice; but it is better even to be moved by its tenderness, than wholly to be ignorant of the joy of natural tears. How many are there for whom poesy has no charm, and who have derived only from romances those glimpses of disinterested heroism and ideal beauty, which alone “make them less forlorn,” in their busy career! The good housewife, who is employed all her life in the severest drudgery, has yet some glimmerings of a state and dignity above her station and age, and some dim vision of meek, angelic suffering, when she thinks of the well-thumbed volume of Clarissa Harlowe, which she found, when a girl, in some old recess, and read, with breathless eagerness, at stolen times and moments of hasty joy. The careworn lawyer or politician, encircled with all kinds of petty anxieties, thinks of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, which he devoured in his joyful school-days, and is once more young, and innocent, and happy. If the sternest puritan were acquainted with Parson Adams, or with Dr. Primrose, he could not hate the clergy. If novels are not the deepest teachers of humanity, they have, at least, the widest range. They lend to genius “lighter wings to fly.” They are read where Milton and Shakspeare are only talked of, and where even their names are never heard. They nestle gently beneath the covers of unconscious sofas, are read by .
fair and glistening eyes in moments snatched from repose, and beneath counters and shopboards minister delights “secret, sweet, and precious.” It is possible that, in particular instances, their effects may be baneful; but, on the whole, we are persuaded they are good. The world is not in danger of becoming too romantic. The golden threads of poesy are not too thickly or too closely interwoven with the ordinary web of existence. Sympathy is the first great lesson which man should learn. It will be ill for him if he proceeds no farther; if his emotions are but excited to roll back on his heart, and to be fostered in luxurious quiet. But unless he learns to feel for things in which he has no personal interest, he can achieve nothing generous or noble. This lesson is in reality the universal moral of all excellent romances. How mistaken are those miserable reasoners who object to them as giving “false pictures of life—of purity too glossy and ethereal—of friendship too deep and confiding—of love which does not shrink at the approach of ill, but looks on tempests and is never shaken,” because with these the world too rarely blossoms? Were these things visionary and unreal, who would break the spell, and bid the delicious enchantment vanish 4 The soul will not be the worse for thinking too well of its kind, or believing that the highest excellence is within the reach of its exertions. But these things are not unreal; they are shadows, indeed, in themselves; but they are shadows cast from objects stately and eternal. Man can never imagine that which has no foundation in his nature. The virtues he conceives are not the mere pageantry of his thought. We feel their truth—not their historic or individual truth—but their universal truth, as reflexes of human energy and power. It would be enough for us to prove that the imaginative glories which are shed around our being, are far brighter than “the light of common day,” which mere vulgar experience in the course of the world diffuses. But, in truth, that radiance is not merely of the fancy, nor are its influences lost when it ceases immediately to shine on our path. It is holy and prophetic. The best joys of childhood—its boundless aspiratious and gorgeous dreams, are the sure * A 2
of the nobleness of its final heritage. All the softenings of evil to the moral vision by the gentleness of fancy, are proofs that evil itself shall perish. Our yearnings after ideal beauty show that the home of the soul which feels them, is in a lovelier world. And when man describes high virtues, and instances of nobleness, which rarely light on earth; so sublime that they expand our imaginations beyond their former compass, yet so human that they make our hearts gush with delight; he discovers feelings in his own breast, and awakens sympathies in ours, which shall assuredly one day have real and stable objects to rest on 1 The early times of England—unlike those of Spain—were not rich in chivalrous romances. The imagination seems to have been chilled by the manners of the Norman conquerors. The domestic contests for the disputed throne, with their intrigues, battles, and executions, have none of that rich, poetical interest, which attended the struggles for the Holy Sepulchre. Nor, in the golden age of English genius, were there any very remarkable works of pure fiction. Since that period to the present day, however, there has been a rich succession of novels and romances, each increasing the stores of innocent delight, and shedding on human life some new tint of tender colouring. The novels of Richardson are at once among the grandest and the most singular creations of human genius. They combine an accurate acquaintance with the freest libertinism, and the sternest professions of virtue—a sporting with vicious casuistry, and the deepest horror of free-thinking—the most stately ideas of paternal authority, and the most elaborate display of its abuses. Prim and stiff, almost without parallel, the author perpetually treads on the very borders of indecorum, but with a solemn and assured step, as if certain that he could never fall. “The precise, strait-laced Richardson,” says Mr. Lamb in one of the profound and beautiful notes to his specimens, “has strengthened vice from the mouth of Lovelace, with entangling sophistries, and abstruse pleas against her adversary virtue, which Sedley, Williers, and Rochester wanted depth of libertinism sufficient to have invented.” He had, in fact, the power of making any set of notions, however fantastical, appear as “truths of holy writ,” to his readers. This he did by the authority with which he disposed of all things, and by the infinite minuteness of his details. His gradations are so gentle, that we do not at any one point hesitate to follow him, and should descend with him to any depth before we perceived that our path had been unequal. By the means of this strange magic, we become anxious for the marriage of Pamela with her base master; because the author has so imperceptibly wrought on us the belief of an awful distance between the rights of an esquire and his servant, that our imaginations regard it in the place of all moral distinctions. After all, the general impression made on us by his works is virtuous. Clementina is to the soul a new and majestic image, inspired by virtue and by love, which raises and refines its conceptions. She has all the depth and intensity of the Italian character, with all the
purity of an angel. She is at the same time one of the grandest of tragic heroines, and the divinest of religious enthusiasts. Clarissa alone is above her. Clementina steps statelily in her very madness, amidst “the pride, pomp, and circumstance” of Italian nobility; Clarissa is triumphant, though violated, deserted, and encompassed by vice and infamy. Never can we forget that amazing scene, in which, on the effort of her mean seducer to renew his outrages, she appears in all the radiance of mental purity, among the wretches assembled to witness his triumph, where she startles them by her first appearance, as by a vision from above; and holding the penknife to her breast, with her eyes lifted to heaven, prepares to die, if her craven destroyer advances, striking the vilest with deep awe of goodness, and walking placidly, at last, from the circle of her foes, none of them daring to harm her? How pathetic, above all other pathos in the world, are those snatches of meditation which she commits to the paper, in the first delirium of her wo! How delicately imagined are her preparations for that grave in which alone she can find repose ! Cold must be the hearts of those who can conceive them as too elaborate, or who can venture to criticise them. In this novel all appears most real; we feel enveloped, like Don Quixote, by a thousand threads; and like him, would we rather remain so for ever, than break one of their silken fibres. Clarissa Harlowe is one of the books which leave us different beings from those which they find us. “Sadder and wiser” do we arise from its perusal. Yet when we read Fielding's novels after those of Richardson, we feel as if a stupendous pressure were removed from our souls. We seem suddenly to have left a palace of enchantment, where we have past through long galleries filled with the most gorgeous images, and illumined by a light not quite human nor yet quite divine, into the fresh air, and the common ways of this “bright and breathing world.” We travel on the high road of humanity, yet meet in it pleasanter companions, and catch more delicious snatches of refreshment, than ever we can hope elsewhere to enjoy. The mock heroic of Fielding, when he condescends to that ambiguous style, is scarcely less pleasing than its stately prototype. It is a sort of spirited defiance to fiction, on the behalf of reality, by one who knew full well all the strongholds of that nature which he was defending. There is not in Fielding much of that which can properly be called ideal—if we except the character of Parson Adams; but his works represent life as more delightful than it seems to common experience, by disclosing those of its dear immunities, which we little think of, even when we enjoy them. How delicious are all his refreshments at all his inns ! How vivid are the transient joys of his heroes, in their checkered course—how full and overflowing are their final raptures! His Tom Jones is quite unrivalled in plot, and is to be rivalled only in his own works for felicitous delineation of character. The little which we have told us of Allworthy, especially that which relates to his feelings respecting his deceased wife, makes us feel for him, as for one of the best and most revered friends of our childhood. Was ever the “soul of goodness in things evil” better disclosed, than in the scruples and the dishonesty of Black George, that tenderest of gamekeepers, and truest of thieves? Did ever health, good-humour, frankheartedness, and animal spirits hold out so freshly against vice and fortune as in the hero? Was ever so plausible a hypocrite as Blifil, who buys a Bible of Tom Jones so delightfully, and who, by his admirable imitation of virtue, leaves it almost in doubt, whether, by a counterfeit so dexterous, he did not merit some share of her rewards? Who shall gainsay the cherry lips of Sophia Western ? The story of Lady Bellaston we confess to be a blemish. But if there be any vice left in the work, the fresh atmosphere diffused over all its scenes, will render it innoxious. Joseph Andrews has far less merit as a story—but it depicts Parson Adams, whom it does the heart good to think on. He who drew this character, if he had done nothing else, would not have lived in vain. We fancy we can see him with his torn cassock, (in honour of his high profession,) his volumes of sermons, which we really wish had been printed, and his AEschylus, the best of all the editions of that sublime tragedian! Whether he longs after his own sermons against vanity—or is absorbed in the romantic tale of the fair Leonora—or uses his ox-like fists in defence of the fairer Fanny, he equally imbodies in his person, “the homely beauty of the good old cause,” of high thoughts, pure imaginations, and manners unspotted by the world. Smollet seems to have had more touch of romance than Fielding, but not so profound and intuitive a knowledge of humanity's hidden treasures. There is nothing in his works comparable to Parson Adams; but then, on the other hand, Fielding has not anything of the kind equal to Strap. Partridge is dry, and hard, compared with this poor barber-boy, with his generous overflowings of affection. Roderick Random, indeed, with its varied delineation of life, is almost a romance. Its hero is worthy of his name. He is the sport of fortune rolled about through the “many ways of wretchedness,” almost without resistance, but ever catching those tastes of joy which are everywhere to be relished by those who are willing to receive them. We seem to roll on with him, and get delectably giddy in his company. The humanity of the Vicar of Wakefield is less deep than that of Roderick Random, but sweeter tinges of fancy are cast over it. The sphere in which Goldsmith's powers moved was never very extensive, but within it he discovered all that was good, and shed on it the tenderest lights of his sympathizing genius. No one ever excelled so much as he in depicting amiable follies and endearing weaknesses. His satire makes us at once smile at and love all that he so tenderly ridicules. The good Vicar's trust in Monogamy, his son's purchase of the spectacles, his own sale of his horse to his solemn admirer at the
fair; the blameless vanities of his daughters, and his resignation under his accumulated sorrows, are among the best treasures of memory. The pastoral scenes in this exquisite tale are the sweetest in the world. The scents of the hay-field, and of the blossoming hedgerows, seem to come freshly to our senses. The whole romance is a tenderly-coloured picture, in little, of human nature's most genial qualities, De Foe is one of the most extraordinary of English authors. His Robinson Crusoe is deservedly one of the most popular of novels. It is usually the first read, and always among the last forgotten. The interest of its scenes in the uninhabited island is altogether peculiar; since there is nothing to develope the character but deep solitude. Man, there, is alone in the world, and can hold communion only with nature, and nature's God. There is nearly the same situation in Philoctetes, that sweetest of the Greek tragedies; but there we only see the poor exile as he is about to leave his sad abode, to which he has become attached, even with a child-like cleaving. In Robinson Crusoe, life is stripped of all its social joys, yet we feel how worthy of cherishing it is, with nothing but silent nature, to cheer it. Thus are nature and the soul, left with no other solace, represented in their native grandeur and intense communion. With how fond an interest do we dwell on all the exertions of our fellow-man, cut off from his kind; watch his growing plantations as they rise, and seem to water them with our tears : The exceeding vividness of all the descriptions are more delightful when combined with the loneliness and distance of the scene “placed far amid the melancholy main.” in which we become dwellers. We have grown so familiar with the solitude, that the print of man's foot seen in the sand seems to appal us as an awful thing!—The Family Instructor of this author, in which he inculcates weightily his own notions of puritanical demeanour and parental authority, is very curious. It is a strange mixture of narrative and dialogue, fanaticism and nature; but all done with such earnestness that the sense of its reality never quits us. Nothing, however, can be more harsh and unpleasing than the impression which it leaves. It does injustice both to religion and the world. It represents the innocent pleasures of the latter as deadly sins, and the former as most gloomy, austere, and exclusive. One lady resolves on poisoning her husband, and another determines to go to the play, and the author treats both offences with a severity nearly equals Far different from this ascetic novel is that best of religious romances, the Fool of Quality. The piety there is at once most deep and most benign. There is much, indeed, of eloquent mysticism, but all evidently most heartfelt and sincere. The yearnings of the soul after universal good and intimate communion with the divine nature were never more nobly shown. The author is most prodigal of his intellectual wealth—“his bounty is as boundless as the sea, his love as deep." He gives to his chief characters riches endless as the