S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
The earliest modern romances were collections of chivalrous adventures, chiefly founded on the lives and achievements of the warlike adherents of two sovereigns, one of whom, perhaps, had only a fabulous existence, while the annals of the other have given rise to a wonderful series of fables,Arthur and Charlemagne.
It cannot but be injurious to the human mind never to be called into effort. The habit of receiving pleasure without any exertion of thought, by the mere excitement of curiosity and sensibility, may be justly ranked among the worst effects of habitual novel-reading. Like idle morning visitors, the brisk and breathless periods hurry in and hurry off in quick and profitless succession; each, indeed, for the moment of its stay, prevents the pain of vacancy, while it indulges the love of sloth; but altogether they leave the mistress of the housethe soul, I meanflat and exhausted, incapable of attending to her own concerns, and unfitted for the conversation of more rational guests.
I have often maintained that fiction may be much more instructive than real history. I think so still; but viewing the vast rout of novels as they are, I do think they do incalculable mischief. I wish we could collect them all together, and make one vast fire of them; I should exult to see the smoke of them ascend like that of Sodom and Gomorrah: the judgment would be as just.
Thackeray and Balzac will make it possible for our descendants to live over again in the England and France of to-day. Seen in this light, the novelist has a higher office than merely to amuse his contemporaries: he hands them down all living and talking together to the remotest ages.
A novelist of genius, who has closely observed human nature, is able to assume mentally the characteristics of the leading varieties of mankind. A Thackeray, a Balzac, a Molière, a Shakspere, can be for a time murderers, misers, heartless worldlings, weak hypochondriacs, ambitious prelates, heart-broken parents, delicate-minded women. Every phase of life is theirs to learn, to put on, and to wear, as they were to the manner born.
The dull people decided years and years ago, as every one knows, that novel-writing was the lowest species of literary exertion, and that novel-reading was a dangerous luxury and an utter waste of time. They gave, and still give, reasons for this opinion, which are very satisfactory to persons born without Fancy or Imagination, and which are utterly inconclusive to every one else. But, with reason or without it, the dull people have succeeded in affixing to our novels the stigma of being a species of contraband goods.
I may mention, as a rule, that our novel-reading enjoyments have hitherto been always derived from the same sort of characters and the same sort of stories, varied, indeed, as to names and minor events, but fundamentally always the same, through hundreds on hundreds of successive volumes, by hundreds on hundreds of different authors. We none of us complain of this, so far; for we like to have as much as possible of any good thing; but we beg deferentially to inquire whether it might not be practicable to give us a little variety for the future. We believe we have only to prefer our request to the literary ladies and gentlemen who are so good as to interest and amuse us, to have it granted immediately. They cannot be expected to know when the reader has had enough of one set of established characters and events, unless the said reader takes it on himself to tell them.
A wordone respectful wordof remonstrance to the lady-novelists especially. We think they have put our Hero on horseback often enough. For the first five hundred novels or so, it was grand, it was thrilling, when he threw himself into the saddle after the inevitable quarrel with his lady-love, and galloped off madly to his bachelor home. It was grand to read this: it was awful to know, as we came to know at last by long experience, that he was sure before he got home to be spiltno, not spilt; that is another word suggestive of jocularitythrown, and given up as dead.
I know that it is a rule that, when two sisters are presented in a novel, one must be tall and dark, and the other short and light. I know that five-feet-eight of female flesh and blood, when accompanied by an olive complexion, black eyes, and raven hair, is synonymous with strong passions and an unfortunate destiny. I know that five-feet-nothing, golden ringlets, soft blue eyes, and a lily brow, cannot possibly be associated, by any well-constituted novelist, with anything but ringing laughter, arch innocence, and final matrimonial happiness.
No man who is thoroughly aware of what Prose Fiction has now become, of its dignityof its influenceof the manner in which it has gradually absorbed all similar departments of literatureof its power in teaching as well as amusingcan so far forget its connection with Historywith Philosophywith Politicsits utter harmony with Poetry, and obedience to Truth, as to debase its nature to the level of scholastic frivolities: he raises scholarship to the creative, and does not bow the creative to the scholastic.
Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Last Days of Pompeii, Preface.
There is little skill in the delineation of the characters [of the Castle of Otranto], Manfred is as commonplace a tyrant, Jerome as commonplace a confessor, Theodore as commonplace a young gentleman, Isabella and Matilda as commonplace a pair of young ladies, as are to be found in any of the thousand Italian castles in which condottieri have revelled, or in which imprisoned duchesses have pined. We cannot say that we much admire the big man whose sword is dug up in one quarter of the globe, whose helmet drops from the clouds in another, and who, after clattering and rustling for some days, ends by kicking the house down. But the story, whatever its value may be, never flags for a single moment. There are no digressions, or unreasonable descriptions, or long speeches. Every sentence carries the action forward. The excitement is constantly renewed. Absurd as is the machinery, insipid as are the human actors, no reader probably ever thought the book dull.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Horace Walpole, Oct. 1833.
Shakspeare has had neither equal nor second. But among the writers who, in the point which we have noticed, have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace, all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings. There are, for example, four clergymen, none of whom we should be surprised to find in any parsonage of the kingdom, Mr. Edward Ferrars, Mr. Henry Tilney, Mr. Edmund Bertram, and Mr. Elton. They are all specimens of the upper part of the middle class. They have all been liberally educated. They all lie under the restraints of the same sacred profession. They are all young. They are all in love. Not one of them has any hobby-horse, to use the phrase of Sterne. Not one has a ruling passion, such as we read of in Pope. Who would not have expected them to be insipid likenesses of each other? No such thing. Harpagon is not more unlike to Jourdain, Joseph Surface is not more unlike to Sir Lucius OTrigger, then every one of Miss Austens young divines to all his reverend brethren. And almost all this is done by touches so delicate that they elude analysis, that they defy the powers of description, and that we know them to exist only by the general effect to which they have contributed.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Madame DArblay, Jan. 1843.
Indeed, most of the popular novels which preceded Evelina were such as no lady would have written; and many of them were such as no lady could without confusion own that she had read. The very name of novel was held in horror among religious people. In decent families, which did not profess extraordinary sanctity, there was a strong feeling against all such works. Sir Anthony Absolute, two or three years before Evelina appeared, spoke the sense of the great body of sober fathers and husbands, when he pronounced the circulating library an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge. This feeling, on the part of the grave and reflecting, increased the evil from which it had sprung. The novelist, having little character to lose, and having few readers among serious people, took without scruple liberties which in our generation seem almost incredible.
Miss Burney did for the English novel what Jeremy Collier did for the English drama; and she did it in a better way. She first showed that a tale might be written in which both the fashionable and the vulgar life of London might be exhibited with great force and with broad comic humour, and which yet should not contain a single line inconsistent with rigid morality, or even with virgin delicacy. She took away the reproach which lay on a most useful and delightful species of composition. She vindicated the right of her sex to an equal share in a fair and noble province of letters. Several accomplished women have followed in her track. At present, the novels which we owe to English ladies form no small part of the literary glory of our country. No class of works is more honourably distinguished by fine observation, by grace, by delicate wit, by pure moral feeling. Several among the successors of Madame DArblay have equalled her; two, we think, have surpassed her. But the fact that she has been surpassed gives her an additional claim to our respect and gratitude; for, in truth, we owe to her not only Evelina, Cecilia, and Camilla, but also Mansfield Park and The Absentee.
The plan of the Spectator must be allowed to be both original and eminently happy. Every valuable essay in the series may be read with pleasure separately; yet the five or six hundred essays form a whole, and a whole which has the interest of a novel. It must be remembered, too, that at that time no novel, giving a lively and powerful picture of the common life and manners of England, had appeared. Richardson was working as a compositor. Fielding was robbing birds nests. Smollett was not yet born. The narrative, therefore, which connects together the Spectators Essays, gave to our ancestors the first taste of an exquisite and untried pleasure. That narrative was indeed constructed with no art or labour. The events were such events as occur every day. Sir Roger comes up to town to see Eugenio, as the worthy baronet always calls Prince Eugene, goes with the Spectator on the water to Spring Gardens, walks among the tombs in the Abbey, and is frightened by the Mohawks, but conquers his apprehension so far as to go to the theatre, when the Distressed Mother is acted. The Spectator pays a visit in the summer to Coverley Hall, is charmed with the old house, the old butler, and the old chaplain, eats a jack caught by Will Wimble, rides to the assizes, and hears a point of law discussed by Tom Touchy. At last a letter from the honest butler brings to the club the news that Sir Roger is dead. Will Honeycomb marries and reforms at sixty. The club breaks up, and the Spectator resigns his functions. Such events can hardly be said to form a plot; yet they are related with such truth, such grace, such wit, such humour, such pathos, such knowledge of the human heart, such knowledge of the ways of the world, that they charm us on the hundredth perusal. We have not the least doubt that, if Addison had written a novel, on an extensive plan, it would have been superior to any that we possess. As it is, he is entitled to be considered not only as the greatest of the English essayists, but as the forerunner of the great English novelists.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Life and Writings of Addison, July, 1843.
It has been remarked by Hallam, and by others, how particularly useful in this way for the historian, as furnishing him with social details of past times, are popular books; more especially of the humorous order, comic dramas and farces, poems of occasion, and novels and works of prose fiction generally.
Writers of novels and romances in general bring a double loss on their readersthey rob them both of their time and money; representing men, manners, and things, that never have been, nor are likely to be; either confounding or perverting history and truth, inflating the mind, or committing violence upon the understanding.
Historical novels may operate advantageously on the minds of two classes of readers: first, upon those whose attention to history is awakened by the fictitious narrative, and whom curiosity stimulates to study, for the purpose of removing the wheat from the chaff, the true from the fabulous. Secondly, those who are too idle to read, save for the purpose of amusement, may in these works acquire some acquaintance with history, which, however inaccurate, is better than none.
It is true that I neither can nor do pretend to the observation of complete accuracy even in matters of outward costume, much less in the more important points of language and manners. But the same motive which prevents my writing the dialogue of the piece in Anglo-Saxon or in Norman French, and which prohibits my sending forth this essay printed with the types of Caxton or Wynken de Worde, prevents my attempting to confine myself within the limits of the period to which my story is laid. It is necessary for exciting interest of any kind that the subject assumed should be, as it were, translated into the manners as well as the language of the age we live in . In point of justice therefore to the multitudes who will, I trust, devour this book with avidity, I have so far explained ancient manners in modern language, and so far detailed the characters and sentiments of my persons, that the modern reader will not find himself, I should hope, much trammelled by the repulsive dryness of mere antiquity. In this, I respectfully contend, I have in no respect exceeded the fair license due to the author of a fictitious composition . It is true that this license is confined within legitimate bounds: the author must introduce nothing inconsistent with the manners of the age.
Out of the fictitious book I get the expression of the life, of the times, of the manners, of the merriment, of the dress, the pleasure, the laughter, the ridicules, of society; the old times live again, and I travel in the old country of England. Can the heaviest historian do more for me?
Novels are sweets. All people with healthy literary appetites love them; almost all women; a vast number of clever, hard-headed men. Judges, bishops, chancellors, mathematicians, are notorious novel-readers, as well as young boys and girls, and their kind, tender mothers.
Novels do not force their fair readers to sinthey only instruct them how to sin; the consequences of which are fully detailed, and not in a way calculated to seduce any but weak minds: few of their heroines are happily disposed of.