His books, adventures and misfortunes.
Surely it is a pleasant thing that there are books, like other enjoyments, for all ages. You would not have a boy prefer whist to fives, nor tobacco to toffee, nor Tolstoi to Charles Lever. The ancients reckoned Tyrtaecus a fine poet, not that he was particularly melodious or reflective, but that he gave men heart to fight for their country. Charles Lever has done as much. In his biography, by Mr. Fitzpatrick, it is told that a widow lady had but one son, and for him she obtained an appointment at Woolwich. The boy was timid and nervous, and she fancied that she must find for him some other profession--perhaps that of literature. But he one day chanced on Lever's novels, and they put so much heart into him that his character quite altered, and he became the bravest of the brave.
Lever may not do as much for every one, but he does teach contempt of danger, or rather, delight in it: a gay, spontaneous, boyish kind of courage--Irish courage at its best. We may get more good from that than harm from all his tales of much punch and many drinking bouts. These are no longer in fashion and are not very gay reading, perhaps, but his stories and songs, his duels and battles and hunting scenes are as merry and as good as ever. Wild as they seem in the reading, they are not far from the truth, as may be gathered out of "Barrington's Memoirs," and their tales of the reckless Irish life some eighty years ago.
There were two men in Charles Lever--a glad man and a sad man. The gaiety was for his youth, when he poured out his "Lorrequers" and "O'Malleys," all the mirth and memories of his boyhood, all the tales of fighting and feasting he gleaned from battered, seasoned old warriors, like Major Monsoon. Even then, Mr. Thackeray, who knew him, and liked and laughed at him, recognised through his merriment "the fund of sadness beneath." "The author's character is NOT humour, but sentiment . . . extreme delicacy, sweetness and kindliness of heart. The spirits are mostly artificial, the fond is sadness, as appears to me to be that of most Irish writing and people." Even in "Charles O'Malley," what a true, dark picture that is of the duel beside the broad, angry river on the level waste under the wide grey sky! Charles has shot his opponent, Bodkin, and with Considine, his second, is making his escape. "Considine cried out suddenly, 'Too infamous, by Jove: we are murdered men!'"
"'What do you mean?' said I.
"'Don't you see that?' said he, pointing to something black which floated from a pole at the opposite side of the river.
"'Yes; what is it?'
"'It's his coat they've put upon an oar, to show the people he's killed--that's all. Every man here's his tenant; and look there! they're not giving us much doubt as to their intentions.'
"Here a tremendous yell burst forth from the mass of people along the shore, which, rising to a terrific cry, sank gradually down to a low wailing, then rose and fell several times, as the Irish death- cry filled the air, and rose to heaven, as if imploring vengeance on a murderer."
Passages like this, and that which follows--the dangerous voyage through the storm on the flooded Shannon, and through the reefs--are what Mr. Thackeray may have had in his mind when he spoke of Lever's underlying melancholy. Like other men with very high spirits, he had hours of gloom, and the sadness and the thoughtfulness that were in him came forth then and informed his later books. These are far more carefully written, far more cunningly constructed, than the old chapters written from month to month as the fit took him, with no more plan or premeditation than "Pickwick." But it is the early stories that we remember, and that he lives by--the pages thrown off at a heat, when he was a lively doctor with few patients, and was not over-attentive to them. These were the days of Harry Lorrequer and Tom Burke; characters that ran away with him, and took their own path through a merry world of diversion. Like the knights in Sir Thomas Malory, these heroes "ride at adventure," ride amazing horses that dread no leap, be it an Irish stone wall on a mountain crest, or be it the bayonets of a French square.
Mr. Lever's biographer has not been wholly successful in pleasing the critics, and he does not seem to affect very critical airs himself, but he tells a straightforward tale. The life of Charles Lever is the natural commentary on his novels. He was born at Dublin in 1806, the son of a builder or architect. At school he was very much flogged, and the odds are that he deserved these attentions, for he had high spirits beyond the patience of dominies. Handsome, merry and clever, he read novels in school hours, wore a ring, and set up as a dandy. Even then he was in love with the young lady whom he married in the end. At a fight with boys of another school, he and a friend placed a mine under the ground occupied by the enemy, and blew them, more or less, into the air. Many an eyebrow was singed off on that fatal day, when, for the only time, this romancer of the wars "smelled powder." He afterwards pleaded for his party before the worthy police magistrate, and showed great promise as a barrister. At Trinity College, Dublin, he was full of his fun, made ballads, sang them through the streets in disguise (like Fergusson, the Scottish poet), and one night collected thirty shillings in coppers.
The original of Frank Webber, in "Charles O'Malley," was a chum of his, and he took part in the wonderful practical jokes which he has made immortal in that novel.
From Trinity College, Dublin, Lever went to Gottingen, where he found fun and fighting enough among the German students. From that hour he became a citizen of the world, or, at least, of Europe, and perhaps, like the prophets, was most honoured when out of his own country. He returned to Dublin and took his degree in medicine, after playing a famous practical joke. A certain medical professor was wont to lecture in bed. One night he left town unexpectedly. Lever, by chance, came early to lecture, found the Professor absent, slipped into his bed, put on his nightcap, and took the class himself. On another day he was standing outside the Foundling Hospital with a friend, a small man. Now, a kind of stone cradle for foundlings was built outside the door, and, when a baby was placed therein, a bell rang. Lever lifted up his friend, popped him into the cradle, and had the joy of seeing the promising infant picked out by the porter.
It seems a queer education for a man of letters; but, like Sir Walter Scott when revelling in Liddesdale, he "was making himself all the time." He was collecting myriads of odd experiences and treasures of anecdotes; he was learning to know men of all sorts; and later, as a country doctor, he had experiences of mess tables, of hunting, and of all the ways of his remarkable countrymen. When cholera visited his district he stuck to his work like a man of heart and courage. But the usual tasks of a country doctor wearied him; he neglected them, he became unpopular with the authorities, he married his first love and returned to Brussels, where he practised as a physician. He had already begun his first notable book, "Harry Lorrequer," in the University Magazine. It is merely a string of Irish and other stories, good, bad, and indifferent--a picture gallery full of portraits of priests, soldiers, peasants and odd characters. The plot is of no importance; we are not interested in Harry's love affairs, but in his scrapes, adventures, duels at home and abroad. He fights people by mistake whom he does not know by sight, he appears on parade with his face blackened, he wins large piles at trente et quarante, he disposes of coopers of claret and bowls of punch, and the sheep on a thousand hills provide him with devilled kidneys. The critics and the authors thought little of the merry medley, but the public enjoyed it, and defied the reviewers. One paper preferred the book to a wilderness of "Pickwicks"; and as this opinion was advertised everywhere by M'Glashan, the publisher, Mr. Dickens was very much annoyed indeed. Authors are easily annoyed. But Lever writes ut placeat pueris, and there was a tremendous fight at Rugby between two boys, the "Slogger Williams" and "Tom Brown" of the period, for the possession of "Harry Lorrequer." When an author has the boys of England on his side, he can laugh at the critics. Not that Lever laughed: he, too, was easily vexed, and much depressed, when the reviews assailed him. Next he began "Charles O'Malley"; and if any man reads this essay who has not read the "Irish Dragoon," let him begin at once. "O'Malley" is what you can recommend to a friend. Here is every species of diversion: duels and steeplechases, practical jokes at college (good practical jokes, not booby traps and apple-pie beds); here is fighting in the Peninsula. If any student is in doubt, let him try chapter xiv.--the battle on the Douro. This is, indeed, excellent military writing, and need not fear comparison as art with Napier's famous history. Lever has warmed to his work; his heart is in it; he had the best information from an eye-witness; and the brief beginning, on the peace of nature before the strife of men, is admirably poetical.
To reach the French, under Soult, Wellesley had to cross the deep and rapid Douro, in face of their fire, and without regular transport. "He dared the deed. What must have been his confidence in the men he commanded! what must have been his reliance on his own genius!"
You hold your breath as you read, while English and Germans charge, till at last the field is won, and the dust of the French columns retreating in the distance blows down the road to Spain.
The Great Duke read this passage, and marvelled how Lever knew certain things that he tells. He learned this, and much more, the humours of war, from the original of Major Monsoon. Falstaff is alone in the literature of the world, but if ever there came a later Falstaff, Monsoon was the man. And where have you such an Irish Sancho Panza as Micky Free, that independent minstrel, or such an Irish Di Vernon as Baby Blake? The critics may praise Lever's thoughtful and careful later novels as they will, but "Charles O'Malley" will always be the pattern of a military romance. The anecdote of "a virtuous weakness" in O'Shaughnessy's father's character would alone make the fortune of many a story. The truth is, it is not easy to lay down "Charles O'Malley," to leave off reading it, and get on with the account of Lever.
His excellent and delightful novel scarcely received one favourable notice from the press. This may have been because it was so popular; but Lever became so nervous that he did not like to look at the papers. When he went back to Dublin and edited a magazine there, he was more fiercely assailed than ever. It is difficult for an Irishman to write about the Irish, or for a Scot to write about the Scottish, without hurting the feelings of his countrymen. While their literary brethren are alive they are not very dear to the newspaper scribes of these gallant nations; and thus Jeffrey was more severe to Scott than he need have been, while the Irish press, it appears, made an onslaught on Lever. Mr. Thackeray met Lever in Dublin, and he mentions this unkind behaviour. "Lorrequer's military propensities have been objected to strongly by his squeamish Hibernian brethren . . . But is Lorrequer the only man in Ireland who is fond of military spectacles? Why does the Nation publish these edifying and Christian war songs? . . . And who is it that prates about the Irish at Waterloo, and the Irish at Fontenoy, and the Irish at Seringapatam, and the Irish at Timbuctoo? If Mr. O'Connell, like a wise rhetorician, chooses, and very properly, to flatter the national military passion, why not Harry Lorrequer?"
Why not, indeed? But Mr. Lever was a successful Irishman of letters, and a good many other Irish gentlemen of letters, honest Doolan and his friends, were not successful. That is the humour of it.
Though you, my youthful reader, if I have one, do not detest Jones because he is in the Eleven, nor Brown because he has "got his cap," nor Smith because he does Greek Iambics like Sophocles; though you rather admire and applaud these champions, you may feel very differently when you come to thirty years or more, and see other men doing what you cannot do, and gaining prizes beyond your grasp. And then, if you are a reviewer, you "will find fault with a book for what it does not give," as thus, to take Mr. Thackeray's example:-
"Lady Smigsmag's novel is amusing, but lamentably deficient in geological information." "Mr. Lever's novels are trashy and worthless, for his facts are not borne out by any authority, and he gives us no information about the political state of Ireland. 'Oh! our country, our green and beloved, our beautiful and oppressed?'" and so forth.
It was not altogether a happy time that Lever passed at home. Not only did his native critics belabour him most ungrudgingly for "Tom Burke," that vivid and chivalrous romance, but he made enemies of authors. He edited a magazine! Is not that enough? He wearied of wading through waggon-loads of that pure unmitigated rubbish which people are permitted to "shoot" at editorial doors. How much dust there is in it to how few pearls! He did not return MSS. punctually and politely. The office cat could edit the volunteered contributions of many a magazine, but Lever was even more casual and careless than an experienced office cat. He grew crabbed, and tried to quarrel with Mr. Thackeray for that delightful parody "Phil Fogarty," nearly as good as a genuine story by Lever.
Beset by critics, burlesqued by his friend, he changed his style (Mr. Fitzpatrick tells us) and became more sober--and not so entertaining. He actually published a criticism of Beyle, of Stendhal, that psychological prig, the darling of culture and of M. Paul Bourget. Harry Lorrequer on Stendhal!--it beggars belief. He nearly fought a duel with the gentleman who is said to have suggested Mr. Pecksniff to Dickens! Yet they call his early novels improbable. Nothing could be less plausible than a combat between Harry Lorrequer and a gentleman who, even remotely, resembled the father of Cherry and Merry.
Lever went abroad again, and in Florence or the Baths of Lucca, in Trieste or Spezia, he passed the rest of his life. He saw the Italian revolution of 1848, and it added to his melancholy. This is plain from one of his novels with a curious history--"Con Cregan." He wrote it at the same time as "The Daltons," and he did not sign it. The reviewers praised "Con Cregan" at the expense of the signed work, rejoicing that Lever, as "The Daltons" proved, was exhausted, and that a new Irish author, the author of "Con Cregan," was coming to eclipse him. In short, he eclipsed himself, and he did not like it. His right hand was jealous of what his left hand did. It seems odd that any human being, however dull and envious, failed to detect Lever in the rapid and vivacious adventures of his Irish "Gil Blas," hero of one of the very best among his books, a piece not unworthy of Dumas. "Con" was written after midnight, "The Daltons" in the morning; and there can be no doubt which set of hours was more favourable to Lever's genius. Of course he liked "The Daltons" best; of all people, authors appear to be their own worst critics.
It is not possible even to catalogue Lever's later books here. Again he drove a pair of novels abreast--"The Dodds" and "Sir Jasper Carew"--which contain some of his most powerful situations. When almost an old man, sad, outworn in body, straitened in circumstances, he still produced excellent tales in this later manner--"Lord Kilgobbin," "That Boy of Norcott's," "A Day's Ride," and many more. These are the thoughts of a tired man of the world, who has done and seen everything that such men see and do. He says that he grew fat, and bald, and grave; he wrote for the grave and the bald, not for the happier world which is young, and curly, and merry. He died at last, it is said, in his sleep; and it is added that he did what Harry Lorrequer would not have done--he left his affairs in perfect order.
Lever lived in an age so full of great novelists that, perhaps, he is not prized as he should be. Dickens, Bulwer, Thackeray, Trollope, George Eliot, were his contemporaries. But when we turn back and read him once more, we see that Lever, too, was a worthy member of that famous company--a romancer for boys and men.
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