It is good to have the magic door shut behind us. On the other side of that door are the world and its troubles, hopes and fears, headaches and heartaches, ambitions and disappointments; but within, as you lie back on the green settee, and face the long lines of your silent soothing comrades, there is only peace of spirit and rest of mind in the company of the great dead. Learn to love, learn to admire them; learn to know what their comradeship means; for until you have done so the greatest solace and anodyne God has given to man have not yet shed their blessing upon you. Here behind this magic door is the rest house, where you may forget the past, enjoy the present, and prepare for the future.
You who have sat with me before upon the green settee are familiar with the upper shelf, with the tattered Macaulay, the dapper Gibbon, the drab Boswell, the olive-green Scott, the pied Borrow, and all the goodly company who rub shoulders yonder. By the way, how one wishes that one's dear friends would only be friends also with each other. Why should Borrow snarl so churlishly at Scott? One would have thought that noble spirit and romantic fancy would have charmed the huge vagrant, and yet there is no word too bitter for the younger man to use towards the elder. The fact is that Borrow had one dangerous virus in him--a poison which distorts the whole vision--for he was a bigoted sectarian in religion, seeing no virtue outside his own interpretation of the great riddle. Downright heathendom, the blood-stained Berserk or the chaunting Druid, appealed to his mind through his imagination, but the man of his own creed and time who differed from him in minutiae of ritual, or in the interpretation of mystic passages, was at once evil to the bone, and he had no charity of any sort for such a person. Scott therefore, with his reverent regard for old usages, became at once hateful in his eyes. In any case he was a disappointed man, the big Borrow, and I cannot remember that he ever had much to say that was good of any brother author. Only in the bards of Wales and in the Scalds of the Sagas did he seem to find his kindred spirits, though it has been suggested that his complex nature took this means of informing the world that he could read both Cymric and Norse. But we must not be unkind behind the magic door--and yet to be charitable to the uncharitable is surely the crown of virtue.
So much for the top line, concerning which I have already gossipped for six sittings, but there is no surcease for you, reader, for as you see there is a second line, and yet a third, all equally dear to my heart, and all appealing in the same degree to my emotions and to my memory. Be as patient as you may, while I talk of these old friends, and tell you why I love them, and all that they have meant to me in the past. If you picked any book from that line you would be picking a little fibre also from my mind, very small, no doubt, and yet an intimate and essential part of what is now myself. Hereditary impulses, personal experiences, books--those are the three forces which go to the making of man. These are the books.
This second line consists, as you see, of novelists of the eighteenth century, or those of them whom I regard as essential. After all, putting aside single books, such as Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," Goldsmith's "Vicar of Wakefield," and Miss Burney's "Evelina," there are only three authors who count, and they in turn wrote only three books each, of first-rate importance, so that by the mastery of nine books one might claim to have a fairly broad view of this most important and distinctive branch of English literature. The three men are, of course, Fielding, Richardson, and Smollett. The books are: Richardson's "Clarissa Harlowe," "Pamela," and "Sir Charles Grandison"; Fielding's "Tom Jones", "Joseph Andrews," and "Amelia"; Smollett's "Peregrine Pickle," "Humphrey Clinker," and "Roderick Random." There we have the real work of the three great contemporaries who illuminated the middle of the eighteenth century--only nine volumes in all. Let us walk round these nine volumes, therefore, and see whether we cannot discriminate and throw a little light, after this interval of a hundred and fifty years, upon their comparative aims, and how far they have justified them by the permanent value of their work. A fat little bookseller in the City, a rakehell wit of noble blood, and a rugged Scotch surgeon from the navy--those are the three strange immortals who now challenge a comparison--the three men who dominate the fiction of their century, and to whom we owe it that the life and the types of that century are familiar to us, their fifth generation.
It is not a subject to be dogmatic upon, for I can imagine that these three writers would appeal quite differently to every temperament, and that whichever one might desire to champion one could find arguments to sustain one's choice. Yet I cannot think that any large section of the critical public could maintain that Smollett was on the same level as the other two. Ethically he is gross, though his grossness is accompanied by a full-blooded humour which is more mirth-compelling than the more polished wit of his rivals. I can remember in callow boyhood--puris omnia pura--reading "Peregrine Pickle," and laughing until I cried over the Banquet in the Fashion of the Ancients. I read it again in my manhood with the same effect, though with a greater appreciation of its inherent bestiality. That merit, a gross primitive merit, he has in a high degree, but in no other respect can he challenge comparison with either Fielding or Richardson. His view of life is far more limited, his characters less varied, his incidents less distinctive, and his thoughts less deep. Assuredly I, for one, should award him the third place in the trio.
But how about Richardson and Fielding? There is indeed a competition of giants. Let us take the points of each in turn, and then compare them with each other.
There is one characteristic, the rarest and subtlest of all, which each of them had in a supreme degree. Each could draw the most delightful women--the most perfect women, I think, in the whole range of our literature. If the eighteenth-century women were like that, then the eighteenth-century men got a great deal more than they ever deserved. They had such a charming little dignity of their own, such good sense, and yet such dear, pretty, dainty ways, so human and so charming, that even now they become our ideals. One cannot come to know them without a double emotion, one of respectful devotion towards themselves, and the other of abhorrence for the herd of swine who surrounded them. Pamela, Harriet Byron, Clarissa, Amelia, and Sophia Western were all equally delightful, and it was not the negative charm of the innocent and colourless woman, the amiable doll of the nineteenth century, but it was a beauty of nature depending upon an alert mind, clear and strong principles, true womanly feelings, and complete feminine charm. In this respect our rival authors may claim a tie, for I could not give a preference to one set of these perfect creatures over another. The plump little printer and the worn-out man-about-town had each a supreme woman in his mind.
But their men! Alas, what a drop is there! To say that we are all capable of doing what Tom Jones did--as I have seen stated--is the worst form of inverted cant, the cant which makes us out worse than we are. It is a libel on mankind to say that a man who truly loves a woman is usually false to her, and, above all, a libel that he should be false in the vile fashion which aroused good Tom Newcome's indignation. Tom Jones was no more fit to touch the hem of Sophia's dress than Captain Booth was to be the mate of Amelia. Never once has Fielding drawn a gentleman, save perhaps Squire Alworthy. A lusty, brawling, good-hearted, material creature was the best that he could fashion. Where, in his heroes, is there one touch of distinction, of spirituality, of nobility? Here I think that the plebeian printer has done very much better than the aristocrat. Sir Charles Grandison is a very noble type--spoiled a little by over-coddling on the part of his creator, perhaps, but a very high-souled and exquisite gentleman all the same. Had _he_ married Sophia or Amelia I should not have forbidden the banns. Even the persevering Mr. B--- and the too amorous Lovelace were, in spite of their aberrations, men of gentle nature, and had possibilities of greatness and tenderness within them. Yes, I cannot doubt that Richardson drew the higher type of man--and that in Grandison he has done what has seldom or never been bettered.
Richardson was also the subtler and deeper writer, in my opinion. He concerns himself with fine consistent character-drawing, and with a very searching analysis of the human heart, which is done so easily, and in such simple English, that the depth and truth of it only come upon reflection. He condescends to none of those scuffles and buffetings and pantomime rallies which enliven, but cheapen, many of Fielding's pages. The latter has, it may be granted, a broader view of life. He had personal acquaintance of circles far above, and also far below, any which the douce citizen, who was his rival, had ever been able or willing to explore. His pictures of low London life, the prison scenes in "Amelia," the thieves' kitchens in "Jonathan Wild," the sponging houses and the slums, are as vivid and as complete as those of his friend Hogarth--the most British of artists, even as Fielding was the most British of writers. But the greatest and most permanent facts of life are to be found in the smallest circles. Two men and a woman may furnish either the tragedian or the comedian with the most satisfying theme. And so, although his range was limited, Richardson knew very clearly and very thoroughly just that knowledge which was essential for his purpose. Pamela, the perfect woman of humble life, Clarissa, the perfect lady, Grandison the ideal gentleman--these were the three figures on which he lavished his most loving art. And now, after one hundred and fifty years, I do not know where we may find more satisfying types.
He was prolix, it may be admitted, but who could bear to have him cut? He loved to sit down and tell you just all about it. His use of letters for his narratives made this gossipy style more easy. First _he_ writes and he tells all that passed. You have his letter. _She_ at the same time writes to her friend, and also states her views. This also you see. The friends in each case reply, and you have the advantage of their comments and advice. You really do know all about it before you finish. It may be a little wearisome at first, if you have been accustomed to a more hustling style with fireworks in every chapter. But gradually it creates an atmosphere in which you live, and you come to know these people, with their characters and their troubles, as you know no others of the dream-folk of fiction. Three times as long as an ordinary book, no doubt, but why grudge the time? What is the hurry? Surely it is better to read one masterpiece than three books which will leave no permanent impression on the mind.
It was all attuned to the sedate life of that, the last of the quiet centuries. In the lonely country-house, with few letters and fewer papers, do you suppose that the readers ever complained of the length of a book, or could have too much of the happy Pamela or of the unhappy Clarissa? It is only under extraordinary circumstances that one can now get into that receptive frame of mind which was normal then. Such an occasion is recorded by Macaulay, when he tells how in some Indian hill station, where books were rare, he let loose a copy of "Clarissa." The effect was what might have been expected. Richardson in a suitable environment went through the community like a mild fever. They lived him, and dreamed him, until the whole episode passed into literary history, never to be forgotten by those who experienced it. It is tuned, for every ear. That beautiful style is so correct and yet so simple that there is no page which a scholar may not applaud nor a servant-maid understand.
Of course, there are obvious disadvantages to the tale which is told in letters. Scott reverted to it in "Guy Mannering," and there are other conspicuous successes, but vividness is always gained at the expense of a strain upon the reader's good-nature and credulity. One feels that these constant details, these long conversations, could not possibly have been recorded in such a fashion. The indignant and dishevelled heroine could not sit down and record her escape with such cool minuteness of description. Richardson does it as well as it could be done, but it remains intrinsically faulty. Fielding, using the third person, broke all the fetters which bound his rival, and gave a freedom and personal authority to the novel which it had never before enjoyed. There at least he is the master.
And yet, on the whole, my balance inclines towards Richardson, though I dare say I am one in a hundred in thinking so. First of all, beyond anything I may have already urged, he had the supreme credit of having been the first. Surely the originator should have a higher place than the imitator, even if in imitating he should also improve and amplify. It is Richardson and not Fielding who is the father of the English novel, the man who first saw that without romantic gallantry, and without bizarre imaginings, enthralling stories may be made from everyday life, told in everyday language. This was his great new departure. So entirely was Fielding his imitator, or rather perhaps his parodist, that with supreme audacity (some would say brazen impudence) he used poor Richardson's own characters, taken from "Pamela," in his own first novel, "Joseph Andrews," and used them too for the unkind purpose of ridiculing them. As a matter of literary ethics, it is as if Thackeray wrote a novel bringing in Pickwick and Sam Weller in order to show what faulty characters these were. It is no wonder that even the gentle little printer grew wroth, and alluded to his rival as a somewhat unscrupulous man.
And then there is the vexed question of morals. Surely in talking of this also there is a good deal of inverted cant among a certain class of critics. The inference appears to be that there is some subtle connection between immorality and art, as if the handling of the lewd, or the depicting of it, were in some sort the hallmark of the true artist. It is not difficult to handle or depict. On the contrary, it is so easy, and so essentially dramatic in many of its forms, that the temptation to employ it is ever present. It is the easiest and cheapest of all methods of creating a spurious effect. The difficulty does not lie in doing it. The difficulty lies in avoiding it. But one tries to avoid it because on the face of it there is no reason why a writer should cease to be a gentleman, or that he should write for a woman's eyes that which he would be justly knocked down for having said in a woman's ears. But "you must draw the world as it is." Why must you? Surely it is just in selection and restraint that the artist is shown. It is true that in a coarser age great writers heeded no restrictions, but life itself had fewer restrictions then. We are of our own age, and must live up to it.
But must these sides of life be absolutely excluded? By no means. Our decency need not weaken into prudery. It all lies in the spirit in which it is done. No one who wished to lecture on these various spirits could preach on a better text than these three great rivals, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett. It is possible to draw vice with some freedom for the purpose of condemning it. Such a writer is a moralist, and there is no better example than Richardson. Again, it is possible to draw vice with neither sympathy nor disapprobation, but simply as a fact which is there. Such a writer is a realist, and such was Fielding. Once more, it is possible to draw vice in order to extract amusement from it. Such a man is a coarse humorist, and such was Smollett. Lastly, it is possible to draw vice in order to show sympathy with it. Such a man is a wicked man, and there were many among the writers of the Restoration. But of all reasons that exist for treating this side of life, Richardson's were the best, and nowhere do we find it more deftly done.
Apart from his writings, there must have been something very noble about Fielding as a man. He was a better hero than any that he drew. Alone he accepted the task of cleansing London, at that time the most dangerous and lawless of European capitals. Hogarth's pictures give some notion of it in the pre-Fielding days, the low roughs, the high-born bullies, the drunkenness, the villainies, the thieves' kitchens with their riverside trapdoors, down which the body is thrust. This was the Augean stable which had to be cleaned, and poor Hercules was weak and frail and physically more fitted for a sick-room than for such a task. It cost him his life, for he died at 47, worn out with his own exertions. It might well have cost him his life in more dramatic fashion, for he had become a marked man to the criminal classes, and he headed his own search-parties when, on the information of some bribed rascal, a new den of villainy was exposed. But he carried his point. In little more than a year the thing was done, and London turned from the most rowdy to what it has ever since remained, the most law-abiding of European capitals. Has any man ever left a finer monument behind him?
If you want the real human Fielding you will find him not in the novels, where his real kindliness is too often veiled by a mock cynicism, but in his "Diary of his Voyage to Lisbon." He knew that his health was irretrievably ruined and that his years were numbered. Those are the days when one sees a man as he is, when he has no longer a motive for affectation or pretence in the immediate presence of the most tremendous of all realities. Yet, sitting in the shadow of death, Fielding displayed a quiet, gentle courage and constancy of mind, which show how splendid a nature had been shrouded by his earlier frailties.
Just one word upon another eighteenth-century novel before I finish this somewhat didactic chat. You will admit that I have never prosed so much before, but the period and the subject seem to encourage it. I skip Sterne, for I have no great sympathy with his finicky methods. And I skip Miss Burney's novels, as being feminine reflections of the great masters who had just preceded her. But Goldsmith's "Vicar of Wakefield" surely deserves one paragraph to itself. There is a book which is tinged throughout, as was all Goldsmith's work, with a beautiful nature. No one who had not a fine heart could have written it, just as no one without a fine heart could have written "The Deserted Village." How strange it is to think of old Johnson patronizing or snubbing the shrinking Irishman, when both in poetry, in fiction, and in the drama the latter has proved himself far the greater man. But here is an object-lesson of how the facts of life may be treated without offence. Nothing is shirked. It is all faced and duly recorded. Yet if I wished to set before the sensitive mind of a young girl a book which would prepare her for life without in any way contaminating her delicacy of feeling, there is no book which I should choose so readily as "The Vicar of Wakefield."
So much for the eighteenth-century novelists. They have a shelf of their own in the case, and a corner of their own in my brain. For years you may never think of them, and then suddenly some stray word or train of thought leads straight to them, and you look at them and love them, and rejoice that you know them. But let us pass to something which may interest you more.
If statistics could be taken in the various free libraries of the kingdom to prove the comparative popularity of different novelists with the public, I think that it is quite certain that Mr. George Meredith would come out very low indeed. If, on the other hand, a number of authors were convened to determine which of their fellow-craftsmen they considered the greatest and the most stimulating to their own minds, I am equally confident that Mr. Meredith would have a vast preponderance of votes. Indeed, his only conceivable rival would be Mr. Hardy. It becomes an interesting study, therefore, why there should be such a divergence of opinion as to his merits, and what the qualities are which have repelled so many readers, and yet have attracted those whose opinion must be allowed to have a special weight.
The most obvious reason is his complete unconventionality. The public read to be amused. The novelist reads to have new light thrown upon his art. To read Meredith is not a mere amusement; it is an intellectual exercise, a kind of mental dumb-bell with which you develop your thinking powers. Your mind is in a state of tension the whole time that you are reading him.
If you will follow my nose as the sportsman follows that of his pointer, you will observe that these remarks are excited by the presence of my beloved "Richard Feverel," which lurks in yonder corner. What a great book it is, how wise and how witty! Others of the master's novels may be more characteristic or more profound, but for my own part it is the one which I would always present to the new-comer who had not yet come under the influence. I think that I should put it third after "Vanity Fair" and "The Cloister and the Hearth" if I had to name the three novels which I admire most in the Victorian era. The book was published, I believe, in 1859, and it is almost incredible, and says little for the discrimination of critics or public, that it was nearly twenty years before a second edition was needed.
But there are never effects without causes, however inadequate the cause may be. What was it that stood in the way of the book's success? Undoubtedly it was the style. And yet it is subdued and tempered here with little of the luxuriance and exuberance which it attained in the later works. But it was an innovation, and it stalled off both the public and the critics. They regarded it, no doubt, as an affectation, as Carlyle's had been considered twenty years before, forgetting that in the case of an original genius style is an organic thing, part of the man as much as the colour of his eyes. It is not, to quote Carlyle, a shirt to be taken on and off at pleasure, but a skin, eternally fixed. And this strange, powerful style, how is it to be described? Best, perhaps, in his own strong words, when he spoke of Carlyle with perhaps the arriere pensee that the words would apply as strongly to himself.
"His favourite author," says he, "was one writing on heroes in a style resembling either early architecture or utter dilapidation, so loose and rough it seemed. A wind-in-the-orchard style that tumbled down here and there an appreciable fruit with uncouth bluster, sentences without commencements running to abrupt endings and smoke, like waves against a sea-wall, learned dictionary words giving a hand to street slang, and accents falling on them haphazard, like slant rays from driving clouds; all the pages in a breeze, the whole book producing a kind of electrical agitation in the mind and joints."
What a wonderful description and example of style! And how vivid is the impression left by such expressions as "all the pages in a breeze." As a comment on Carlyle, and as a sample of Meredith, the passage is equally perfect.
Well, "Richard Feverel" has come into its own at last. I confess to having a strong belief in the critical discernment of the public. I do not think good work is often overlooked. Literature, like water, finds its true level. Opinion is slow to form, but it sets true at last. I am sure that if the critics were to unite to praise a bad book or to damn a good one they could (and continually do) have a five-year influence, but it would in no wise affect the final result. Sheridan said that if all the fleas in his bed had been unanimous, they could have pushed him out of it. I do not think that any unanimity of critics has ever pushed a good book out of literature.
Among the minor excellences of "Richard Feverel"--excuse the prolixity of an enthusiast--are the scattered aphorisms which are worthy of a place among our British proverbs. What could be more exquisite than this, "Who rises from prayer a better man his prayer is answered"; or this, "Expediency is man's wisdom. Doing right is God's"; or, "All great thoughts come from the heart"? Good are the words "The coward amongst us is he who sneers at the failings of humanity," and a healthy optimism rings in the phrase "There is for the mind but one grasp of happiness; from that uppermost pinnacle of wisdom whence we see that this world is well designed." In more playful mood is "Woman is the last thing which will be civilized by man." Let us hurry away abruptly, for he who starts quotation from "Richard Feverel" is lost.
He has, as you see, a goodly line of his brothers beside him. There are the Italian ones, "Sandra Belloni," and "Vittoria"; there is "Rhoda Fleming," which carried Stevenson off his critical feet; "Beauchamp's Career," too, dealing with obsolete politics. No great writer should spend himself upon a temporary theme. It is like the beauty who is painted in some passing fashion of gown. She tends to become obsolete along with her frame. Here also is the dainty "Diana," the egoist with immortal Willoughby Pattern, eternal type of masculine selfishness, and "Harry Richmond," the first chapters of which are, in my opinion, among the finest pieces of narrative prose in the language. That great mind would have worked in any form which his age had favoured. He is a novelist by accident. As an Elizabethan he would have been a great dramatist; under Queen Anne a great essayist. But whatever medium he worked in, he must equally have thrown the image of a great brain and a great soul.