Imágenes de páginas

Still, we cannot avoid recurring to the real grounds on which the ancient prejudices against this useful and agreeable sort of writing, appear to us to rest; and we solicit the forbearance of our readers, while we proceed to expound them. We will promise not to be half so long, and we hope to be not quite so tedious, as Master Jedediah Cleishbotham, whose introductory lucubrations have this aggravation of impertinence, that they keep us from the Tales rather than lead us to them, and are altogether as irrelevant as they are dull.

The first general objection against this class of writings, is this, that they tend to stimulate that appetite for incident, which characterizes the curiosity of our childish years, and by exhibiting life as a series of incidents, rather than a course of daily duties and quiet babits of feeling, induce a distaste for the realities of our proper business and enjoyment. The best novels are chargeable with this evil effect: hence arises the modest half-plea half-confession, only now and then ;' ' a novel occa

sionally can surely do no harm.' In fact, it is not real life only, the colouring of which seems cold to the eye that is just withdrawn from the theatric glare of the scenes of the novelist. We may appeal to those of our readers who have experience on this subject, whether history itself does not seem dull, and severer studies actually forbidding, while the vivid impression of the novel remains. It can scarcely be doubted that this strong sensation of interest is to be attributed to the principle of curiosity, and that in its lowest modification. Curiosity is the motive which prompts the highest exertions of intellect, but itsvalue and dignity depend entirely upon the object towards which it is directed. The same principle that actuates the philosopher in pushing his inquiries back into the causes of things, or in pursuing the anxious process of experimental induction, may be recognised in that indefinite eagerness with which ordinary minds pry into futurity, and in the love of mere succession or novelty instinctive in the child. In reading a novel or a play, there is a similar operation of the mind, a childish exercise of curiosity to see what succeeds, although it succeeds by no necessary connexion regulating the order of the narration, otherwise than as the caprice of the author dictates, and although nothing whatsoever is depending upon it as a moral consequence. Still we read on, impatient to see the end; and under the influence of the same spell, and in reference to an object of equal importance, the child continues to trace the progress of the counter through his favourite game, identifying himself with it in its varied adventures, as the emblematic hero of his little novel; and as the chances lessen, his impatience and suspense increase, until at last the game is lost or won, and he has nothing left but to begin it again. Take away the story

from a novel, and you have literally nothing left; it is both its hasis and its superstructure, while character, moral sentiment, and description, are but the ornamental parts. Deprive the story of a plot, and with a few rare exceptions possessing independent dramatic merit, the reader's attention would absolutely fail before the end of a first volume: but let the plot thicken amid the accumulation of the veriest improbabilities, and so long as no indications of the author's lack of ingenuity in contriving the web of his narrative, force themselves on the observation, and the reader is hurried forward with breathless impatience towards the catastrophe.

It will not be difficult to account for the strength of this interest, resting nevertheless on so slight a foundation, if we bear in mind that in all cases the most vehement emotions are connected with the most indistinct perceptions of their object; that children and uncivilized men are distinguished by the vividness of their feelings, as acted upon by imagination, and that our most refined intellectual pleasures are the least intense. The pleasures connected with a critical exercise of the taste, or in a moral exercise of the judgement, are surely of a far higher order than the excitement produced by a new novel; and yet, the emotions of curiosity and wonder, and all the passions which sympathy with the hero brings into play, are far more vivid in degree.

The injurious effect of novel reading, consists then, not only in the kind of intellectual exercise to which it gives rise, though that in itself is unfavourable to mental improvement, but in its tendency to vitiate the sensibility, by bringing the feelings under the dominant influence of the imagination, so as in time to render them callous in regard to the real interests of life, when a less powerful stimulant is applied to them. This is that state of morbid sensibility, in which active habits cease to be the result of the passive impressions received by the intellect, the moral faculties become disorganized, and that odious phenomenon is the result,-feeling without benevolence.

It is another objection brought against this class of compositions, that they convey false views of life. But so, it may be urged, does Poetry. There is, however, this material difference. The Poet transports us to an imaginary world of elevated abstractions, and presents to us the ideal of a moral being.' "The

passions of solitary and untamed imagination,'' hopes learned o from dreams of the great and wonderful and lovely,' thoughts ( which have dwelt among the wonders of Nature, and the lof

tiest spixits of men,'--these are the elements of poetry, and the danger there is in indulging them consists in the disappointment and disgust to which a mind whose estimates are not rectified by religion, will be exposed, on becoming acquainted withi

[ocr errors]

the real world. The Novelist, on the contrary, proffers his services for the express purpose of initiating us into things as they are, into the manners, and follies, and customs of society. And when he modestly confines himself to this office, he stands in the least danger of exceeding the bounds of his knowledge, and misleading those whom he seeks to amuse. The higher the aim of the novelist, the less commendable, in general, will be his performance. Moral instruction is not his proper business; still less, religious instruction : for, how excellent soever may be the design of the Author, we doubt exceedingly the efficiency of such a mode of conveying religious truth. With regard to the irreligious, that is not the form in which the authority of truth is to be recognized, and as to all which is ascribed to the influence of religion in fictitious narratives of this description, it may serve for the purpose of illustration to those who have no doubts as to the foundations of duty, but it can have no weight with persons of a different cast of mind, since, allowing that the statements rest on facts, they are facts detached from evidence.

The primary object of a novel, and, if not necessarily the ultimate object too, it is, we believe, that which must characterize the whole production and render it inefficient for any high moral purpose, is amusement: for this reason, putting aside all accidental violations of the truth of nature or of history, or the casual introduction of erroneous opinions, the views of human life and of human character which they present, must be essentially deceptive. History can never, consistently with the interests of morality, be rendered simply amusing. Reflections must be suggested by a faithful record of any part of the annals of the human race, which forbid a person of virtuous sensibility from reading it with the levity of mere entertainment. Those on whom it makes no such impression, might possibly derive as much edification from the perusal of the contents of the Minerva Library. In an historical novel, more especially, which pretends to give us the character of real persons and real events, truth must be deliberately sacrificed :-not the truth of costume, of manners, of dramatic propriety, of chronology; all these may be preserved with the fidelity of an antiquary and the spirit of a poet ;-but the genuine character of history must be perverted, and all the grand facts relating to the moral circumstances of man as an accountable being, and to human life as a scene of awful probation, 'facts which the historian scarcely dares touch upon or is willing even to imply,—all these must be kept wholly out of sight, if not tacitly denied, for they cannot be made to minister to amusement.

We anticipate an objection, as if we would proscribe books of amusement altogether. Nothing so chimerical could be seriously maintained by the most rigid moralist; but let authors honestly


avow their purpose, and let books which have no higher aim, keep within the line of amusement.

We had intended to felicitate our modern historico-novelists, on the advantages they possess over chroniclers of the ancient school, inasmuch as they are exempted by the license of their profession from all the anxious research, the rigorous comparison of varying testimonies, the cautious induction of obscure facts, the self-suspicious desire of correctness, that are requisite, and after all found too often insufficient, to constitute the work of an historian an unexceptionable representation of the events it records. We had intended to refer to the trite anecdote, of Sir Walter Raleigh's burning his history, on discovering the impossibility of obtaining correct information of even a recent fact. We should perhaps have remarked what an admirable plea the novelist might set up, if charged with any anachronism, or palpable deviations from historic accuracy, and how easily he might gain acquittal either of ignorance, or of a wilful design to deceive, by shewing that his work was not amenable to the severe laws of bistorical composition, being professedly only founded on fact. And if the facts were not as he had represented them, * tant pis pour les faits. But the light weapon of irony is scarcely appropriate to the occasion. Nothing short of the genius wbich is discovered in the present work, could render the attempt to give a false colouring to an important portion of history by means so inadequate as a novel or a tale, a matter of grave apprebension ; yet the design itself, on whomsoever it might seem to be distinctly chargeable, would be too nefarious to deserve to be otherwise treated than in the honest language of deprecation. Paley, in distinguishing falsehoods from lies which involve criminality, remarks, that the latter denomination is not applicable to

parables, fables, novels, jests, tales to create mirth, ludicrous embellishments of a story, where the declared design of the

speaker is not to inform, but to divert;' but be subsequently adduces an instance of lies of omission, which may be thought to have some bearing on the present subject. 'A writer of English history, who in his account of the reign of Charles the First, should wilfully suppress any evidence of that prince's despotic measures and designs, might be said to lie; for by entitling bis book a History of England, he engages to relate the whole truth of the history, or, at least, all that he knows

of it.'* The author of a novel does not entitle bis work a history, but our readers will judge wbether the professed design

to present an unbiassed picture of the manners of an unhappy period, and at the same time, to do justice to the merits of both parties,' does not lay an author under obligations

* Paley's Moral Philosophy, Vol. I. p. 189.

equally sacred to preserve even in a tale, the truth of history, since his aim is not simply to divert. Conscious, as it should seem, that his work was on this account liable to objection, the Author of these Tales has put into the mouth of the narrator, what might be taken for an apology.

• Upon the whole, I can hardly fear, that, at this time, in describing the operation which their opposite principles produced upon the good and bad men of both parties, I can be suspected of meaning insult or injustice to either. If recollection of former injuries, extra-loyalty, and contempt and hatred of their adversaries, produced rigour and tyranny in the one party, it will hardly be denied, on the other hand, that, if the zeal for God's house did not eat up the conventiclers, it devoured, at least, to imitate the phrase of Dryden, no small portion of their loyalty, sober sense, and good breeding. We may safely hope, that the souls of the brave and sincere on either side have long looked down with surprise and pity upon the ill-appreciated motives which caused their mutual hatred and hostility, while in this valley of darkness, blood and tears. Peace to their memory! Let us think of them as the heroine of our only Scottish tragedy entreats her lord to think of her departed sire,

“ O rake not up the ashes of our fathers !
Implacable resentment was their crime,

And grievous has the expiation been.” This is probably meant for the language of candour, and candour is one qualification in an historian of no small importance; but should it be found to arise from either a natural or moral incompetency to discriminate motives or characters, should it prove to be a candour believing against evidence, and hoping against notorious fact, an equalizing principle of sceptical indifference that places the tyrant and the patriot, the ruffian and the martyr, on exactly the same level, making on either side bravery or sincerity a quality of redeeming virtue, it may well be doubted whether this candour is of that genuine or enlightened kind which should suffice, in the absence of other requisites, to constitute an author an unbiassed historian, or an edifying moralist.

Under the reign of the last Stuarts,' the Author means Charles the Second and James the Second, for the same family continued to reign in the persons of the succeeding two female sovereigns, • there was,' he says, ' an anxious wish on the part of government to counteract, by every means in their power, the strict

or puritanical spirit which had been the chief characteristic of the republican government, and to revive those feudal institutions which united the vassal to the liege-lord and both to the crown.'

It will be advisable just to refresh the recollections of our readers with regard to the real character of this melancholy

« AnteriorContinuar »