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BOSTON, APRIL 1, 1829.
NOVELS AND NOVELISTS.
THE Novel is altogether a production of Modern Europe. Antiquity has left us nothing to which we can give the name. The habits of ancient life were unsuited to that nice developement of character, close investigation into human motives, and strong variety of life, which constitute the true materials of the novel. In those great ancient societies, where mankind knew but the two classes of the master and the slave-where domestic life was restriction of all kinds where the wife was seldom more than a higher order of slave, and the child and the menial were alike liable to be put to death, at the caprice of the father and the master; and where that master himself held his life only on the tenure of a despot's caprice,there must have been but little room for the expansion of character, and little indulgence in its delineation.
But the breaking up of that stern and enormous system; like the breaking up of a continent, to scatter its fragments over an ocean; was the signal for that growth of individual character, as it was for that vigor and variety of individual effort, which make Europe the chosen seat of every singularity, energy, and triumph of the human mind. The little communities, no longer forced to adopt the manners of Rome, followed the course of nature; and every division of territory-every demarcation by mountain or sea, by desert or river, became the source of a new division of character.
1 ATHENEUM, VOL. 2, 3d series.
[VOL. 2, No. 1.
The vast variety of occupations, rendered necessary by the wants of this new form of society, produced a corresponding variety of character among those divisions of the great family of the civilized world; and, as the result of the whole, came peculiarities of habit, eccentricities of thinking, and wildness of adventure.
Italy, Spain, and France, took the lead in this sudden expansion of character, and in its description. The romancer was often but the historian of his own chances by flood and field; and the vivid truth of his tale was of ten vouched for by the personal experience of its royal and noble hearers.
It is, perhaps, beyond all modern conception, to image the keen and glowing interest that followed the stories of the Jongleur and Troubadour, while chivalry was in its glory. The narratives of gallant exploit, and strange preservation; the achievement which was crowned with honors in the presence of Europe and Asia; and the dextrous and fortunate escape from evil, that looked like the intervention of preternatural power, and invested the knight and warrior with the dignity of a favorite of heaven, must have been listened to with an interest of singular intensity. But this day vanished: the knight rode forth no longer alone, but was the royal man at arms; the pilgrim had degenerated into the mendicant; the monk had thrown aside the mysteries of seclusion, for the open indulgence
of the vulgar passions of our nature; the era of the crusader was gone down, like a star from the firmament, into that great abyss from which there is no return; and, with the reality of the tale, the spell of the narrator passed away.
The frigid genius of France now took the lead, and produced a long succession of romances, in which the merit of the writer seemed to found itself on the farthest possible remoteness from reality. Love, that could never have been felt-incidents, that defied all probability-and sentiments, urged to the most turgid extravagance, are the common attributes of the whole voluminous and intolerable train of French Romances, from the age of Francis the First, down to the middle of the last century. The Grand Cyrus-the Illustrious Bassa, and the Princess of Cleves, overwhelming as they were, exhibit but specimens of that incongruous and disturbed brood, which burst, with many a throe, from the laboring brain of France.
The world was long sick of this formal frivolity; when, to relieve it from the loves of kings and queens, came the English Novel.
Pamela appeared in 1740, and instantly established Richardson in the highest rank of authorship. Clarissa followed in 1748; and Grandison completed the monument of a celebrity, which has scarcely mouldered under the changes of years that were full of fate to sudden fame. Yet Richardson claims possession of the English heart more by right of priority than of power. Nothing can be more palpable than his deficiencies of style, his insufferable minuteness, the tedious trifling of his narrative, and the general absence of attraction in his characters. But he wrote from himself he was no imitator; there was nature in his page, and nature is the irresistible excellence of the novel. His personages are feeble, for he himself was feeble his men, when he intends to make them graceful, speak like women, for it was in the perpetual association of a female coterie that Rich
ardson lived and thought; his women, when he would make them intelligent, or animated, are transformed into bluestockings, or hoydens, for such is the work of attempts at knowledge among the dull, and labors of gaiety among the underbred. But he saw the anatomy of the heart; and no man could trace with a closer industry every disturbance of the moral circulation. His views of life, beyond the range of his own circle, are often absurd, and always tame; but he had the microscopic mind, that nothing directly within its vision could escape. He loved to pore into the mosses and fungi of character, and discover their cryptogamous loves.
But if Richardson had no other merit, he deserves to be remembered as the writer, without whom we should probably have lost Fielding. It was the popularity of Pamela that first awoke the author of Tom Jones. Fielding, astonished at the praise which the world was emulously lavishing on the feeble story of Pamela, was stung into ridicule; and his ridicule produced Joseph Andrews. But the irony was overlooked by the public in their applause at the wit, the animation, and the oddity of this male Pamela; and the author, roused from his long lethargy, the disease of perpetual disappointment, started forth with the ardor and masculine strength of genius. Tom Jones was written in the midst of the distractions of the magistracy-of a crowd of minor pamphleteering efforts-of embarrassed circumstances, and of a frame long debilitated. Yet the force of its pictures, the accuracy of its individual characters, and the simple and probable sequence of its narrative, have since had no rivals in the national praise. Fielding, like all his contemporaries, was guilty of deep offences against delicacy. For these the book deserves no pardon. It is unfit to be put into the hands of the young; and its lessons can add nothing to the virtues of the mature. But some palliative may be found for the author in the customs of his day, and in the
necessary associations of that unhappy and struggling career, which was so soon to close in the bed of incurable disease.
and scribblings, and worth only its intrinsic value.
Another extraordinary person was to complete the trial of gread Novelists. Smollet had crossed the border for London in his nineteenth year, with a tragedy in his pocket,-the whole foundation to which he trusted for daily bread and immortal fame. His tragedy was worthless-was, of course, rejected; and the young Scotsman had only the alternative of quitting London or the world. After long hardships abroad, he returned while all England was ringing with the triumphs of Richardson and Fielding. He shut himself up for awhile; and when he re-appeared, he brought with him Roderick Random. Within two years after (1751), he produced Peregrine Pickle, and shared the full feast of profit and popularity with his famous predecessors. No fourth rival ever appeared.
The rank of these celebrated writers is so nearly equal, that we may well feel surprise at the strong dissimilarity of their means of success. Richardson loved to contemplate man in situations unnatural in themselves, but where his merit, like that of the Dutch school, was in the exactness of the copy. Fielding's study was the bold and easy figure of man in the common action of general life. Smollet's favorite was the caricature, but of such vigorous and living force, that the burlesque was overpowered in the sternness of the satire. Nothing could evade the keen investigation of Richardson's touch. A button, a buckle, the glance of an eye, the passing color of a cheek, assisted his discovery. He collected his treasure with Indian fineness of tact, and collected it by grains-but they were grains of gold. With Fielding, the gold had already taken shape, and passed, minted and stamped with the authority of general circulation. But Smollet's genius loved it defaced and disfigured, covered over with stains
A brief period included those triumphs of the English Novel. From Pamela, to the last production of the three writers, was but twelve years, for Count Fathom appeared in 1753. It is remarkable, that, during this period, the mind of England seemed to be paralyzed in every other limb. Poetry, Eloquence, and Philosophy, were memorably inactive; whether it was that, like mutilated senses, they gave their vigor to the surviving one; or that they were oppressed by the celebrity of Romance; or that they actually require a time of public trouble and agitation to rouse them; and, like mariners, go to sleep in the calm.
After an interval of ten years, another extraordinary writer arose, to perplex man with the phenomenon of genius in a Yorkshire curate. Sterne witched the witty with jest, delighted the sensitive with touches of incomparable nature; and, last, and humiliating in every sense of the word, startled the decent by the most unhesitating scorn of decorum, personal and professional.
The publication of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy absolutely electrified the multitude. The eccentric combination of ancient literature with modern observation, extravagant whim with profound knowledge of human feelings, and the most glaring impurity with conceptions of the most exquisite refinement, had all the power of an appeal at once to all the loftier and lower propensities of our being. No book in the memory of literature was so much read, so fervently worshipped, and so little understood. Its mysteriousness was among its highest sources of popularity—for every man loves the mystery of ich he thinks that he alone can find the solution. Even the occasional triteness and dulness of Sterne added to the general attraction of his volumes. To the lover of romance for its own sake, they were the clouds and darkness which veiled for a time the pro