"I DON'T like preaching to the nerves instead of the judgment," was the remark of a shrewd observer of human nature, in relation to a certain class of popular sermons. The remark need not be limited to sermons alone. A class of literature has grown up around us, usurping in many respects, intentionally or unintentionally, a portion of the preacher's office, playing no inconsiderable part in moulding the minds and forming the habits and tastes of its generation; and doing so principally, we had almost said exclusively, by "preaching to the nerves." It would almost seem as if the paradox of Cabanis, les nerfs, voilà tout l'homme, had been banished from the realm of philosophy only to claim a wider empire in the domain of fiction--at least if we may judge by the very large class of writers who seem to acknowledge no other element in human nature to which they can appeal. Excitement, and excitement alone, seems to be the great end at which they aim--an end which must be accomplished at any cost by some means or other, "si possis, recte; si non, quocunque modo." And as excitement, even when harmless in kind, cannot be continually produced without becoming morbid in degree, works of this class manifest themselves as belonging, some more, some less, but all to some extent, to the morbid phenomena of literature--indications of a wide-spread corruption, of which they are in part both the effect and the cause; called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite, and contributing themselves to foster the disease, and to stimulate the want which they supply.
The sensation novel is the counterpart of the spasmodic poem. They represent "the selfsame interest with a different leaning." The one leans outward, the other leans inward; the one aims at convulsing the soul of the reader, the other professes to owe its birth to convulsive throes in the soul of the writer. But with this agreement there is also a difference. There is not a poet or poetaster of the spasmodic school but is fully persuaded of his own inspiration and the immortality of his work. He writes to satisfy the unconquerable yearnings of his soul; and if some prosaic friend were to hint at such earthly considerations as readers and purchasers, he would be ready to exclaim, with a forgotten brother of the craft (alas, that we should have to say forgotten after such a hiatus!):--
"Go, dotard, go, and if it suits thy mind, Range yonder rocks and reason with the wind, Or if its motions own another's will, Walk to the beach and bid the sea be still; In newer orbits let the planets run, Or throw a cloud of darkness o'er the sun; A measured movement bid the comets keep, Or lull the music of the spheres to sleep: These may obey thee; but the fiery soul Of Genius owns not, brooks not, thy control."
Not so the sensation novelist. No divine influence can be imagined as presiding over the birth of his work, beyond the market-law of demand and supply; no more immortality is dreamed of for it than for the fashions of the current season. A commercial atmosphere floats around works of this class, redolent of the manufactory and the shop. The public want novels, and novels must be made--so many yards of printed stuff, sensation-pattern, to be ready by the beginning of the season. And if the demands of the novel-reading public were to increase to the amount of a thousand per season, no difficulty would be found in producing a thousand works of the average merit. They rank with the verses of which "Lord Fanny spins a thousand such a day"; and spinning-machines of the Lord Fanny kind may be multiplied without limit.
Various causes have been at work to produce this phenomenon of our literature. Three principal ones may be named as having had a large share in it--periodicals, circulating libraries, and railway bookstalls. A periodical, from its very nature, must contain many articles of an ephemeral interest, and of the character of goods made to order. The material part of it is a fixed quantity, determined by rigid boundaries of space and time; and on this Procrustean bed the spiritual part must needs be stretched to fit. A given number sheets of print, containing so many lines per sheet, must be produced weekly or Sensation Novels monthly, and the diviner element must accommodate itself to these conditions. A periodical, moreover, belongs to the class of works which most men borrow and do not buy, and in which, therefore, they take only a transitory interest. Few men will burden their shelves with a series of volumes which have no coherence in their parts, and no limit in their number, whose articles of personal interest may be as one halfpennyworth of bread to an intolerable quantity of sack, and which have no other termination to their issue than the point at which they cease to be profitable. Under these circumstances, no small stimulus is given to the production of tales of the marketable stamp, which, after appearing piecemeal in weekly or monthly instalments, generally enter upon a second stage of their insect-life in the form of a handsome reprint under the auspices of the circulating library.
This last-named institution is the oldest offender of the three; but age has neither diminished the energy nor subdued the faults of its youth. It is more active now than at any former period of its existence, and its activity is much of the same kind as it was described in the pages of this Review more than fifty years ago.(1) The manner of its action is indeed inseparable from the nature of the institution, varying only in the production of larger quantities to meet the demand of a more reading generation. From the days of the "Minerva Press" (that synonym for the dullest specimens of the light reading of our grandmothers) to those of the thousand and one tales of the current season, the circulating library has been the chief hot-bed for forcing a crop of writers without talent and readers without discrimination. It is to literature what a magasin de modes is to dress, giving us the latest fashion, and little more. Its staple commodities are "books of the present season," many of them destined to run their round for the season only,--
"Sons of a day, just buoyant on the flood,
Then numbered with the puppies in the mud."
Subscription, as compared with purchase, produces no doubt a great increase in the quantity of books procurable, but with a corresponding deterioration in the quality. The buyer of books is generally careful to select what for his own purposes is worth buying; the subscriber is often content to take the good the gods provide him, glancing lazily down the library catalogue, and picking out some title which promises amusement or excitement. The catalogue of a circulating library is the legitimate modern successor to that portion of Curll's stock in trade which consisted of "several taking title-pages, that only wanted treatises to be wrote to them."
The railway stall, like the circulating library, consists partly of books written expressly for its use, partly of reprints in a new phase of their existence--a phase internally that of the grub, with small print and cheap paper, externally that of the butterfly, with a tawdry cover, ornamented with a highly-coloured picture, hung out like a signboard, to give promise of the entertainment to be had within. The picture, like the book, is generally of the sensation kind, announcing some exciting scene to follow. A pale young lady in a white dress, with a dagger in her hand, evidently prepared for some desperate deed; or a couple of ruffians engaged in a deadly struggle; or a Red Indian in his war-paint; or, if the plot turns on smooth instead of violent villany, a priest persuading a dying man to sign a paper; or a disappointed heir burning a will; or a treacherous lover telling his flattering tale to some deluded maid or wife. The exigencies of railway travelling do not allow much time for examining the merits of a book before purchasing it; and keepers of bookstalls, as well as of refreshment-rooms, find an advantage in offering their customers something hot and strong, something that may catch the eye of the hurried passenger, and promise temporary excitement to relieve the dulness of a journey.
These circumstances of production naturally have their effect on the quality of the articles produced. Written to meet an ephemeral demand, aspiring only to an ephemeral existence, it is natural that they should have recourse to rapid and ephemeral methods of awakening the interest of their readers, striving to act as the dram or the dose, rather than as the solid food, because the effect is more immediately perceptible. And as the perpetual cravings of the dram-drinker or the valetudinarian for spirits or physic are hardly intelligible to the man of sound health and regular appetites, so, to one called from more wholesome studies to survey the wide field of sensational literature, it is difficult to realise the idea which its multifarious contents necessarily suggest, that these books must form the staple mental food of a very large class of readers. On first turning over a few pages of the average productions of this school, he is tempted to exclaim "Quis leget hæc?" but the doubt is checked as it rises by the evidently commercial character of the whole affair. These books would certainly not be written if they did not sell; and they would not sell if they were not read; ergo, they must have readers, and numerous readers too. The long list of works standing at the head of this article is, with a few exceptions, but a scanty gleaning from the abundant harvests of the last two seasons. Great is the power of fiction in attracting readers by its name alone. We have heard of a lady who was persuaded into reading "Plutarch's Lives" by being told that the book was a delightful novel, and who was indignant at the trick, when she discovered that history had won her approbation under the guise of fiction. If the name of a novel can carry down, with readers of this class, the bitter pill of solid merit, it may easily have its influence in seasoning the less unpalatable morsel of trash. It would be well, indeed, if this were all. Unhappily there is too much evidence that the public appetite can occasionally descend from trash to garbage. We have ourselves seen an English translation of one of the worst of those French novels devoted to the worship of Baal-Peor and the recommendation of adultery, lying for sale at a London railway-stall, and offered as a respectable book to unsuspecting ladies; and the list now before us furnishes sufficient proof that poison of the same kind is sometimes concealed under the taking title of the circulating library.
A sensation novel, as a matter of course, abounds in incident. Indeed, as a general rule, it consists of nothing else. Deep knowledge of human nature, graphic delineations of individual character, vivid representations of the aspects of Nature or the workings of the soul--all the higher features of the creative art--would be a hindrance rather than a help to a work of this kind. The unchanging principles of philosophy, the "thing of beauty" that "is a joy for ever," would be out of place in a work whose aim is to produce temporary excitement. "Action, action, action!" though in a different sense from that intended by the great orator, is the first thing needful, and the second, and the third. The human actors in the piece are, for the most part, but so many lay-figures on which to exhibit a drapery of incident. Allowing for the necessary division of all characters of a tale into male and female, old and young, virtuous and vicious, there is hardly anything said or done by any one specimen of a class which might not with equal fitness be said or done by any other specimen of the same class. Each game is played with the same pieces, differing only in the moves. We watch them advancing through the intricacies of the plot, as we trace the course of an x or a y through the combinations of an algebraic equation, with a similar curiosity to know what becomes of them at the end, and with about as much consciousness of individuality in the ciphers.
Yet even the dullest uniformity admits of a certain kind of variety. As a shepherd can trace individual distinctions in the general air of sheepishness which marks the countenances of his fleecy charge; as the five sons of Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone exhibited an agreeable variety in the mixture of the ingredients of sot, gamekeeper, bully, horse-jockey, and fool; so in the general type of character which marks a novel as belonging to the sensational genus, there may be traced certain minor differences constituting a distinction of species. A great philosopher has enumerated in a list of sensations "the feelings from heat, electricity, galvanism, &c.," together with "titillation, sneezing, horripilation, shuddering, the feeling of setting the teeth on edge, &c."; and our novels might be classified in like manner, according to the kind of sensation they are calculated to produce. There are novels of the warming-pan, and others of the galvanic-battery type--some which gently stimulate a particular feeling, and others which carry the whole nervous system by steam. There are some which tickle the vanity of the reader, and some which aspire to set his hair on end or his teeth on edge; while others, with or without the intention of the writer, are strongly provocative of that sensation in the palate and throat which is a premonitory symptom of nausea. To go through the details of any minute division would be impossible with such a voluminous list as we have before us: they may, however, all be classified under two general heads--those that are written merely for amusement, and those that are written with a didactic purpose.
Of the two, we confess that we very much prefer the former. As a fly, though a more idle, is a less offensive insect than a bug; as it is more pleasant that the exhilaration of a noisy evening should be forgotten in the morning than that it should leave its remembrance in the form of a headache; so it is better that the excitement of a sensation novel should evaporate in froth and foam, than that it should leave a residuum behind of shallow dogmatism and flippant conceit. For what other results can be expected from the popular novelist's method of prejudice teaching by caricature? There is nothing under the sun, divine or human, to which this method cannot be applied; reversing the power of Goldsmith in Johnson's epitaph, it leaves nothing untouched, and touches nothing which it does not deface. As universal as the oracles of the Athenian sausage-seller, it is ready on the shortest notice to discourse on all subjects--
"About the Athenians,
About pease-pudding and porridge, about the Spartans,
About the war, about the pilchard-fishery,
About the state of things in general,
About short weights and measures in the market,
About all things and persons whatsoever."
Let a writer have a prejudice against the religion of his neighbour, against the government of his country, against the administration of the law, against the peerage, against the prohibition that hinders a man from marrying his grandmother, against plucking in examinations, against fermented liquors, against the social position of women who have lapsed from virtue, against capital punishments, against the prevailing fashion in dress, against any institution, custom, or fact of the day--forthwith comes out a tale to exhibit in glowing colours the evil which might be produced by the obnoxious object in an imaginary case, tragic or comic, as suits the nature of the theme or the genius of the writer, and heightened by every kind of exaggeration. The offensive doctrines are fathered on some clerical Tartuffe; the governmental department is exhibited as a "Circumlocution Office"; the law ruins the fortunes of some blameless client, or corrupts the conscience of some generous young practitioner; the nobleman of the tale is a monster in depravity, or an idiot in folly; the table of prohibited degrees breaks two loving hearts who cannot live without each other; the promising youth is plucked for his little-go, and plunges into reckless dissipation in consequence; the single glass of port or sherry leads by sure stages to brandy and delirium tremens, and the medical virtues of pure water work cures in defiance of the faculty; &c. &c. The method is so far perfectly impartial that it may be applied with equal facility to the best things and the worst; but an argument that proves everything is of precisely the same value as an argument that proves nothing. Mr. Dickens, we regret to say, is a grievous offender in this line; and, by a just retribution, the passages that are written in this spirit are generally the worst in his works. He never sinks so nearly to the level of the ordinary sensation-novelist as when he is writing "with a purpose." Unfortunately, decipit exemplar vitiis imitabile; the vice of a great writer has been copied by a hundred small ones, who, without a tithe of his genius, make up for the deficiency by an extra quantity of extravagance.
The sensation novel, be it mere trash or something worse, is usually a tale of our own times. Proximity is, indeed, one great element of sensation. It is necessary to be near a mine to be blown up by its explosion; and a tale which aims at electrifying the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly effective unless the scene be laid in our own days and among the people we are in the habit of meeting. We read with little emotion, though it comes in the form of history, Livy's narrative of the secret poisonings carried on by nearly two hundred Roman ladies; we feel but a feeble interest in an authentic record of the crimes of a Borgia or a Brinvilliers; but we are thrilled with horror, even in fiction, by the thought that such things may be going on around us and among us. The man who shook our hand with a hearty English grasp half an hour ago--the woman whose beauty and grace were the charm of last night, and whose gentle words sent us home better pleased with the world and with ourselves--how exciting to think that under these pleasing outsides may be concealed some demon in human shape, a Count Fosco or a Lady Audley! He may have assumed all that heartiness to conceal some dark plot against our life or honour, or against the life or honour of one yet dearer: she may have left that gay scene to muffle herself in a thick veil and steal to a midnight meeting with some villanous accomplice. He may have a mysterious female, immured in a solitary tower or a private lunatic asylum, destined to come forth hereafter to menace the name and position of the excellent lady whom the world acknowledges as his wife: she may have a husband lying dead at the bottom of a well, and a fatherless child nobody knows where. All this is no doubt very exciting; but even excitement may be purchased too dearly; and we may be permitted to doubt whether the pleasure of a nervous shock is worth the cost of so much morbid anatomy if the picture be true, or so much slanderous misrepresentation if it be false.
Akin to proximity is personality, and its effect is similar in creating a spurious interest. Personality, moreover, has an additional advantage, resembling that which Aristotle attributes to the use of metaphors in rhetoric. It gives rise to a kind of syllogism, whereby, without too great an exertion of thought, the mind of the reader is enabled to conclude that this is that. Of these advantages our novelists are not slow to avail themselves. If a scandal of more than usual piquancy occurs in high life, or a crime of extraordinary horror figures among our causes célèbres, the sensationist is immediately at hand to weave the incident into a thrilling tale, with names and circumstances slightly disguised, so as at once to exercise the ingenuity of the reader in guessing at the riddle, and to gratify his love of scandal in discovering the answer. Sometimes the incident of real life is made the main plot of the story, sometimes it figures as an episode in the history of two imaginary lovers, with whom the flesh-and-blood criminal comes in contact, like the substantial Æneas on board the shadowy bark of Charon, nearly making shipwreck of the frail vessel of their fortunes. The end and moral of the narrative, in the one case and in the other, is much the same; namely, to elicit from the gratified reader the important exclamation, "I know who is meant by So-and-so."
Of particular offences, which are almost always contemporary and sometimes personal, undoubtedly the first place must be given to Bigamy. Indeed, so popular has this crime become, as to give rise to an entire sub-class in this branch of literature, which may be distinguished as that of Bigamy Novels. It is astonishing how many of our modern writers have selected this interesting breach of morality and law as the peg on which to hang a mystery and a dénouement. Of the tales on our list, no less than eight are bigamy stories:--"Lady Audley's Secret," "Aurora Floyd," "Clinton Maynyard," "Recommended to Mercy," "The Law of Divorce," "The Daily Governess," "Only a Woman," "The Woman of Spirit," all hang their narrative, wholly or in part, on bigamy in act, or bigamy in intention, on the existence or supposed existence of two wives to the same husband, or two husbands to the same wife. Much of this popularity is, no doubt, due to the peculiar aptitude of bigamy, at least in monogamous countries, to serve as a vehicle of mysterious interest or poetic justice. If some vulgar ruffian is to be depicted as having a strange influence over a lady of rank and fashion, it is a ready expedient to make him conscious of the existence of another husband, or the child of another husband, supposed to be long dead. If lowly virtue is to be exalted, or high-born pride humiliated, the means are instantly at hand, in the discovery of a secret marriage, unsuspected till the third volume, which makes the child of poverty the heir to rank and wealth, or degrades the proud patrician by stripping him of his illegal honours. It is really painful to think how many an interesting mystery and moral lesson will be lost, if Sir Cresswell Cresswell's Court continues in active work for another generation. Bigamy will become as clumsy and obsolete an expedient for the relief of discontented partners as the axe was in Juvenal's day, compared with the superior facilities of poison. With such an easy legal provision of being "off wi' the auld love," it will be worse than a crime, it will be a blunder, to have recourse to illegitimate means of being "on wi' the new."
Of our list of Bigamy Novels, some will be noticed under other characters, and some are not worth noticing at all. The two first-named claim a notice as bigamy novels par excellence, the whole interest of the story turning on this circumstance. Though both exaggerated specimens of the sensational type, they are the works of an author of real power, who is capable of better things than drawing highly-coloured portraits of beautiful fiends and fast young ladies burdened with superfluous husbands. Lady Audley, alias Mrs. George Talboys, is a Vittoria Corombona transferred to the nineteenth century and to an English drawing-room. But the romantic wickedness of the "White Devil of Italy" suffers by being transplanted to home scenes and modern associations. The English White Devil, however, if not quite so romantic and interesting, is more than the rival of her prototype in boldness and guilt. She does with her own hand what Vittoria does by means of others. She has married a second husband, knowing or suspecting her first one to be still living; and the desperate means to which she has recourse to avoid discovery furnish an abundance of incidents of various degrees of ingenuity and villainy. She advertises her own death in the newspapers, having previously procured a young woman who resembles her in person to die and be buried in her stead; she throws her first husband down a well, whence he finally emerges, we are not told how, with a broken arm; she breaks into a lawyer's chambers during his absence, and destroys his papers; she burns down a house to get rid of a dangerous witness, having locked the door of his room to prevent his escape. Yet, notwithstanding all the horrors of the story--and there are enough of them to furnish a full supper for a Macbeth--notwithstanding the glaring improbability of the incidents, the superhuman wickedness of the principal character and the incongruities of others; notwithstanding the transparent nature of the "secret" from the very beginning; the author has succeeded in constructing a narrative the interest of which is sustained to the end. The skill of the builder deserves to be employed on better materials.
It is difficult to do justice by extracts to a work whose chief merit consists in the cleverness with which an interesting whole is made out of faulty parts. The following description is not, perhaps, the best specimen of the author's powers; but it is worth quoting, not only in itself, but as exhibiting in strong contrast the personal fascinations of the lady whose character and actions have been described above. Here is a portrait of the heroine under her supposed maiden name of Lucy Graham:--
"Wherever she went she seemed to take joy and brightness with her. In the cottages of the poor her fair face shone like a sunbeam. She would sit for a quarter of an hour talking to some old woman, and apparently as pleased with the admiration of a toothless crone as if she had been listening to the compliments of a marquis; and when she tripped away, leaving nothing behind her (for her poor salary gave no scope to her benevolence), the old woman would burst out into senile raptures with her grace, her beauty, and her kindliness, such as she never bestowed upon the vicar's wife, who half fed and clothed her. For you see Miss Lucy Graham was blessed with that magic power of fascination by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile. Every one loved, admired, and praised her. The boy who opened the five-barred gate that stood in her pathway ran home to his mother to tell of her pretty looks and the sweet voice in which she thanked him for the little service. The verger at the church who ushered her into the surgeon's pew; the vicar who saw the soft blue eyes uplifted to his face as he preached his simple sermon; the porter from the railway-station who brought her sometimes a letter or a parcel, and who never looked for reward from her; her employer; his visitors; her pupils; the servants; everybody, high and low, united in declaring that Lucy Graham was the sweetest girl that ever lived."
Aurora Floyd, as a character, is tame after Lady Audley. The "beautiful fiend," intensely wicked, but romantic from the very intensity of her wickedness, has degenerated into a fast young lady, full of stable talk, deep in the mysteries of the turf, and familiar with "Bell's Life,"--a young lady with large beautiful eyes, and with very little else to command any feeling either of love or the reverse. She runs away from school to contract a secret marriage with a consummate blackguard of a groom--
"A bridegroom, say you? 'tis a groom indeed."
She separates herself from him after a short and bitter experience of his character, comes home, and deceives her father by assuring him that "that person" is dead when she knows him to be alive; afterwards, on the report of his death, deceives two worthy men by accepting one and marrying the other without breathing a word of her previous escapade (we are informed that "her natural disposition is all truth and candour"); and finally deceives her husband again, when she discovers that the man she had supposed dead is alive, by making arrangements for sending the obnoxious individual to Australia and retaining the second and illegal spouse as the more agreeable personage of the two. She is inferior to Lady Audley, as a pickpocket is inferior to a thug; but there is this important difference,--that Lady Audley is meant to be detested, while Aurora Floyd is meant to be admired. The one ends her days in a madhouse; the other becomes the wife of an honest man, and the curtain falls upon her "bending over the cradle of her first-born." By a fortunate arrangement of nature, which is always at the command of novelists, the birth of the infant is delayed beyond the usual time, till the groom is really dead and a re-marriage has repaired the irregularity of the bigamy. Fortunately also, there is no little pledge of affection born to the Damasippus of her first vows.
Though the moral teaching of the story is more questionable than that of its predecessor, and the interest, on the whole, less sustained, the individual characters are drawn with greater skill. Aurora, with all her faults, is a woman and not a fiend; and John Mellish, the honest, genial, tender-hearted, somewhat henpecked husband, is a portrait superior to any in the more romantic volume. As a companion to the picture of Lucy Graham in a calm may be exhibited the following description of Aurora Floyd in a storm. The "stable-man" of the piece is not the one whom she has acquired a conjugal right to chastise, but another of the same profession, by no means so good-looking, but as great a scoundrel:--
"Aurora sprang upon him like a beautiful tigress, and catching the collar of his fustian jacket in her slight hands, rooted him to the spot upon which he stood. The grasp of those slender hands, convulsed by passion, was not to be easily shaken off; and Steeve Hargraves, taken completely off his guard, stared aghast at his assailant. Taller than the stable-man by a foot and a half, she towered above him, her cheeks white with rage, her eyes flashing fury, her hat fallen off, and her black hair tumbling about her shoulders, sublime in her passion.... She disengaged her right hand from his collar, and rained a shower of blows upon his clumsy shoulders with her slender whip; a mere toy, with emeralds set in its golden head, but stinging like a rod of flexible steel in that little hand."
In direct opposition to the bigamy-novels are those which, instead of multiplying the holy ceremony, betray an inclination to dispense with it altogether. There is a school of fiction the practical lesson of which seems to be to reduce marriage to a temporary connexion durante bene placito, and to exalt the character of the mistress at the expense of that of the wife. This is a favourite theme with French novelists of a certain class; and the tale entitled "Recommended to Mercy" may claim to be considered as an English exponent of the same doctrine. It has, indeed, an episode of bigamy, to show the inconveniences of matrimony; but the chief interest centres in a heroine whose ideas on this subject are rather on the side of a defect than of excess. Helen Langton, alias Mrs. Vaughan, is a young lady whose opinions on the conjugal relation are borrowed from Eloisa, filtered through the dregs of Mary Wollstonecraft:--
"Not Cæsar's empress would I deign to prove;
No, make me mistress to the man I love"--
reappears from the mouth of this strong-minded young lady in the form of the following declaration volunteered to a male cousin:--
"I consider the ceremony of marriage as one of the most absurd inventions ever inflicted on human beings by mortal men.... In the first place, do we not swear to love always and to the end, when to do so is too often clearly and simply out of our power? Is human love the growth of human will? Certainly not; and as certainly is it only as words of course, that we vow to 'honour and to obey' the man who may turn out a dishonourable wretch, or a monster of tyranny and oppression."
The practice of this fair philosopher is in accordance with her theory. She lives for some years as the mistress of the man she loves; is discarded, as a matter of course, on his marriage; leads a life of virtuous and ill-used poverty for a time; returns to her lover again when he has separated from his wife on suspicion of her infidelity; becomes the legatee of his whole property on certain peculiar conditions of trust; and is thus enabled to become a model of virtue in wealth, as formerly of virtue in poverty (her charities furnishing some graphic illustrations of the manners and customs of the "social evil"); and finally makes a magnanimous surrender of her riches to the rightful heir, on making a discovery which enables her to do so according to the conditions of the will.
Such is the outline of the story. The moral that would be drawn by the author may be conjectured from the title of the book; that which will be drawn by many of its readers may be summed up in the comfortable doctrine of Hans Carvel's wife,--
"That if weak women went astray,
Their stars were more in fault than they."
In truth, we much doubt the wisdom or the morality of drawing fictitious portraits of noble-minded and interesting sinners, by way of teaching us to feel for the sinner while we condemn the sin. We do not deny that the feeling is a right one, nor that such characters may actually exist; but it makes all the difference in the world to the moral whether we meet with the persons in real life or in a novel. The real person is a human being, with human qualities, good or bad, to which the particular sin in question attaches itself as one feature out of many. The fictitious character is but the sin personified and made attractive as the source and substance of many virtues. In the one, the person is the principal figure, the sin is accessory; in the other, the sin is the primary idea, to embellish which the rest of the character is made to order. And when, as a foil to this diamond with but a single flaw, is drawn the "respectable" woman whose chastity is beyond the breath of scandal, but who sullies that one virtue by a thousand faults--cold, selfish, pharisaical, hollow-hearted, ill-tempered, &c.--to what does such a story naturally lead, but to the conclusion that, whatever a censorious world may say to the contrary, female virtue has really very little to do with the Seventh Commandment? Novelists of this school do their best to inculcate as a duty the first two of the three stages towards vice--"we first endure, then pity, then embrace"; and, in so doing, they have assisted in no small degree to prepare the way for the third.
"No Name" is principally a protest against the law which determines the social position of illegitimate children. But the prosecution of this main purpose involves, as a subordinate purpose, a plea in behalf of the connexion to which such children owe their existence. Hence the same stage-trick of exhibiting the virtuous concubine in contrast to the vicious wife is brought forward to give the effect to the piece. Andrew Vanstone, when a mere boy, is privately married in Canada to a wife whom he afterwards discovers to have been a woman of profligate character; but, inasmuch as her irregularities are all antenuptial, there is no pretext for dissolving the marriage, and the only resource of the husband is to pension her off, on condition that she shall never trouble him by asserting her conjugal rights. Mr. Vanstone then returns to England, and finds an accommodating young lady, who is content to discharge the duties and assume the name of his wife, without being too particular in demanding a legal right to them. On the death of his real wife, Mr. Vanstone marries the mother of his children, but is prevented by an untimely death from making anew will, his former one being invalidated by the second marriage. The consequence is that his property goes to the heir-at-law, and his children are left penniless, because a cruel jurisprudence does not permit them to be made legitimate by the subsequent marriage of their parents. Against this state of the law, Mr. Collins, through the mouth of the family solicitor, declaims in the following strain:--
"I am far from defending the law of England, as it affects illegitimate offspring. On the contrary, I think it a disgrace to the nation. It visits the sins of the parents on the children; it encourages vice by depriving fathers and mothers of the strongest of all motives for making the atonement of marriage; and it claims to produce these two abominable results in the names of morality and religion. But it has no extraordinary oppression to answer for, in the case of these unhappy girls. The more merciful and Christian law of other countries, which allows the marriage of the parents to make the children legitimate, has no mercy on these children. The accident of their father having been married, when he first met with their mother, has made them the outcasts of the whole social community: it has placed them out of the pale of the Civil Law of Europe."
We have often heard an illegal connexion and its result euphemistically designated as a "misfortune;" but this is the first time, as far as we are aware, in which a lawful marriage has been denominated an "accident." Unfortunately for the author, it is of that kind which is known among logicians as an "inseparable accident." This, however, is not the only fallacia accidentis of the author's argument. Let us, as we are at liberty to do, suppose all the other accidents of the case reversed. Let us suppose that a heartless husband has deserted an innocent and amiable wife to live with an abandoned mistress, and that, late in life, having quarrelled with his virtuous relatives, he is enabled, by a marriage with his paramour, to provide himself with a ready-made family of lawful children and to ruin the prospects of some exemplary and ill-used brother or nephew, upon whom the property is settled in the absence of direct heirs thus securing, through the mercy of the law, the pleasures of adultery during his youth, and the advantages of matrimony in his riper years. Would not such materials, in the hands of a skilful story-teller, make quite as good a case against the new law which Mr. Collins would enact, as he has made against the old law which he desires to repeal? Does not he see that all the virtues which he heaps on the erring couple, and all the vices which he attributes to the lawful wife, are simply so much dust thrown in the eyes of the reader, to blind him to the real merits of the argument? Does he not see that the existing law would have been exactly as just, or exactly as unjust, had the forsaken wife been the most admirable of women, and her illegal successor the most shameless of harlots? Or can any law be contrived by human wisdom which may not be made to appear oppressive in this sort of special pleading? Does not the punishment of a felon inflict a stigma on his children? And should there be, therefore no punishment for felony?
As a pendant to the practical philosophy of the author, it is only fair to subjoin a specimen of his speculative meditations. It is instructive as showing the sort of sententious platitudes which can be penned by a really able writer, when he condescends to lower himself to the sensation level:--
"Nothing in this world is hidden for ever. The gold which has lain for centuries unsuspected in the ground, reveals itself one day on the surface. Sand turns traitor, and betrays the footstep that has passed over it; water gives back to the tell-tale surface the body that has been drowned. Fire itself leaves the confession, in ashes, of the substance consumed in it. Hate breaks its prison-secrecy in the thoughts, through the doorway of the eyes; and Love finds the Judas who betrays it by a kiss. Look where we will, the inevitable law of revelation is one of the laws of nature: the lasting preservation of a secret is a miracle which the world has never yet seen."
It would be strange, indeed, if the world had seen it, since, in order to see it, the secret must no longer be preserved. The most completely preserved secret is, of course, that whose existence is least suspected and if ten thousand such secrets existed, the world, simply because they are preserved, could not possibly now them to exist. The marrow of all this wordy wisdom is contained in the self-evident proposition, that a secret, so long as it is a secret, is a secret surely never was truism so pompously expanded in the mouth of a spruch-sprecher, or sayer of sayings, since the oracular declaration of the clown in "Twelfth-Night:" "Bonos dies, Sir Toby; for as the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, That that is, is; so I being master parson, am master parson. For what is that but that and is but is?"
Our next tale of this class is one which gives us some ground of hope that this folly at least is in a fair way of curing itself by its own extravagance. When a fashion becomes vulgar, there is a prospect of its ceasing to be fashionable; and there is some chance for matrimony when fornication is patronised by Mr. James M'Grigor Allan. This zealous propagandist having compounded a very insipid mixture of dulness and self-conceit in the "Last Days of a Bachelor," has ventured to flavour these ingredients with a seasoning of immorality and unbelief in "Nobly False." The character of the hero, who bears the romantic name of Gerald Lindor, "is suggested," as the author tells us, "by that of Shelley the poet,... a man who was in advance of his age, and consequently in some degree a martyr to his invincible and uncompromising love of truth." But the "pard-like spirit, beautiful and swift," evaporates in Mr. Allan's crucible, caving a caput mortuum in the likeness of a vulgar infidel demagogue. The author has about as much appreciation of his hero as the Roman imitators who went with bare feet and unshorn beards in admiration of the virtues of Cato. He is quite incapable of understanding that there is a difference between loving or admiring a man in spite of his errors, and loving or admiring him in consequence of them. He selects, as the prominent features of Shelley's character, his religious scepticism and his lax opinions on marriage, and transfers them, according to the approved receipt for a sensation novel, to the hero of a tale ending in the year 1861. Gerald, the son of a rich baronet, falls in love with a peasant girl, named Miriam Groves; but having promised his dying mother not to marry before he is twenty-five, he keeps the promise to the letter by taking Miriam as his mistress instead of his wife. Another match being in contemplation for Gerald, Miriam resolves to sacrifice herself to his family interests, but thinks that the sacrifice will be incomplete unless she also makes him hate her memory. In pursuance of this design she makes an assignation with another man, and appears with him in public at the representation of La Traviata, having previously fortified herself with brandy, or, as the author elegantly expresses it, with "alcoholic stimulus." Having thus laid in a stock of courage, she follows up the brandy by strychnine, and finally dies in a hospital, after an interview with her lover, in which she frustrates her purpose by explaining it. A year after her death, Gerald marries the lady intended for him by his family, and completes the sacrifice by shooting himself on his wedding-night. The moral of the story, as expressed by its title, is, that the noblest sacrifice a woman can make to her lover is the surrender, first of her virtue, and then of her fair fame.
There is, however, a grander sacrifice in the book--and that is, the self-immolation of the author. Not Dogberry himself ever manifested such anxiety to be "writ down an ass" in the discharge of his duty, as does Mr. M'Grigor Allan to appear in the same character in behalf of his darling theories. The preliminary bray of his preface is a direct challenge to the reader, to forewarn him what sort of an animal he is to expect:--
"Respecting my heroine, Miriam, an ideal of womanly love and disinterestedness, of which I have dreamed for years before I attempted to fix the image of my fancy, I have doubtless been influenced in the conception of her character by such world-renowned types as those contained in "Undine," "Paul and Viriginia," the "Haidée" of Byron, "Marguerite" in Faust, "Atala," "Romeo and Juliette," (sic), "The Bride of Lammermoor," &c. &c.... It is superfluous for me to say that I do not for an instant compare my humble work with any of these master-pieces. All I would say while bowing before my intellectual liege lords, and gratefully and reverently acknowledging the inspiration I have received from them, is, that in Miriam I have dared to dream of striking a still higher chord of sympathy, of a woman's devotion more sublime and complete than I have yet seen presented in fiction; a devotion even more heart-moving than that exemplified in Jeptha's (sic) daughter cheerfully offering her bosom to the sacrificial knife, since it is illustrative of the strongest of human ties--Love."
The author further tells us that the incidents of his tale "have been wrought with an eye to future adaptation to the stage." Imagine the dramatic effect of the two following scenes:--
"All was done which medical science and skill could suggest, to neutralize the effects of the strychnine which Miriam had swallowed. The stomach-pump was used, and the proper antidotes, emetics, decoctions of bark, and warm water, liberally applied, and with tolerable success so far as counteracting the direct agency of the poison was concerned."
* * * * *
"'It is too late,' said Gerald, with a ghastly look. 'God alone can read your heart! If you truly repent! Oh, my heart is on fire! I carry death in my veins! My will is below! Downey! This poison is too slow! It racks, and does not kill! Miriam, I come!" and pressing the pistol to his forehead, he pulled the trigger, and fell against the picture of Miriam, which was stained with his blood"!
Our exhibition would be incomplete without the following specimen of the author's adoption of the favourite cant of a certain school of theology of the present day:--
"Your mind is not of the calibre to understand that higher faith which may exist with honest doubts, or even a bold denial of that puerile conception, the God of the Priests."
"The Law of Divorce," like "Recommended to Mercy," is a tale written to illustrate the superiority of illegal over legal connexions between man and woman, though using a somewhat different machinery for the purpose. Roland Elsmere, the hero of this tale, though not exactly guilty of bigamy, nevertheless finds himself hampered by the opposing claims of two simultaneous wives--one the wife de facto, the other, in the opinion of the author, the wife de jure. In plain language, he has divorced his first wife, for the most sufficient of all causes, and has married a second; and the purpose of the tale is, by means of various arguments, theological, moral, and artistic, to hold up to execration the law which has permitted him to do the one and the other. The theological and moral arguments we shall not attempt to discuss. They belong to a question which is admitted by the highest authorities to be one of exceeding difficulty and delicacy, and which assuredly cannot be satisfactorily treated in connexion with a work of fiction. But, in the name of common reverence and common decency, we are bound to protest against the levity which mixes up the solemn reflections which belong to these aspects of the question with the claptrap devices and theatrical artifices of a fourth-rate sensation story. Side by side with quotations from Scripture and appeals to the authority of the Church, the reader is regaled with an artistic commentary consisting of the same kind of special-pleading that is conspicuous in the novels previously noticed. There is an exhibition of highly-coloured fancy portraits of repulsive virtue and attractive vice. Catherine, the second wife, the wife by law, is described as cold-hearted, suspicious, mean, hard, coarse, violent. Harriet, the first wife, and still, in the author's opinion, the wife jure divino, is gentle, affectionate, fascinating, with every moral and religious excellence that can adorn a woman--except, of course, the one which society has perversely selected as the cardinal virtue of the sex.
"True it is, she has one failing:
When had woman ever less?"
She is an adulteress, and that under aggravating rather than extenuating circumstances, being, by her own confession, the seducer as well as the seduced. But the moral teaching of this class of novels is to extenuate this particular sin, as compared with many others towards which society is more lenient. From all this licentious twaddle it is really refreshing, to turn to downright old Johnson's coarse but honest reply to a similar strain of sophistry: "My dear Sir, never accustom your mind to mingle virtue and vice. The woman's a ----, and there's an end on't."
Besides having two wives, the hero of this tale has also a sister-in-law, and his position between the divorced wife and her sister might almost suggest that other marriage laws besides that which gives the title to the book were acting as a cruel restraint on his capacious affections:--
"He sat between her and Harriet on the couch, his right arm clasped the one sister, and his left was twined round the waist of the other; and the hand of each lay warm, glossy, odorous, and beautiful, on his anxious bosom."
The sister, however, soon finds a lover of her own in the person of an Italian patriot, who is burning to fight the battles of his oppressed country under the banner of Garibaldi; and only remains in inglorious peace because he "has received a blow under the right eye which has materially enfeebled its sight." The effects of this blow are described by the sufferer himself:--
"The purpose of my life was frustrated. One half hour of anger and wounded pride had robbed me of my career of glory. Again and again I have sought to serve even as a private soldier in the cause of my country; but no army-surgeon will admit me into a regiment in consequence of the impaired vision which I owe to that unhappy duel."
We tremble to think what might have become of Greek and Roman history, if Philip of Macedon and Hannibal had been subjected to the inspection of these fastidious army-surgeons, to say nothing" of the double disqualification of John Zisca and "blind old Dandolo!" It is difficult to match this exquisite absurdity; but the following interrogative sketch of the Galatea to this warlike Polyphemus may perhaps be thought not unworthy to stand beside it:--
"Was there no counterpart to these questionings in the breast of Lizzy--gentle, thoughtful Lizzy? Were her slumbers unbroken? Did her beauteous head lie motionless and unturned on its pillow? Did no mellifluous voice ring in her ears through the passages of the night? Did no vision of a young and noble-hearted patriot haunt her in her dreams?" &c. &c.
From vice to crime, from the divorce-court to the police-court, is but a single step. When fashionable immorality becomes insipid, the materials for sensation may still be found hot and strong in the "Newgate Calendar"; especially if the crime is of recent date, having the merits of personality and proximity to give it a nervous as well as a moral effect. Unhappily, the materials for such excitement are not scanty, and an author who condescends to make use of them need have little difficulty in selecting the most available. Let him only keep an eye on the criminal reports of the daily newspapers, marking the cases which are honoured with the especial notice of a leading article, and become a nine-days' wonder in the mouths of quidnuncs and gossips; and he has the outline of his story not only ready-made, but approved beforehand as of the true sensation cast. Then, before the public interest has had time to cool, let him serve up the exciting viands in a réchauffé with a proper amount of fictitious seasoning; and there emerges the criminal variety of the Newspaper Novel, a class of fiction having about the same relation to the genuine historical novel that the police reports of the "Times" have to the pages of Thucydides or Clarendon. More than one of the books on our list belong to this class. The very dull tale called "Wait and Hope," consisting for the most part of insufferably tedious conversations, aims at enlivening its general torpor by exciting a momentary shudder at the carpet-bag mystery of Waterloo Bridge; while the author of "Recommended to Mercy" deals out the same wares on a larger scale, under the appropriate title of "Such Things Are." The latter author "ventures to remind the reader of the fact that all which trenches on either the mysterious or the horrible has for the present generation an apparently irresistible attraction"; and by way of feeding this depraved taste, has "brought again to the light of recollection a shadowy vision of two past, but as yet undiscovered crimes,"--in other words--the Road murder and the Glasgow poisoning. These two crimes are taken out of their original associations, and, with some change of circumstances, are fastened upon two "fast young ladies," bosom friends to each other, and who, by a most marvellous coincidence, become the wives of two brothers. The one, some time after her marriage, is discovered by her horrified husband to be the person principally suspected of "the famous Bogden murder"; the other, on the eve of her marriage, being threatened with an exposure of some passages in her earlier life, quietly gets rid of the obnoxious witness by a dose of strychnine, and, on the day but one following, figures as a bride in a "quiet and unostentatious wedding at St. George's, Hanover Square."
There is something unspeakably disgusting in this ravenous appetite for carrion, this vulture-like instinct which smells out the newest mass of social corruption, and hurries to devour the loathsome dainty before the scent has evaporated. When some memorable crime of bygone days presents features which have enabled it to survive the crowd of contemporary horrors, and, by passing into the knowledge of a new generation, has in some degree attained to the dignity of history, there is much to be said in defence of a writer of fiction who sees in the same features something of a romantic interest which makes them available for the purposes of his art; but it is difficult to extend the same excuse to the gatherer of fresh stimulants from the last assizes. The poet or the philosopher may be allowed to moralise over the dry skeleton turned up to view in the graveyard or the battlefield, but we doubt whether the strongest-stomached medical student would find a theme equally poetical or equally instructive in the subject laid out in the dissecting-room.
But all this is done, as the author tells us, "with a purpose," to warn fast young ladies, forsooth, of the fatal consequences to which fastness may lead them! As if any moral end could be served by a real crime tacked on to an imaginary criminal, without even a callida junctura to disguise the clumsy patchwork! Crimes of this horrible individuality are the very last from which any one will draw a general moral: they are the crimes of their perpetrators, and of no one else. Even the plain lesson that might be drawn from the real dying speech and confession of the actual criminal is lost in this diluted mixture of fact and fiction. Everybody knows that the crimes as described were not really committed by the persons to whom they are attributed in the story, but by very different persons and under very different circumstances; and the whole moral is at once destroyed by the glaring untruthfulness and incongruity of the story. A book of this sort is simply a chamber of horrors without even the merit of giving a correct likeness of the criminals exhibited. To think of pointing a moral by stimulants of this kind is like holding a religious service in a gin-palace.
Where the excitement of a real police-report is wanting, the novelist of criminal life may supply its place by variety and strangeness of imaginary adventure. Of all heroes of the felonious class, commend us to George Messenger, alias Scarisbrick, alias Dandy Dangerfield, the prominent figure in the group of blackguards of both sexes who form the principal dramatis personæ of the "Old Roman Well." This marvellous personage, within the compass of two volumes, goes through adventures enough to furnish half a dozen Turpins or Jack Sheppards. He begins life, where George Talboys is supposed to end it, at the bottom of a well--scarcely in this case the habitation of truth--though his biographer, more communicative than the narrator of "Lady Audley's Secret," is kind enough to explain the circumstances under which he got out unhurt, after falling a depth of a hundred and fifty feet. "I expex, ye know, it's owin' to its bein' so light--all gristle instead of bones--and p'raps its clothes spread out as it wint down, and so sunk its fall like." Thus marvellously preserved, the child is doubtless destined to be a great man; but unfortunately his greatness is of the wrong kind--that of a scoundrel, not of a hero. He first figures as a juvenile poacher in the country; then runs away to London, and falls into the meshes of a beautiful fiend, a sort of Lady Audley of low life (these female fiends are a stock article with sensation novelists), and passes through various stages of town rascality, under the tutorage of a gentleman who has graduated in the successive honours of a "shiverer," a "cadger," a "duffer," an "area-sneak," a "shop-bouncer," a "fogle-buzzer," a "swell-mobbite," a "rampsman," and a "cracksman." Under this hopeful instructor, he ascends from theft to robbery, and from robbery to murder, with interludes of softer vice as a lady-killer; is hanged, very justly, in the middle of his course; is brought to life again through a wonderful elixir administered by an old ferryman, who turns out to be the husband of the beautiful fiend; is sent by the said ferryman to America, furnished with medical secrets by which he makes his fortune as a doctor; comes back to England in ten years, rolling in wealth, and with a "supernatural paleness" (the remains of the sus. per coll.) which disguises his identity from all his former friends; spends untold thousands in all kinds of charitable works; succeeds to the estates of his ancestors, whom he discovers to be of an old family in his native county; becomes a husband and a father; and dies at last in the odour of sanctity, under the influence of which "his face glowed with a heavenly light." The reader closes the book impressed with a conviction (not in the judicial sense) of the beneficial effects of hanging as a moral restorative, if the patient is only fortunate enough to survive the operation, and of the author's profound acquaintance with thieves' Latin, which he coins ad libitum by the simple process of spelling words backwards.
A very brief notice will be sufficient to dispose of some of the smaller fry on our multifarious list.
"Miriam May," "Crispin Ken," and "Philip Paternoster" are specimens of the theological novel, which employs the nerves as a vehicle for preaching in the literal sense of the term. The object of these tales is to inculcate certain doctrines, or rather a hatred of certain opposite doctrines, by painting offensive portraits of persons professing the obnoxious opinions. The two former preach on the High-Church side, by exhibiting villainous specimens of Low-Churchmen and Dissenters; the third preaches on the Low-Church side, by drawing ludicrous caricatures of Tractarians, and by the original and ingenious witticism of calling St. Barnabas St. Barabbas. "The Weird of the Wentworths" (a sensation title) teaches a lesson the very opposite of theological, being chiefly remarkable as showing the agreeable varieties which it is possible to introduce into the art of profane swearing. "Passages in the Life of a Fast Young Lady" (another sensation title) is one of those tales of personal scandal of which we have already spoken. "Only a Woman," a tale of feminine passion and masculine weakness, is chiefly remarkable for the author's high estimate of the female sex--the heroine being a young woman whose animal charms are dwelt upon with unnecessary minuteness; but who is described as having "no troublesome moral principles to keep her in check"; while at the same time she is "as far above" another young woman "as Cotopaxi is above Primrose Hill." "Harold Overdon" and "Liberty Hall, Oxon," are offenders of another and a far worse kind--coarse tales of unblushing profligacy, which would be mischievous were not their immorality counteracted by their stupidity. "Ashcombe Churchyard" is an attempt to combine the sensational with the domestic. The double purpose extends the story to a tedious length, and the glowing tints of the former ingredient harmonise badly with the sober background of the latter. In connexion with the quiet history of an impoverished family, and commonplace moral reflections coloured to match, we are dazzled by fitful flashes of the pathetic and the horrible, comprising a cruel father and a victim daughter; a seduction transacted in a more ferarum style, which it is to be hoped is not often to be met with in fact or in fiction; a murder, or something very like one, through medical breach of trust; a mysterious legend and a family doom; a second murder--this time by a pistol--and three broken hearts, leading respectively to immediate death, imbecility, and lunacy. The hero or villain of the piece (in tales of this kind the two terms are nearly synonymous) is a certain fascinating dispensary doctor, whose charms beguile his female patients into a forgetfulness, sometimes of prudence, sometimes of duty, sometimes of common decency; who is attached, rather beyond Platonic bounds, to another man's wife; is assailed with fierce love by an earl's daughter on one side, and an heiress of vast wealth on the other; and is finally married, sorely against his will, and shot on his wedding-day; after which we are confidently told that his spirit waited at the gates of Paradise till it was joined by that of a married lady (not his own wife), with the following celestial results:--
"They had found the star that had shone a moment on their early youth and then disappeared, leaving them to grope to the end of their pilgrimage in darkness. They had found the harp that they had strongly swept in life's morning, but which, as soon as it was touched, 'passed in music out of sight,' leaving them in a howling wilderness of discord. They had found the solution of that dark enigma which had been propounded to them when they began their rugged march through earth, and the meaning of which seemed till now hidden from them by a thousand mystical wrappings. They had found the missing verity."
The above samples may be considered as belonging to the aristocratic branch of sensational literature, so far at least as high prices and hotpressed paper can make them so. But the craving for sensation extends to all classes of society--
"Plebeium in circo positum est et in aggere fatum;"
and our task would be incomplete without some notice of the cheap publications which supply sensation for the million in penny and halfpenny numbers. These publications are not directly included in the list of works contemplated in our previous observations, and to examine them in detail would require a separate article, and a somewhat different method of treatment; but, indirectly, they belong to our subject, as the anatomy of the skeleton frame belongs to the surgical treatment of the living body. In a rigidly scientific study of the subject they would perhaps claim the principal place, so far as science aims at studying effects in their causes, at analysing compounds and exhibiting their simplest elements. These tales are to the full-grown sensation novel what the bud is to the flower, what the fountain is to the river, what the typical form is to the organised body. They are the original germ, the primitive monad, to which all the varieties of sensational literature may be referred, as to their source, by a law of generation at least as worthy of the attention of the scientific student as that by which Mr. Darwin's bear may be supposed to have developed into a whale. Fortunately in this case the rudimental forms have been continued down to the epoch of the mature development. In them we have sensationism pure and undisguised, exhibited in its naked simplicity, stripped of the rich dress which conceals while it adorns the figure of the more ambitious varieties of the species. A few specimens will serve the purposes of study better than many descriptions. The reader is requested to observe the compact structure of the sentences, as well as the exciting nature of the theme. In these infinitesimal doses is contained the whole virtue of sensationism, as surely as the virtue of a homeopathic medicine is contained in the concentrated globule, whatever may be the volume of water in which it is diluted. Here is a dose, labelled "May Dudley, or the White Mask," possibly the original of "Mokeanna, or the White Witness." The scene, it should be remembered, is laid in the reign of George III., with the manners of whose Court the author displays an intimate acquaintance:--
"The Queen began to fan herself, and unable to restrain his curiosity, the King strolled towards May. She opened the book of prints, and placed her finger on what she had written.
"The words were like fire to the King.
"'In half an hour the White Mask will arrive at the Palace, with the roquelaire (sic) of the fair Susannah, and ask for a private audience of the Queen.'
"'Yah! Bah! Boo!" cried the King.
"The Queen started to her feet.
"The ladies of honour looked about them in amazement.
"The King pretended to limp and held up one foot.
"'The corn again!' he said. "The pain in our right toe--a dreadful pain! Good Morning, ladies--Good morning. Forced to go away to look after our toe. Forced to go to the--the--Red Room at top of the back stairs. Hem! hem!"
"The King limped from the room.
"May Dudley, in the confusion, had quietly torn out the picture from the book of prints on which she had written the few words that had so affected the King.
"The Queen rose.
"'Ladies, till three o'clock we have no occasion for your kind service.'
"The ladies all bowed low, and the Queen left the room."
From this contemplation of the state and ceremony of royalty we may proceed, under the guidance of the same author, to a study of the gentle loves of aristocracy, and the lawless violence of plebeian criminality. We are thus favoured with an introduction to all classes of society. Here is a picture of refined love painted to the life:--
"For one short hour!
"Only one circlet of the golden hands of the costly Sèvres time-piece on the chimney-piece of that fair and luxurious boudoir of May Dudley, let us, O reader, step back with you into the realms of time past.
"While May is contending with Sir Reuben Digby in the Park, Rachael is at home with a heart so full of fears--so full of love--so full of deep anxiety to do something that shall testify to all that love and all that devotion she felt for May Dudley, that at times it seemed as though it would burst the confines of her bosom with its emotions.
"And had Rachael, too, no deep feelings and anxieties specially of her own?
"She, too, loved.
"She loved May, but it was as the cold glitter of the moonbeams upon alpine summits in comparison with another love that had found a home in her heart.
"She loved Joseph Digby.
"How strange a woven web is human life!
"How ill-assorted, at times, seem the colours, and how oddly mixed the fabrics! Here were four people--May Dudley, Rachael, Justin Rivers, and Joseph Digby.
"They all loved.
"All had warm, affectionate natures--all gentle and noble aspirations--and yet they were all unhappy!
"Some with fear.
"Some with the hopeless agony of a lost passion.
"It was only a narcotic--only the drowsy influence of the nodding poppy--that brought slumber to the vexed brain of Justin Rivers; for his every nerve, his every sense, was in a state of powerful tension--in the constant fear that some evil would befall his darling May.
"And she--she, the beautiful, admired, and courted May Dudley--was she happy?
"Her thoughts were with her wounded lover, and are full of all those vague surmises which torment the soul when suffering sits on the brow of the loved one.
"But still May and Justin were comparatively happy.
"That is comparatively with Rachael.
"Comparatively with poor Joseph.
"They knew that they loved, and were beloved in return; but poor Rachael and poor Joseph had no such blessed consolation.
"Little did Joseph Digby imagine that he had lit up in the bosom of Rachael a fire that was consuming her existence.
"She loved him as such a nature as hers only can love.
"Once and for ever
"Perhaps had Joseph Digby not been so much blinded by his own hopeless passion for May Dudley, he would have observed something in the looks, in the tone, in the manner of Rachael, which would have let him perceive the state of her affections.
"But he did not. His view in that house was limited, and bounded by the sweet eyes of May.
"And now we go back that brief hour we have mentioned, and we find ourselves in the principal drawing-room of the mansion of May Dudley.
"Rachael is there, resting her head upon her hand, mourning her lost affections.
"Quite lost affections, since she knew so well that the heart of Joseph was another's.
"There is a tap at the door of the apartment.
"Listlessly Rachael gives the permission to enter. She scarcely looks up, but there is a something in the very atmosphere that surrounds the loved one, ever proclaiming his or her presence.
"Before the visitor was across the threshold of the room, Rachael knew that it was Joseph.
"With a flush, and then a paleness, and then a flush again of colour that was deeper than before, she rose to meet him.
"Then she half shrieked, for there was a look upon the face of Joseph that was horrible to see.
"It was not sickness!
"It was not fear!
"It was something heroic mingled with something despairing.
"The sort of look with which some martyr might go to death to testify to some sublime truth against which the hand of persecution had been armed.
"And that was just the feeling of Joseph.
"He was going to die for May Dudley!
"That was the look!
* * * * * * *
"She sunk to his feet.
"She uplifted her hands in the attitude of prayer.
"'Joseph! Joseph! you must not, you shall not die, even for Justin Rivers and for May, since you too are loved!'
"All sufficient to proclaim the cherished secret of Rachael's heart. Joseph knew then that she loved him!
"'Oh! this is very sad,' he said gently.
"Rachael burst into tears.
The plebeian scene represents an attempt made by May Dudley in the disguise of the White Mask, to rescue the captive Joseph from "the old Gatehouse in Westminster," in which he has been imprisoned by his father, Sir Reuben Digby, "the chief of the Secret Police." She has summoned to her assistance a fraternity of thieves residing in a subterranean vault under Hungerford Market:--
"May spoke now, in cold, harsh tones of command.
"'I, the White Mask, demand of you by what right you hold here, as a prisoner one Joseph Digby?'
"'Joseph--Digby! A warrant!'
"'I granted no warrant, and I do not permit any one to be here a prisoner, without one, who is a friend of mine.'
"'I have said so. We are three.'
"'Yes. As this is!'
"May touched the White Mask.
"'Three highwaymen! Three White Masks! One, two--oh!'
"The Governor was getting bewildered.
"May spoke again.
"'You will surrender to me, and to freedom, Joseph Digby.'
"'But you will.'
"May took a gold repeater from her pocket, and cast it to the floor at the feet of the Governor.
"'If you have light enough, see that one minute more elapses not on that dial before you obey me, or you die!'
"'I can't see it.'
"'We can, then, provide you with death easier than with more light.'
"Joe the Cracker stepped forward, and put right into the ear of the Governor the muzzle of a pistol.
"'Shall I settle him, noble Captain?'
"'No; he will obey.'
"The Governor was white as--ay, as white as the White Mask, only that upon his face there was the expression of intense fear, and upon that there was none.
"'I cannot!' he said. 'A man can but do what he can.'
"'Don't make any excuses,' said Joe. 'Where's the goldfinch?'
"'Let me get up.'
"'With all the pleasure in life."
"The Governor was assisted to his feet.
"'I cannot help all this,' he said. "If you ring my bell again twice, it will bring the prison clerk, and the man you speak of can then be released. Ah, no! Ha, ha! Corn in Egypt! Ha, ha! The Light Horse! Rescue, rescue, rescue!'
"With a lash and a clatter, a party of the King's Light Horse, escorting a coach, reached the door of the prison.'
This specimen belongs to one of the lower forms of sensational life. The following is from a journal of higher character, and may be regarded as representing a transition stage to the superior organisation. The taste for revelations of the inner life of the aristocracy displays itself with unabated vigour, accompanied by the genuine sensation device of a pre-matrimonial secret:--
"'But,' cried the marquis, eagerly, 'it is precisely before our marriage----'
"'With which you have nothing to do,' interposed the marchioness sternly. 'Let me not have to repeat that I wish to see the man no more I shall make it my endeavour to prevent the chance arising of ever meeting him more. And now, my lord, I have brought our interview to a close. All that I could have expected from it has taken place. Whatever may have been your anticipations, you must be content with the result, and take it as it is. We now, and at this moment, part for ever, or resume our relations as they have been without, however, one allusion being made at any time to what has just passed between us. If it is your will that we shall part for ever, I shall know it by receiving from you no communication between my departure from this room and an hour hence. If on the contrary you are content to let the world maintain its inflated sense of your untarnished dignity, you will send to me, ere the expiration of an hour, a note which will contain only the words, "I assent." I shall follow the receipt of that note by ordering preparations to be secretly made--you will not, my lord, object, I know, to that part of the arrangement--to proceed abroad, say Rome, where we can make a stay for at least one, perhaps two years, the term will depend on your lordship, and--a----'
"She hesitated: a flush of colour went across her face, disappeared instantly, and left her deathly pale.
"'What?' he inquired curiously, as she paused.
"Her voice faltered.
"'The duration of one of our lives,' she added. 'In such case the survivor would naturally return to England. Lord Westchester; I leave the decision in your hands. Do not complain if in making your election, you should err, and your mistake should prove fatal. You, and you alone, will be to blame.'
"She bowed stiffly and grandly to him, and glided from the room.
"He made a movement to stay her, but she was gone.
"Bewildered, excited, astounded, overwhelmed by the mastery over him, which from the first she had seized, and to the last maintained, he gave way to an ebullition of frantic emotion, and flung himself upon the ground with all the wildness and frenzy of a maniac."
To these specimens of the sensationist's
power of making, may we venture to add one more as a sample
of his ability in marring? Even the genius of Scott must
succumb to his touch. Behold the "Heart of
Mid-Lothian" metamorphosed into "Effie Deans, or
the Lily of St. Leonards," by George Armitage, author
of "The Felon's Daughter, or Pamela's Perils.
"The night was mirk and drear.
"The scene, a piled up mass of rocks, terminating in the wild and picturesque boulders known as Salisbury Crags, near to the town of Edinburgh.
"Lightning from storm-riven clouds each instant imparted a ghastly reality and radiance to the desolate scene.
"The roar of a cataract close at hand drowned all minor sounds in the tumbling rush of its waters.
"'Help!--oh, help me now, husband! Geordie, I do love you--I did love you! In the sight of heaven I am yours--your own wife, Effie!'
"'Peace, girl, or this knife shall soon drink the life-blood of the bairn!'
"These last words were uttered by what might be a woman by the dress and general appearance, although the tall, unfeminine stature, and the fierce attitude, combined with the hoarse voice, that was heard above the roar and tumult of the storm, seemed to give a negative to the supposition.
"Crouching down close to a rock, the slippery surface of which afforded no hold to her, although she strove in vain to grasp it with one disengaged hand, was a young girl.
"So young, so child-like, so lovely in her deep distress and tears; her flood of golden hair, all dishevelled and streaming to the wild night blast, her tartan cloak and hood streaming from her in the wind like the banner of some clan of the Highland heaths; agony upon her fair and gentle face; her voice raised to a shrieking cry, that gathered echoes as it flew from rock to rock, repeating the word 'Help! help!'
"And clasped to her breast with the other hand--held closely, and wrapped up in the folds of a cloak of costly cloth, clasped by a jewel, this young girl, who called upon heaven and earth to aid her, held a child!
* * * * * *
"'No, mother--no!' screamed a strange voice, and the uplifted hand and arm of the hag was stayed. 'No, mother, you must not kill the bairn, for poor Meg's sake. Geordie will love her again if she has a little bairn to show him! Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! I like the sea-bird's shriek, and I can mock it!'Meg o' the Sea--Meg o' the Sea,
She loved too well her bonny lad;
Joy was dancing in her e'e,
But her heart was sore and sad.
'Nay, mother you shall not kill the bairn. Geordie loves her for the bairn, and he will love poor Meg Murdochson again, if she hold it to his lips for a bonny kiss.'A bairn's a bairn, for a' that,
And a' that, and a' that,
A bairn's a bairn, for a' that;
Whoe'er the lassie be.'"
"Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated."
It is unnecessary to multiply our examples, whether of the higher or the lower order. Evidence enough has been adduced to show that sensation novels must be recognised as a great fact in the literature of the day, and a fact whose significance is by no means of an agreeable kind. Regarding these works merely as an efflorescence, as an eruption indicative of the state of health of the body in which they appear, the existence of an impure or a silly crop of novels, and the fact that they are eagerly read, are by no means favourable symptoms of the conditions of the body of society. But it is easier to detect the disease than to suggest the remedy. The praiseworthy attempts of individual proprietors of circulating libraries, to weed their collections of silly or mischievous works, have been too partial and isolated to produce any perceptible result, and have even acted as an advertisement of the rejected books. A more general and combined attempt in this direction is a thing rather to be wished than expected. Could a taste for the best class of fictions be cultivated in the minds of the rising generation, it might, perhaps, have its effect in lessening the craving for this kind of unnatural excitement; and could any check be imposed on the rapidity of production, it might improve the quality of the article produced. It is difficult to believe that the habitual devourers of sensation novels have ever read Scott; indeed, we have known young persons, familiar with the latest products of the circulating library, who not only had never read Scott, but who had no idea that he was worth reading. It is as easy to imagine that the blessed sun of heaven should prove a micher and eat blackberries, as that one capable of appreciating the creations of the great magician should relish the sort of stuff of which three-fourths of the books on our present list are made. But, alas! Scott himself has well-nigh shared the fate which he lamented as having befallen Richardson, Mackenzie, and Burney.--A new generation of readers has sprung up, who have reversed the fault of which Horace complains, and gone back to that for which Homer apologises. We have no need of the subtlety of "the rule that laid the horsetail bare" to argue against readers who admire no authors of less than a hundred years old: we have rather to echo the comment of Telemachus on the taste of his day:--
"For novel lays attract our ravished ears,
But old, the mind with inattention hears."
By way of experiment, and to give the old at least a fair chance of competing with the new, we should like to see a lending library established somewhat on the principle of the "Retrospective Review," which should circulate no books but those which have received the stamp of time in testimony of their merits. No book should be admitted under twenty years old, a very liberal allowance for the life of a modern novel, and which is long enough to give rise to a new generation who could not have read the book on its first coming out. Such an establishment, if the public mind could be persuaded to tolerate it, would have at least one commercial advantage which is denied to some of its present rivals. It would be relieved from the necessity, which is often imposed upon them, of buying up nearly the whole impression of the last work of some popular author, which, having been already published for a very trifling sum in the pages of some magazine, is forthwith reprinted at five or six times the price, as a separate work.(2) A real competition between old favourites and new would have a good effect, not in destroying, which is not to be wished, but in weeding the luxuriant produce of the present day. The appetite, even of a novel-reader, has its limits; and if the best of the old books could be brought in, the worst of the new must drop out to make way for them. There would be an increased struggle for existence, under the pressure of which the weaker writers would give way, and the stronger would be improved by the stimulus of effective competition.
Even if no remedy can be found, it is something to know the disease. There is a satisfaction in exposing an impostor, even when we feel sure that the world will continue to believe in him. The idol may still be worshipped, yet it is right to tell its worshippers that it is an idol; grotesque, it may be, or horrible in its features, but mere wood or stone, brass or clay, in its substance. The current folly may be destined to run its course, as other follies have done before it; and it must be confessed that there are as yet but few signs of its abating. But the duty of the preacher is the same, whether he succeed or fail. Though we cannot flatter ourselves with the hope that our protest will have the disenchanting influence of "Dian's bud o'er Cupid's flower," we are not the less bound to place on record the grounds of our belief, that, when the reading public wakes up from its present delusion, it will discover, with regard to some at least of the favourites of the day, that its affections have been bestowed upon an object not very different in kind from the animal of which Titania was enamoured.
(1) "Quarterly Review," vol. iii., pp. 340, 341. <=== Back
(2) The following comparative table of the prices of some our most popular novels, on first and second publication, has been furnished through a friend. It is curious, as showing how much of the cost of the book is due to the "getting up" of it. <=== Back
s. d. s. d.
"A Strange Story," in Nos. of "All the Year Round" ..
4 4 .. .. 2 vols. 24 0
"The Woman in White" ditto ..
6 8 .. .. 3 vols. 31 6
"No Name" ditto ..
6 8 .. .. 3 vols. 31 6
"Great Expectations" ditto ..
4 4 .. .. 3 vols. 31 6
"Verner's Pride" "Once a week" .. .. ..
8 0 .. .. 3 vols. 31 6
"The Channings," 24 penny Nos. of "The Quiver" .. ..
2 0 .. .. 3 vols. 31 6
"Mrs. Haliburton's Troubles," 34 ditto .. ..
2 10 .. .. 3 vols. 31 6
"Lady Audley's Secret," 12 Nos. of "The Sixpenny Mag."
6 0 .. .. 3 vols. 31 6