In the dozy hours, and other papers/At the Novelist's Table
AT THE NOVELIST'S TABLE.
"Compare," said a friend to me recently, "the relative proportion of kissing and venison pasties in Scott's novels and Miss Rhoda Broughton's,"—and I did. It was a lame comparison, owing to my limited acquaintance with part of the given text; but I pursued my investigations cheerfully along the line of Waverley, and was delighted and edified by the result. Years ago, a sulky critic in Blackwood, commenting acrimoniously on Miss Susan Warner's very popular tales, asserted that there was more kissing in one of these narratives than in all the stories Sir Walter ever wrote. Probably the critic was right. As far as I can recollect Miss Warner's heroines,—and I knew several of them intimately when a child,—they were always either kissing or crying, and occasionally they did both together. Ellen Montgomery, dissolved in tears because John has forgotten to kiss her good-night, was as cheerless a companion as I ever found in the wide world of story-book life.
But Scott's young people never seem to hunger for embraces. They allow the most splendid opportunities to slip by without a single caress. When Quentin Durward rescues the Countess Isabella at the siege of Liége, he does not pause to passionately kiss her cold lips; he gathers her up with all possible speed, and makes practical plans for getting her out of the way. When Edith Bellenden visits her imprisoned lover, no thought of kissing enters either mind. Henry Morton is indeed so overcome by "deep and tumultuous feeling" that he presses his visitor's "unresisting hands;" but even this indulgence is of brief duration. Miss Bellenden quickly recovers her hands, and begins to discuss the situation with a great deal of sense and good feeling. Henry Bertram does not appear to have stolen a single kiss from that romantic and charming young woman, Julia Mannering, in the whole course of their clandestine courtship; and the propriety of Lord Glenvarloch's behavior, when shut up in a cell with pretty Margaret Ramsay, must be remembered by all. "Naething for you to sniggle and laugh at, Steenie," observes King James reprovingly to the Duke of Buckingham, when that not immaculate nobleman betrays some faint amusement at the young Scotchman's modesty. "He might be a Father of the Church, in comparison of you, man."
In the matter of venison pasties, however, we have a different tale to tell. There are probably ten of these toothsome dishes to every kiss, twenty of them to every burst of tears. Compare Quentin Durward as a fighter to Quentin Durward as a lover, and then, by way of understanding how he preserved his muscle, turn back to that delightful fourth chapter, where the French King plays the part of host at the famous inn breakfast. So admirably is the scene described in two short pages, so fine is the power of Scott's genial human sympathy, that I have never been able, since reading it, to cherish for Louis XI. the aversion which is his rightful due. In vain I recall the familiar tales of his cruelty and baseness. In vain I remind myself of his treacherous plans for poor Durward's destruction. 'Tis useless! I cannot dissociate him from that noble meal, nor from the generous enthusiasm with which he provides for, and encourages, the splendid appetite of youth. The inn breakfast has but one peer, even in Scott's mirthful pages, and to find it we must follow the fortunes of another monarch who masquerades to better purpose than does Maître Pierre, whose asylum is the hermitage of St. Dunstan, and whose host is the jolly Clerk of Copmanhurst. The gradual progress and slow development of the holy hermit's supper, which begins tentatively with parched pease and a can of water from St. Dunstan's well, and ends with a mighty pasty of stolen venison and a huge flagon of wine, fill the reader's heart—if he has a heart—with sound and sympathetic enjoyment. It is one of the gastronomic delights of literature. Every step of the way is taken with renewed pleasure, for the humors of the situation are as unflagging as the appetites and the thirst of the revelers. Even the quarrel which threatens to disturb the harmony of the feast only adds to its flavor. Guest and host, disguised king and pretended recluse, are as ready to fight as to eat; and, with two such champions, who shall say where the palm of victory hides? Any weapon will suit the monk, "from the scissors of Delilah, and the tenpenny nail of Jael, to the scimitar of Goliath," though the good broadsword pleases him best. Any weapon will suit King Richard, and he is a match for Friar Tuck in all. Born brothers are they, though the throne of England waits for one, and the oaks of Sherwood Forest for the other.
"But there is neither east, nor west, border, nor breed, nor birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth."
In his descriptions of eating and drinking, Scott stands midway between the snug, coarse, hearty enjoyment of Dickens, and the frank epicureanism of Thackeray, and he easily surpasses them both. With Dickens, the pleasure of the meal springs from the honest appetites which meet it—appetites sharpened often by the pinching pains of hunger. With Thackeray, it is the excellence of the entertainment itself which merits approbation. With Scott, it is the spirit of genial good-fellowship which turns a venison pasty into a bond of brotherhood, and strengthens, with a runlet of canary, the human tie which binds us man to man. Dickens tries to do this, but does not often succeed, just because he tries. A conscious purpose is an irresistible temptation to oratory, and we do not want to be preached to over a roast goose, nor lectured at through the medium of pork and greens. Scott never turns a table into a pulpit; it is his own far-reaching sympathy which touches the secret springs that move us to kind thoughts. Quentin Durward's breakfast at the inn is worthy of Thackeray. Quentin Durward's appetite is worthy of Dickens. But Quentin Durward's host—the cruel and perfidious Louis—ah! no one but Scott would have dared to paint him with such fine, unhostile art, and no one but Scott would have succeeded.
In point of detail, however, Dickens defies competition. Before his vast and accurate knowledge the puny efforts of modern realism shrink into triviality and nothingness. What is the occasional dinner at a third-class New York restaurant, the roast chicken and mashed potatoes and cranberry tart, eaten with such ostentatious veracity, when compared to that unerring observation which penetrated into every English larder, which lifted the lid of every pipkin, and divined the contents of every mysterious and forbidding meat pie! Dickens knew when the Micawbers supped on lamb's fry, and when on breaded chops; he knew the contents of Mrs. Bardell's little saucepan simmering by the fire; he knew just how many pigeons lurked under the crust of John Browdie's pasty; he knew every ingredient—and there are nearly a dozen of them—in the Jolly Sandboys' stew. There was not a muffin, nor a bit of toasted cheese, nor a slab of pease-pudding from the cook-shop, nor a rasher of bacon, nor a slice of cucumber, nor a dish of pettitoes eaten without his knowledge and consent. And, as it cost him no apparent effort to remember and tell all these things, it costs us no labor to read them. We are naturally pleased to hear that Mr. Vincent Crummles has ordered a hot beefsteak-pudding and potatoes at nine, and we hardly need to be reminded—even by the author—of the excellence of Mr. Swiveller's purl. The advantage of unconscious realism over the premeditated article is a lack of stress on the author's part, and a corresponding lack of fatigue on ours.
Thackeray reaches the climax of really good cooking, and, with the art of a great novelist, he restrains his gastronomic details, and keeps them within proper bounds. Beyond his limits it is not wise to stray, lest we arrive at the land of gilded puppets, where Disraeli's dukes and duchesses feast forever on ortolans, and pompetones of larks, and lobster sandwiches; where young spendthrifts breakfast at five o'clock in the afternoon on soup and claret; and where the enamored Lothair feeds Miss Arundel "with cates as delicate as her lips, and dainty beverages which would not outrage their purity." The "pies and preparations of many lands" which adorn the table of that distinguished dinner-giver, Mr. Brancepeth, fill us with vague but lamentable doubts. "Royalty," we are assured, "had consecrated his banquets" and tasted of those pies; but it is the province of royalty, as Mr. Ruskin reminds us, to dare brave deeds which commoners may be excused from attempting. Hugo Bohun, at the Duke's banquet, fired with the splendid courage of his crusading ancestry, dislodges the ortolans from their stronghold of aspic jelly, and gives to the entertainment that air of glittering unreality which was Disraeli's finest prerogative, and which has been copied with facile fidelity by Mr. Oscar Wilde. "I see it is time for supper," observes the æsthetic Gilbert of the dialogues. "After we have discussed some Chambertin and a few ortolans, we will pass on to the question of the critic, considered in the light of the interpreter." And when we read these lines, our lingering doubts as to whether Gilbert be a man or a mere mouthpiece for beautiful words, "a reed cut short and notched by the great god Pan for the production of flute-melodies at intervals," fade into dejected certainty. That touch about the ortolans is so like Disraeli, that all Gilbert's surpassing modern cleverness can no longer convince us of his vitality. He needs but a golden plate to fit him for the ducal dining-table, where royalty, and rose-colored tapestry, and "splendid nonchalance" complete the dazzling illusion. After which, we may sober ourselves with a parting glance at the breakfast-room of Tillietudlem, and at the fare which Lady Margaret Bellenden has prepared for Graham of Claverhouse and his troopers. "No tea, no coffee, no variety of rolls, but solid and substantial viands—the priestly ham, the knightly surloin, the noble baron of beef, the princely venison pasty." Here in truth is a vigorous and an honorable company, and here is a banquet for men.