FICTION IN THE PULPIT.
One of the most curious and depressing things about our modern literary criticism is the tendency it has to slide into an ethical criticism before we know what to expect. We go to a Browning Society, for example,—at least some of us who are stout-hearted go,—presumably to hear about Mr. Browning's poetry. What we do hear about are his ethics. Insinuate a doubt as to the artistic setting of a poem, and you are met at once by the spirited counter-statement that the poet has taught us a particularly noble lesson in that particularly noble verse. Push your heresy a step further by hinting that the question at issue is not so much the nobility of the lesson taught as the degree of beauty which has been made manifest in the teaching, and you find yourself in much the same position as that unfortunate Epicurean who strayed wantonly into the lecture-hall of Epictetus, and got philosophically crushed for his presumption. The fiction of the day, a commonplace product for the most part, which surely merits lighter treatment at our hands, is subjected to a similar discipline; and the novelist, finding his own importance immensely increased thereby, rises promptly to the emergency, and, with characteristic diffidence, consents to be our guide, philosopher, and friend. It is amusing to hear Bishop Copleston, writing for that young and vivacious generation who knew not the seriousness of life, remind them pointedly that "the task of pleasing is at all times easier than that of instructing." It is delightful to think that there ever was a period when people preferred to be pleased rather than instructed. It is refreshing to go back in spirit to those halcyon days when poets sang of their ladies' eyebrows rather than of the inscrutable problems of fate, and when Mrs. Battle relaxed herself, after a game of whist, over that genial and unostentatious trifle called a novel. Fancy Mrs. Battle relaxing herself to-day over "Daniel Deronda," or "The Ordeal of Richard Feveril," or "The Story of an African Farm"!
Vernon Lee, speaking by the mouth of Marcel, that shadowy young Frenchman who is none the less unpleasant for being so indistinct, would have us believe that this incorrigible habit of applying ethical standpoints to artistic questions is merely an English idiosyncrasy, one of those "weird and exquisite moral impressions" which can be gathered only from contact with British soil. But in view of the deductions recently drawn from French and Russian fiction by an ingenious American critic, we are forced to conclude that true didacticism is an exotic of such rare and subtle excellence as frequently to be mistaken for vice. In fact, it is not its least advantageous peculiarity that a novelist may, on high moral grounds, treat of a great many subjects which he would be compelled rigorously to let alone, if he had no nobler object before him than the mere pleasure and entertainment of his readers. There are no improper novels any longer, because even those that strike the uninitiated as admirably adapted to the spiritual requirements of Commodus or Elagabalus are, in truth, far more moral than morality itself, being set up, like the festering heads of old-time criminals, as a stern warning in the market-place. Zola, we all know, aspires as much to be a teacher as George Eliot. His methods are different, to be sure, but the directing principle is the same. He can neither amuse nor please, but he can and will instruct. "When I have once shown you," he seems to say, "every known detail of every known sin,—and the list, it must be confessed, is a long one,—you will then be glad to walk purely on your appointed path. You will remember what I have described to you, and be cautious." But it may fairly be doubted whether the Spartan boys, whose anxious fathers exhibited to them the drunken Helots sprawling swine-like in the sun, were quite as deeply shocked at the sight as classical history would give us to understand. There are some old-fashioned lines by an old-fashioned poet to the effect that the ugliness of Vice is no especial detriment to her seductions, if we will only look at her often enough to forget it. Probably those Spartan lads, after a few educational experiments, began to think that the Helots, in their reeking filth and bestiality, were rather interesting studies; were experiencing new and perhaps pleasurable emotions; were more comfortable, at all events, than they themselves, sitting stiff and upright at the public table, with a scanty plateful of unpalatable broth; were, in short, having a jolly good time of it,—and why not try for once what such thorough-going drunkenness was like?
This point of view, however, is far too shallow and frivolous to find favor with the serious apostles who are regenerating the world by the simple process of calling old and evil things by new and beautiful names. In the days of our great-grandfathers, a novel was simply a novel. Ten chances to one it was not as virtuous as it should have been, in which case the great-grandfathers laughed over it jovially, if they chanced to be light-minded, or shook their heads impressively, if they were disposed to be grave; perhaps even going so far as to lock it up, having previously satisfied their own curiosity, from their equally curious families. But it never occurred to them to make a merit of reading "Tom Jones" or "Humphry Clinker," any more than it occurred to the authors of those ingenious books to pose as illustrative moralists before the world. The men of that robust generation were better able to bear the theory of their amusements, and vices were quite content to flourish shamelessly under their proper names. Cruelty then took the form of pastime,—bear-baiting, badger-drawing, cock-fighting; questionable pleasures, doubtless, yet gentle as the sports of cherubs when compared with the ever-increasing agonies of vivisection, with the ceaseless and nameless experiments of German and Italian scientists, the "Fisiologia del Dolore" of Professor Mantegazza, all of which horrors are justified and turned into painful duties by our new evolutionary morality. Sensuality, too, which used to show itself coarse, smiling, unmasked, and unmistakable, is now serious, analytic, and so burdened with a sense of its responsibilities that it passes muster half the time as a new type of asceticism. The moral animus with which Frenchmen write immoral books is one of the paradoxes of our present system of ethics; and it occasionally happens that the simple-minded reader, failing to appreciate the shadowy elevation of their platform, fancies they are working con amore amid their unpromising and unsavory materials. So it was that Mr. Howells startled a great many respectable people by the assurance that "Madame Bovary" was "one impassioned cry of the austerest morality," when they had innocently supposed it to be something vastly different. Even respectable critics, unemancipated English critics in particular, seem to have been somewhat taken back by the breadth of this definition. Perhaps they recalled Epictetus,—"Austerity should be both cleanly and pleasing,"—and considered that "Madame Bovary" was neither. Perhaps they thought, and with some reason, that never, since Swift's angry eyes were closed in death, has any writer expressed more harsh and cruel scorn for his fellow-men than Gustave Flaubert, and that concentrated contempt is seldom the most effective weapon for an apostle. Perhaps they were merely conventional enough to fancy that a novel, against which even wicked Paris protested, was hardly decorous enough for sober London. At all events, it would appear as though a goodly number of stragglers along the path of virtue felt themselves insufficiently advanced for such a difficult and abstruse text-book of ethics.
In the midst of this universal disclaimer, it never seems to occur to anybody to ask the simple question, Why should "Madame Bovary" be an impassioned cry of the austerest morality,—why should any novel undertake to be an impassioned cry of morality at all? It is not the office of a novelist to show us how to behave ourselves; it is not the business of fiction to teach us anything. Scientific truths, new forms of religion, the humorous eccentricities of socialism, the countless fads of radical reformers, the proper way to live our own lives,—these matters, which are now objects of such tender regard to the story-teller, form no part of his rightful stock-in-trade. His task is simply to give us pleasure, and his duty is to give it within the not very Puritanical limits prescribed by our modern notions of decency. If he chooses to overstep these limits, an offense against propriety, it is exasperating to have him defended on the score of an ethical purpose, an offense against art; for there is nothing so hopelessly inartistic as to represent the world as worse than it is, or to express a too vehement dissatisfaction with the men who dwell in it. Art is never didactic, does not take kindly to facts, is helpless to grapple with theories, and is killed outright by a sermon. Its knowledge is not that of a schoolmaster, and is not imparted through the severe medium of lessons. It assumes no responsibilities, undertakes no reformation, and, as George Sand neatly points out, proves nothing. What are we to learn, she asks, from "Paul and Virginia"? Merely that youth, friendship, love, and the tropics are beautiful things when St. Pierre describes them. What from "Faust?" Only that science, human life, fantastic images, profound, graceful, or terrible ideas, are wonderful things when Goethe makes out of them a sublime and moving picture. This sounds like high authority for Mr. Oscar Wilde's latest and most amusing heresy, that Nature gains her true distinction from being reproduced, with necessary modifications, by Art; that too close a copy of the original is fatal to the perfection of the younger and fairer sister; that the insignificant and sordid types in which Nature takes such reprehensible delight are to be, if possible, forgotten, rather than dandled into insulting prominence; and that not all the dreary vices of the most drearily vicious man or woman whom Zola ever drew can give that man or woman a right to breathe in the tranquil air of fiction. As for accepting inartistic and repellent sinners for the sake of the moral lesson which may, or may not, be drawn from their sin, Mr. Wilde is as prompt as De Quincey himself to repudiate any such utilitarian theory. "If you insist on my telling you what is the moral of the Iliad," says De Quincey, "I must insist on your telling me what is the moral of a rattlesnake, or the moral of Niagara. I suppose the moral is, that you must get out of their way if you mean to moralize much longer."
But this light-hearted flippancy on the part of the critic was only possible, or at least was only acceptable, in those days when the novelist had not yet awakened to his serious duties in life. Content, for the most part, to tell a story, he barely remembered now and then, in the beginning, may be, or at the end, that there was such a thing as an ethical purpose in existence. Even Richardson, the father of English didactic fiction, was but an indifferent parent, starting out with a great many gallant promises on behalf of his offspring, and easily forgetting all about them. Miss Burney was as cheerfully unconscious of her own grave obligations to society as was Miss Austen; while in those few lines with which Sir Walter Scott closes "The Heart of Mid-Lothian"—lines addressed to the "reader," and containing some irrefutable but not very original remarks about the happiness of virtue and the infelicity of vice—we see an almost pathetic avowal on the part of the great novelist that, in the mere delight of telling his beautiful and best loved tale, he had well-nigh lost sight of any moral lesson it might be fitted to convey, and was trying at the last moment to make amends for this deficiency. Imagine George Eliot forgetting, or permitting her readers to forget, the moral lesson of "Adam Bede," when every fresh development of character or of narrative has for its conscious purpose the driving home of hard and bitter truths. No need for the authoress of "Romola" to wind up her story with that paragraph of excellent advice to poor little Lillo, who is after all rather young to profit by it; while we who have followed Tito from his first joyous entrance into Florence to that last dreadful moment when, floating, bruised, beautiful, and helpless, down the Arno, he opens his dying eyes to meet the horror of Baldassarre's vengeance,—we surely do not require to be warned afresh against the unpardonable sin of making things easy for ourselves. In the pathetic history of the marred and broken lives of "Middlemarch," in the darker and harsher tragedy of "Daniel Deronda," we see forever present upon each succeeding page the underlying motive of the tale; we hear George Eliot listening, as Morley says, to the sound of her own voice, and announcing as distinctly as she announced in life that her function is that of the æsthetic teacher, to rouse the nobler emotions which make mankind desire the social right.
If the test of the true artist be to conceal his art, then this transparently didactic purpose is fatal to the perfection of any work claiming to spring from the imagination. It is impossible to preach a sermon out of the mouth of fiction without making the fiction subordinate to the sermon, and thus at once destroying the just proportions of a story, and forfeiting that subtle sympathy with life, as it is, which gives to every artistic masterpiece its admirable air of self-sufficing and harmonious repose. "I always tremble when I see a philosophical idea attached to a novel," said Sainte-Beuve, who was spared by the kindly hand of death from the sight of countless novels attached to philosophical ideas. Charles Lamb, with that unerring intuition which was the most wonderful thing about his indolent luminous genius, recognized, even in the comparative sunlight of his day, the growing shadow of a speculative, disciplinal, analytic literature which should sadly overrate its own responsibilities and importance. "We turn away," he said, "from the real essences of things to hunt after their relative shadows, moral duties; whereas, if the truth of things were fairly represented, the relative duties might be safely trusted to themselves, and moral philosophy lose the name of a science." No one understood more thoroughly than Lamb that the purely natural point of view, as apart from the purely ethical point of view, supplies the proper basis for all imaginative writing. "I have lived to grow into an indecent character," he sighed, struggling with whimsical dejection to comprehend the new forces at work; sometimes protesting angrily against the "Puritanical obtuseness, the stupid, infantile goodness which is creeping among us, instead of the vigorous passions and virtues clad in flesh and blood;" sometimes contemplating, with humorously lowered eyelids, "the least little men who spend their time and lose their wits in chasing nimble and retiring Truth, to the extreme perturbation and drying up of the moistures."
"On court, hélas! après la vérité;
Ah! croyez-moi, l'erreur a son mérite."
But if modern novelists are disposed to sacrifice their art to a conscious ethical purpose, to write fiction, as Mr. Oscar Wilde wittily says, "as though it were a painful duty," it can hardly be denied that they are giving the public what the public craves; that they are on the safe side of criticism, and have chosen their position wisely, if not well. Should any one feel inclined to doubt this, it might be a convincing and salutary exercise to re-read as swiftly as possible a few of the numerous essays and reviews which followed closely on George Eliot's death, and which have not altogether vanished from the literary market now. With one or two distinct and admirable exceptions, they deal almost exclusively with the didactic aspect of her novels; they weigh and balance every social theory, every spiritual problem, every moral lesson, to be extracted from her pages; they take her as seriously as she took herself, and give their keenest praise to those precise qualities which marred the artistic perfection of her work. I have myself counted the obnoxious word "ethics" six times repeated in the opening paragraph of one review, and have felt too deeply disheartened by such an outset to penetrate any further. On the other hand, her dramatic power, her subtle insight, her masterly style, her warm and vivid pictures of a life that has touched us so closely, the exquisite art with which her earlier tales are constructed, and, above and beyond all, her delicious and inimitable humor,—these things appear to be regarded as mere minor details, useful perhaps and pleasing, but strictly subordinate to the nobler endowments of her spirit. That some of us endure George Eliot the teacher for the sake of George Eliot the story-teller is a truth too painful to be put often into words. That little Maggie Tulliver spelling out the examples in the Latin grammar, and secretly delighted at her own amazing cleverness, enables some of us to support the processional virtues of Romola, and the deadly priggishness of Daniel Deronda, is a melancholy fact which perhaps it would be wiser to ignore. Maggie, as we are aware, has deeply shocked the sensitive nature of Mr. Swinburne by her grossness in falling in love with Stephen, for no better reason, apparently, than because he was the first big, and strong, and handsome man she had ever known. That wonderful scene on the boat, with its commonplace setting and strained intensity of emotion; the short, sad, rapturous flight; the few misty hours of passionate dreaming which made poor Maggie's little share of earthly happiness, have branded her so deeply in the sight of this hardened moralist that even her bitter agony of renunciation and her final triumph have failed to win her pardon. With what chastened severity and with what an animated vocabulary he condemns the "revolting avowal" of her love, the "hideous transformation," the "vulgar and brutal outrage," the "radical and moral plague spot," which debases her into something too vile for pity or redemption! Verily, this is the squeamishness of the true ascetic who has somehow mistaken his vocation, and there will be a scant allowance of cakes and ale for any of us when it is Mr. Swinburne's turn to be virtuous.
As for the humor of George Eliot's novels, that mysterious humor which she herself was not humorous enough to appreciate, it deserves better treatment at our hands, were it only for the sake of its valuable adaptability, were it only because it is pliant enough to fit in all the time with our own duller imaginings, and to afford a basis and an illustration for our own inadequate thoughts. From what depths of her sombre nature came those arrow-points tipped with fire, or, choicer still, those tempered shafts of reflective ridicule, which are kindly enough to win our unhesitating acquiescence? With what pleasure we are reminded that "people who live at a distance are naturally less faulty than those immediately under our own eyes, and it seems superfluous, when we consider the geographical position of the Ethiopians, and how very little the Greeks had to do with them, to inquire further why Homer calls them 'blameless'"! Surely, to express a truth humorously is to rob that truth of all offensive qualities, and Lucian himself would be prepared to admit that, in a case like this, it is almost as pleasant as falsehood. But to beguile us into the grateful shades of fiction, as Jael beguiled Sisera into the shelter of her tent, and then, with deadly purpose, to transfix us with a truth as sharp and cruel as the nail with which Jael slew her guest, is a dastardly betrayal of confidence. When a novelist undertakes to sit in judgment upon his characters, for the sake of illustrating some moral lesson with which he has no need to concern himself, he rudely breaks the mystic web of illusion, and destroys the charm which binds us to his side. What is it that gives to "Henry Esmond" its supreme artistic value, if not the fact that Thackeray sank himself out of sight; was content for once to look at things with Esmond's gentle eyes, to judge of things with Esmond's tolerant soul; and forbore to whip his actors through the play like criminals at the cart-tail? On the other hand, what whimsical sense of responsibility induced Bulwer to elaborate a character like Randal Leslie, only to make of him an educational sign-post, after the approved fashion of Miss Edgeworth's "Early Lessons"? Judged by a purely ethical standard, Randal no doubt merited his failure; judged by the standard of his ability and energy, Reynard the Fox was as little likely to fail; and though Mr. Froude tells us that "women, with their clear moral insight, have no sympathy with Reynard's successful villainy," yet I doubt whether we should really like to see him outwitted by a fool like Bruin, or beaten by a bully like Isegrim. He is a terrible scamp, to be sure, but the charm of the situation is that we are not compelled to watch it from a jury-box.
Now the disadvantage of being at once a novelist and a teacher is that you have no neutral ground from which to observe your characters, no friendly appreciation of things or people as you find them. What the artist accepts with delicate sympathy, though with no pretense at justification, the moralist must either justify or condemn. The first course is common enough, and produces a class of literature essentially vicious because of its very limitations,—six deadly sins held up to public execration, and the seventh presented to us tenderly as an ill-understood and sadly calumniated virtue. The second course—that of implied condemnation—is equally open to a Sunday-school story or to the least decorous of French novels; both have for their avowed object the pillorying of vice, and both put forward this claim as a reasonable excuse for existence. But art has no pillory, no stocks, no whipping-post, no exclusive methods for fixing our attention upon sin. Art gives us Lady Macbeth and Iago, and gives them to us without reproaches, without extenuation, and without any attempt to reform. It is less painful to watch the irresistible development of their respective crimes than to hear Thackeray lashing with keen scorn some poor sinner stumbling through the mazes of worldly wickedness, or to see George Eliot pursuing one of her own creations with inextinguishable severity and contempt. There is something paralyzing in the cold anger with which Rosamond Vincy is branded and shamed; there is something appalling in the conscientious vindictiveness with which Tito is hunted down, step by step, to his final retribution. That delightful essayist, Mr. Karl Hillebrand, whose artistic nature is about as much at home among modern theories as a strayed Faun in a button factory, has given us a half-humorous, half-despairing picture of some old acquaintances under the new dispensation: of Manon Lescaut threatened with Charlotte Brontë's birch-rod; of Squire Western opening his startled eyes as Zola proceeds to detail for his benefit the latest and most highly realistic study of delirium tremens; of Falstaff, whom that losel Shakespeare treated so indulgently, listening abashed to George Eliot's scathing denunciations. "For really, Sir John," he hears her say, "you have no excuse whatever. If you were a poor devil who had never had any but bad examples before your eyes!—but you have had all the advantages which destiny can give to man on his way through life. Are you not born of a good family? Have you not had at Oxford the best education England is able to give to her children? Have you not had the highest connections? And, nevertheless, how low you have fallen! Do you know why? I have warned my Tito over and over again against it: because you have always done that only which was agreeable to you, and have shunned everything that was unpleasant."
This sounds like sad trifling to our sober and orthodox ears, but it is not more audacious, on the whole, than the pathetic lamentations of Mr. Oscar Wilde over the career of Charles Reade: the most disheartening, he protests, in all literature; "wasted in a foolish attempt to be modern, and to draw attention to the state of our convict prisons, and the management of private lunatic asylums. Charles Dickens was depressing enough, in all conscience, when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration; but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of modern life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over." It is just possible that whatever personal interest the angelic hosts take in our earthly lot may be directed to philanthropy rather than to literature; but, for the idle and inglorious mortal, the protest holds a world of truth and meaning. Reade, as a reformer, is melancholy company; and Dickens is inexpressibly dismal when he drags the Chancery business into "Bleak House," and the pauper dinner-table into "Oliver Twist," and that dreary caricature, the Circumlocution Office, into "Little Dorrit." If these things really accomplished the good that is claimed for them, it was dearly bought by the weariness of so many millions of readers. "A fiction contrived to support an opinion is a vicious composition," said Jeffrey, who was as apt in his general criticisms as he was awkward in their particular applications, and who lived before the era of serious and educational novels. To-day we have the unhesitating assertion of Mr. Howells that one of Tolstoï's highest claims to our consideration is his steadfast teaching "that all war, private and public, is a sin." Mr. Ruskin, it may be remembered, holds somewhat different views: "There is no great art possible to a nation but that which is based on war." Yet as every man is entitled to his own opinion in such matters, there is no reason why we should quarrel with either the Russian or the Englishman for their chosen principles. But Ruskin is no greater as an essayist because he approves of war, and Tolstoï gains nothing as a novelist because he adheres to peace. The glory of the battlefield, its pathos and its horror, are all fitting subjects for the artist's pen or pencil. He may stir our blood and rouse our fighting instincts, like Homer or Scott; or he may move us to pity, and sorrow, and shame, by the revelation of all the shattered hopes and bitter agonies that lie beyond. But his own greatness depends exclusively on his treatment of the subject, and not on his point of view. Who knows and who cares what De Neuville thinks of war? He paints for us a handful of men roused at dawn, and rushing gallantly to their deaths, and we feel our hearts beat high as we look at them. The terror, the awfulness, the self-forgetting courage, the gay defiance of battle, all are there, imprisoned mysteriously in the artistic grouping of a few blue-coated soldiers. But Verestchagin, who aspires to teach us the wickedness of war, is powerless to thrill us in this manner. He is probably sincere in his opinions, and he has striven hard to give them form and expression, but, lacking the artistic impulse, he has for the most part striven in vain. His huge canvases, packed with dead and dying, are less impressive, less solemn, less painful even, from their monotonous overcrowding, than a single Zouave, whose wounds De Neuville has no need to emphasize with vast expenditure of vermilion, when the faintness of a mortal agony draws his weary body to the earth. "All real power," says Ruskin, "lies in delicacy." To trouble the senses is an easy task, but it is through the imagination only that we receive any strong and lasting impressions, and no sincerity of purpose can suffice to turn a crude didacticism into art.
It is hard to analyze the peculiar nature of the claims asserted and upheld by the disciples of modern realism. They are not content with the splendid position which is theirs by right, not content with the admirable work they have done, and the hold they have secured on the sympathies of our earnest, rationalistic, and unimaginative age; but they assume in some subtle and incomprehensible way that their school is based upon man's love and appreciation for his fellow-creatures. If we would but look upon all men as our brothers, it is plainly hinted, all men would be of equal interest to us, and it is our duty, as nineteenth-century citizens, to accept and cherish this universal relationship. To the perpetual sounding of the humanitarian note, there are some, it is true, who answer, with Vernon Lee's very amusing and very wicked skeptic, that "the new-fangled bore called mankind is as great a plague as the old-fashioned nuisance called a soul;" but there are others who, finding themselves in full possession of a conscience, stoutly maintain that they love their undistinguished brother none the less because they weary of his society in literature and art. It was Ruskin, for example, who sneered at George Eliot's characters as the "sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus,"—a terrible misapplication of an inspired phrase; but Ruskin is the last man in Christendom who can be accused of an indifference to his fellow-men. His whole life is a sufficient refutation of the charge. Voltaire is responsible for the statement that the world is full of people who are not worth knowing. Yet Voltaire was forever restlessly espousing some popular cause, forever interesting himself in the supposed welfare of these eminently undesirable associates. What he thought, and what he was quite right in thinking, is that we gain nothing, intellectually or spiritually, from the mass of men and women with whom we come in contact; and that it is wiser to fix our attention upon graceful and exalted types than to go on forever, as Charles Lamb expressed it, "encouraging each other in mediocrity."
The present stand of realism, however, is but one more phase of the intrusion of ethics upon art, the assumption that I cannot have a sincere regard for the welfare of my washerwoman if I do not care for her company either in a book or out of it. Tubs have grown in favor since the day when Wordsworth was compelled, "in deference to the opinion of friends," to substitute an impossible turtle-shell for the homely vessel in which the blind Highland boy set sail on Loch Leven. All classes and all people, I am now given to understand, are of supreme interest to the loving student of human nature, and it is a "narrow conservatism"—chilling phrase—that seeks to limit the artist's field of action. But as limiting the artist's field of action is practically impossible, and not often essayed, it is hard to understand what the respective schools of fiction find to fight over, and why this new battle of the books should be raging as fiercely as if there were any visible cause of war. It is not an orderly and well-appointed battle, either, confined to the ranks of critics and reviewers, but a free skirmish, where everybody who has written a novel rushes in and plays an active part. Conflicting opinions rattle around our heads like hail, and the voice of the peace-maker,—Mr. Andrew Lang,—protesting that all schools are equally good, if the scholars are equal to their tasks, is lost in the universal clamor. The only point on which any two sharpshooters appear to agree is in laying the blame for the "unmanly timidity of English fiction"—a timidity not always so apparent as it might be—on the shoulders of women, who, it seems, will have all novels modeled to suit themselves, and who, with the arrogance of supreme power, have reversed the political situation, and deprived mankind of their vote. This is the opinion of Rider Haggard, and also of Vernon Lee, who asserts that "the ethics of fiction are framed entirely for the benefit or the detriment of women," and that its enforced morality—a defect which, to do her justice, she is striving her best to eradicate—is fatal to its mission in life.
But that fiction has a mission, nobody dares to doubt; that its ethics are of paramount importance, nobody dares to deny. It devotes itself in all seriousness to our moral and intellectual welfare; and if, now and then, we are reminded of Sydney Smith, who would rather Mr. Perceval had whipped his boys and saved his country, we stifle the sinful impulse, and turn to biography and history for recreation, for that purely imaginative element which places no tax upon our conscience or credulity. Yet we may at least remember that all natures do not develop on the same lines; that all goodness is not comprised within certain recognized virtues, ,or limited to certain fields of thought. Tolstoï, a figure on a grand scale, "filled with pity for the oppressed, the poor, and the lowly," has manifested the sincerity of his creed by a life of hard work and hearty renunciation. But Sir Walter Scott, the Tory, the "feudalist," content to take the world as he found it, and to believe that whatever is, is right, proved himself no less the friend and benefactor of his kind. The halo round his head is not that of genius only, but of love,—love freely given and abundantly returned. The anxious whisper of the London workmen to Allan Cunningham, "Do you know, sir, if this is the street where he is lying?" the rapturous cry of the little deformed tailor who, with his last breath, sobbed out, "The Lord bless and reward you!" and, falling back, expired,—these are the sounds that ring through generations to bear witness to man's fidelity to man.
"For the might
Of the whole world's good wishes with him goes."
sang Wordsworth, with whom affectionate hyperbole was hardly a common fault. It cannot be that Mr. Howells believes in his heart that American children need to be warned against Sir Walter's errors, and that it is the duty of American parents to give this solemn warning. Consider that it is only in youth that our imagination triumphs vividly over realities,—a triumph short-lived enough, but rich in fruits for the future. The time comes all too soon when we doubt, and question, and make room in our puzzled minds for the opinions of many men. Ah, leave to the child, at least, his clear, intuitive, unbiased enjoyment, his sympathy with things that have been! He is not so easily hurt as we suppose; he is strong in his elastic ignorance, and has no need of a pepsin pill with every mouthful of literary food he swallows. Mental hygiene, it is said, is apt to lead to mental valetudinarianism; but if we are to turn our very nurseries into hot-beds of prigs, we may say once more what was said when Chapelain published his portentous epic, that "a new horror has been added to the accomplishment of reading."