A happy half-century and other essays/The Novelist
Soft Sensibility, sweet Beauty's soul!
Keeps her coy state, and animates the whole.
Readers of Miss Burney's Diary will remember her maidenly confusion when Colonel Fairly (the Honourable Stephen Digby) recommends to her a novel called "Original Love-Letters between a Lady of Quality and a Person of Inferior Station." The authoress of "Evelina" and "Cecilia"—then thirty-six years of age—is embarrassed by the glaring impropriety of this title. In vain Colonel Fairly assures her that the book contains "nothing but good sense, moral reflections, and refined ideas, clothed in the most expressive and elegant language." Fanny, though longing to read a work of such estimable character, cannot consent to borrow, or even discuss, anything so compromising as love-letters; and, with her customary coyness, murmurs a few words of denial. Colonel Fairly, however, is not easily daunted. Three days later he actually brings the volume to that virginal bower, and asks permission to read portions of it aloud, excusing his audacity with the solemn assurance that there was no person, not even his own daughter, in whose hands he would hesitate to place it. "It was now impossible to avoid saying that I should like to hear it," confesses Miss Burney. "I should seem else to doubt either his taste or his delicacy, while I have the highest opinion of both." So the book is produced, and the fair listener, bending over her needlework to hide her blushes, acknowledges it to be "moral, elegant, feeling, and rational," while lamenting that the unhappy nature of its title makes its presence a source of embarrassment.
This edifying little anecdote sheds light upon a palmy period of propriety. Miss Burney's self-consciousness, her superhuman diffidence, and the "delicious confusion" which overwhelmed her upon the most insignificant occasions, were beacon lights to her "sisters of Parnassus," to the less distinguished women who followed her brilliant lead. The passion for novel-reading was asserting itself for the first time in the history of the world as a dominant note of femininity. The sentimentalities of fiction expanded to meet the woman's standard, to satisfy her irrational demands. "If the story-teller had always had mere men for an audience," says an acute English critic, "there would have been no romance; nothing but the improving fable, or the indecent anecdote." It was the woman who, as Miss Seward sorrowfully observed, sucked the "sweet poison" which the novelist administered; it was the woman who stooped conspicuously to the "reigning folly" of the day.
The particular occasion of this outbreak on Miss Seward's part was the extraordinary success of a novel, now long forgotten by the world, but which in its time rivalled in popularity "Evelina," and the well-loved "Mysteries of Udolpho." Its plaintive name is "Emmeline; or the Orphan of the Castle," and its authoress, Charlotte Smith, was a woman of courage, character, and good ability; also of a cheerful temperament, which we should never have surmised from her works. It is said that her son owed his advancement in the East India Company solely to the admiration felt for "Emmeline," which was being read as assiduously in Bengal as in London. Sir Walter Scott, always the gentlest of critics, held that it belonged to the "highest branch of fictitious narrative." The Queen, who considered it a masterpiece, lent it to Miss Burney, who in turn gave it to Colonel Fairly, who ventured to observe that it was not "piquant," and asked for a "Rambler" instead.
"Emmeline" is not piquant. Its heroine has more tears than Niobe. "Formed of the softest elements, and with a mind calculated for select friendship and domestic happiness," it is her misfortune to be loved by all the men she meets. The "interesting languor" of a countenance habitually "wet with tears" proves their undoing. Her "deep convulsive sobs" charm them more than the laughter of other maidens. When the orphan leaves the castle for the first time, she weeps bitterly for an hour; when she converses with her uncle, she can "no longer command her tears, sobs obliged her to cease speaking"; and when he urges upon her the advantages of a worldly marriage, she—as if that were possible—"wept more than before." When Delamere, maddened by rejection, carries her off in a postchaise (a delightful frontispiece illustrates this episode), "a shower of tears fell from her eyes"; and even a rescue fails to raise her spirits. Her response to Godolphin's tenderest approaches is to "wipe away the involuntary betrayers of her emotion"; and when he exclaims in a transport: "Enchanting softness! Is then the safety of Godolphin so dear to that angelic bosom?" she answers him with "audible sobs."
The other characters in the book are nearly as tearful. When Delamere is not striking his forehead with his clenched fist, he is weeping at Emmeline's feet. The repentant Fitz-Edward lays his head on a chair, and weeps "like a woman." Lady Adelina, who has stooped to folly, naturally sheds many tears, and writes an "Ode to Despair"; while Emmeline from time to time gives "vent to a full heart" by weeping over Lady Adelina's infant. Godolphin sobs loudly when he sees his frail sister; and when he meets Lord Westhaven after an absence of four years, "the manly eyes of both brothers were filled with tears." We wonder how Scott, whose heroines cry so little and whose heroes never cry at all, stood all this weeping; and, when we remember the perfunctory nature of Sir Walter's love scenes,—wedged in any way among more important matters,—we wonder still more how he endured the ravings of Delamere, or the melancholy verses with which Godolphin from time to time soothes his despondent soul.
In deep depression sunk, the enfeebled mind
Will to the deaf cold elements complain;
And tell the embosomed grief, however vain,
To sullen surges and the viewless wind.
It was not, however, the mournfulness of "Emmeline" which displeased Miss Seward, but rather the occasional intrusion of "low characters"; of those underbred and unimpassioned persons who—as in Miss Burney's and Miss Ferrier's novels—are naturally and almost cheerfully vulgar. That Mr. William Hayley, author of "The Triumphs of Temper," and her own most ardent admirer, should tune his inconstant lyre in praise of Mrs. Smith was more than Miss Seward could bear. "My very foes acquit me of harbouring one grain of envy in my bosom," she writes him feelingly; "yet it is surely by no means inconsistent with that exemption to feel a little indignant, and to enter one's protest, when compositions of mere mediocrity are extolled far above those of real genius." She then proceeds to point out the "indelicacy" of Lady Adelina's fall from grace, and the use of "kitchen phrases," such as "she grew white at the intelligence." "White instead of pale," comments Miss Seward severely, "I have often heard servants say, but never a gentleman or a gentlewoman." If Mr. Hayley desires to read novels, she urges upon him the charms of another popular heroine, Caroline de Lichtfield, in whom he will find "simplicity, wit, pathos, and the most exalted generosity"; and the history of whose adventures "makes curiosity gasp, admiration kindle, and pity dissolve."
Caroline, "the gay child of Artless Nonchalance," is at least a more cheerful young person than the Orphan. Her story, translated from the French of Madame de Montolieu, was widely read in England and on the Continent; and Miss Seward tells us that its author was indebted "to the merits and graces of these volumes for a transition from incompetence to the comforts of wealth; from the unprotected dependence of waning virginity to the social pleasures of wedded friendship." In plain words, we are given to understand that a rich and elderly German widower read the book, sought an acquaintance with the writer, and married her. "Hymen," exclaims Miss Seward, "passed by the fane of Cytherea and the shrine of Plutus, to light his torch at the altar of genius";—which beautiful burst of eloquence makes it painful to add the chilling truth, and say that "Caroline de Lichtfield" was written six years after its author's marriage with M. de Montolieu, who was a Swiss, and her second husband. She espoused her first, M. de Crousaz, when she was eighteen, and still comfortably remote from the terrors of waning virginity. Accurate information was not, however, a distinguishing characteristic of the day. Sir Walter Scott, writing some years later of Madame de Montolieu, ignores both marriages altogether, and calls her Mademoiselle.
No rich reward lay in wait for poor Charlotte Smith, whose husband was systematically impecunious, and whose large family of children were supported wholly by her pen. "Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle" was followed by "Ethelinda, or the Recluse of the Lake," and that by "The Old Manor House," which was esteemed her masterpiece. Its heroine bears the interesting name of Monimia; and when she marries her Orlando, "every subsequent hour of their lives was marked by some act of benevolence,"—a breathless and philanthropic career. By this time the false-hearted Hayley had so far transferred to Mrs. Smith the homage due to Miss Seward that he was rewarded with the painful privilege of reading "The Old Manor House" in manuscript,—a privilege reserved in those days for tried and patient friends. The poet had himself dallied a little with fiction, having written, "solely to promote the interests of religion," a novel called "The Young Widow," which no one appears to have read, except perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury, to whom its author sent a copy.
In purity of motive Mr. Hayley was rivalled only by Mrs. Brunton, whose two novels, "Self-Control" and "Discipline," were designed "to procure admission for the religion of a sound mind and of the Bible where it cannot find access in any other form." Mrs. Brunton was perhaps the most commended novelist of her time. The inexorable titles of her stories secured for them a place upon the guarded book-shelves of the young. Many a demure English girl must have blessed these deluding titles, just as, forty years later, many an English boy blessed the inspiration which had impelled George Borrow to misname his immortal book "The Bible in Spain." When the wife of a clergyman undertook to write a novel in the interests of religion and the Scriptures; when she called it "Discipline," and drew up a stately apology for employing fiction as a medium for the lessons she meant to convey, what parent could refuse to be beguiled? There is nothing trivial in Mrs. Brunton's conception of a good novel, in the standard she proposes to the world.
"Let the admirable construction of fable in 'Tom Jones' be employed to unfold characters like Miss Edgeworth's; let it lead to a moral like Richardson's; let it be told with the elegance of Rousseau, and with the simplicity of Goldsmith; let it be all this, and Milton need not have been ashamed of the work."
How far "Discipline" and "Self-Control" approach this composite standard of perfection it would be invidious to ask; but they accomplished a miracle of their own in being both popular and permitted, in pleasing the frivolous, and edifying the devout. Dedicated to Miss Joanna Baillie, sanctioned by Miss Hannah More, they stood above reproach, though not without a flavour of depravity. Mrs. Brunton's outlook upon life was singularly uncomplicated. All her women of fashion are heartless and inane. All her men of fashion cherish dishonourable designs upon female youth and innocence. Indeed the strenuous efforts of Laura, in "Self-Control," to preserve her virginity may be thought a trifle explicit for very youthful readers. We find her in the first chapter—she is seventeen—fainting at the feet of her lover, who has just revealed the unworthy nature of his intentions; and we follow her through a series of swoons to the last pages, where she "sinks senseless" into—of all vessels!—a canoe; and is carried many miles down a Canadian river in a state of nicely balanced unconsciousness. Her self-control (the crowning virtue which gives its title to the book) is so marked that when she dismisses Hargrave on probation, and then meets him accidentally in a London print-shop after a four months' absence, she "neither screamed nor fainted"; only "trembled violently, and leant against the counter to recover strength and composure." It is not until he turns, and, "regardless of the inquisitive looks of the spectators, clasped her to his breast," that "her head sunk upon his shoulder, and she lost all consciousness." As for her heroic behaviour when the same Hargrave (having lapsed from grace) shoots the virtuous De Courcy in Lady Pelham's summerhouse, it must be described in the author's own words. No others could do it justice.
"To the plants which their beauty had recommended to Lady Pelham, Laura had added a few of which the usefulness was known to her. Agaric of the oak was of the number; and she had often applied it where many a hand less fair would have shrunk from the task. Nor did she hesitate now. The ball had entered near the neck; and the feminine, the delicate Laura herself disengaged the wound from its covering; the feeling, the tender Laura herself performed an office from which false sensibility would have recoiled in horror."
Is it possible that anybody except Miss Burney could have shrunk modestly from the sight of a lover's neck, especially when it had a bullet in it? Could a sense of decorum be more overwhelmingly expressed? Yet the same novel which held up to our youthful great-grandmothers this unapproachable standard of propriety presented to their consideration the most intimate details of libertinism. There was then, as now, no escape from the moralist's devastating disclosures.
One characteristic is common to all these faded romances, which in their time were read with far more fervour and sympathy than are their successors to-day. This is the undying and undeviating nature of their heroes' affections. Written by ladies who took no count of man's proverbial inconstancy, they express a touching belief in the supremacy of feminine charms. A heroine of seventeen (she is seldom older), with ringlets, and a "faltering timidity," inflames both the virtuous and the profligate with such imperishable passions, that when triumphant morality leads her to the altar, defeated vice cannot survive her loss. Her suitors, reversing the enviable experience of Ben Bolt,—
weep with delight when she gives them a smile,
And tremble with fear at her frown.
They grow faint with rapture when they enter her presence, and, when she repels their advances, they signify their disappointment by gnashing their teeth, and beating their heads against the wall. Rejection cannot alienate their faithful hearts; years and absence cannot chill their fervour. They belong to a race of men who, if they ever existed at all, are now as extinct as the mastodon.
It was Miss Jane Porter who successfully transferred to a conquering hero that exquisite sensibility of soul which had erstwhile belonged to the conquering heroine,—to the Emmelines and Adelinas of fiction. Dipping her pen "in the tears of Poland," she conveyed the glittering drops to the eyes of "Thaddeus of Warsaw," whence they gush in rills,—like those of the Prisoner of Chillon's brother. Thaddeus is of such exalted virtue that strangers in London address him as "excellent young gentleman," and his friends speak of him as "incomparable young man." He rescues children from horses' hoofs and from burning buildings. He nurses them through small-pox, and leaves their bedsides in the most casual manner, to mingle in crowds and go to the play. He saves women from insult on the streets. He is kind even to "that poor slandered and abused animal, the cat,"—which is certainly to his credit. Wrapped in a sable cloak, wearing "hearse-like plumes" on his hat, a star upon his breast, and a sabre by his side, he moves with Hamlet's melancholy grace through the five hundred pages of the story. "His unrestrained and elegant conversation acquired new pathos from the anguish that was driven back to his heart: like the beds of rivers which infuse their own nature with the current, his hidden grief imparted an indescribable interest and charm to all his sentiments and actions."
What wonder that such a youth is passionately loved by all the women who cross his path, but whom he regards for the most part with "that lofty tranquillity which is inseparable from high rank when it is accompanied by virtue." In vain Miss Euphemia Dundas writes him amorous notes, and entraps him into embarrassing situations. In vain Lady Sara Roos—married, I regret to say—pursues him to his lodgings, and wrings "her snowy arms" while she confesses the hopeless nature of her infatuation. The irreproachable Thaddeus replaces her tenderly but firmly on a sofa, and as soon as possible sends her home in a cab. It is only when the "orphan heiress," Miss Beaufort, makes her appearance on the scene, "a large Turkish shawl enveloping her fine form, a modest grace observable in every limb," that the exile's haughty soul succumbs to love. Miss Beaufort has been admirably brought up by her aunt, Lady Somerset, who is a person of great distinction, and who gives "conversaziones," as famous in their way as Mrs. Proudie's.—"There the young Mary Beaufort listened to pious divines of every Christian persuasion. There she gathered wisdom from real philosophers; and, in the society of our best living poets, cherished an enthusiasm for all that is great and good. On these evenings, Sir Robert Somerset's house reminded the visitor of what he had read or imagined of the School of Athens."
Never do hero and heroine approach each other with such spasms of modesty as Thaddeus and Miss Beaufort. Their hearts expand with emotion, but their mutual sense of propriety keeps them remote from all vulgar understandings. In vain "Mary's rosy lips seemed to breathe balm while she spoke." In vain "her beautiful eyes shone with benevolence." The exile, standing proudly aloof, watches with bitter composure the attentions of more frivolous suitors. "His arms were folded, his hat pulled over his forehead; and his long dark eye-lashes shading his downcast eyes imparted a dejection to his whole air, which wrapped her weeping heart round and round with regretful pangs." What with his lashes, and his hidden griefs, the majesty of his mournful moods, and the pleasing pensiveness of his lighter ones, Thaddeus so far eclipses his English rivals that they may be pardoned for wishing he had kept his charms in Poland. Who that has read the matchless paragraph which describes the first unveiling of the hero's symmetrical leg can forget the sensation it produces?
"Owing to the warmth of the weather, Thaddeus came out this morning without boots; and it being the first time the exquisite proportion of his limb had been seen by any of the present company excepting Euphemia" (why had Euphemia been so favoured?), "Lascelles, bursting with an emotion which he would not call envy, measured the count's fine leg with his scornful eye."
When Thaddeus at last expresses his attachment for Miss Beaufort, he does so kneeling respectfully in her uncle's presence, and in these well-chosen words: "Dearest Miss Beaufort, may I indulge myself in the idea that I am blessed with your esteem?" Whereupon Mary whispers to Sir Robert: "Pray, Sir, desire him to rise. I am already sufficiently overwhelmed!" and the solemn deed is done.
"Thaddeus of Warsaw" may be called the "Last of the Heroes," and take rank with the "Last of the Mohicans," the "Last of the Barons," the "Last of the Cavaliers," and all the finalities of fiction. With him died that noble race who expressed our great-grandmothers' artless ideals of perfection. Seventy years later, D'Israeli made a desperate effort to revive a pale phantom of departed glory in "Lothair," that nursling of the gods, who is emphatically a hero, and nothing more. "London," we are gravely told, "was at Lothair's feet." He is at once the hope of United Italy, and the bulwark of the English Establishment. He is—at twenty-two—the pivot of fashionable, political, and clerical diplomacy. He is beloved by the female aristocracy of Great Britain; and mysterious ladies, whose lofty souls stoop to no conventionalities, die happy with his kisses on their lips. Five hundred mounted gentlemen compose his simple country escort, and the coat of his groom of the chambers is made in Saville Row. What more could a hero want? What more could be lavished upon him by the most indulgent of authors? Yet who shall compare Lothair to the noble Thaddeus nodding his hearse-like plumes,—Thaddeus dedicated to the "urbanity of the brave," and embalmed in the tears of Poland? The inscrutable creator of Lothair presented his puppet to a mocking world; but all England and much of the Continent dilated with correct emotions when Thaddeus, "uniting to the courage of a man the sensibility of a woman, and the exalted goodness of an angel" (I quote from an appreciative critic), knelt at Miss Beaufort's feet.
Ten years later "Pride and Prejudice" made its unobtrusive appearance, and was read by that "saving remnant" to whom is confided the intellectual welfare of their land. Mrs. Elwood, the biographer of England's "Literary Ladies," tells us, in the few careless pages which she deems sufficient for Miss Austen's novels, that there are people who think these stories "worthy of ranking with those of Madame d'Arblay and Miss Edgeworth"; but that in their author's estimation (and, by inference, in her own), "they took up a much more humble station." Yet, tolerant even of such inferiority, Mrs. Elwood bids us remember that although "the character of Emma is perhaps too manœuvring and too plotting to be perfectly amiable," that of Catherine Morland "will not suffer greatly even from a comparison with Miss Burney's interesting Evelina"; and that "although one is occasionally annoyed by the underbred personages of Miss Austen's novels, the annoyance is only such as we should feel if we were actually in their company."
It was thus that our genteel great-grandmothers, enamoured of lofty merit and of refined sensibility, regarded Elizabeth Bennet's relations.