THE ROYAL ROAD OF FICTION.
"A tale," says that charming scholar and critic, M. Jusserand, "is the first key to the heart of a child, the last utterance to penetrate the fastnesses of age." And what is true of the individual is true also of the race. The earliest voice listened to by the nations in their infancy was the voice of the story-teller. Whether he spoke in rude prose or in ruder rhyme, his was the eloquence which won a hearing everywhere. All through the young world's vigorous, ill-spent manhood it found time mid wars, and pestilence, and far migrations to cherish and cultivate the first wild art of fiction. We, in our chastened, wise, and melancholy middle age, find still our natural solace in this kind and joyous friend. And when mankind grows old, so old we shall have mastered all the knowledge we are seeking now, and shall have found ourselves as far from happiness as ever, I doubt not we shall be comforted in the twilight of existence with the same cheerful and deceptive tales we hearkened to in childhood. Facts surround us from the cradle to the grave. Truth stares us coldly in the face, and checks our unmeaning gayety of heart. What wonder that we turn for pleasure and distraction to those charming dreams with which the story-teller, now grown to be a novelist, is ever ready to lure us away from everything that it is comfortable to forget.
And it was always thus. From the very beginning of civilization, and before civilization was well begun, the royal road of fiction ran straight to the hearts of men, and along it traveled the gay and prosperous spinners of wondrous tales which the world loved well to hear. When I was a little girl, studying literature in the hard and dry fashion then common in all schools, and which was not without its solid advantages after all, I was taught, first that "Pamela" was the earliest English novel; then that "Robinson Crusoe" was the earliest English novel; then that Lodge's "Rosalynde" was the earliest English novel. By the time I got that far back, I began to see for myself, what I dare say all little girls are learning now, that the earliest English novel dates mistily from the earliest English history, and that there is no such thing as a firm starting-point for their uncertain feet to gain. Long, long before Lodge's "Rosalynde" led the way for Shakespeare's "Rosalind" to follow, romantic tales were held in such high esteem that people who were fortunate enough to possess them in manuscript—the art of printing not having yet cheapened such precious treasures—left them solemnly by will to their equally fortunate heirs. In 1315, Guy, Earl of Warwick, bequeathed to Bordesley Abbey in Warwickshire his entire library of thirty-nine volumes, which consisted almost exclusively, like the library of a modern young lady, of stories, such as the "Romaunce de Troies," and the "Romaunce d'Alisaundre." In 1426, Thomas, Duke of Exeter, left to his sister Joan a single book, perhaps the only one he possessed, and this too was a romance on that immortal knight and lover, Tristram.
Earlier even than Thomas of Exeter's day, the hardy barons of England had discovered that when they were "fested and fed," they were ready to be amused, and that there was nothing so amusing as a story. In the twelfth century, before St. Thomas à Becket gave up his life in Canterbury cloisters, English knights and ladies had grown familiar with the tragic history of King Lear, the exploits of Jack the Giant Killer, the story of King Arthur and of the enchanter Merlin. The earliest of these tales came from Brittany, and were translated from Armorican into Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk, and a benefactor to the world; but, by the following century, Robin Hood, Tom-a-Lincoln, and a host of sturdy English-born heroes shared in the popular attention. It must have been inexpressibly helpful to the writers and compilers of early fiction that the uncritical age in which they lived had not yet been vitiated by the principles of realistic art. The modern maxims about sinning against the probabilities, and the novelist's bondage to truth, had not then been invented; and the man who told a story was free to tell it as he pleased. His readers or his hearers were seldom disposed to question his assertions. A knight did not go to the great and unnecessary trouble of learning his letters in order to doubt what he read. Merlin was as real to him as Robin Hood. He believed Sir John Mandeville, when that accomplished traveler told him of a race of men who had eyes in the middle of their foreheads. It was a curious fact, but the unknown world was full of greater mysteries than this. He believed in Prester John, with his red and white lions, his giants and pigmies, his salamanders that built cocoons like silk-worms, his river of stones that rolled perpetually with a mighty reverberation into a sandy sea. Why, indeed, should these wonders be doubted; for in that thrice famous letter sent by Prester John to Manuel Comnenus, Emperor of Constantinople, did he not distinctly say, "No vice is tolerated in our land, and, with us, no one lies."
This broad-minded, liberal credulity made smooth the novelist's path. He always located his romances in far and unknown countries, where anything or everything might reasonably be expected to happen. Scythia, Parthia, Abyssinia, were favorite latitudes; Bohemia could always serve at a pinch; and Arcadia, that blessed haven of romance, remained for centuries his happy hunting-ground, where shepherds piped, and nymphs danced sweetly in the shade, and brave knights met in glorious combat, and lovers dallied all day long under the whispering boughs. In Elizabeth's day, Arcadia had reached the zenith of its popularity. Robert Green had peopled its dewy fields with amorous swains, and Sir Philip Sidney had described its hills and dales in the four hundred and eighty folio pages of his imperishable romance. A golden land, it lies before us still, brilliant with sunshine that shall never fade. Knights and noble ladies ride through it on prancing steeds. Well-bred shepherds, deeply versed in love, sing charming songs, and extend open-hearted hospitality. Shepherdesses, chaste and fair, lead their snowy flocks by meadows and rippling streams. There is always plenty of fighting for the knights when they weary of plighting their vows, and noble palaces spring up for their entertainment when they have had enough of pastoral pleasures and sylvan fare. Ah, me! We who have passed by Arcadia, and dwell in the sad haunts of men, know well what we have lost. Yet was there not a day when the inhabitants of the strange new world, a world not yet familiar with commercial depression and the stock exchange, were thus touchingly described in English verse?
"Guiltless men who danced away their time,
Fresh as their groves, and happy as their clime."
And what gayer irresponsibility could be found even in the fields of Arcadia?
"In Elizabeth's day," says M. Jusserand, "adventurous narratives were loved for adventure's sake. Probability was only a secondary consideration." Geographical knowledge being in its innocent infancy, people were curious about foreign countries, and decently grateful for information, true or false. When a wandering knight of romance "sailed to Bohemia," nobody saw any reason why he should not, and readers were merely anxious to know what happened to him when he got there. So great, indeed, was the demand for fiction in the reign of the virgin queen that writers actually succeeded in supporting themselves by this species of composition, a test equally applicable to-day; and it is worth while to remember that the prose tales of Nash, Green, and Sidney were translated into French more than a century before that distinction was conferred on any play of Shakespeare's.
It need not be supposed, however, that Romance, in her triumphant progress through the land, met with no bitter and sustained hostility. From the very beginning she took the world by storm, and from the very beginning the godly denounced and reviled her. The jesters and gleemen and minstrels who relieved the insufferable ennui of our rude forefathers in those odd moments when they were neither fighting nor eating, were all branded as "Satan's children" by that relentless accuser, "Piers Plowman." In vain the simple story-spinners who narrated the exploits of Robin Hood and Tom-a-Lincoln claimed that their merry legends were "not altogether unprofitable, nor in any way hurtful, but very fitte to passe away the tediousness of the long winter evenings." It was not in this cheerful fashion that the "unco gude"—a race as old as humanity itself—considered the long winter evenings should be passed. Roger Ascham can find no word strong enough in which to condemn "certaine bookes of Chivalrie, the whole pleasure of whiche standeth in two speciall poyntes, in open manslaughter and bolde bawdrye." The beautiful old stories, so simply and reverently handled by Sir Thomas Malory in the "Morte d' Arthur," were regarded with horror and aversion by this gentle ascetic; yet the lessons that they taught were mainly "curtosye, humanyte, friendlynesse, hardynesse and love." The valorous deeds of Guy of Warwick and Thomas of Reading lent cheer to many a hearth, and sent many a man with brave and joyous heart to battle; yet the saintly Stubbes, who loved not joyousness, lamented loudly that the unregenerate persisted in reading such "toys, fantasies and babbleries," in place of that more dolorous fiction, Fox's "Book of Martyrs." Even Sir Philip Sidney's innocent "Arcadia" was pronounced by Milton a "vain, amatorious" book; and the great poet who wrote "Comus" and "L' Allegro" harshly and bitterly censured King Charles because that unhappy monarch beguiled the sad hours of prison with its charming pages, and even, oh! crowning offense against Puritanism! copied for spiritual comfort, when condemned to die, the beautiful and reverent invocation of its young heroine, Pamela. "The king hath, as it were, unhallowed and unchristened the very duty of prayer itself," wrote Milton mercilessly. "Who would have imagined so little fear in him of the true all-seeing deity, so little care of truth in his last words, or honor to himself or to his friends, as, immediately before his death, to pop into the hand of that grave bishop who attended him, for a special relique of his saintly exercises, a prayer stolen word by word from the mouth of a heathen woman praying to a heathen god."
But not even the mighty voice of Milton could check the resistless progress of romantic fiction. Not even dominant Puritanism could stamp it ruthlessly down. When "Pilgrim's Progress," the great pioneer of religious novels, was given to the world, England read it with devout delight; but she read too, with admirable inconsistency, those endless tales, those "romances de longue haleine," which crossed the channel from France, and replaced the less decorous Italian stories so popular in the preceding century. Some of these prolix and ponderous volumes, as relentless in dullness as in length, held their own stoutly for centuries, and won allegiance where it seemed least due. There is an incredible story narrated of Racine, that, when a student at Port Royal, his favorite reading was an ancient prose epic entitled "Ethiopica; the history of Theagenes and Chariclea." This guileless work, being too bulky for concealment, was discovered by his director and promptly burned, notwithstanding its having been written by a bishop, which ought to have saved it from the flames. Racine, undaunted, procured another copy, and fearing it would meet with the same cruel fate, he actually committed large portions of it to memory, so that nothing should deprive him of his enjoyment. Yet "Ethiopica" would seem as absolutely unreadable a book as even a bishop ever wrote. The heroine, though chaste as she is beautiful, has so many lovers, all with equally unpronounceable names, and so many battles are fought in her behalf, that no other memory than Racine's could have made any sort of headway with them; while, just in the middle of the story, an old gentleman is suddenly introduced, who, without provocation, starts to work and tells all his life's adventures, two hundred pages long.
The real promoters and encouragers of romance, however,—the real promoters and encouragers of fiction in every age—were women, and this is more than enough to account for its continued triumphs. There was little use in the stubborn old Puritan, Powell, protesting against the idle folly of females who wasted their time over Sidney's "Arcadia," when they ought to have been studying the household recipe books. Long before Cromwell the mighty revolutionized England, women had wearied of recipes as steady reading, and had turned their wanton minds to matters more seductive. Wise and wary was the writer who kept these fair patronesses well in view. When John Lyly gave to the world his amazing "Euphues," he dexterously announced that it was written for the amusement and the edification of women, and that he asked for it no better fate than to be read by them in idle moments, when they were weary of playing with their lap-dogs. For a young man of twenty-five, Lyly showed an admirable knowledge of feminine inconsistency. By alternately flattering and upbraiding the subtle creatures he hoped to please, now sweetly praising their incomparable perfections, now fiercely reviling their follies and their sins, he succeeded in making "Euphues" the best-read book in England, and he chained with affectations and foolish conceits the free and noble current of English speech.
It was the abundance of leisure enjoyed by women that gave the ten-volumed French romance its marvelous popularity; and one sympathizes a little with Mr. Pepys, though he was such a chronic grumbler, when he laments in his diary that Mrs. Pepys would not only read "Le Grand Cyrus" all night, but would talk about it all day, "though nothing to the purpose, nor in any good manner," remarks this censorious husband and critic. More melancholy still to contemplate is the early appearance on the scene of female novelists who wrote vicious twaddle for other women to read. We may fancy that this particular plague is a development of the nineteenth century; but twenty years before the virtuous Pamela saw the light, Eliza Heywood was doing her little best to demoralize the minds and manners of her countrywomen. Eliza Heywood was, in Mr. Gosse's opinion,—and he is one of the few critics who has expressed any opinion on the subject,—the Ouida of her period. The very names of her heroines, Lassellia, Idalia, and Douxmoure, are Ouidesque, and their behavior would warrant their immediate presentation to that society which the authoress of "Strathmore" has so sympathetically portrayed. These "lovely Inconsiderates," though bad enough for a reformatory, are all as sensitive as nuns. They "sink fainting on a Bank" if they so much as receive letters from their lovers. Their "Limbs forget their Functions" on the most trifling provocation. "Stormy Passions" and "deadly Melancholy" succeed each other with monotonous vehemence in their "tortured Bosoms," and when they fly repentant to some remote Italian convent, whole cities mourn their loss.
Eliza Heywood's stories are probably as imbecile and as depraved as any fiction we possess to-day, but the women of England read them eagerly. They read too the iniquitous rubbish of Mrs. Aphra Behn; and no incident can better illustrate the tremendous change that swept over public sentiment with the introduction of good and decent novels than the well-known tale of Sir Walter Scott's aunt, Mrs. Keith of Ravelston. This sprightly old lady took a fancy, when in her eightieth year, to re-read Mrs. Behn's books, and persuaded Sir Walter to send them to her. A hasty glance at them was more than enough, and back they came to Scott with an entreaty that he would put them in the fire. The ancient gentlewoman confessed herself unable to linger over pages which she had not been ashamed nor abashed to hear read aloud to large parties in her youth.
It must be remembered, however, that Aphra Behn, uncompromisingly bad though she was, wrote the first English didactic novel, "Oroonoka," the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of its day. It has the advantage of "Uncle Tom" in being a true tale, Mrs. Behn having seen the slave, Oroonoka, and his wife, Imoinda, in the West Indies, and having witnessed his tragic fate. It was written at the solicitation of Charles II., and was a popular anti-slavery novel, with certain points of resemblance to Mrs. Stowe's famous book; in the grace and beauty of its Africans, for example; in the strength and constancy of their affections, and in the lavish nobility of their sentiments. Mrs. Behn knew as well as Mrs. Stowe that, if you want to produce a strong effect, you must not be too chary of your colors.
When the time came for the great flowering of English fiction, when Fielding and Richardson took England by storm, and France confessed herself beaten in the field ("Who would have thought," wrote the Marquis d'Argenson, "that the English would write novels, and better ones than ours?"), then it was that women asserted themselves distinctly as patronesses well worth the pleasing. To Smollett and Defoe they had never given whole-hearted approbation. Such robustly masculine writing was scarcely in their way. But Fielding, infinitely greater than these, met with no warmer favor at their hands. It is easy to account for the present unpopularity of "Tom Joneses" in decorous households by saying that modest women do not consider it fit for them to read. That covers the ground now to perfection. But the fact remains that, when "Tom Jones" was written, everybody did consider it fit to read. Why not, when all that it contained was seen about them day by day? Its author, like every other great novelist, described life as he found it. Arcadia had passed away, and big libertine London offered a scant assortment of Arcadian virtues. Fielding had nothing to tell that might not have been heard any day at one of Sir Robert Walpole's dinner-parties. He had the merit—not too common now—of never confusing vice with virtue; though it must be confessed that, like Dumas and Scott and Thackeray, he took very kindly to his scamps; and we all know how angry a recent critic permits himself to be because Thackeray calls Rawdon Crawley "honest Rawdon." As far as can be seen, Fielding never realized the grossness of his books. He prefaced "Tom Jones" with a beautiful little sermon about "the solid inward comfort of mind which is the sure companion of innocence and virtue;" and he took immense credit to himself for having written "nothing prejudicial to the cause of religion and virtue, nothing inconsistent with the strictest rules of decency, nor which can offend even the chastest eye in the perusal." What more than this could be claimed by the authors of "The Old Homestead" and "Little Lord Fauntleroy"?
I do not for one moment believe that it was the blithe and brutal coarseness of Fielding's novels that exiled them from the female heart, that inconsistent heart which never fluttered over the more repellent indecency of "Pamela." Insidious influences were at work within the dovecotes. The eighteenth-century woman, while less given to self-analysis and self-assertion than her successor to-day, was just as conscious of her own nature, its resistless force, its inalienable laws, its permanent limitations; and in Richardson she recognized the artist who had divined her subtleties, and had given them form and color. His correspondence with women is unlike anything else the period has to show. To him they had an independence of thought and action which it took the rest of mankind a hundred years longer to concede; and it is not surprising to see the fervent homage this stout little tradesman of sixty received from his female flatterers, when we remember that he and he alone in all his century had looked into the rebellious secrets of their hearts with understanding and with reverence.
To any other man than Richardson, the devout attentions of so many women would have been a trifle fatiguing. They wrote him letters as long as Clarissa Harlowe's. They poured out their sentiments on endless reams of paper. They told him how they walked up and down their rooms, shedding torrents of tears over his heroine's distress, unable to either go on with the book, or to put it resolutely down. They told him how, when "Clarissa" was being read aloud in a bedchamber, the maid who was curling her mistress's hair wept so bitterly she could not go on with her work, so was given a crown for her sensibility, and sent out of the room. They implored and entreated him to end his story happily; "a turn," wrote one fair enthusiast, "that will make your almost despairing readers mad with joy." Richardson purred complacently over these letters, like a sleek old cat, and he answered every one of them, instead of pitching them unread into the fire. Yet, nevertheless, true and great artist that he was, in spite of all his vanity, these passionate solicitations moved him not one hair's breadth from his path. "As well," says Mr. Birrell, "hope for a happy ending for King Lear as for Clarissa Harlowe." She died, and England dissolved herself in tears, and gay, sentimental France lifted up her voice and wept aloud, and Germany joined in the sad chorus of lamentations, and even phlegmatic Holland was heard bewailing from afar the great tragedy of the literary world. This is no fancy statement. Men swore while women wept. Good Dr. Johnson hung his despondent head, and ribald Colley Cibber vowed with a great oath that this incomparable heroine should not die. Years afterwards, when Napoleon was first consul, an English gentleman named Lovelace was presented to him, whereupon the consul brightened visibly, and remarked, "Why, that is the name of Clarissa Harlowe's lover!"—an incident which won, and won deservedly for Bonaparte, the lifelong loyalty of Hazlitt.
Meanwhile Richardson, writing quietly away in his little summer-house, produced Sir Charles Grandison, a hero who is perhaps as famous for his priggishness as Lovelace is famous for his villainy. I think, myself, that poor Sir Charles has been unfairly handled. He is not half such a prig as Daniel Deronda; but he develops his priggishness with such ample detail through so many leisurely volumes. Richardson loved him, and tried hard to make his host of female readers love him too, which they did in a somewhat perfunctory and lukewarm fashion. Indeed, it should in justice be remembered that this eighteenth-century novelist intended all his books to be didactic. They seem now at times too painful, too detestable for endurance; but when "Pamela," with all its loathsome details, was published, it was actually commended from the pulpit, declared to be better than twenty sermons, and placed by the side of the Bible for its moral influence. Richardson himself tells us a curiously significant anecdote of his childhood. When he was a little boy, eleven years old, he heard his mother and some gossips complaining of a quarrelsome and acrimonious neighbor. He promptly wrote her a long letter of remonstrance, quoting freely from the scriptures to prove to her the evil of her ways. The woman, being naturally very angry, complained to his mother of his impertinence, whereupon she, with true maternal pride, commended his principles, while gently censuring the liberty he had taken.
With Richardson's splendid triumph to spur them on, the passion of Englishwomen for novel-reading reached its height. Young girls hitherto debarred from this diversion, began more and more to taste the forbidden sweets, and wise men, like Dr. Johnson, meekly acknowledged that there was no stopping them. When Frances Chamberlayne Sheridan told him that she never allowed her little daughter to read anything but the "Rambler," or matters equally instructive, he answered with all his customary candor: "Then, madam, you are a fool! Turn your daughter's wits loose in your library. If she be well inclined, she will choose only good food. If otherwise, all your precautions will amount to nothing." Both Charles Lamb and Ruskin cherished similar opinions, but the sentiment was more uncommon in Dr. Johnson's day, and we know how even he reproached good Hannah More for quoting from "Tom Jones."
With or without permission, however, the girls read gayly on. In Garrick's epilogue to Colman's farce, "Polly Honeycombe," the wayward young heroine confesses her lively gratitude for all the dangerous knowledge she has gleaned from novels.
"So much these dear instructors change and win us,
Without their light we ne'er should know what 's in us.
Here we at once supply our childish wants,
Novels are hotbeds for your forward plants."
Later on, Sheridan gave us the immortal Lydia Languish feeding her sentimentality upon that "evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge," the circulating library. Lydia's taste in books is catholic, but not altogether free from reproach. "Fling 'Peregrine Pickle' under the toilet," she cries to Lucy, when surprised by a visit from Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony. "Throw 'Roderick Random' into the closet. Put 'The Innocent Adultery' into 'The Whole Duty of Man.' Thrust 'Lord Aimworth' under the sofa. Cram 'Ovid' behind the bolster. Put 'The Man of Feeling' into your pocket. There—now for them!"
How "The Man of Feeling" ever went into Lucy's pocket remains a mystery, for it takes many volumes to hold that discursive romance, where everything from character to clothes is described with relentless minuteness. If a lady goes to a ball, we are not merely told that she looked radiant in "white and gold," or in "scarlet tulle," after the present slipshod fashion; but we are carefully informed that "a scarf of cerulean tint flew between her right shoulder and her left hip, being buttoned at each end by a row of rubies. A coronet of diamonds, through which there passed a white branch of the feathers of the ostrich, was inserted on the left decline of her lovely head." And so on, until the costume is complete.
By this time women had regularly enrolled themselves in the victorious army of novel-writers, and had won fame and fortune in the field. Consider the brilliant and instantaneous success of Frances Burney. Think of the excitement she aroused, and the honors heaped thick and fast upon her. A woman of twenty-six when she wrote "Evelina," she was able, by dint of short stature and childish ways, to pass for a girl of seventeen, which increased amazingly the popular interest in her novel. Sheridan swore he could not believe so young a thing could manifest such genius, and begged her to write him a comedy on the spot. Sir Joshua Reynolds professed actual fear of such keen wit and relentless observation. Dr. Johnson vowed that Richardson had written nothing finer, and Fielding nothing so fine as "Evelina;" and playfully protested he was too proud to eat cold mutton for dinner when he sat by Miss Burney's side. Posterity, it is true, while preserving "Evelina" with great pride, has declined to place it by the side of "Tom Jones" or "Clarissa Harlowe;" but if we had our choice between the praise of posterity which was Miss Austen's portion, and the praise of contemporaries which was Miss Burney's lot, I doubt not we should be wise enough to take our applause off-hand,—"dashed in our faces, sounded in our ears," as Johnson said of Garrick, and leave the future to look after itself.
It is pleasant, however, to think that the first good woman novelist had her work over rather than under estimated. It is pleasant also to contemplate the really bewildering career of Maria Edgeworth. Miss Edgeworth's books are agreeable reading, and her children's stories are among the very best ever written; but it is not altogether easy to understand why France and England contended to do her honor. When she went to London or to Paris she became the idol of brilliant and fashionable people. Peers and poets united in her praise. Like Mrs. Jarley, she was the delight of the nobility and gentry. The Duke of Wellington wrote verses to her. Lord Byron, whom she detested, extolled her generously. Moore pronounced her "delightful." Macaulay compared the return of the Absentee to the return of Ulysses in the "Odyssey." Sir Walter Scott took forcible possession of her, and carried her away to Abbotsford,—a too generous reward, it would seem, for all she ever did. Sydney Smith delighted in her. Mrs. Somerville, the learned, and Mrs. Fry, the benignant, sought her friendship; and finally, Mme. de Staël, who considered Jane Austen's novels "vulgar," protested that Miss Edgeworth was "worthy of enthusiasm."
Now this was all very charming, and very enjoyable; but with such rewards following thick and fast upon successful story-writing, it is hardly surprising that every year saw the band of literary aspirants increase and multiply amazingly. People were beginning to learn how easy it was to write a book. Already Hannah More had bewailed the ever increasing number of novelists, "their unparalleled fecundity," and "the frightful facility of this species of composition." What would she think if she were living now, and could see over a thousand novels published every year in England? Already Mrs. Radcliffe had woven around English hearths the spell of her rather feeble terrors, and young and old shuddered and quaked in the subterranean corridors of castles amid the gloomy Apennines. Why a quiet, cheerful, retiring woman like Mrs. Radcliffe, who hated notoriety, and who loved country life, and afternoon drives, and all that was comfortable and commonplace, should have written "The Mysteries of Udolpho" passes our comprehension; but write it she did, and England received it with a mad delight she has never manifested for any triumph of modern realism. The volume, we are assured, was too often torn asunder by frantic members of a household so that it might pass from hand to hand more rapidly than if it held together.
Mrs. Radcliffe not only won fame and amassed a considerable fortune,—she received five hundred pounds for "Udolpho" and eight hundred for "The Italian,"—but she gave such impetus to the novel of horrors, which had been set going by Horace Walpole's "Castle of Otranto," that for years England was oppressed and excited by these dreadful literary nightmares. Matthew—otherwise "Monk"—Lewis, Robert Charles Maturin, and a host of feebler imitators, wrote grisly stories of ghosts, and murders, and nameless crimes, and supernatural visitations. Horrors are piled on horrors in these dismal and sulphurous tales. Blue fire envelops us, and persevering spectres, who have striven a hundred years for burial rites, sit by their victims' bedsides and recite dolorous verses, which is more than any self-respecting spectre ought to do. Compacts with Satan are as numerous as bargain counters in our city shops. Suicides alternate briskly with assassinations. In one melancholy story, the despairing heroine agrees to meet her lover in a lonely church, where they intend stabbing themselves sociably together. Unhappily, it rains hard all the afternoon, and with an unexpected touch of realism—she is miserably afraid the bad weather will keep her indoors. "The storm was so violent," we are told, "that Augusta often feared she could not go out at the appointed time. Frequently did she throw up the sash, and view with anxious looks the convulsed elements. At half past five the weather cleared, and Augusta felt a fearful joy."
It might have been supposed that the gay, good-humored satire of "Northanger Abbey" would have laughed these tragic absurdities from the land. But Miss Austen alone, of all the great novelists of England, won less than her due share of profit and renown. Her sisters in the field were loaded down with honors. When the excellent Mrs. Opie became a Friend, and refused to write any more fiction, except, indeed, those moral but unlikely tales about the awful consequences of lying, her contemporaries spoke gravely of the genius she had sacrificed at the shrine of religion. Charlotte Bronté's masterpiece gained instant recognition throughout the length and breadth of England. Of George Eliot's sustained success there is no need to speak. But Jane Austen, whose incomparable art is now the theme of every critic's pen, was practically ignored while she lived, and perhaps never suspected, herself, how admirable, how perfect was her work. Sir Walter Scott, it is true, with the intuition of a great story-teller, instantly recognized this perfection; and so did Lord Holland and a few others, among whom let us always gladly remember George IV., who was wise enough to keep a set of Miss Austen's novels in every one of his houses, and who was happy enough to receive the dedication of "Emma." Nevertheless, it cannot be forgotten that fifteen years elapsed between the writing of "Pride and Prejudice" and its publication; that Cadell refused it unread,—a dreadful warning to publishers,—and that all Miss Austen ever realized from her books in her lifetime was seven hundred pounds,—one hundred pounds less than Mrs. Radcliffe received for a single story, and nearly two thousand pounds less than Frances Burney was paid for her absolutely unreadable "Camilla." High-priced novels are by no means a modern innovation, though we hear so much more about them now than formerly. Blackwood gave Lockhart one thousand pounds for the manuscript of "Reginald Dalton," and "Woodstock" brought to Scott's creditors the fabulous sum of eight thousand pounds.
For with Sir Walter flowered the golden age of English fiction. Fortune and fame came smiling at his beck, and the great reading world confessed itself better and happier for his genius. Then it was that the bookshops were besieged by clamorous crowds when a new Waverly novel was promised to the public. Then Lord Holland sat up all night to finish "Old Mortality." Then the excitement over the Great Unknown reached fever heat, and the art of the novelist gained its absolute ascendency, an ascendency unbroken in our day, and likely to remain unbroken for many years to come. At present, every child that learns its letters makes one more story-reader in the world, and the chances are it will make one more story-writer to help deluge the world with fiction. Novels, it has been truly said, are the only things that can never be too dear or too cheap for the market. The beautiful and costly editions of Miss Austen and Scott and Thackeray compete for favor with marvelously cheap editions of Dickens, that true and abiding idol of people who have no money to spend on hand-made paper and broad margins. It is the same with living novelists. Rare and limited editions for the rich; cheap and unlimited editions for the poor; all bought, all read, and the novelist waxing more proud and prosperous every day. So prosperous, indeed, so proud, he is getting too great a man to amuse us as of yore. He spins fewer stories now, and his glittering web has grown a trifle gray and dusty with the sweepings from back outlets and mean streets. He preaches occasionally in the market-place, and he says acrimonious things anent other novelists whose ways of thinking differ from his own. These new, sad fashions of speech are often very grievous to his readers, but nothing can rob him of our friendship; for always we hope that he will take us by the hand, and lead us smilingly away from the relentless realities of life to the golden regions of romance where the immortal are.