Points of friction/The Virtuous Victorian


The Virtuous Victorian


WHEN Miss Amy Lowell, in her essay on Émile Verhaeren, says that the influence of Zola on the younger writers of France and Belgium was necessary "to down the long set of sentimental hypocrisies known in England as 'Victorian,'" she repeats a formula which has been in popular use for many years, and to which we attach no very exact significance. "Early-Victorian," "mid-Victorian," we use the phrases glibly, and without being aware that the mental attitude to which we refer is sometimes not Victorian at all, but Georgian. Take, for example, that fairly famous sentiment about the British navy being "if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance." Nothing more oppressively smug was ever uttered in the reign of the virtuous Queen; yet it was written by the most humorous and most pitiless of Georgian novelists, and it expressed the conviction of her soul.

When we permit ourselves to sneer at Victorian hypocrisies, we allude, as a rule, to the superficial observance of religious practices, and to the artificial reticence concerning illicit sexual relations. The former affected life more than it did literature; the latter affected literature more than it did life. A resolute silence is apt to imply or involve an equally resolute denial; and there came a time when certain plain truths were denied because there was no other way of keeping them out of sight. Novelists and poets conformed to a standard which was set by the taste of their day. So profoundly was the great Victorian laureate influenced by this taste that he grew reluctant to accept those simple old English stories, those charming old English traditions, the propriety or impropriety of which had never been a matter for concern. His "fair Rosamond" believes herself a wedded wife, and so escapes culpability. His "Maid Marian" wanders through Sherwood Forest under the respectable chaperonage of her father, and will not permit to Robin Hood the harmless liberties common among betrothed lovers.

"Robin, I will not kiss thee,
For that belongs to marriage; but I hold thee
The husband of my heart; the noblest light
That ever flashed across my life, and I
Embrace thee with the kisses of the soul.
Robin: I thank thee."

It is a bit frigid and a bit stilted for the merry outlaws. "If love were all," we might admit that conventionalism had chilled the laureate's pen; but, happily for the great adventures we call life and death, love is not all. The world swings on its way, peopled by other men than lovers; and it is to Tennyson we owe the most splendid denial of domesticity—and duty—that was ever made deathless by verse. With what unequalled ardour his Ulysses abandons home and country, the faithful, but ageing, Penelope, the devoted, but dull, Telemachus, and the troublesome business of law-making! He does not covet safety. He does not enjoy the tranquil reward of his labours, nor the tranquil discharge of his obligations. He will drink life to the lees. He will seek the still untravelled world, and take what buffets fortune sends him.

"For my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles whom we knew."

Poor Penelope! What chance has she against such glad decision, such golden dreams! It is plain that the Ithacan navy was less distinguished than the British navy for the development of domestic virtues. Until such time as Germany fulfils her threat, and drives the "bastard tongue of canting island pirates" from its hold on the civilized world, Tennyson's Ulysses will survive as the embodiment of the adventurous spirit which brooks no restraint, and heeds no liability.

The great Victorian novelists were well aware that, albeit the average man does his share of love-making, he neither lives nor dies for love. Mr. Edmund Gosse, reared in the strictest sect of Plymouth Brethren, and professing religion at ten, was nevertheless permitted by his father to read the novels of Dickens, because they dealt with the passion of love in a humorous manner. More often they deal with it in a purely perfunctory manner, recognizing it as a prelude to marriage, and as something to which the novelist must not forget to make an occasional reference. Nicholas Nickleby is a young man and a hero. Consequently an assortment of female virtues and of female charms is labelled, docketed, provided with ringlets and a capacity for appropriate swooning,—and behold, Nicholas has a wife. Kate Nickleby's husband is even more sketchily outlined. He has a name, and—we are told—an impetuous and generous disposition. He makes his appearance when a suitor is needed, stands up to be married when a husband is called for, and that is all there is of him. But what do these puppets matter in a book which gives us Mrs. Nickleby, Vincent Crummles, Fanny Squeers, and the ever-beloved Kenwigses. It took a great genius to enliven the hideous picture of Dotheboys Hall with the appropriate and immortal Fanny, whom we could never have borne to lose. It took a great genius to evolve from nothingness the name "Morleena Kenwigs." So perfect a result, achieved from a mere combination of letters, confers distinction on the English alphabet.

The charge of conventionalism brought against Thackeray and Trollope has more substance, because these novelists essayed to portray life soberly and veraciously. "Trollope," says Sir Leslie Stephen, "was in the awkward position of a realist, bound to ignore realities." Thackeray was restrained, partly by the sensitive propriety of British readers who winced at the frank admission of sexual infirmities, and partly by the quality of his own taste. In deference to the public, he forbore to make Arthur Pendennis the lover of Fanny Bolton; and when we remember the gallant part that Fanny plays when safely settled at Clavering, her loyalty to her old friend, Bows, and her dexterity in serving him, we are glad she went unsmirched into that sheltered port.

The restrictions so cheerfully accepted by Thackeray, and his reticence—which is merely the reticence observed by every gentleman of his day—leave him an uncrippled spectator and analyst of the complicated business of living. The world is not nearly so simple a place as the sexualists seem to consider it. To the author of "Vanity Fair" it was not simple at all. Acting and reacting upon one another, his characters crowd the canvas, their desires and ambitions, their successes and failures, inextricably interwoven into one vast social scheme. It is not the decency of Thackeray's novels which affronts us (we are seldom unduly aware that they are decent), but the severity with which he judges his own creations, and his rank and shameless favouritism. What business has he to coddle Rawdon Crawley ("honest Rawdon," forsooth!), to lay siege to our hearts with all the skill of a great artificer, and compel our liking for this fool and reprobate? What business has he to pursue Becky Sharp like a prosecuting attorney, to trip her up at every step, to betray, to our discomfiture, his cold hostility? He treats Blanche Amory in the same merciless fashion, and no one cares. But Becky! Becky, that peerless adventuress who, as Mr. Brownell reminds us, ran her memorable career before psychology was thought of as an essential element of fiction. Becky whose scheming has beguiled our weary hours, and recompensed us for the labour of learning to read. How shall we fathom the mental attitude of a novelist who could create such a character, control her fluctuating fortunes, lift her to dizzy heights, topple her to ruin, extricate her from the dust and debris of her downfall,—and hate her!

Trollope, working on a lower level, observant rather than creative, was less stern a moralist than Thackeray, but infinitely more cautious of his footsteps. He kept soberly in the appointed path, and never once in thirty years trod on the grass or flower-beds. Lady Glencora Palliser thinks, indeed, of leaving her husband; but she does not do it, and her continency is rewarded after a fashion which is very satisfactory to the reader. Mr. Palliser aspires somewhat stiffly to be the lover of Lady Dumbello; but that wise worldling, ranking love the least of assets, declines to make any sacrifice at its shrine. Trollope unhesitatingly and proudly claimed for himself the quality of harmlessness. "I do believe," he said, "that no girl has risen from the reading of my pages less modest than she was before, and that some girls may have learned from them that modesty is a charm worth possessing."

This is one of the admirable sentiments which should have been left unspoken. It is a true word as far as it goes, but more suggestive of "Little Women," or "A Summer in Leslie Goldthwaite's Life," than of those virile, varied and animated novels which make no appeal to immaturity. In Trollope's teeming world, as in the teeming world about us, a few young people fall in love and are married, but this is an infrequent episode. Most of his men and women, like the men and women whom we know, are engrossed in other activities. Once, indeed, Bishop Proudie wooed and won Mrs. Proudie. Once Archdeacon Grantly wooed and won Mrs. Grantly. But neither of these gentlemen could possibly have belonged to "the great cruising brotherhood of the Pilgrims of Love." "Le culte de la femme" has never been a popular pastime in Britain, and Trollope was the last man on the island to have appreciated its significance. He preferred politics, the hunting-field, and the church.

Yet surely Archdeacon Grantly is worth a brace of lovers. With what sincerity he is drawn, and with what consummate care! A churchman who, as Sir Leslie Stephen somewhat petulantly observes, "gives no indication of having any religious views whatever, beyond a dislike to dissenters." A solidly respectable member of provincial clerical society, ambitious, worldly, prizing wealth, honouring rank, unspiritual, unprogressive,—but none the less a man who would have proved his worth in the hour of England's trial.

It is a testimony to the power of fiction that, having read with breathless concern and through countless pages Mr. Britling's reflections on the war, my soul suddenly cried out within me for the reflections of Archdeacon Grantly. Mr. Britling is an acute and sensitive thinker. The archdeacon's mental processes are of the simplest. Mr. Britling has winged his triumphant flight from "the clumsy, crawling, snobbish, comfort-loving caterpillar of Victorian England." The archdeacon is still confessedly a grub. Mr. Britling has "truckled to no domesticated god." The archdeacon's deity is open to such grievous innuendoes. Yet I wish I could have stood on the smooth lawn of Plumstead, and have heard what the archdeacon had to say when he learned that an English scholar and gentleman had smuggled out of England, by the help of a female "confidential agent," a treacherous appeal to the President of the United States, asking that pressure should be brought upon fighting Englishmen in the interests of peace. I wish I could have heard the cawing rooks of Plumstead echo his mighty wrath. For there is that in the heart of a man, even a Victorian churchman with a love of preferment and a distaste for dissenters, which holds scatheless the sacred thing called honour.

Trollope is as frank about the archdeacon's frailties as Mr. Wells is frank about Mr. Britling's frailties. In piping days of peace, the archdeacon's contempt for Mr. Britling would have been as sincere and hearty as Mr. Britling's contempt for the archdeacon. But under the hard, heroic discipline of war there would have come to the archdeacon, as to Mr. Britling, a white dawn of revelation. Both men have the liberating qualities of manhood.

It is always hard to make an elastic phrase fit with precision. We know what we mean by Victorian conventions and hypocrisies, but the perpetual intrusion of blinding truths disturbs our point of view. The new Reform bill and the extension of the suffrage were hardy denials of convention. "The Origin of Species" and "Zoölogical Evidences as to Man's Place in Nature" were not published in the interests of hypocrisy. There was nothing oppressively respectable about "The Ring and the Book"; and Swinburne can hardly be said to have needed correction at Zola's hands. These mid-Victorian products have a savour of freedom about them, and so has "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel." Even the Homeric eloquence of Ruskin was essentially the eloquence of the free. The two lessons he sought to drive home to his reluctant readers were, first, that Englishmen were not living on an illuminated earth spot, under the especial patronage of the Almighty; and, second, that no one was called by Providence to the enjoyment of wealth and security. If such unpleasant and reiterated truths—as applicable to the United States to-day as they were to Victoria's England—are "smug," then Jeremiah is sugar-coated, and the Baptist an apostle of ease.

The English have at all times lacked the courage of their emotions, but not the emotions themselves. Their reticence has stood for strength as well as for stiffness. The pre-Raphaelites, indeed, surrendered their souls with docility to every wavelet of feeling, and produced something iridescent, like the shining of wet sand. Love, according to their canon, was expressed with transparent ease. It was "a great but rather sloppy passion," says Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer, "which you swooned about on broad general lines." A pre-Raphaelite corsair languished as visibly as a pre-Raphaelite seraph. He could be bowled over by a worsted ball; but he was at least more vigorous and more ruddy than a cubist nude. One doubted his seared conscience and his thousand crimes; but not his ability to walk unassisted downstairs.

The Victorian giants were of mighty girth. They trod the earth with proud and heavy steps, and with a strength of conviction which was as vast and tranquil as the plains. We have parted with their convictions and with their tranquillity. We have parted also with their binding prejudices and with their standards of taste. Freedom has come to us, not broadening down

"from precedent to precedent,"

but swiftly and comprehensively. There are no more taboos, no more silent or sentimental hypocrisies. We should now know a great many interesting details concerning the Marquis of Steyne and the Duke of Omnium, if these two imposing figures had not passed forever from our ken. We should have search-lights thrown upon Becky Sharp, if Becky had not escaped into the gloom. Her successors sin exhaustively, and with a lamentable lack of esprit. We are bidden to scrutinize their transgressions, but Becky's least peccadillo is more engaging than all their broken commandments. The possibility of profound tediousness accompanying perfect candour dawns slowly on the truth-tellers of fiction. It takes a great artist, like Edith Wharton, to recognize and deplore "the freedom of speech which never arrives at wit, and the freedom of act which never makes for romance."