No man, I fancy, can work long at any trade without being brought to consider much whether that which he is doing daily tends to evil or to good. All of you probably have asked yourself that question, and have answered it after some fashion. A man must, I think, have but a sorry existence upon whose bosom is forced a conviction that he gets his bread by doing evil and not good in the world. My own trade is that of a writer of novels. I may probably have the honour of addressing many here who are readers of novels. I stand before you now to vindicate my own profession and your amusement. I have often asked myself this question; and I have done so with the full conviction that there are many good men, even in these days, who regard the writer of novels as a doer of evil, and the reader of novels as one who wastes that time which has been given to us all to be so used that we may become fit for eternity. My friends, this is for me a serious question; and it is no unimportant matter for you if you are readers of novels. More important still is it, as regards your consideration, if you have sons and daughters as to whom you have yet to decide whether works of English Prose Fiction shall or shall not be put into their hands with your sanction.
The large dimensions of this question are, I think, proved by the extent to which novels are circulated among us, and by the spread of education, -- which, though we all regard it as a blessing, may have its evil side, if it enable the thoughtless to occupy themselves with that which will teach them evil. It cannot be doubted that the reading of novels has of late increased in a greater degree than has the reading of other works. I could give you figures in support of this statement; but I do not think any figures could support it so strongly as those palpable circumstances of our ordinary literature with which I cannot but presume you to be acquainted. [p. 95] In every household we see the monthly and weekly periodicals of the day which never appear without a novel, -- and in regard to which, proprietors, publishers, editors, and contributors, all know that without a novel they would have no chance of success. In support of this statement, I will venture to tell you a little history referring to the creation and first establishment ot a certain magazine. It was brought to life, not many years since, by a small junta of, -- I will not say wise men, for I was one of them. Of all the others I may say that they were wise and serious men. We had before us in projecting our new literary enterprise, a certain object, which was certainly that of instruction rather than of amusement. We meant, in fact, to be grave and thoughtful. Grave we certainly were. It was our high ambition to teach truth in politics, truth in philosophy, truth in literature, and truth in social science. It certainly was not our ambition to cater for the delectation of young ladies. Then there came before that junta of men, -- who with one exception were very wise, -- this question; Should our new periodical contain a novel, or should it be boldly sent out mto the world, -- novelless? I myself, being specially desirous to support on that occasion the serious demeanour which it was our intention to wear, opposed the novel. But I was in a minority of One. Those wise and thoughtful men all declared that a magazine without a novel could not live a day; and I was left with the unflattering conviction that I had been admitted among them simply because I could produce a novel.
It must be admitted that novels are diligently read among us. Nevertheless, hard words are said of novels; words that are hard to the novel-reader, -- and very hard indeed to the novel-writer, if he have a conscience. [Your countryman,] Mr. Carlyle, -- for whom of all living men I feel perhaps the highest veneration, -- has dealt upon him whom he calls the distressed novel-wright the hardest blow of all, and, as I think, the most unjust and the most thoughtless. A bishop gets up now and then to lecture against novels; -- as I am now getting up to lecture in their defence. Some grave and thoughtful writer will at intervals attack us, himself believing, and therefore very properly trying to prove, that the propagation of novels is a propagation of evil. Sometimes we have novels attacked in sermons. And it must probably have occurred to most of you, as it has often to me, to hear discussions in private life, -- to hear them and to take part in them, -- on this great subject, -- whether the reading of novels be good for young people.
Now I wish first to assure you, on my own behalf, that simple success is not sufficient to justify to me my own profession. I am not entitled to speak on behalf of others; but I may express my conviction that that which I say for myself may be said of nearly all those whose works you probably know as belonging to the literature of English Prose Fiction in the present day. I could tell you of one novelist, whose name you would hear with acclaim, that on the opening day of a certain year he penned a prayer that he might be hindered by God's grace from writing a word that year that might be injurious to any young person. Do you not think that Walter Scott was animated by such intention; that Thackeray desired to be so guided; -- that such was the inward resolve and conscientious struggle of Miss Austen and of Maria Edgeworth? It is not my intention to mention to you this evening the name of any living novelist; but I think that you could continue the list yourself with writers of fiction who are still among us. Simple success in a profession, -- by which I mean the making of money or the gaining of a reputation, -- cannot be sufficient for any man or woman with a conscience. Labour that is useless, -- unproductive, -- will break the heart even of a convict. Do you believe it possible then that an enlightened man, -- one, at least, so far enlightened as to be able to produce for you pictures of life that shall delight you, -- can do so from year to year, contentedly, without a self-inquiry whether he be producing any good by his work, -- without at least satisfying himself that he does not produce evil? I shall endeavour now to show you the ground on which a novelist may consider himself entitled to enjoy that satisfaction; and in doing so I shall endeavour also to [p. 97] prove to you that you may be satisfied when you see your sons and daughters reading novels, -- providing always that some judgment has been used in their selection.
This task I shall attempt to perform by describing to you very shortly the manner in which English novels have become what they are; and by explaining how it is that the taste of the community forms the writer, while the power of the writer, -- such as it may be, -- reacts upon the public taste. I shall mention to you the names of a few English novelists, who lived in times now somewhat removed from us, and of some who went from us, so to say, but the other day. This, however, I must beg of your charity; that in speaking to you of Prose Fiction, which has been the work of my own life, I may not be supposed to speak in my own praise. I do desire to vindicate in your judgment my own profession, and to make you believe that your children may be benefited by the reading of novels; but I do not desire to vindicate my own work.
I think it is admitted by all who have given attention to the subject, that Sir Walter Scott inaugurated altogether a new era in Prose Fiction. This he did so completely that readers who are not at all disposed to be critics, nevertheless feel that there are two distinct epochs of English novel production, -- the period before Sir Walter Scott, and that which he commenced and made and consecrated. This arose partly, no doubt, from the fact that immediately before his time the desire of the public for Prose Fiction had grown quicker than the wholesome supply, and that therefore the novel-reading world had been deluged with trash. There had come forth a flood of stories, -- which was said in those days to go quickly to the trunkmakers, for it was supposed that the trunkmakers used up the waste paper of the time. These stories were usually known as the production of the Minerva Press. This Minerva Press was a publishing establishment from which the love stories of the day emanated, and very weak and wonderfully vapid they were; -- not often immoral according to our usual ideas of immorality; never I think indecent; but [p. 98] powerless to teach to man or woman any lessons which could be of real service. The only story which I can recommend to my hearers as connected with the Minerva Press is a satire on its productions called the Heroine, written by Mr. Barrett avowedly as a quiz on Mrs. Radcliffe's school, but in truth a burlesque, and a very excellent burlesque, on the tales which came from that once flourishing establishment the Minerva Press. Then Walter Scott blazed forth, annihilating the Minerva Press and making for himself his own era. The result was the fact that the production of the first half-dozen of the Waverley Novels instituted a new epoch in English Prose Fiction.
Of the British novelists who wrote before Scott I must say something to you, though I do not think it likely that you often read their works. There are not many of these earlier novels which you who are fathers and mothers will wish to see, -- at any rate in the hands of your daughters. But this indisposition on your own part to read, or to select for reading for others, old English novels does not arise from the bad lessons which are taught therein, but from the fact that the writers wrote them to suit the taste of times whose tastes are not our tastes. Many of these novels, though they were produced in years by no means remote, do not amuse now because we do not see the manners which they describe. The novelist is bound to adapt himself to his age; and is almost forced to be ephemeral. In his own age he can have great effect for good or evil; but we know as yet of no prose novelist who has influenced after-ages, except in so far as one age is the product of all ages that have gone before it. Cervantes is said to have laughed Spain's chivalry away; but no Spaniard now dresses himself in this or that garb because of the lessons which he has learned from Don Quixote. This is as true of historical novels as of those which are devoted to social life. For the historical novel, though it deals with the names, and perhaps with the facts, of a bygone period, describes only the virtues and vices of the day. I fear that the novelist can expect no centuries of popularity. But the poet adapts himself to all [p. 99] ages by the use of language, thoughts, and scenes which are not ephemeral.
Not thinking that you will care to go back to black-letter lore, I may say that the earliest English novels we know are The Euphues, by Lylie, and The Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney. Both of them were written about 1580, -- nearly three centuries ago, -- though the latter was not printed for many years after that date. It is not probable that you will wish to read either of them; but they cannot hurt you if you do read them. One wonders now at the patience or those who, in the days of Queen Elizabeth, took delight in these stories. The language of Euphues is so affected as to be to our ears unbearable. We know it best in the caricature of Sir Piercie Shafton, the Euphuist. That of the Arcadia has undoubtedly much beauty. It is very perfect and often charming in its language, though also very quaint in its form of expression. The sentiments are noble and virtuous. But the plot is hopelessly complex and long. And the story is so told that it is almost impossible for the modern reader to distinguish one character from another. Musidorus and Pyrocles, Philoclea and Pamela, lose their identities in endless ambiguity. These writers took their stories, through the French, from the Greek Romancists; and their plots, or portions of their plots, were borrowed by some of our greatest dramatists.
This may be remarked of them and of their work; that they endeavoured to represent their heroes and their heroines as possessing those virtues which were then esteemed. Their women were modest, frugal, given much to poetry, and content to be wooed by their swains in very long sentences, and for very long periods. The men were brave, and, if intended to be represented as good, were constant in their loves. They rode about the country in an unintelligible state of perplexed battling, and seem upon the whole to have had a bad time of it. But, no doubt, these pictures did, as far as they were circulated, tend to reproduce those aspirations which gave them birth. The authors I have mentioned had various imitators, with whose names I will not attempt [p. 100] to burden your memories; but we can see in examining their works how they gradually adapted themselves to the times in which they lived.
Then we come to the latter novelists of Charles II.; -- for the school of which I have spoken, modified by degrees and by no means improved, did furnish whatever prose fictions were used in England up to the Restoration, and for some time after it. At this period there arose as novelists Mrs. Manley, Mrs. Afra Behn, and some others, who bear a very bad name indeed. We all know what were the plays of that time and of some succeeding years, -- how poor in incident, how abominable in morals, how disgusting in language, and how false in humanity! I need only say of the novels, that though they are bad, they are not nearly so bad as the plays, and that their greatest fault lies in their terrible dulness.
The English novel earliest in date that you have all probably read is Robinson Crusoe. It was published in 1719, just a century and a half ago. It is not my purpose to speak in detail of a story so common in our hands. What Robinson Crusoe is you all know. It is singular that the man who wrote it, Defoe, should have been able to produce for us a work so faultless, as regards offences which were still common in his times, whereas his other novels, of which there are three or four, are by no means fitted for general reading. Robinson Crusoe is as yet only a hundred and fifty years old, and we will make no predictions as to an immortality of fame on its behalf. Many such prophecies have been made and belied in the history of literature. But we may declare that the book has caught a hold of the reading public of all countries which nothing yet has shaken, and that it has made a stronger claim to immortality than any other work of English Prose Fiction.
Passing by names with which I need not trouble you, we now reach Richardson and Fielding, who came forward as novelists very nearly at the same date. This was about 1740, little more than a century and a half after the production of the Arcadia. In the meantime how great had been the change in English taste. Both Richardson and Fielding wrote of the private life of the [p. 101]day, and their stories are altogether removed from the romances of the Paladins. Indeed, who could be less like a Paladin than Tom Jones, or more far removed from the forlorn lady of a castle than Miss Harriet Biron? The period of which we are speaking is distant from our own by hardly more than a century; -- is distant by not a century from that epoch of Scott's which we identify with our own. And yet, again, how great is the distance in the manners represented, and in the language and style of the artists! Richardson and Fielding were the first English novelists who wrote with a distinct intention to deal with the circumstances of the life amidst which they lived. They are still read by men who choose to make themselves acquainted with the English literature of the last century; and there are no doubt some who relish the long-drawn pathos of Richardson, and the wonderful constructive skill of Fielding. It is customary in literary conversation to presume that men are acquainted with their works. But we no longer find them lying about the houses of our friends. They stand on the shelves of our libraries, and people think that they have read them. They describe coarse things in coarse language, and are not in accordance with the tastes or with the sympathies of the age.
I have named these two novelists together, as though they were of the same class; but in truth no two writers could be more essentially different in their treatment of life. Richardson was, as it were, a saint among novelists, -- and Fielding a sinner. Richardson laid himself out to support high-toned feminine virtue. The praise of strict matrons and of severe elders was the very breath of his nostrils. He placed himself on a pedestal of morality, and dictated to Propriety at large what should and what should not be considered becoming for young women. And he lived up to his preaching, preferring good old ladies to naughty young men, and a dish of tea to a glass of punch. Fielding was in every respect the reverse of his rival, -- whom he loved to flout. One of Fielding's novels was written, or at least commenced, as a parody on Richardson. Fielding palliated the vices [p. 102] which Richardson denounced, and made his heroes heroic in doing those things, for the doing of which Richardson's personages were made to be Satanic. Nevertheless the two are I think to be classed together. They each wrote of the actual life around them, and were the first among English novelists to teach practically to their readers what virtues they should follow, and what vices they should shun. In Fielding, when he tells us in his Amelia how Mr. Booth fell away from virtue, and how in Tom Jones his hero was led into wickedness, though he describes the improprieties of the gentlemen with a minuteness which is not now gratifying, is nevertheless preaching morality after his fashion. This is the way men fall, says Fielding; and this the way in which women stand. Therefore let the men worship the women, and, if it may be possible, imitate them a little. But Richardson's men are fiends, -- such as men I think never were. There may have been a man as bad as Lovelace, but one doubts even the single instance. And Richardson the saint, in describing to us the injuries which female virtue may be made to suffer, is quite as circumstantial as the sinner Fielding. So thoroughly is this the case that Tom Jones is less repulsive to me than Clarissa; though Tom Jones is of all heroes the least heroic, and Clarissa of all heroines the most ill-used and the most divine.
Such of you as have read the works of these two authors will hardly wish those who come after you to pursue the study. Nor will they do so. Tom Jones and Clarissa will gradually be banished from our ordinary home bookshelves, as Euphues and the Arcadia have been banished before them. Nevertheless we must remember that in their time these writers did their work, and that they made a great step towards a wholesome condition of Prose Fiction. The Prose Fiction of Queen Elizabeth, the first that our literature knew, had been heroic and grand after a fashion, but it had not been real. The men and women described are hardly more to us than the gods and goddesses of the Greek mythology. Then came the style of the Stuart period in which Rochester was a poet, [p. 103] Wycherley a dramatist, and Afra Behn a novelist. From that it was much to rise to the manliness and conscience of Richardson and Fielding. In each case the author expressed his age, and, in expressing, taught it; and in each case it must be remembered that the growing education of the country demanded from the writers of the day some accommodation to its wants. The Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney was written for the delight of a sister; -- with no view probably to publication. A reading public did not then exist. Men and women could see and listen and appreciate poetry on the stage; but they did not read. In the days of the Stuarts education was progressing, but taste had retrograded. Mrs. Manley and Mrs. Behn intended, no doubt, to teach moral lessons, but they were poor creatures who could teach nothing. Fielding and Richardson were real teachers, who dealt powerfully with life as they found it.
Then Smollett came, -- who was your countryman, -- and a man of infinite humour. But it cannot be boasted on his behalf, that he did much to improve the literature of Prose Fiction. He was coarser even than Fielding, and seems to have written with less of a fixed purpose.
The name of Goldsmith is familiar to you all, and we must not pass by the Vicar of Wakefield. It is a marvel of simplicity and of honest story-telling, creating in the reader's mind that momentary conviction of its reality which the novelist should ever strive to produce. But the Vicar has its faults. To say that it lacks purity would be unjust. But, though it be pure in its morals, it is occasionally coarse in its delineations. But even yet the public taste in prose fiction was wavering, and returned for a while to a class of narrative as unreal and fictitious as were the old French romances of the Paladins. We have the Castle of Otranto from Horace Walpole, which we may sufficiently condemn by saying that up to the present day no one knows whether it was intended as a burlesque or as a serious work. And we have those fearful stories, the The Romance of the Forest, the The Italian and the Mysteries of Udolpho.
[p. 104] I doubt whether in these practical and unpoetic days there is left, even among the young, enough of the true spirit of romance to comprehend even what was once the effect of these wonderful compositions. I remember, myself, to have been unable to leave my chair during the whole night when I was reading that awful book, The Mysteries of Udolpho, alone, amidst the gloom of a dark, flock-papered dining-room. It was not that I could not put down the book, -- as good-natured critics sometimes say of the novels of the day, -- but that I did not dare to stir from my chair, to turn my head, or to glance at the dark curtain behind which some horrible living ruffian, or more horrible departed hero, was at that moment so probably half hidden, -- half ready to come forth and freeze the marrow of my bones So the unsnuffed candles burned themselves out; and I remained sleepless,-- and, at last, sleeping, -- in my chair. There is no such faith among the young of this age. I found that to my boys the Mysteries of Udolpho were an old woman's tale, very dull and very long. And very dull and very long it is. The reading of it now I find to be a task almost impossible to perform. The fault is, that it lacks that which we all demand. It is unreal, and unlife-like. It is not true.
And now, before we come to the great epoch of modern English Prose Fiction, I must mention the names of two ladies who wrote novels which were true to life, full of excellent teaching, and free from an idea or a word that can pollute. I speak of Maria Edgeworth and of Miss Austen. Scott has told us that he was instigated to write his own novels by the extended and well-merited fame of Miss Edgeworth. "Without being so presumptuous," he tells us, "as to hope to emulate the rich humour, pathetic tenderness, and admirable tact of my accomplished friend, I felt that something might be attempted for my own country of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland." I will not pause to make an easy comparison, but will simply say that Scott expressed the general opinion of the works of that lady. She had hit the taste of the public, which now demanded that Prose [p. 104] Fiction should be life-like and clear. It was becoming weary of the fantastic romance of Mrs. Radcliffe, as it had long since been weary of the mere fantastic romance of Sir Philip Sidney. And it had so far refined itself as to feel the coarseness of Fielding and Smollett to be distasteful. I shall not enter here upon a criticism of Miss Edgeworth's works, which in my judgment lack a certain strength which those of Miss Austen possess; but I may assert that no mother need hesitate to place the tales of Maria Edgeworth in the hands of her daughter.
Miss Austen was surely a great novelist. I do not know how far I may presume that you are acquainted with her works, but I recommend such of you as may not be so, to lose no time in mending that fault. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people with which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady. Of romance, -- what we generally mean when we speak of romance, -- she had no tinge. Heroes and heroines with wonderful adventures there are none in her novels. Of great criminals and hidden crimes she tells us nothing. But she places us in a circle of gentlemen and ladies, and charms us while she tells us with an unconscious accuracy how men should act to women, and women act to men. It is not that her people are all good; -- and, certainly, they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr. Collins, a clergyman in Pride and Prejudice, would move laughter in a low-church archbishop. Throughout all her works, and they are not many, a sweet lesson of homely household womanly virtue is ever being taught.
From the short list with which I have ventured to trouble you, I have purposely omitted three works of great reputation for reasons which I will give you. The first in date is Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, -- as to which, were I to claim it simply as a work of English Prose Fiction, I think you would blame me. It [p. 106] has another character which forbids me to treat it as such. The second is Swift's Gulliver's Travel's, which so many of us have read in our youth as though they were wonderful stories told simply for recreation. The book contains the bitterest satire and, as I think, the foulest calumnies on the age in which it was written that disgrace our language. Satire may be virtuous, -- may also be useful. To be the first it should spring from a hatred of vice, and not from disappointed hopes. To be the latter it should at least be true. The history of Gulliver is the emanation of a wounded ambition, in which the author has revelled in foul-mouthed vengeance against the institutions of his country. The third is Godwin's Caleb Williams, which I should not have mentioned had it not been made the subject of eulogies which I cannot myself understand. Macintosh said of this work, that it was "the finest novel produced by man, -- at least, since the Vicar of Wakefield." Other great critics have spoken of it in similar language. It was written to depict the agony of one who suffered innocently from the despotic power of the English aristocracy, and is intended as a denunciation of the injustice of the time. But the sufferer was anything but innocent, and his sufferings were not compatible with the practice of law or the usages of life in those days. To my idea the book is false. It is certainly unreal, harsh, gloomy, and devoid of light. The writer was a fierce democrat, attacking every existing institution. He died a sinecurist and pensioner on the public purse.
We have now come to the epoch of Sir Walter Scott, and I hope I need not state that in the few details with which I have troubled you I have not intended to give any catalogue, much less any complete criticism of English novels down to the time we have reached. It has been my object simply to explain how the writing of novels sprung up among us, and to show you that the supply has followed the demand. This, I think, will always be the case in literature as in commerce. We cannot, certainly, have at our will a Shakespere [sic], let the demand be ever so great, -- or even a Scott. But the poetic temperament of an age will produce poetry. [p. 107] And the realistic tendencies of a people will cause them to be furnished with works of art which are life-like. Again, the propensity of public taste to what I will call cleanliness of morals will protect it from the pollution of dirt. You may, I think, be sure of this, that, in regard to all literature, the effort of reformers must be to teach the people to want good books rather than to teach authors to write them. The writers, let them be who they may, will write the books which the people demand.
And now, before I attempt to say what was done for us by Scott, and by a few who followed him, -- for I shall be restrained to the naming of one or two by an unwillingness to mention those who are still living among us; -- before I do this, I will say a few words on that important subject; -- whether the reading of novels is, or is not, good for young people. I do so at this period in my discourse because I wish to insist on my opinion that from henceforth the literature of Prose Fiction in England became wholesome and salutary. And I will begin by suggesting that if novel-reading be bad for young people, it is bad also for the old. I am disposed to think that the distinction which so many of us make in this matter is similar in its nature to that which we have instituted between the one-o'clock and the seven-o'clock dinner. We who are the elders have the richer puddings and the more piquant sauces, -- not because they agree with us better than with our children, but because we are able to get them. When I hear of ladies beginning to read French novels after they are married, I always think of the privilege which grown-up people have in spoiling their digestive organs. And I will refer to the distinction between the sexes as well as to that between old and young. If novels, or any classes of novels, be bad for young women, then are they also bad for young men. I do not understand why it should be allowed, as by implication it is, that a man's thoughts may be impure. Of this I am sure, that he who condemns the reading of novels for his daughter, should condemn it for his son; and that he who condemns it for his children, should condemn it for himself. Can any man say of himself that he has [p. 108] arrived at a time of life in which he can learn no evil? If so, it must be because in the learning of evil he can go no lower. We are all learning from the cradle to the grave, from our first to our last action of thought, learning good or evil; and the lessons of our mature years are at least as important to us as those of our youth. I think, too, that honest manliness is as necessary to us as feminine grace, and that vicious teaching mars the one as completely as it effaces the other.
Does the reading of novels tend to mar the one or to efface the other? If so, for the love of heaven let us have no more novel-reading. Let us, at any rate, make up our minds about it. Here is the fact. We have become a novel-reading people. Novels are in the hands of us all; from the Prime Minister down to the last-appointed scullery-maid. We have them in our library, our drawing-rooms, our bed-rooms, our kitchens, -- and in our nurseries. Our memories are laden with the stories which we read, with the plots which are unravelled for us, and with the characters which are drawn for us. Poetry also we read and history, biography and the social and political news of the day. But all our other reading put together hardly amounts to what we read in novels. Let any father of a family, with a houseful of people and of books, say whether it is not so. If it be so, let us know what it is that we receive from this daily literary occupation. That we must receive much either of good or evil is beyond questioning.
The book which we call a novel contains, we may say always, a love story. Indeed, taking the general character of novels as our guide, we may say that the love stories are their mainstay and the staff of their existence. They not only contain love stories, but they are written for the sake of the love stories. They have other attractions, and deal with every phase of life; but the other attractions hang round and depend on the love story as the planets depend upon the sun. There are novel worlds, no doubt, in which the planets are brighter than the sun; in which the love-making is less interesting than the life by which it is surrounded; but these are erratic worlds, novels out of the course of [p. 109] nature, and to be spoken of as exceptional. The love story is the thing. In what way did this special John make himself pleasant to that particular Jane; -- how did Jane receive John's attentions, and what became of it at last? This is the nucleus of all this mass of ephemeral literature which is so voluminous; -- and in which the wanderings of the planets round the centre sun are so various that it is hardly too much to say that in every action of our life we are more or less guided by what is so imparted to us.
If I were to make my way into the house of any one of you as a chance visitor, and begin to teach your sons and daughters how to make love and how to receive love-making, you would think me to be a very dangerous and impertinent fellow. Your son would tell me that he understands it a great deal better than an old fogie such as I am. Your daughter would think the same thing, but would probably walk out of the room without saying it. But when I, or some greater professor, come on the same errand with Mr. Mudie's ticket on my back, you admit me, and accept my teaching. The teaching of the professor, no doubt, is taken and used. Would the love-making of our world be done better without the teaching of such professors? That it should be done is an essential necessity of our existence. That it should be done well is, perhaps, of all matters in our own private life, the most important to us. It is in itself, --in the doing of it, the brightest spot in our existence. Upon it, -- the manner in which it is done, the causes by which it is actuated, depends the happiness of our future life. No social question has been so important to us as that of the great bond of matrimony. And why? Because every most wholesome joy and most precious duty of our existence depends upon our inner family relations. For what, after all, are made those outer struggles of existence, but that these may be satisfactory to us and those belonging to us? Now, of what nature is the teaching of the professor I have named? Is the man-pupil taught that it is well to be false to the woman, to triumph over her, and then to be indifferent; to lie to her, and then to despise her; [p. 110] or is he taught to be true and honest, and to be desirous of that which he seeks to win for noble and manly purposes? And is she taught to be bold-faced, mean in spirit, fond of pleasure, and exacting; or to be modest, devoted, and unselfish? I think you must have chosen your novels unfortunately if you have found in them the bad and not the good lessons. That the novelist deals with the false and forward, as well as with the good and gracious, with lust as well as love, with the basest of characters as with the best, is of course true. How else shall he do his work as professor? Does not all our sacred teaching do the same? Are we not specially warned against murder, theft, adultery, and covetousness in the Scriptures? In treating of vice does the British novelist whom you know make vice alluring, or does he make it hideous? Which course does he recommend to you, -- honour or dishonour? That happy ending with the normal marriage and the two children, -- is it the lot of the good girl, who has restrained all her longings by the operations of her conscience, or of the bold, bad, scheming woman who has been unwomanly and rapacious? Which attracts you, Amelia, -- Thackeray's Amelia, who is not clever but good; or Becky Sharpe, who is all intellect and all vileness?
But there are many planets surrounding the suns in these novel-worlds. Much is intended to be inculcated quite independent of the love lessons. All the habits and ways of our domestic and public lives are portrayed to us in novels. We have political novels, social-science novels, law-life novels, civil-service novels, commercial novels, fashionable-life novels, -- and I am told that novels even of clerical life have been written. In all of them there is probably some backbone of a love story; but, over and beyond that, lessons of life are being taught from the first page to the last. Looking back upon the novels which you know, can you say that the teaching is other than good, straightforward, and in the right direction? The novels may be bad novels, and yet the lessons taught may be in the right direction. My experience tells me that this community, the British reading public, is upon the whole utterly [p. 111] averse to the teaching of bad lessons, and will not have it. They will accept bad work, but they reject an immoral or injurious theory of life. Mr. James's heroes may not always be life-like, but they are always made so to act as to leave on the reader's mind an idea that vice is injurious and virtue attractive. Would the hands at any mill be rendered worse as men and women by the reading of Mary Barton? There are of course exceptions. There are modern novels as well as old novels in which the teaching is bad. Very injurious they may be, -- and have been. But you do not reject your daily food because there are butchers who sell unwholesome meat. There is adulterated tea in the market, but you may get your tea good if you take the trouble to look for it. Take the same trouble about your novels, and I am sure you may save yourselves from evil teaching in that direction.
But there are two other objections made to the reading of novels; -- made by some who scrupulously exclude such books from their houses, and by others who admit them, but admit them with hesitation. The first of these is very strong, and up to a certain point, is unanswerable. Time is devoted to an amusement which should be given to work. The novel-reading girl will have her novel in her hand all day, and the novel- reading young man will hide it even under his Blackstone. And these objectors will go further than this, and will say that not only may such an evil afflict this or that irrational and over-greedy consumer of novels, but that the tendency of the amusement is to create idleness, desultory thinking, and a pernicious vagueness and unreality of character. There is, doubtless, much truth in the allegation. All our amusements have a tendency to impose upon us, and to obtain for themselves an undue importance, -- as though they were the chief instead of secondary objects of our lives. I may exemplify this by referring to the athletic sports of the day, which, with many young men, have assumed all the characteristics of a serious life's occupation. The stroke-oar of a boat is as intent on what he does in his boat, and on the manner in which he is seen to do it, as is a Prime [p. 112] Minister or a Poet Laureate. It is the same with hunting. shooting, dancing, and what not. You may hunt and dance too much, and undoubtedly you may read too many novels. Let those who have the control of the hours of others see to this; -- and let those who have the control of their own hours see to it also. As to that pernicious way of looking at the affairs of life which is attributed to novel-reading, -- that Lydia Languish determination, for instance, not to be married without the aid of a rope ladder, -- I do not think that such result comes from the novels of our period. To be too romantic is not the fault of our time. It may, perhaps, rather be the fault of our novelists that there is not sufficient of romance left among them. The manner of looking at life engendered by the novels of the day is realistic, practical, and, though upon the whole serviceable, upon the whole also unpoetical rather than romantic.
Amusement of some kind, -- what our forefathers, understanding the matter very well, used to call distraction, -- all the world admits to be necessary. The harder we work the more needful it is that we should at intervals take our minds away from the matters that most engross us and disport ourselves at our ease. But the mind will not sleep or be at rest. What the mind requires is change, -- not tranquillity. In all the changes that are sought and found some lesson is still being learned. The girl is learning to be a woman, and the boy is learning to be a man in every waking hour; and in every waking hour the man and the woman are learning, -- a further lesson still. I am not here to tell you that these great lessons can be best learned from novels. But I do say that much must be learned in the lighter hours, and that the lessons which are learned from novels may be, and generally are, lessons of good and not of evil.
The further objection to novels of which I have spoken is, to my mind, so palpably groundless that I should not allude to it were it not that it has frequently been raised against me by those who disapprove of novel-reading. They say that novels are false; -- meaning that they are untrue in the broadest sense, because they are fictions. [p. 113] The hero and the heroine, who are said by the novelist so to act or so to speak, never acted or spoke at all; and the whole thing is, -- untrue. Of course it is all fiction; but fiction may be as true as fact. These objectors seem to me to misunderstand Truth and Untruth; -- which consist in the desire of the speaker or actor to reveal or to deceive. If I write for you a story, giving you a picture of life as true as I can make it, my story, though a fiction, is not false. It may be as true a book as ever was written. A novel indeed may be false, -- hideously false. I could name to you novels that are very false. A novelist is false who, in dealing with this or that phase of life, bolsters up a theory of his own with pictures which are in themselves untrue. There is at this moment a great question forward as to the tenure of Land in Ireland. I may have my ideas upon it, and may desire to promulgate them in a novel. But if for the sake of promoting my theory, I draw a picture of Irish landlords which is not a true picture, -- which I have no ground for believing to be true, -- in which I make them out to be cruel, idle, God-abandoned reprobates, because I have a theory of my own to support in my novel, then my book is a false book, and I am a liar. In this way a novel may be false, and much of this falseness, sometimes in large and often in very small proportions, is to be found in novels; but to say that a novel is false because it deals with an imagined and not with a real world of people, seems to me to be an absurdity.
Now, having made my apology for my trade, and having endeavoured to show that the lessons which the novelist undoubtedly does teach, need not necessarily be evil I will revert to Walter Scott, the great master of modern fiction and to the lessons which he taught. It may be said of him, -- as of the two ladies whom I mentioned to you as his immediate precursors, -- that in his teaching there is no mixture of immorality. He has taught us many lessons, and we have probably failed to analyse his teaching so as to know exactly what we have got from him, but we are all probably aware that we have not been fostered in vice, in meanness, or in greed by [p. 114] any word written by him. He has probably taught us all to be more or less Cavalier in our Scotch politics, and we have been unconscious of the teaching. He has imbued us with a love of lakes and mountains, and we, individually, have been unconscious of that teaching. With many of us he has had an effect upon our tendencies in religion, teaching us to revere establishments and perhaps endowments. In his time he made a great many conservatives who never knew why they were so. And he taught the world of those days, without the world being in the least aware of the lesson, a certain somewhat cold grace of courtship in which there was more of poetry than of nature, -- which lesson, however, under other subsequent teaching, the world has now altogether unlearned. From Scott's view in these matters you may differ, and to his lessons you may demur. You may dislike the Cavaliers, disregard lakes and mountains, may object to Church Establishments, and hate endowments. You may despise conservatism, and think that romantic grace is absurd in the affairs of every-day life. But still you cannot but admit that the teaching was good of its kind. It tended to elevate the mind, and left the reader better than it found him.
These works made with great quickness a revolution in the English mind in reference to Prose Fiction. Gradually under their influence was removed the embargo which had hitherto been laid upon novels in many English [and Scotch] domestic circles, and which Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen had not been strong enough to dislodge. Mothers allowed their daughters to read them, and a new world of romance was opened to that wholesome portion of the community which consists of parents who are anxious for their children, and of children who obey their parents. Is there any one here present who thinks that any injury was thus done to morals? And yet Scott told tales which freeze the blood, -- as of Lucy Ashton; of fallen womanhood, -- as of Effie Deans; of broad farce, -- as with Bailie Nicol Jarvie; of fairie-land, -- as of the White Maid of Avenel; of villany,-- as of Varney; and also of somewhat too forward feminine behaviour, as I have always thought [p. 115] was the case with Miss Julia Mannering. But no woman became forward, and no man a villain under his teaching. Nor has he helped to produce domestic tragedies. No wife has left husband or child, stirred to mischief and vagabond propensities, -- to what we, in the cant of the day, call Bohemianism, -- through his influence. He has instructed no Lydia to be desirous of rope ladders. I grant you that if Lydias desirous of rope ladders are to be the result of novels, the less we have of novels the better. But I assert that propriety of life and that domestic security which is so ineffably precious to us all, have been advanced and not impeded by the reading of Scott's novels.
My object is rather to carry you with me in this opinion than to give you any minute criticism on the separate heads of Sir Walter Scott; -- but I shall hardly carry out the purport of my discourse without saying a word or two as to the special qualities of his works. As a novelist he was very great, but not great, I think, at all points. In creation of incidents he was unrivalled. Ivanhoe, for the glory of exciting movement, has probably never been surpassed. In certain touches of pathos he has been almost divine. Who does not remember the rebuke of Evan Maccombich to those in the Court who laughed at his self-devoting proposal? "But if they laugh because they think I would not keep my word, I can tell them they ken neither the heart of a Hielandman nor the honour of a gentleman." Or the thrilling prophecy with which Meg Merrilies rebuked the old laird who had turned against her and her people after years of neighbourly kindness? "'Ride your ways, Laird of Ellangowan; ride your ways, Godfrey Bertram. This day ye have quenched seven smoking hearths; see if the fire in your ain parlour burn the blither for that Ye have riven the thack off seven cottar houses; look if your ain roof-tree stand the faster! Ye may stable your stirks in the shealings of Derncleugh; see that the hare does not couch on the hearthstane of Ellangowan!'" I know no words in the English language better chosen for their intended purpose than those. And let me recall to you the tragedy between Balfour [p. 116] of Burley and Bothwell, and repeat to you the final words of the scene. "'Base peasant churl,' says Bothwell dying,' thou has spilt the blood of a line of kings.' -- 'Die, wretch; die!' said Balfour. ' Die, bloodthirsty dog; die as thou has lived! die like the beasts that perish! hoping nothing, believing nothing! And fearing nothing!' said Bothwell.'" I do not know whether I carry you with me; but there is, to my feeling, a strength of expression in Scott to which I know nothing equal in Prose Fiction. He was, too, very great in the creation of character; -- in the creation of what I will call out-of-the-way characters. Oldbuck, for instance, Meg Merrrilies, Wamba, and Dugald Dalgetty, are all marvels in their way.
In the delineation of ordinary human beings he was not, I think, equally happy. When he undertook the task of describing the every-day doings of life, he was somewhat stiff, and apt to be unlife-like. As I said before, there was something chilling in the grace of his lovers. If either in high life or in low life he had to do with things out of the common course, he could excite our pathos or our mirth; but with things in their common course he did not succeed so well. Counsellor Pleydell at high jinks is excellent; but Counsellor Pleydell in Colonel Mannering's drawing-room is not so good. Old Davie Deans, who in his life is beyond the common charms us; but Reuben Butler is uninteresting. It is so with Lord Evandale, Edith Bellenden, and Henry Morton; with Rose Bradwardine, and I fear I must say also with the hero, Waverley. Scott was a giant when describing the life outside the world, -- the life which he himself created; but in drawing the life which we ourselves know, he was not natural. His dialogues are marvellously fine, when, as in the passages which I have quoted, they refer to scenes the like of which we have never seen. But they hardly strike us as natural, or as containing such words as would have been spoken in scenes such as those to which we are accustomed. Most of us here, -- I mean of the male sex, -- have had love scenes of our own; but we did not conduct them as do Scott's heroes; and, had we done so, we should [p. 117] hardly have succeeded, -- even as well as we have done.
I insist upon this for the sake of explaining the way in which the nature of novels has been altered since Scott's time. I have said that his era divides our Prose Fiction into two epochs. But he himself belongs to both. He partook of that unreal romance which was the very base on which Prose Fiction was first founded. There is still the touch of the Paladin and the Princess about his men and women; but he wove them into stories of such vital interest, and threw such movement and passion and mirth into the telling of these stories, that he created a new system of Fiction. If he was not always life-like himself, he produced a love for such likeness which has imposed an obligation on all English novelists coming after him. In parting with his name I must again repeat my belief that from the reading of his novels nothing but good has come to the people for whom he wrote.
Of the novelists who have succeeded Scott I shall name to you but three. Luckily for us all, many of those who are most distinguished are still among us. But Thackeray has gone, and so have two other great writers of Prose Fiction, -- Mrs. Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte. Of Thackeray, whom I knew and loved, I would wish to guard myself against sneaking with an enthusiasm which, much as I feel it to be his due, may perhaps come from my love rather than from my judgment. According to my idea he has described humanity, -- the real flesh and blood with the heart and mind working within them, -- the human beings whom we see and know, -- our very selves, -- with an accuracy that has been within the reach of no other writer of English Prose Fiction. And his power went beyond accuracy. There is a fineness of touch in it, a grace of finish, a capacity for seeing and reproducing the minute workings of the heart, which warrant me in saying that he possessed an intellect combining both male and female qualities. Scott's intellect was wholly masculine. I do not imply by that that Scott's women are not feminine. No woman more feminine than Jeannie Deans ever walked through the pages of a novel. But [p. 118] she is a woman seen from a man's point of view, -- as are all his women and all his men. But Thackeray sees his characters, both men and women, with a man's eye and with a woman's. He dissects with a knife and also with a needle. It is said of him that in his work he was a cynic. Those who say it mean to imply that he has put forth characters or men and women less noble, less genuine, less faultless than are generally found in novels. His heroes and heroines are much less heroic than those of Scott, and he has rarely described for us a man or a woman perfect at all points. Scott did so frequently. Ivanhoe was a model, though Saint Anthony was never so tempted. Had Thackeray written the story instead of the burlesque upon the story, Ivanhoe would certainly have declared a passion for the Jewess, -- even though his mind had been firm as ever in regard to Rowena. Ravensworth never descends to any of the foibles of humanity. Edie Ochiltree as a beggar is without spot or flaw, -- perfectly heroic. Jeanie Deans never lapses even for a moment into consciousness of self. Of his higher-class heroines it would be impossible to imagine that they would ever flirt, ever run in debt for bonnets and gilt boots, or pay sly visits to the pastrycook. Of Flora MacIvor, does anybody conceive that she required meat and drink to keep her alive? Thackeray's heroines do require meat, and his heroes a good deal of drink to wash the meat down. But then, -- such is the way with men and women in the world! I do not remember a single heroine of Thackeray's who does not now and then fall off from the heroic. But I must say, speaking from my own experience, that the effulgence of woman's divinity is made fitter for the weak eyes of men by some few spots and clouds.
In the palmy days of Italian art, -- or rather, when those palmy days were coming to an end, -- there came up a school of painters in which it was the aim of the artist to endow the female face with beauties and graces which he found rather in his imagination than in the models which nature gave him. Whether or not he lost more than he gained we will not now inquire; but he certainly effected this, -- that from that day to our own the portrait [p. 119] of a woman which shall give us that woman's face with its own colouring, its own expression, and its own natural inequalities of surface, is to us displeasing. An artist even now does not dare to paint such a portrait of a young woman. We have instructed our eyes to believe that the true portrait would be a caricature. The same fault of a fictitious grace arose in the Art of Literature. But Thackeray with his minute feminine glances into life, seeing the workings of the human heart with that magnifying-glass with which nature had supplied him, could not paint his portraits in the Raphaelistic manner. He saw what there was of good and evil in men and women, and he had to put it all down. He felt with intensity the duty of so writing that he should teach no evil; -- and I make bold to say that he has taught none; but he could not describe the world around as other than he saw it. That he fell into the common fault of thinking all things to be evil, when his mind was dwelling on the special evils which he then saw, is quite true. It is the policeman's fault who looks on all men as thieves; the reformer's fault who regards all settled customs as abuses; the fault of all self-appointed censors, to whose eye everything is bad. From this cause Thackeray's Snob Papers are faulty, because, while scourging the snobs he saw, his mind for awhile became imbued with a conviction that all men were snobs. But this fault does not disfigure Thackeray's chief works; because in them it is his purpose to write in fiction what Life is and should be, and not to reform special abuses. I will take Esmonde as being in my judgment the most complete novel which he left in our hands, and ask you to study the characters of the two ladies, mother and daughter, which are there drawn. Regard the depth of the self-devoting love of Lady Castlewood, -- a love which was at first the sweet affection of a woman for the youth whom it had been her duty to foster; --a love which grew upon her till in her purity she repented of it as of a sin, though it hardly ever grew to be a fault; -- a love which she buried in her own bosom, because the youth in his manhood had learned to love her own daughter! How gallantly [p. 120] she strove to make that daughter accept the man, whom she had found fit to be trusted as a lord and master! Lady Castlewood is a woman all over, -- generous, self- devoting, full of jealousy, angry without cause, unjust, irrational, full of faith, full of piety, and true as steel! Do you remember the scene between her and Esmonde when they first meet after his return from the wars? They had seen each other in the church, and she had been thinking of him as she listened to the anthem. And thus when they meet she tells him her thoughts: -- "And to-day in the anthem when they sang it; -- 'When the Lord turned the captivity of Zion we were like them that dream;' I thought, yes, like them that dream, like them that dream. And then it went, -- 'They that sow in tears shall reap in joy, and he that goeth forth and weepeth shall doubtless come home with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.' I looked up from my book and I saw you. I knew that you would come, my dear, and I saw the gold sunshine round your head. Do you know what day it is?" she continued, -- "it is your birthday! But last year we did not drink it. No. no; my lord was cold, and my Harry was like to die, and my brain was in a fever; and we had no wine. But now, -- now you are come again, bringing your sheaves with you, -- bringing your sheaves with you." I cannot quote to you the passge in which she reveals to her daughter's betrothed, the Duke of Hamilton, the story of Esmonde's birth. It is too long for us now, though it occupies but a page or two. I have read it a score of times, but never without a tear. I think that nothing finer can be found in the whole range of English Prose Fiction; and I think that no woman has ever been drawn more like-life, with more of the mingled grace and purity, weakness and self-devotion of woman than Lady Castlewood.
Then there is her daughter, Beatrix, a young girl who has seen and lived among the vices of the Court while her mother is still so innocent, -- who is beautiful, witty, proud, scornful, hard, worldly, -- and conscious through it all of her own mean condition in that she is hard and worldly; a terrible picture, drawn and finished with [p. 121] minute touches, which show the working of every evil thought and passion in the poor creature's bosom, -- ambition that has killed the power of love, the craving for rank and wealth that has stifled all feminine softness, -- and yet with all these the consciousness that a woman to be worthy of the name should be tender and loving. Thackeray's Beatrix is more terrible to me than his Becky Sharpe. But the story of her faults can make no other woman faulty. No girl will wish to be a Beatrix. The gems and jewels which she prized she herself knew to be worthless and paltry; and the tale is so told that the very child who reads it is made to feel that these things are but vanity and vexation of spirit.
Thackeray displays the same minute powers in most of his novels. Barry Lyndon, -- an unpleasant book to read, -- is a marvel in this way. The hero, who is thoroughly a scoundrel, tells his own story with absolute belief in himself, -- and yet never palliates a fault or blinks a vice! The result on the reader's mind is a detestation of the scoundrel and of the scoundrel's selfishness. Of Colonel Newcombe, I must say that he is as fine a gentleman as Don Quixote, and as good a Christian. Laura, -- Mrs. Pendennis as she becomes, -- is so thorough a woman that we can hardly understand that a man should have drawn the character, -- so finely put are those little traits which show that with all her virtues she is still human. In the old romances, and in some that are not old, the heroine is a marble goddess, -- faultless as a goddess, but made of marble. Thackeray's heroines are not only flesh and blood; but they are so put before us that we can sec the beating of every pulse. Seeing so much, of course we see the faults; -- but I know no work of his which makes the faults alluring.
I have alluded to one novel written by Mrs. Gaskell, and would tell you of others if time admitted. They are quite worthy of being mentioned as works of art that have done good by their teaching while they have charmed by their grace and truth. Let any mother of a family take the last which she wrote, -- which she died while writing, -- Wives and Daughters, and ask herself whether it contains any lesson that can do harm. [p. 122] I say of these books, and of hundreds like them, that harm may doubtless come from time devoted to them which should be given to graver pursuits; but that as recreation, -- if recreation be required at all, -- they are not only harmless but salutary. They teach the lessons which a mother would desire that her child should learn.
One word I must say of Charlotte Bronte, -- Currer Bell as she called herself while she was writing; -- because she also possessed that power of minutely seeing and describing the inner work of the heart which belonged so remarkably to Thackeray. The character of Rochester, and the intercourse between him and Jane Eyre which ultimately led to their marriage, -- as is customary in novels,-- is a wonderful piece of fine workmanship. Miss Bronte wrote while she was yet young, and wrote under various disadvantages. Circumstances had hidden from her much of the outside world, she was feeble in health, and prone, as are all who are isolated, to be too conscious of her own self. This consciousness she displays in her writing to a fault; but her power and honesty of purpose, and intention to do good as far as it lay within her power to accomplish it, are not to be doubted. And there was a delicacy and fineness of touch in her hand, so rare, that I should be wrong were I not to name her among the novelists who have graced our language and are now no more.
You will understand that in bringing under your notice the few names that I have mentioned, I have not intended to give you any catalogue of English novelists. You may feel, perhaps, that I have spoken of those I have named with too much eulogy; but you will, I hope, remember that it has not been my intention to tell you of the weak, the indifferent, or the vicious. That we have many weak novels, some, also, that are vicious, you probably do not need to be told, and I shall not deny. I simply assert, on behalf of English novel-writers and novel-readers, that there is good conscientious work provided by the former, and that the latter may so choose their novels, -- or have them chosen for them, -- that no injury shall come from the lessons which they convey.
[p. 123] There is one other point to which I crave your attention, and then I will have done. There has arisen of late years a popular idea as to the division of novels into two classes, which is, I think, a mistaken idea. We hear of the sensational school of novels; and of the realistic, or life-like school. Now, according to my view of the matter, a novel is bound to be both sensational and realistic. And I think that if a novel fail in either particular it is, so far, a failure in Art. No doubt a string of tragic incidents bound together without truth in details, and told as affecting personages without character, -- wooden blocks who cannot make themselves known to the readers as men and women, -- does not instruct or amuse. Horrors heaped on horrors, which are horrors only in themselves, and not as touching any recognised and known person, cease even to horrify. And such tragic elements of a story may be increased without end and without difficulty. I may tell you of a woman murdered, -- murdered in the same street with you, in the next house, -- that she was a wife murdered by her husband, -- a bride not yet a week a wife. I may add to it for ever. I may say that the murderer roasted her alive, -- that he had her served to table, that he himself sat at the banquet! There is no end to it. I may say that a former wife was treated with equal barbarity, and I may assert that as the murderer was led to execution he declared his only sorrow, his sole regret to be, -- that he could not live to treat a third after the same fashion. There is nothing so easy as the creation and piling up of tragic incidents after this sort. And if such creation be the beginning and the end of the novelist's work, -- and novels have been written seeming to want other attractions, -- nothing can be more dull, more deadly, or more useless. But not on that account are we averse to tragedy in Prose Fiction. As in poetry, so in prose, he who can deal adequately with tragic elements is a greater artist and reaches a higher aim than the writer whose efforts never carry him above the mild walks of every-day life. The passages which I quoted to you from Scott were all tragic; the Bride of Lammermoor is a tragedy throughout, in spite of its [p. 124] comic elements; the life of Lady Castlewood, of which I have spoken to you, is all a tragedy. Rochester's wretched thraldom to his mad wife in Jane Eyre is a tragedy. But these stories charm us not simply because they are tragic, but because we feel that men and women with flesh and blood, creatures with whom we can sympathise, are struggling amidst their woes. It all lies in that. No novel is anything, for purposes either of tragedy or of comedy, unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose names he finds upon the page. Let an author so tell his tale as to touch your heart and draw your tears, and he has so far done his work well. Truth let there be; -- truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women. If there be such truth I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.
There is, indeed, a certain sensational interest, -- to feel which we are all prone, though we ought not to feel it, -- which is very evil in its tendencies. The taste is bad in the reader; but the sin of pandering to it is unpardonable in the writer. I speak of the interest which is aroused by dealing with the characters of those who are yet alive, -- or who have lived so recently as to make their foibles, or perhaps their faults, a matter of interest to the public, and of most painful concern to those belonging to them. You know that were I to bring into my pages the name of some great man, and attempt to unravel the secrets of his private life, accusing him of this vice and of that folly, very many would rush to read it. It is an author's object to obtain readers, and I should be so far successful. The book would, -- sell, and people would talk. But I as an author would have sinned grievously. Against that sensationalism I enter my protest. But in regard to the so-called ordinarily sensational novel, I beg to repeat my opinion that, as long as a novel be true to life, it cannot too strongly convey that feeling which we mean when we speak of sensation. To convey that is the very essence of the poet's art, -- and also of the novelist's.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have now finished my task, and I thank you for the patience with which you have heard my apology for the profession which I follow.
1 Anthony Trollope, "On English Prose Fiction as a Rational Amusement" (1870), from Four Lectures, ed., introd. Morris L. Parrish. London: Constable, 1938.