« PreviousContinue »
the vast and minute knowledge of English history it displays, the power of intellect evinced in the conduct of the story, and the greater power of imagination exercised in making the dead past a living present, — and, especially, if they would bring to mind the author, as he appeared while the scene between Rebecca and the Knight Templar was circling through his heart and fancy, as he strode hurriedly up and down his study, with his face agitated by high passion, and his lips quivering with the intensity of his feelings, they might perhaps think, that the matter was not so “light” after all, and that any word suggestive of indolence was the most inapplicable that could be used.
In reading novels, but little regard is paid to the high genius which they sometimes manifest. The interest of the story is the test which is usually applied by the general read
A young lady reads with great delight “ The Scottish Chiefs,” « The Children of the Abbey,” or “ Santo Sebastiano." The sentiments are refined, the incidents please, and the whole work is “so interesting !”. She takes up the “ Bride of Lammermoor,” a tragedy which Sophocles might have written, had he lived in this age, and acknowledges that, though it is interesting, it is an unpleasant book, for it ends badly. And thus she judges. "To her, Miss Porter, Mrs. Roche, Mrs. Radcliffe, Miss Edgeworth, Scott, Bulwer, James, and Dickens are all delightful novelists, all interesting, and therefore, all equally good, except that Scott and Dickens are sometimes inclined to low humor, and are not always so refined as the others. At the same time, she acknowledges that reading their books is a frivolous occupation, and is likely to unfit the mind for practical duties; and she throws out dubious hints of the histories and philosophies which form the staple of her reading, and of the scientific lectures which she honors with her attendance.
The absence in most minds of any clear principles of criticism, and the many bad and feeble novels which are mixed up confusedly with those which are excellent, are the probable causes of this hallucination. We are often struck with the lack of discrimination, even of sensible people, on this subject. Smollet and Fielding are placed in the same category with Ainsworth and Lever, and all are often confounded with Dickens. The peculiar taste and idiosyncrasy of each writer, the diversity both in the subject and the manner of its treatment, the different faculties exercised by each, and the wide difference in the moral character unconsciously impressed on their works, — all these points are repeatedly overlooked. All these works please, and help to wile away an hour of ennui or leisure, and they all are classed under one undistinguishing name. Few think, that the mere fact of writing a good work of fiction entitles an author to a high rank, even among those who are called imaginative writers. Pope, they think, will outlive the whole tribe.
Novel-writing, then, is generally deemed to be as “easy as lying.” The facility with which things called novels are written seems to favor the dogma. Still, we humbly conceive it to be an error. Many persons have attained marvellous proficiency in falsehood, and tell lies as assiduously as a friar does his beads ; but the number of great novelists is small. Lying, therefore, is no key to the mystery of romance. Let us seek the solution in a rarer quality
- truth. “I can write prose as well as Mr. Pope,” said the sagacious Edmund Curll, the bookseller ; “ but he has a knack of rhyming which I do not possess.
Now the difference between Mr. Curll and. Mr. Pope is no greater than that which exists between good and bad novelists. The former have a certain " knack” which the latter cannot obtain ; — and this is the knack of seeing and telling the truth. Here is an important distinction. The power of faithfully delineating life, character, society, and manners, is one of the rarest gifts of genius. In its greatest manifestations, it is felt to be the noblest exercise of a creative mind.
Now Mr. James, in some of the most important qualifications of a novelist, is remarkably deficient. He has little objectivity. He is chained to his own consciousness. His insight into character and life is feeble. He cannot go out of his own little world of thought and emotion, and sympathize with other grades and modes of being. Every thing he writes is sicklied o’er” with his own feelings. There is no spontaneous exercise of his faculties, - none of that yielding of the will and reason to the impulses of imagination and passion, - none of that running over of the heart in the worship of the mind's creations, - none of that forgetfulness of self in sympathy with other beings, — which we observe in the masters of his art. His plots, his characters, his emotions, his outbreaks of feeling, are all deliberated and forced. He places a moral reflection, or a feeble speculation, at due pauses in the march of his story, with a sort of mathematical precision. The reader who desires not to have his principles corrupted by unconscious sympathy with any act or utterances of the characters in the novel, which may not square with the moral code, is soon relieved from any apprehension of the kind, by noticing that Mr. James follows the progress of the plot, catechism in hand, and reads a homily from it whenever the necessities of morality require. If he had written the tragedy of “ Othello,” and had put into Iago's mouth the words which Shakspeare uses, he would have filled half of the page with notes, stating his reasons for such an outrage upon morality, carefully distinguishing between his own opinions and those of the character, and adding copious truisms on the wickedness of malice and revenge. Mothers, therefore, think they can trust their children to the care of Mr. James, and are willing that they should journey through the land of romance under his guidance. As soon as one of his novels is issued, the newspapers devote a column to his beautiful” moral reflections and rose-colored sentiments. Readers who have a right to demand, that the journal should be filled with news and advertisements, find themselves cheated and bored, by being compelled to admire the old speculations of Mr. James on destiny, fatalism, the affections, the will, and such other topics as form the staple of his colloquies with the reader.
Now this is “ from the purpose" of novel-writing. To a person accustomed to the manner of greater and more artistical novelists, it is an unendurable infliction. If the thoughts were valuable in themselves, bore any marks of originality and freshness, seemed to be called forth naturally by the incidents related, or were woven with any skill into the texture of the narrative, they might be pleasing ; but the understanding of Mr. James never succeeds in the attempt to clutch an original idea, or to speculate on any subject which requires dialectical power ; and, consequently, he doses the reader with truisms, or perplexes him with reveries. He gives dim hints of his opinions on any question of metaphysics which crosses the path of his narrative, but he does not grasp and attempt to answer it. The most striking instances of “catching at ideas by the tail,” of which we have any knowledge, are seen in his reveries on destiny, which re-appear in each successive work that comes from his fertile pen and unfruitful intellect. It seems astonishing, that a man could have this subject so often in his mind, for a period of twenty years, and not blunder upon some opinion about it, correct or erroneous.
He does not appear to know, that his unformed notions on this point, so far as they can be reduced to formulas, lead directly to fatalism.
But the great defect of Mr. James as a novelist is his lack of skill in the creation or accurate delineation of individual character. If the novel be intended as a mirror of actual life, either past or present, it should contain not only events, but men and women. Character should be exhibited, not didactically, but dramatically. We demand human beings, - not embodied antitheses, or personified qualities, thoughts, or passions. The author has no right to project himself into his characters, and give different proper names to one personality. We want a forcible conception and consistent development of individual minds, with traits and peculiarities which constitute their distinction from other minds. They should be drawn with sufficient distinctness to enable the reader to give them a place in his memory, and to detect all departures, either in language or action, from the original types. We desire beings, not ideas; something concrete, not abstract.
To fulfil this condition seems easy ; but the scarcity of men and women in current romances and plays proves at once, that it is difficult and indispensable. A wide range of what is sometimes called " characterization” is very rarely found, even in the works of men of genius, or rather men with genius. Byron's power in this respect only extended to one character, and that was his own, placed in different circumstances and modified by varying impulses. When he aimed at a larger range, and attempted to give freshness and life to individual creations, the result was feebleness and failure, which the energy and splendor of his diction could not wholly conceal. Manfred, Childe Harold, and Don Juan are the different names of one mind. Shakspeare's Timon comprehends them all, and is also more naturally drawn. Innumerable instances might be given, of strenuous attempts made in this difficult_department, which have ended in ignominious failure. Dr. Young's Zanga and Shiel's Pescara are ideas and passions embodied. Iago is a man, possessing ideas and passions.
In truth, to be successful in the exact delineation of character requires a rare combination of powers, - a large heart and a comprehensive mind. It is the attribute of universality, not of versatility, or subtilty. It can be obtained only by outward, as well as inward, observation. That habit of intense brooding over individual consciousness, of making the individual mind the centre and circumference of everything, which is common to many eminent poets of the present age, has turned most of them into egotists, and limited the reach of their minds. They are great in a narrow sphere. They have little of that clear catholicism of spirit, which is even “ tolerant to opposite bigotries”; which seeks to display men as they are, not as they may be, or ought to be ; which is not fanatical for one idea, and seeks not to be considered as the one inhabitant of the whole earth. Most of our great poets of the present century have taken the world into their hands, and made it over again, agreeably to a type of excellence in their own imaginations. The current subjective metaphysics of the day pursues the same method. Egotism in poetry and in philosophy meets us everywhere. The splendid mental qualities often exercised in both redeem them from the censure we apply to meaner and smaller attempts in the same one-sided, subjective method.
Not in this manner did Shakspeare work. It was not from a lack of imagination, that he did not turn every thing he touched into something rich and strange.” His excursions into the land of dream and fancy throw all others into the shade. But he knew when and where outward men and events should modify inward aspirations and feelings. He would not do injustice even to crime or folly, but represented both as they are. In what may be called the creation of character, in distinction from its delineation, as in Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear, his excellence is unapproachable. In no other department in which the human intellect can be exercised, does it so nearly approach the divine, as in this. It is creation in the highest human sense