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THE LAMPS OF FICTION
[Address of Goldwin Smith, author and professor of history (born in Reading, England, August 23, 1823; ), delivered on the centenary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott.]
Ruskin has lighted seven lamps of Architecture to guide the steps of the architect in the worthy practice of his art. It seems time that lamps should be lighted to guide the steps of the writer of Fiction. Think what the influence of novelists now is, and how some of them use it! Think of the multitudes who read nothing but novels; and then look into the novels which they read! I have seen a young man's whole library consisting of thirty or forty of those paper-bound volumes, which are the bad tobacco of the mind. In England, I looked over three railway bookstalls in one day. There was hardly a novel by an author of any repute on one of them. There were heaps of nameless garbage, commended by tasteless, flaunting woodcuts, the promise of which was no doubt well kept within. Fed upon such food daily, what will the mind of a nation be? I say that there is no flame at which we can light the Lamp of Fiction purer or brighter than the genius of him in honor to whose memory we are assembled here to-day. Scott does not moralize. Heaven be praised that he does not. He does not set a moral object before him, nor lay down moral rules. But his heart, brave, pure, and true, is a law to itself; and by studying what he does, we may find the law for all who follow his calling. If seven lamps have been lighted for architec
ture, Scott will light as many for Fiction. o68 I
I. The Lamp of Reality.—The novelist must ground his work in faithful study of human nature. There was a popular writer of romances, who, it was said, used to go round to the fashionable watering-places to pick up characters. That was better than nothing. There is another popular writer who, it seems, makes voluminous indices of men and things, and draws on them for his material. This also is better than nothing. For some writers, and writers dear to the circulating libraries too, might, for all that appears in their works, lie in bed all day, and write by night under the excitement of green tea. Creative art, I suppose they call this, and it is creative with a vengeance. Not so, Scott. The human nature which he paints, he has seen in all its phases, gentle and simple, in burgher and shepherd, Highlander, Lowlander, Borderer, and Islesman; he had come into close contact with it; he had opened it to himself by the talisman of his joyous and winning presence; he had studied it thoroughly with a clear eye and an all-embracing heart. When his scenes are laid in the past, he has honestly studied history. The history of his novels is perhaps not critically accurate, not up to the mark of our present knowledge, but in the main it is sound and true—sounder and more true than that of many professed historians, and even than that of his own historical works, in which he sometimes yields to prejudice, while in his novels he is lifted above it by his loyalty to his art.
II. The Lamp of Ideality.—The materials of the novelist must be real; they must be gathered from the field of humanity by his actual observation. But they must pass through the crucible of the imagination; they must be idealized. The artist is not a photographer, but a painter. He must depict, not persons, but humanity; otherwise he forfeits the artist's name, and the power of doing the artist's work in our hearts. When we see a novelist bring out a novel with one or two good characters or the same few characters over and over again, we may be sure that he is without the power of idealization. He has merely photographed what he has seen, and his stock is exhausted. It is wonderful what a quantity of the mere lees of such writers, more and more watered down, the libraries go on complacently circulating, and the reviews go on complacently reviewing. Of course, this power of idealization is the great gift of genius. It is that which distinguishes Homer, Shakespeare, and Walter Scott from ordinary men. But there is also a moral effort in rising above the easy work of mere description to the height of art. Need it be said that Scott is thoroughly ideal, as well as thoroughly real? There are vague traditions that this man and the other was the original of some character of Scott. But who can point out the man of whom a character in Scott is a mere portrait? It would be as hard as to point out a case of servile delineation in Shakespeare. Scott's characters are never monsters or caricatures. They are full of nature; but it is universal nature. Therefore they have their place in the universal heart, and will keep that place forever. And mark that even in his historical novels he is still ideal. Historical romance is a perilous thing. The fiction is apt to spoil the fact, and the fact the fiction; the history to be perverted and the romance to be shackled; daylight to kill dreamlight, and dreamlight to kill daylight. But Scott takes few liberties with historical facts and characters; he treats them with the costume and the manners of the period, as the background of the picture. The personages with whom he deals freely are the Peverils and the Nigels; and these are his lawful property, the offspring of his own imagination, and belong to the ideal.
III. The Lamp of Impartiality.—The novelist must look on humanity without partiality or prejudice. His sympathy, like that of the historian, must be unbounded, and untainted by sect or party. He must see everywhere the good that is mixed with evil, the evil that is mixed with good. And this he will not do, unless his heart be right. It is in Scott's historical novels that his impartiality is most severely tried and is most apparent, though it is apparent in all his works. Shakespeare was a pure dramatist; nothing but art found a home in that lofty, smooth, idealistic brow. He stands apart, not only from the political and religious passions, but from the interests of his time, seeming hardly to have any historical surroundings, but to shine like a planet suspended by itself in the sky. So it is
with that female Shakespeare in miniature, Miss Austen. But Scott took the most intense interest in the political struggles of his time. He was a fiery partisan, a Tory in arms against the French Revolution. In his account of the coronation of George IV, a passionate worship of monarchy breaks forth, which, if we did not know his noble nature, we might call slavish. He sacrificed ease, and at last life, to his seignorial aspirations. On one occasion he was even carried beyond the bounds of propriety by his opposition to the Whig chief. The Cavalier was his political ancestor; the Covenanter, the ancestor of his political enemy. The idols which the Covenanting iconoclast broke were his. He would have fought against the first revolution under Montrose, and against the second under Dundee. Yet he is perfectly, serenely just to the opposite party. Not only is he just, he is sympathetic. He brings out their worth, their valor, such grandeur of character as they have, with all the power of his art, making no distinction in this respect between friend and foe. If they have a ridiculous side he uses it for the purposes of his art, but genially, playfully, without malice. If there was a laugh left in the Covenanters, they would have laughed at their own portraits as painted by Scott. He shows no hatred of anything but wickedness itself. Such a novelist is a most effective preacher of liberality and charity; he brings our hearts nearer to the Impartial Father of us all.
IV. The Lamp of Impersonality.—Personality is lower than partiality. Dante himself is open to the suspicion of partiality; it is said, not without apparent ground, that he puts into hell all the enemies of the political cause, which, in his eyes, was that of Italy and God. A legend tells that Leonardo da Vinci was warned that his divine picture of the Last Supper would fade, because he had introduced his personal enemy as Judas, and thus desecrated art by making it serve personal hatred. The legend must be false,—Leonardo has too grand a soul. A wretched woman in England, at the beginning of the last century, Mrs. Manley, systematically employed fiction as a cover for personal libel; but such an abuse of art as this could be practised or countenanced only by the vile. Novelists, however, often debase fiction by obtruding their personal vanities, favoritisms, fanaticisms, and antipathies. We had, the other day, a novel, the author of which introduced himself almost by name as a heroic character, with a description of his own personal appearance, residence, and habits, as fond fancy painted them to himself. There is a novelist, who is a man of fashion, and who makes the age of the heroes in his successive novels advance with his own, so that at last we shall have irresistible fascination at threescore years and ten. But the commonest and the most mischievous way in which personality breaks out is pamphleteering under the guise of fiction. One novel is a pamphlet against lunatic asylums, another against model prisons, a third against the poor-law, a fourth against the government offices, a fifth against trade-unions. In these pretended works of imagination, facts are coined in support of a crotchet, of an antipathy with all the license of fiction; calumny revels without restraint, and no cause is served but that of falsehood and injustice. A writer takes offense at the excessive popularity of athletic sports; instead of bringing out an accurate and conscientious treatise to advocate moderation, he lets fly a novel painting the typical boating-man as a seducer of confiding women, the betrayer of his friend, and the murderer of his wife. Religious zealots are very apt to take this method of enlisting imagination, as they think, on the side of truth. We had once a high Anglican novel in which the Papist was eaten alive by rats, and the Rationalist and Republican was slowly seethed in molten lead, the fate of each being, of course, a just judgment of heaven on those who presumed to differ from the author. Thus the voice of morality is confounded with that of tyrannical petulance and self-love. Not only is Scott not personal, but we cannot conceive his being so. We cannot think possible that he should degrade his art by the indulgence of egotism, or crotchets, or party piques. Least of all can we think it possible that his high and gallant nature should use art as a cover for striking a foul blow.