CHAPTER XXVII. THE RISE AND PROGRESS OF MODERN FICTION.
The New Age. Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe. Richardson. Pamela, and
Other Novels. Fielding. Joseph Andrews. Tom Jones. Its Moral. Smollett.
Roderick Random. Peregrine Pickle.
THE NEW AGE.
We have now reached a new topic in the course of English Literature—contemporaneous, indeed, with the subjects just named, but marked by new and distinct development. It was a period when numerous and distinctive forms appeared; when genius began to segregate into schools and divisions; when the progress of letters and the demands of popular curiosity gave rise to works which would have been impossible, because uncalled for, in any former period. English enterprise was extending commerce and scattering useful arts in all quarters of the globe, and thus giving new and rich materials to English letters. Clive was making himself a lord in India; Braddock was losing his army and his life in America. This spirit of English enterprise in foreign lands was evoking literary activity at home: there was no exploit of English valor, no extension of English dominion and influence, which did not find its literary reproduction. Thus, while it was an age of historical research, it was also that of actual delineations of curious novelties at home and abroad.
Poetry was in a transition state; it was taking its leave of the unhealthy satire and the technical wit of Queen Anne's reign, and attempting, on the one hand, the impostures of Macpherson and Chatterton,—to which we shall hereafter refer,—and, on the other, the restoration of the pastoral from the theatrical to the real, in Thomson's song of the Rolling Year, and Cowper's pleasant Task, so full of life and nature. Swallow-like, English poetry had hung about the eaves or skimmed the surface of town and court; but now, like the lark, it soared into freer air—
Coetusque vulgares et udam
Spernit humum fugiente penna.
In short, it was a day of general awakening. The intestine troubles excited by the Jacobites were brought to an end by the disaster of Culloden, in 1745. The German campaigns culminating at Minden, in 1759, opened a door to the study of German literature, and of the Teutonic dialects as elements of the English language.
It is, therefore, not astonishing that in this period Literature should begin to arrange itself into its present great divisions. As in an earlier age the drama had been born to cater to a popular taste, so in this, to satisfy the public demand, arose English prose fiction in its peculiar and enduring form. There had been grand and desultory works preceding this, such as Robinson Crusoe, The Pilgrim's Progress, and Swift's inimitable story of Gulliver; but the modern novel, unlike these, owes its origin to a general desire for delineations of private life and manners. “Show us ourselves!” was the cry.
A novel may be defined as a fictitious story of modern life describing the management and mastery of the human passions, and especially the universal passion of love. Its power consists in the creation of ideal characters, which leave a real impress upon the reader's mind; it must be a prose epic in that there is always a hero, or, at least, a heroine, generally both, and a drama in its presentation of scenes and supplementary personages. Thackeray calls his Vanity Fair a novel without a hero: it is impossible to conceive a novel without a heroine. There must also be a denouement, or consummation; in short, it must have, in the words of Aristotle, a beginning, middle, and ending, in logical connection and consecutive interest.
DANIEL DEFOE.—Before, however, proceeding to consider the modern novel, we must make mention of one author, distinctly of his own age as a political pamphleteer, but who, in his chief and inimitable work, stands alone, without antecedent or consequent. Robinson Crusoe has had a host of imitators, but no rival.
Daniel Foe, or, as he afterwards called himself, De Foe, was born in London, in the year 1661. He was the son of a butcher, but such was his early aptitude, for learning, that he was educated to become a dissenting minister. His own views, however, were different: he became instead a political author, and wrote with great force against the government of James II. and the Established Church, and in favor of the dissenters. When the Duke of Monmouth landed to make his fatal campaign, Defoe joined his standard; but does not seem to have suffered with the greater number of the duke's adherents.
He was a warm supporter of William III.; and his famous poem, The True-Born Englishman, was written in answer to an attack upon the king and the Dutch, called The Foreigners. Of his own poem he says, in the preface, “When I see the town full of lampoons and invectives against the Dutch, only because they are foreigners, and the king reproached and insulted by insolent pedants and ballad-making poets for employing foreigners and being a foreigner himself, I confess myself moved by it to remind our nation of their own original, thereby to let them see what a banter they put upon themselves, since—speaking of Englishmen ab origine—we are really all foreigners ourselves:”
The Pict and painted Briton, treach'rous Scot,
By hunger, theft, and rapine hither brought;
Norwegian pirates, buccaneering Danes,
Whose red-haired offspring everywhere remains;
Who, joined with Norman-French, compound the breed
From whence your true-born Englishmen proceed.
In 1702, just after the death of King William, Defoe published his severely ironical pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. Assuming the character of a High Churchman, he says: “'Tis vain to trifle in the matter. The light, foolish handling of them by fines is their glory and advantage. If the gallows instead of the compter, and the galleys instead of the fines, were the reward of going to a conventicle, there would not be so many sufferers.” His irony was at first misunderstood: the High Churchmen hailed him as a champion, and the Dissenters hated him as an enemy. But when his true meaning became apparent, a reward of L50 was offered by the government for his discovery. His so-called “scandalous and seditious pamphlet” was burnt by the common hangman: he was tried, and sentenced to pay two hundred marks, to stand three times in the pillory, and to be imprisoned during the queen's pleasure. He bore his sentence bravely, and during his two years' residence in prison he published a periodical called The Review. In 1709 he wrote a History of the Union between England and Scotland.
ROBINSON CRUSOE.—But none of these things, nor all combined, would have given to Defoe that immortality which is his as the author of Robinson Crusoe. Of the groundwork of the story not much need be said.
Alexander Selkirk, the sailing-master of an English privateer, was set ashore, in 1704, at his own request, on the uninhabited island Juan Fernandez, which lies several hundred miles from the coast of Chili, in the Pacific Ocean. He was supplied with clothing and arms, and remained there alone for four years and four months. It is supposed that his adventures suggested the work. It is also likely that Defoe had read the journal of Peter Serrano, who, in the sixteenth century, had been marooned in like manner on a desolate island lying off the mouth of the Oroonoque (Orinoco). The latter locality was adopted by Defoe. But it is not the fact or the adventures which give power to Robinson Crusoe. It is the manner of treating what might occur to any fancy, even the dullest. The charm consists in the simplicity and the verisimilitude of the narrative, the rare adaptation of the common man to his circumstances, his projects and failures, the birth of religion in his soul, his conflicting hopes and fears, his occasional despair. We see in him a brother, and a suffering one. We live his life on the island; we share his terrible fear at the discovery of the footprint, his courage in destroying the cannibal savages and rescuing the victim. Where is there in fiction another man Friday? From the beginning of his misfortunes until he is again sailing for England, after nearly thirty years of captivity, he holds us spellbound by the reality, the simplicity, and the pathos of his narrative; but, far beyond the temporary illusion of the modern novel, everything remains real: the shipwrecked mariner spins his yarns in sailor fashion, and we believe and feel every word he says. The book, although wonderfully good throughout, is unequal: the prime interest only lasts until he is rescued, and ends with his embarkation for England. The remainder of his travels becomes, as a narrative, comparatively tiresome and tame; and we feel, besides, that, after his unrivalled experience, he should have remained in England, “the observed of all observers.” Yet it must be said that we are indebted to his later journey in Spain and France, his adventures in the Eastern Seas, his caravan ride overland from China to Europe, for much which illustrates the manners and customs of navigation and travel in that day.
Robinson Crusoe stands alone among English books, a perennial fountain of instruction and pleasure. It aids in educating each new generation: children read it for its incident; men to renew their youth; literary scholars to discover what it teaches of its time and of its author's genius. Its influence continues unabated; it incites boys to maritime adventure, and shows them how to use in emergency whatever they find at hand. It does more: it tends to reclaim the erring by its simple homilies; it illustrates the ruder navigation of its day; shows us the habits and morals of the merchant marine, and the need and means of reforming what was so very bad.
Defoe's style is clear, simple, and natural. He wrote several other works, of which few are now read. Among these are the Account of the Plague, The Life and Piracies of Captain Singleton, and The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders. He died on the 24th of April, 1731.
RICHARDSON.—Samuel Richardson, who, notwithstanding the peculiar merits of Defoe, must be called the Father of Modern Prose Fiction, was born in Derbyshire, in 1689. The personal events of his life are few and uninteresting. A carpenter's son, he had but little schooling, and owed everything to his own exertions. Apprenticed to a printer in London, at the age of fifteen, he labored assiduously at his trade, and it rewarded him with fortune: he became, in turn, printer of the Journals of the House of Commons, Master of the Stationers' Company, and Printer to the King. While young, he had been the confidant of three young women, and had written or corrected their love-letters for them. He seems to have had great fluency in letter-writing; and being solicited by a publisher to write a series of familiar letters on the principal concerns of life, which might be used as models,—a sort of “Easy Letter-Writer,”—he began the task, but, changing his plan, he wrote a story in a series of letters. The first volume was published in 1741, and was no less a work than Pamela. The author was then fifty years old; and he presents in this work a matured judgment concerning the people and customs of the day,—the printer's notions of the social condition of England,—shrewd, clever, and defective.
Wearied as the world had been by what Sir Walter Scott calls the “huge folios of inanity” which had preceded him, the work was hailed with delight. There was a little affectation; but the sentiment was moral and natural. Ladies carried Pamela about in their rides and walks. Pope, near his end, said it was a better moral teacher than sermons: Sherlock recommended it from the pulpit.
PAMELA, AND OTHER NOVELS.—Pamela is represented as a poor servant-maid, but beautiful and chaste, whose honor resists the attack of her dissolute master, and whose modesty and virtue overcome his evil nature. Subdued and reclaimed by her chastity and her charms, he reforms, and marries her. Some pictures which are rather warmly colored and indelicate in our day were quite in keeping with the taste of that time, and gave greater effect to the moral lesson assigned to be taught.
In his next work, Clarissa Harlowe, which appeared in 1749, he has drawn the picture of a perfect woman preserving her purity amid seductive gayeties, and suffering sorrows to which those of the Virgin Martyr are light. We have, too, an excellent portraiture of a bold and wicked, but clever and gifted man—Lovelace.
His third and last novel, Sir Charles Grandison, appeared in 1753. The hero, Sir Charles, is the model of a Christian gentleman; but is, perhaps, too faultless for popular appreciation.
In his delineations of humbler natures,—country girls like Pamela,—Richardson is happiest: in his descriptions of high life he has failed from ignorance. He was not acquainted with the best society, and all his grandees are stilted, artificial, and affected; but even in this fault he is of value, for he shows us how men of his class at that time regarded the society of those above them.
These works, which, notwithstanding their length, were devoured eagerly as soon as they appeared, are little read at present, and exist rather as historical interpreters of an age that is past, than as present light literature: they have been driven from our shelves by Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and a host of charming novelists since his day.
Richardson lived the admired of a circle of ladies,—to whose sex he had paid so noble a tribute,—the hero of tea-drinkings at his house on Parson's Green; his books gave him fame, but his shop—in the back office of which he wrote his novels, when not pressed by business—gave him money and its comforts. He died at the age of seventy-two, on the 4th of July, 1761.
He was an unconscious actor in a great movement which had begun in France. The brilliant theories of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Dalembert—containing much truth and many heresies—were felt in England, and had given a new impetus to English intellect; indeed, it is not strange, when we come to consider, that while Richardson's works were praised in English pulpits, Voltaire and the French atheists declared that they saw in them an advance towards human perfectibility and self-redemption, of which, if true, Richardson himself was unconscious. From the amours of men and women of fashion, aided by intriguing maid-servants and lying valets, Richardson turned away to do honor to untitled merit, to exalt the humble, and to defy gilded vice. Whatever were the charms of rank, he has elevated our humanity; thus far, and thus far only, has he sympathized with the Frenchmen who attacked the corruptions of the age, but who assaulted also its faith and its reverence.
HENRY FIELDING.—The path of prose fiction, so handsomely opened by Richardson, was immediately entered and pursued by a genius of higher order, and as unlike him as it was possible to be. Richardson still clung to romantic sentiment, Fielding eschewed it; Richardson was a teacher of morality, Fielding shielded immorality; Richardson described artificial manners in a society which he did not frequent, Fielding, in the words of Coleridge, “was like an open lawn on a breezy day in May;" Richardson was a plebeian, a carpenter's son, a successful printer; Fielding was a gentleman, the son of General Fielding, and grandson of the Earl of Denbigh; Richardson steadily rose, by his honest exertions, to independent fortune, Fielding passed from the high estate of his ancestors into poverty and loose company; the one has given us mistaken views of high life, the other has been enabled, by his sad experience, to give us truthful pictures of every grade of English society in his day from the lord, the squire, and the fop to the thief-taker, the prostitute, and the thief.
Henry Fielding was born on the 22d of April, 1707, at Sharpham Park, Somersetshire. While yet a young man, he had read Pamela; and to ridicule what he considered its prudery and over-righteousness, he hastily commenced his novel of Joseph Andrews. This Joseph is represented as the brother of Pamela,—a simple country lad, who comes to town and finds a place as Lady Booby's footman. As Pamela had resisted her master's seductions, he is called upon to oppose the vile attempts of his mistress upon his virtue.
In that novel, as well as in its successors, Tom Jones and Amelia, Fielding has given us rare pictures of English life, and satires upon English institutions, which present the social history of England a century ago: in this view our sympathies are not lost upon purely ideal creations.
In him, too, the French illuminati claimed a co-laborer; and their influence is more distinctly seen than in Richardson's works: great social problems are discussed almost in the manner of a Greek chorus; mechanical forms of religion are denounced. The French philosophers attacked errors so intertwined with truth, that the violent stabs at the former have cut the latter almost to death; Richardson attacked the errors without injuring the truth: he is the champion of purity. If Joseph Andrews was to rival Pamela in chastity, Tom Jones was to be contrasted with both in the same particular.
TOM JONES.—Fielding has received the highest commendations from literary men. Byron calls him the “prose Homer of human nature;” and Gibbon, in noticing that the Lords of Denbigh were descended, like Charles V., from Rudolph of Hapsburg, says: “The successors of Charles V. may despise their brethren of England, but the romance of Tom Jones—that exquisite picture of human manners—will outlive the Palace of the Escurial and the Imperial Eagle of Austria.” We cannot go so far; we quote the praise but doubt the prophecy. The work is historically valuable, but technically imperfect and unequal. The plot is rambling, without method: most of the scenes lie in the country or in obscure English towns; the meetings are as theatrical as stage encounters; the episodes are awkwardly introduced, and disfigure the unity; the classical introductions and invocations are absurd. His heroes are men of generous impulses but dissolute lives, and his women are either vile, or the puppets of circumstance.
ITS TRUE VALUE.—What can redeem his works from such a category of condemnation? Their rare portraiture of character and their real glimpses of nature: they form an album of photographs of life as it was—odd, grotesque, but true. They have no mysterious Gothic castles like that of Otranto, nor enchanted forests like that of Mrs. Radcliffe. They present homely English life and people,—Partridge, barber, schoolmaster, and coward; Mrs. Honor, the type of maid-servants, devoted to her mistress, and yet artful; Squire Western, the foul and drunken country gentleman; Squire Allworthy, a noble specimen of human nature; Parson Adams, who is regarded by the critics as the best portrait among all his characters.
And even if we can neither commend nor recommend heroes like Tom Jones, such young men really existed, and the likeness is speakingly drawn: we bear with his faults because of his reality. Perhaps our verdict may be best given in the words of Thackeray. “I am angry,” he says, “with Jones. Too much of the plum-cake and the rewards of life fall to that boisterous, swaggering young scapegrace. Sophia actually surrenders without a proper sense of decorum; the fond, foolish, palpitating little creature. 'Indeed, Mr. Jones,' she says, 'it rests with you to name the day.' ... And yet many a young fellow, no better than Mr. Thomas Jones, has carried by a coup-de-main the heart of many a kind girl who was a great deal too good for him.”
When Joseph Andrews appeared, and Richardson found that so profane a person as Fielding had dared to burlesque his Pamela, he was angry; and his little tea-drinking coterie was warm in his defence; but Fielding's party was then, and has remained, the stronger.
In his novel of Amelia, we have a general autobiography of Fielding. Amelia, his wife, is lovely, chaste, and constant. Captain Booth—Fielding himself—is errant, guilty, generous, and repentant. We have besides in it many varieties of English life,—lords, clergymen, officers; Vauxhall and the masquerade; the sponging-house and its inmates, debtors and criminals,—all as Fielding saw and knew them.
The condition of the clergy is more clearly set forth in Fielding's novels than in the pages of Echard, Oldham, Wood, Macaulay, or Churchill Babington. So changed was their estate since the Reformation, that few high-born youths, except the weak or lame, took holy orders. Many clergymen worked during the week. One, says South, was a cobbler on weekdays, and preached on Sundays. Wilmot says: “We are struck by the phenomenon of a learned man sitting down to prove, with the help of logic, that a priest or a chaplain in a family is not a servant,”—Jeremy Collier: Essays on Pride and the Office of a Chaplain.
Fielding drew them and their condition from the life. Parson Adams is the most excellent of men. His cassock is ten years old; over it he dons a coarse white overcoat, and travels on foot to London to sell nine volumes of sermons, wherewithal to buy food for his family. He engages the innkeeper in serious talk; he does desperate battle to defend a young woman who has fallen into the hands of ruffians on the highway; and when he is arrested, his manuscript Eschylus is mistaken for a book of ciphers unfolding a dreadful plot against the government. This is a hit against the ignorance and want of education among the people; for it is some time before some one in the company thinks he saw such characters many years ago when he was young, and that it may be Greek. The incident of Parson Trulliber mistaking his fellow-priest for a pork-merchant, on account of his coarse garments, is excellent, but will not bear abbreviation. Adams is splattered by the huge, overfed swine, and ejaculates, “Nil habeo cum porcis; I am a clergyman, sir, and am not come to buy hogs!” The condition of a curate and the theology of the publican are set forth in the conversation between Parson Adams and the innkeeper.
The works of Fielding may be justly accused of describing immoral scenes and using lewd language; but even in this they are delineative of the manners and conversation of an age in which such men lived, such scenes occurred, such language was used. I liken the great realm of English prose fiction to some famous museum of art. The instructor of the young may carefully select what pictures to show them; but the student of English literature moves through the rooms and galleries, gazing, judging, approving, condemning, comparing. Genius may have soiled its canvas with what is prurient and vile; lascivious groups may stand side by side with pictures of saints and madonnas. To leave the figure, it is wise counsel to read on principle, and, armed with principle, to accept and imitate the good, and to reject the evil. Conscience gives the rule, and for every bane will give the antidote.
Of this school and period, Fielding is the greatest figure. One word as to his career. Passing through all social conditions,—first a country gentleman, living on or rather squandering his first wife's little fortune in following the hounds and entertaining the county; then a playwright, vegetating very seedily on the proceeds of his comedies; justice of the peace, and encountering, in his vocation, such characters as Jonathan Wild; drunken, licentious, unfaithful to his wife, but always—strange paradox of poor human nature—generous as the day; mourning with bitter tears the loss of his first wife, and then marrying her faithful maid-servant, that they may mourn for her together,—he seems to have been a rare mechanism without a governor. “Poor Harry Fielding!” And yet to this irregular, sinful character, we owe the inimitable portraitures of English life as it was, in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and Amelia.
Fielding's habits, acting upon a naturally weak constitution, wore him out. He left England, and wandered to the English factory at Lisbon, where he died, in 1754, in the forty-eighth year of his age.
TOBIAS GEORGE SMOLLETT.—Smollett, the third in order and in rank of the novelists of his age, was born at Cardross, Dumbartonshire, in 1721, of a good family; but he had small means. After some schooling at Dumbarton and a university career at Glasgow, he was, from necessity, apprenticed to a surgeon. But as his grandfather, Sir James Smollett, on whom he depended, died, he left his master, at the age of eighteen, and, taking in his pocket a manuscript play he had thus early written,—The Regicides,—he made his way to London, the El Dorado of all youths with literary aspirations. The play was not accepted; but, through the knowledge obtained in the surgery, he received an appointment as surgeon's mate, and went out with Admiral Vernon's fated expedition to Carthagena in that capacity, and thus acquired a knowledge of the sea and of sailors which he was to use with great effect in his later writings. For a time he remained in the West Indies, where he fell in love with Miss Anne Lascelles, whom he afterwards married. In 1746 he returned to London, and, after an unsuccessful attempt to practise medicine, he threw himself with great vigor into the field of literature. He was a man of strange and antagonistic features, just and generous in theory, quarrelsome and overbearing in practice. From the year 1746 his pen seems to have been always busy. He first tried his hand on some satires, which gained for him numerous enemies; and in 1748 he produced his first novel, Roderick Random, which, in spite of its indecency, the world at once acknowledged to be a work of genius: the verisimilitude was perfect; every one recognized in the hero the type of many a young North countryman going out to seek his fortune. The variety is great, the scenes are more varied and real than those in Richardson and Fielding, the characters are numerous and vividly painted, and the keen sense of ridicule pervading the book makes it a broad jest from beginning to end. Historically, his delineations are valuable; for he describes a period in the annals of the British marine which has happily passed away,—a hard life in little stifling holds or forecastles, with hard fare,—a base life, for the sailor, oppressed on shipboard, was the prey of vile women and land-sharks when on shore. What pictures of prostitution and indecency! what obscenity of language! what drunken infernal orgies! We may shun the book as we would shun the company, and yet the one is the exact portraiture of the other.
Roderick Random was followed, in 1751, by Peregrine Pickle, a book in similar taste, but the characters in which are even more striking. The forms of Commodore Trunnion, Lieutenant Hatchway, Pipes the boatswain, and Ap Morgan the choleric Welsh surgeon, are as familiar to us now as at the first.
Smollett had now retired to Chelsea, where his facile pen was still hard at work. In 1753 appeared his Ferdinand Count Fathom, the portraiture of a complete villain, corresponding in character with Fielding's Jonathan Wild, but with a better moral.
About this time he translated Don Quixote; and although his version is still published, it is by no means true to the idiom of the language, nor to the higher purpose of Cervantes.
Passing by his Complete History of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages, we come to his History of England from the Descent of Julius Caesar to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748. It is not a profound work; but it is so currently written, that, in lieu of better, the latter portion was taken to supplement Hume; as a work of less merit than either, that of Bissett was added in the later editions to supplement Smollett and Hume. For this history he is said to have received L2000.
In 1762 he issued The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, who, with his attendant, Captain Crowe, goes forth, in the style of Don Quixote and Sancho, to do the world. Smollett's forte was in the broadly humorous, and this is all that redeems this work from utter absurdity.
HUMPHREY CLINKER.—His last work of any importance, and perhaps his best, is The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, described in a series of letters descriptive of this amusing imaginative journey. Mrs. Winifred, Tabitha, and, best of all, Lismahago, are rare characters, and in all respects, except its vulgarity, it was the prototype of Hood's exquisite Up the Rhine.
From the year 1756, Smollett edited, at intervals, various periodicals, and wrote what he thought very good poetry, now forgotten,—an Ode to Independence, after the Greek manner of strophe and antistrophe, not wanting in a noble spirit; and The Tears of Scotland, written on the occasion of the Duke of Cumberland's barbarities, in 1746, after the battle of Culloden:
Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn
Thy banished peace, thy laurels torn!
Thy sons, for valor long renowned,
Lie slaughtered on thy native ground.
Smollett died abroad on the 21st of October, 1771. His health entirely broken, he had gone to Italy, and taken a cottage near Leghorn: a slight resuscitation was the consequence, and he had something in prospect to live for: he was the heir-at-law to the estate of Bonhill, worth L1000 per annum; but the remorseless archer would not wait for his fortune.