G.K. Chesterton.

The Victorian Age in Literature online

. (page 10 of 10)
Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Victorian Age in Literature → online text (page 10 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Victorian Industrialism; in which the Socialists (that is, those who
stood for increasing instead of diminishing the power of Government) won
a complete victory and have almost exterminated their enemy. The
Anarchist one meets here and there nowadays is a sad sight; he is
disappointed with the future, as well as with the past.

This victory of the Socialists was largely a literary victory; because
it was effected and popularised not only by a wit, but by a sincere wit;
and one who had the same sort of militant lucidity that Huxley had shown
in the last generation and Voltaire in the last century. A young Irish
journalist, impatient of the impoverished Protestantism and Liberalism
to which he had been bred, came out as the champion of Socialism not as
a matter of sentiment, but as a matter of common sense. The primary
position of Bernard Shaw towards the Victorian Age may be roughly
summarised thus: the typical Victorian said coolly: "Our system may not
be a perfect system, but it works." Bernard Shaw replied, even more
coolly: "It may be a perfect system, for all I know or care. But it does
not work." He and a society called the Fabians, which once exercised
considerable influence, followed this shrewd and sound strategic hint
to avoid mere emotional attack on the cruelty of Capitalism; and to
concentrate on its clumsiness, its ludicrous incapacity to do its own
work. This campaign succeeded, in the sense that while (in the educated
world) it was the Socialist who looked the fool at the beginning of that
campaign, it is the Anti-Socialist who looks the fool at the end of it.
But while it won the educated classes it lost the populace for ever. It
dried up those springs of blood and tears out of which all revolt must
come if it is to be anything but bureaucratic readjustment. We began
this book with the fires of the French Revolution still burning, but
burning low. Bernard Shaw was honestly in revolt in his own way: but it
was Bernard Shaw who trod out the last ember of the Great Revolution.
Bernard Shaw proceeded to apply to many other things the same sort of
hilarious realism which he thus successfully applied to the industrial
problem. He also enjoyed giving people a piece of his mind; but a piece
of his mind was a more appetising and less raw-looking object than a
piece of Hardy's. There were many modes of revolt growing all around
him; Shaw supported them - and supplanted them. Many were pitting the
realism of war against the romance of war: they succeeded in making the
fight dreary and repulsive, but the book dreary and repulsive too. Shaw,
in _Arms and the Man_, did manage to make war funny as well as
frightful. Many were questioning the right of revenge or punishment; but
they wrote their books in such a way that the reader was ready to
release all mankind if he might revenge himself on the author. Shaw, in
_Captain Brassbound's Conversion_, really showed at its best the merry
mercy of the pagan; that beautiful human nature that can neither rise to
penance nor sink to revenge. Many had proved that even the most
independent incomes drank blood out of the veins of the oppressed: but
they wrote it in such a style that their readers knew more about
depression than oppression. In _Widowers' Houses_ Shaw very nearly (but
not quite) succeeded in making a farce out of statistics. And the
ultimate utility of his brilliant interruption can best be expressed in
the very title of that play. When ages of essential European ethics have
said "widows' houses," it suddenly occurs to him to say "but what about
widowers' houses?" There is a sort of insane equity about it which was
what Bernard Shaw had the power to give, and gave.

Out of the same social ferment arose a man of equally unquestionable
genius, Mr. H. G. Wells. His first importance was that he wrote great
adventure stories in the new world the men of science had discovered. He
walked on a round slippery world as boldly as Ulysses or Tom Jones had
worked on a flat one. Cyrano de Bergerac or Baron Munchausen, or other
typical men of science, had treated the moon as a mere flat silver
mirror in which Man saw his own image - the Man in the Moon. Wells
treated the moon as a globe, like our own; bringing forth monsters as
moonish as we are earthy. The exquisitely penetrating political and
social satire he afterwards wrote belongs to an age later than the
Victorian. But because, even from the beginning, his whole trend was
Socialist, it is right to place him here.

While the old Victorian ideas were being disturbed by an increasing
torture at home, they were also intoxicated by a new romance from
abroad. It did not come from Italy with Rossetti and Browning, or from
Persia with Fitzgerald: but it came from countries as remote, countries
which were (as the simple phrase of that period ran) "painted red" on
the map. It was an attempt to reform England through the newer nations;
by the criticism of the forgotten colonies, rather than of the forgotten
classes. Both Socialism and Imperialism were utterly alien to the
Victorian idea. From the point of view of a Victorian aristocrat like
Palmerston, Socialism would be the cheek of gutter snipes; Imperialism
would be the intrusion of cads. But cads are not alone concerned.

Broadly, the phase in which the Victorian epoch closed was what can only
be called the Imperialist phase. Between that and us stands a very
individual artist who must nevertheless be connected with that phase. As
I said at the beginning, Macaulay (or, rather, the mind Macaulay shared
with most of his powerful middle class) remains as a sort of pavement or
flat foundation under all the Victorians. They discussed the dogmas
rather than denied them. Now one of the dogmas of Macaulay was the dogma
of progress. A fair statement of the truth in it is not really so hard.
Investigation of anything naturally takes some little time. It takes
some time to sort letters so as to find a letter: it takes some time to
test a gas-bracket so as to find the leak; it takes some time to sift
evidence so as to find the truth. Now the curse that fell on the later
Victorians was this: that they began to value the time more than the
truth. One felt so secretarial when sorting letters that one never found
the letter; one felt so scientific in explaining gas that one never
found the leak; and one felt so judicial, so impartial, in weighing
evidence that one had to be bribed to come to any conclusion at all.
This was the last note of the Victorians: procrastination was called
progress.

Now if we look for the worst fruits of this fallacy we shall find them
in historical criticism. There is a curious habit of treating any one
who comes before a strong movement as the "forerunner" of that movement.
That is, he is treated as a sort of slave running in advance of a great
army. Obviously, the analogy really arises from St. John the Baptist,
for whom the phrase "forerunner" was rather peculiarly invented. Equally
obviously, such a phrase only applies to an alleged or real divine
event: otherwise the forerunner would be a founder. Unless Jesus had
been the Baptist's God, He would simply have been his disciple.

Nevertheless the fallacy of the "forerunner" has been largely used in
literature. Thus men will call a universal satirist like Langland a
"morning star of the Reformation," or some such rubbish; whereas the
Reformation was not larger, but much smaller than Langland. It was
simply the victory of one class of his foes, the greedy merchants, over
another class of his foes, the lazy abbots. In real history this
constantly occurs; that some small movement happens to favour one of the
million things suggested by some great man; whereupon the great man is
turned into the running slave of the small movement. Thus certain
sectarian movements borrowed the sensationalism without the
sacramentalism of Wesley. Thus certain groups of decadents found it
easier to imitate De Quincey's opium than his eloquence. Unless we grasp
this plain common sense (that you or I are not responsible for what some
ridiculous sect a hundred years hence may choose to do with what we say)
the peculiar position of Stevenson in later Victorian letters cannot
begin to be understood. For he was a very universal man; and talked some
sense not only on every subject, but, so far as it is logically
possible, in every sense. But the glaring deficiencies of the Victorian
compromise had by that time begun to gape so wide that he was forced, by
mere freedom of philosophy and fancy, to urge the neglected things. And
yet this very urgency certainly brought on an opposite fever, which he
would not have liked if he had lived to understand it. He liked Kipling,
though with many healthy hesitations; but he would not have liked the
triumph of Kipling: which was the success of the politician and the
failure of the poet. Yet when we look back up the false perspective of
time, Stevenson does seem in a sense to have prepared that imperial and
downward path.

I shall not talk here, any more than anywhere else in this book, about
the "sedulous ape" business. No man ever wrote as well as Stevenson who
cared only about writing. Yet there is a sense, though a misleading one,
in which his original inspirations were artistic rather than purely
philosophical. To put the point in that curt covenanting way which he
himself could sometimes command, he thought it immoral to neglect
romance. The whole of his real position was expressed in that phrase of
one of his letters "our civilisation is a dingy ungentlemanly business:
it drops so much out of a man." On the whole he concluded that what had
been dropped out of the man was the boy. He pursued pirates as Defoe
would have fled from them; and summed up his simplest emotions in that
touching _cri de cœur_ "shall we never shed blood?" He did for the
penny dreadful what Coleridge had done for the penny ballad. He proved
that, because it was really human, it could really rise as near to
heaven as human nature could take it. If Thackeray is our youth,
Stevenson is our boyhood: and though this is not the most artistic
thing in him, it is the most important thing in the history of Victorian
art. All the other fine things he did were, for curious reasons, remote
from the current of his age. For instance, he had the good as well as
the bad of coming from a Scotch Calvinist's house. No man in that age
had so healthy an instinct for the actuality of positive evil. In _The
Master of Ballantrae_ he did prove with a pen of steel, that the Devil
is a gentleman - but is none the less the Devil. It is also
characteristic of him (and of the revolt from Victorian respectability
in general) that his most blood-and-thunder sensational tale is also
that which contains his most intimate and bitter truth. _Dr. Jekyll and
Mr. Hyde_ is a double triumph; it has the outside excitement that
belongs to Conan Doyle with the inside excitement that belongs to Henry
James. Alas, it is equally characteristic of the Victorian time that
while nearly every Englishman has enjoyed the anecdote, hardly one
Englishman has seen the joke - I mean the point. You will find twenty
allusions to Jekyll and Hyde in a day's newspaper reading. You will also
find that all such allusions suppose the two personalities to be equal,
neither caring for the other. Or more roughly, they think the book means
that man can be cloven into two creatures, good and evil. The whole stab
of the story is that man _can't_: because while evil does not care for
good, good must care for evil. Or, in other words, man cannot escape
from God, because good is the God in man; and insists on omniscience.
This point, which is good psychology and also good theology and also
good art, has missed its main intention merely because it was also good
story-telling.

If the rather vague Victorian public did not appreciate the deep and
even tragic ethics with which Stevenson was concerned, still less were
they of a sort to appreciate the French finish and fastidiousness of his
style; in which he seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his
pen, like a man playing spillikins. But that style also had a quality
that could be felt; it had a military edge to it, an _acies_; and there
was a kind of swordsmanship about it. Thus all the circumstances led,
not so much to the narrowing of Stevenson to the romance of the fighting
spirit; but the narrowing of his influence to that romance. He had a
great many other things to say; but this was what we were willing to
hear: a reaction against the gross contempt for soldiering which had
really given a certain Chinese deadness to the Victorians. Yet another
circumstance thrust him down the same path; and in a manner not wholly
fortunate. The fact that he was a sick man immeasurably increases the
credit to his manhood in preaching a sane levity and pugnacious
optimism. But it also forbade him full familiarity with the actualities
of sport, war, or comradeship: and here and there his note is false in
these matters, and reminds one (though very remotely) of the mere
provincial bully that Henley sometimes sank to be.

For Stevenson had at his elbow a friend, an invalid like himself, a man
of courage and stoicism like himself; but a man in whom everything that
Stevenson made delicate and rational became unbalanced and blind. The
difference is, moreover, that Stevenson was quite right in claiming that
he could treat his limitation as an accident; that his medicines "did
not colour his life." His life was really coloured out of a shilling
paint-box, like his toy-theatre: such high spirits as he had are the key
to him: his sufferings are not the key to him. But Henley's sufferings
are the key to Henley; much must be excused him, and there is much to be
excused. The result was that while there was always a certain dainty
equity about Stevenson's judgments, even when he was wrong, Henley
seemed to think that on the right side the wronger you were the better.
There was much that was feminine in him; and he is most understandable
when surprised in those little solitary poems which speak of emotions
mellowed, of sunset and a quiet end. Henley hurled himself into the new
fashion of praising Colonial adventure at the expense both of the
Christian and the republican traditions; but the sentiment did not
spread widely until the note was struck outside England in one of the
conquered countries; and a writer of Anglo-Indian short stories showed
the stamp of the thing called genius; that indefinable, dangerous and
often temporary thing.

For it is really impossible to criticise Rudyard Kipling as part of
Victorian literature, because he is the end of such literature. He has
many other powerful elements; an Indian element, which makes him
exquisitely sympathetic with the Indian; a vague Jingo influence which
makes him sympathetic with the man that crushes the Indian; a vague
journalistic sympathy with the men that misrepresent everything that has
happened to the Indian; but of the Victorian virtues, nothing.

All that was right or wrong in Kipling was expressed in the final
convulsion that he almost in person managed to achieve. The nearest that
any honest man can come to the thing called "impartiality" is to confess
that he is partial. I therefore confess that I think this last turn of
the Victorian Age was an unfortunate turn; much on the other side can be
said, and I hope will be said. But about the facts there can be no
question. The Imperialism of Kipling was equally remote from the
Victorian caution and the Victorian idealism: and our subject does quite
seriously end here. The world was full of the trampling of totally new
forces, gold was sighted from far in a sort of cynical romanticism: the
guns opened across Africa; and the great queen died.

* * * * *

Of what will now be the future of so separate and almost secretive an
adventure of the English, the present writer will not permit himself,
even for an instant, to prophesy. The Victorian Age made one or two
mistakes, but they were mistakes that were really useful; that is,
mistakes that were really mistaken. They thought that commerce outside a
country must extend peace: it has certainly often extended war. They
thought that commerce inside a country must certainly promote
prosperity; it has largely promoted poverty. But for them these were
experiments; for us they ought to be lessons. If _we_ continue the
capitalist use of the populace - if _we_ continue the capitalist use of
external arms, it will lie heavy on the living. The dishonour will not
be on the dead.


BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE


After having surveyed the immense field presented in such a volume as
Mr. George Mair's _Modern English Literature_ in this series, or, more
fully, in the _Cambridge History of Modern Literature_, the later volume
of Chambers' _English Literature_, Mr. Gosse's _History of Modern
English Literature_, or Henry Morley's _English Literature in the Reign
of Victoria_, the wise reader will choose some portion for closer study,
and will go straight to the originals before he has any further traffic
with critics or commentators, however able.

He will then need the aid of fuller biographies. Some Victorian _Lives_
are already classic, or nearly so, among them Sir G. Trevelyan's
_Macaulay_, Forster's _Dickens_, Mrs. Gaskell's _Charlotte Brontë_,
Froude's _Carlyle_, and Sir E. T. Cook's _Ruskin_. With these may be
ranged the great _Dictionary of National Biography_. The "English Men of
Letters" Series includes H. D. Traill's _Coleridge_, Ainger's _Lamb_,
Trollope's _Thackeray_, Leslie Stephen's _George Eliot_, Herbert Paul's
_Matthew Arnold_, Sir A. Lyall's _Tennyson_, G. K. Chesterton's _Robert
Browning_, and A. C. Benson's _Fitzgerald_. At least two autobiographies
must be named, those of Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, and, as
antidote to Newman's _Apologia_, the gay self-revelations of Borrow, and
Jefferies' _Story of My Heart_. Other considerable volumes are W. J.
Cross's _George Eliot_, Lionel Johnson's _Art of Thomas Hardy_, Mr. W. M.
Rossetti's _Dante G. Rossetti_, Colvin's _R. L. Stevenson_, J. W.
Mackail's _William Morris_, Holman Hunt's _Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood_,
Sir Leslie Stephen's _The Utilitarians_, Buxton Forman's _Our Living
Poets_, Edward Thomas's _Swinburne_, Monypenny's _Disraeli_, Dawson's
_Victorian Novelists_, and Stedman's _Victorian Poets_. The "Everyman"
_Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature_ is useful for
dates.

The latter half of the second volume of Mr. F. A. Mumby's _Letters of
Literary Men_ is devoted to the Victorian Age. There are fuller
collections of the _Letters_ of Leigh Hunt, Thackeray, Dickens, the
Brownings, Fitzgerald, Charles Kingsley, Matthew Arnold, and more
recently the _Letters of George Meredith_, edited by his son.

Among the important critical writers of the period, Matthew Arnold
(_Essays in Criticism_, _Study of Celtic Literature_, etc.) stands
easily first. Others are John, now Lord, Morley (_Studies in
Literature_, etc.), Augustine Birrell (_Obiter Dicta_, _Essays_), W. E.
Henley (_Views and Reviews_), J. Addington Symonds (_Essays_), J.
Churton Collins, Richard Garnett, Stopford A. Brooke, George E. B.
Saintsbury (_History of Criticism_), R. H. Hutton (_Contemporary
Thought_), J. M. Robertson (_Modern Humanists_, _Buckle_, etc.), Frederic
Harrison (_The Choice of Books_, etc.), Andrew Lang, Walter Bagehot,
Edmund Gosse, Prof. Dowden, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir A. T. Quiller
Couch.


INDEX


Æsthetes, the, and Decadents, 218-27
Arnold, Matthew, 73-79, 87
Austen, Jane, 92, 105, 109

Bentham, 36
Blake, 20
Borrow, 151
Brontë, Charlotte, 92, 105, 110-14
- - , Emily, 113
Browning, Elizabeth B., 176-82
- - , R., 40-41, 159, 162-63
Byron, 22

Carlyle, 40, 49-62, 158
Carroll, Lewis, 153
Cobbett, 16-17, 88, 151
Coleridge, 20
Collins, Wilkie, 130, 132

Darwin, 38, 206-7, 209
De Quincey, 23-25, 65
Dickens, 40, 79-89, 100, 106, 119-23, 129, 131
Disraeli, 42, 135

Eliot, George, 92, 103-9, 157

Faber, 46
Fitzgerald, 192-95
French Revolution, Influence of, 18-21
Froude, 60, 62

Gaskell, Mrs., 94
Gilbert, 154

Hardy, Thomas, 138-39, 143-45
Hazlitt, 23
Henley, W. E., 247-48
Hood, Thomas, 25-27
Hughes, Tom, 73
Humour, Victorian, 152-55
Hunt, Leigh, 23
Huxley, 39-40, 205

Imperialism, 60, 239

James, Henry, 228-31

Keats, 20
Keble, 45
Kingsley, 40, 59, 64, 72, 134-35
Kipling, R., 60, 249-50

Lamb, 23
Landor, 23
Lear, Edward, 153
Literary temperament, the English, 13-16
Lytton, Bulwer, 135-37

Macaulay, 28-36, 55
Macdonald, George, 152
Maurice, F. D., 40, 73
Melbourne, Lord, 42
Meredith, George, 138-49, 228
Mill, J. S., 36-37, 55
Morris, Wm., 196-200, 232

Newman, 38, 40, 45-48, 78, 159
Novel, The Modern, 90-99

Oliphant, Mrs., 116-17
"Ouida," 117
Oxford Movement, 42-45

Pater, Walter, 69-71
Patmore, 48, 201-2
Pre-Raphaelite School, 68, 72

Reade, Charles, 134
Rossetti, D. G. and C., 71, 188-91
Ruskin, 40, 62-8, 70, 158

Science, Victorian, 208-12
Shaw, G. B., 60, 235-38
Shelley, 22-23
Shorthouse, 149-50
Socialism, 60, 67, 122, 198, 227, 231-39
Spencer, Herbert, 75, 233-34
Stevenson, R. L., 243-49
Swinburne, 69, 159, 181-88

Tennyson, 40, 64, 160-69
Thackeray, 100, 110, 123-30, 158
Thompson, Francis, 48, 201, 202
Trollope, Anthony, 130, 132-33

Watson, Wm., 202
Wells, H. G., 238-39
Wilde, Oscar, 218-23
Women, Victorian, 91, 99, 104, 115-16, 140




1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10

Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Victorian Age in Literature → online text (page 10 of 10)