G.K. Chesterton.

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no particular plan of reform; or, when he had, it was startlingly petty
and parochial compared with the deep, confused clamour of comradeship
and insurrection that fills all his narrative. It would not be gravely
unjust to him to compare him to his own heroine, Arabella Allen, who
"didn't know what she did like," but who (when confronted with Mr. Bob
Sawyer) "did know what she didn't like." Dickens did know what he didn't
like. He didn't like the Unrivalled Happiness which Mr. Roebuck praised;
the economic laws that were working so faultlessly in Fever Alley; the
wealth that was accumulating so rapidly in Bleeding Heart Yard. But,
above all, he didn't like the _mean_ side of the Manchester philosophy:
the preaching of an impossible thrift and an intolerable temperance. He
hated the implication that because a man was a miser in Latin he must
also be a miser in English. And this meanness of the Utilitarians had
gone very far - infecting many finer minds who had fought the
Utilitarians. In the _Edinburgh Review_, a thing like Malthus could be
championed by a man like Macaulay.

The twin root facts of the revolution called Dickens are these: first,
that he attacked the cold Victorian compromise; second, that he
attacked it without knowing he was doing it - certainly without knowing
that other people were doing it. He was attacking something which we
will call Mr. Gradgrind. He was utterly unaware (in any essential sense)
that any one else had attacked Mr. Gradgrind. All the other attacks had
come from positions of learning or cultured eccentricity of which he was
entirely ignorant, and to which, therefore (like a spirited fellow), he
felt a furious hostility. Thus, for instance, he hated that Little
Bethel to which Kit's mother went: he hated it simply as Kit hated it.
Newman could have told him it was hateful, because it had no root in
religious history; it was not even a sapling sprung of the seed of some
great human and heathen tree: it was a monstrous mushroom that grows in
the moonshine and dies in the dawn. Dickens knew no more of religious
history than Kit; he simply smelt the fungus, and it stank. Thus, again,
he hated that insolent luxury of a class counting itself a comfortable
exception to all mankind; he hated it as Kate Nickleby hated Sir
Mulberry Hawke - by instinct. Carlyle could have told him that all the
world was full of that anger against the impudent fatness of the few.
But when Dickens wrote about Kate Nickleby, he knew about as much of the
world - as Kate Nickleby. He did write _The Tale of Two Cities_ long
afterwards; but that was when he _had_ been instructed by Carlyle. His
first revolutionism was as private and internal as feeling sea-sick.
Thus, once more, he wrote against Mr. Gradgrind long before he created
him. In _The Chimes_, conceived in quite his casual and charitable
season, with the _Christmas Carol_ and the _Cricket on the Hearth_, he
hit hard at the economists. Ruskin, in the same fashion, would have told
him that the worst thing about the economists was that they were not
economists: that they missed many essential things even in economics.
But Dickens did not know whether they were economists or not: he only
knew that they wanted hitting. Thus, to take a last case out of many,
Dickens travelled in a French railway train, and noticed that this
eccentric nation provided him with wine that he could drink and
sandwiches he could eat, and manners he could tolerate. And remembering
the ghastly sawdust-eating waiting-rooms of the North English railways,
he wrote that rich chapter in _Mugby Junction_. Matthew Arnold could
have told him that this was but a part of the general thinning down of
European civilisation in these islands at the edge of it; that for two
or three thousand years the Latin society has learnt how to drink wine,
and how not to drink too much of it. Dickens did not in the least
understand the Latin society: but he did understand the wine. If (to
prolong an idle but not entirely false metaphor) we have called Carlyle
a man who saw and Arnold a man who knew, we might truly call Dickens a
man who tasted, that is, a man who really felt. In spite of all the
silly talk about his vulgarity, he really had, in the strict and
serious sense, good taste. All real good taste is gusto - the power of
appreciating the presence - or the absence - of a particular and positive
pleasure. He had no learning; he was not misled by the label on the
bottle - for that is what learning largely meant in his time. He opened
his mouth and shut his eyes and saw what the Age of Reason would give
him. And, having tasted it, he spat it out.

I am constrained to consider Dickens here among the fighters; though I
ought (on the pure principles of Art) to be considering him in the
chapter which I have allotted to the story-tellers. But we should get
the whole Victorian perspective wrong, in my opinion at least, if we did
not see that Dickens was primarily the most successful of all the
onslaughts on the solid scientific school; because he did not attack
from the standpoint of extraordinary faith, like Newman; or the
standpoint of extraordinary inspiration, like Carlyle; or the standpoint
of extraordinary detachment or serenity, like Arnold; but from the
standpoint of quite ordinary and quite hearty dislike. To give but one
instance more, Matthew Arnold, trying to carry into England constructive
educational schemes which he could see spread like a clear railway map
all over the Continent, was much badgered about what he really thought
was _wrong_ with English middle-class education. Despairing of
explaining to the English middle class the idea of high and central
public instruction, as distinct from coarse and hole-and-corner private
instruction, he invoked the aid of Dickens. He said the English
middle-class school was the sort of school where Mr. Creakle sat, with
his buttered toast and his cane. Now Dickens had probably never seen any
other kind of school - certainly he had never understood the systematic
State Schools in which Arnold had learnt his lesson. But he saw the cane
and the buttered toast, and he _knew_ that it was all wrong. In this
sense, Dickens, the great romanticist, is truly the great realist also.
For he had no abstractions: he had nothing except realities out of which
to make a romance.

With Dickens, then, re-arises that reality with which I began and which
(curtly, but I think not falsely) I have called Cobbett. In dealing with
fiction as such, I shall have occasion to say wherein Dickens is weaker
and stronger than that England of the eighteenth century: here it is
sufficient to say that he represents the return of Cobbett in this vital
sense; that he is proud of being the ordinary man. No one can understand
the thousand caricatures by Dickens who does not understand that he is
comparing them all with his own common sense. Dickens, in the bulk,
liked the things that Cobbett had liked; what is perhaps more to the
point, he hated the things that Cobbett had hated; the Tudors, the
lawyers, the leisurely oppression of the poor. Cobbett's fine fighting
journalism had been what is nowadays called "personal," that is, it
supposed human beings to be human. But Cobbett was also personal in the
less satisfactory sense; he could only multiply monsters who were
exaggerations of his enemies or exaggerations of himself. Dickens was
personal in a more godlike sense; he could multiply persons. He could
create all the farce and tragedy of his age over again, with creatures
unborn to sin and creatures unborn to suffer. That which had not been
achieved by the fierce facts of Cobbett, the burning dreams of Carlyle,
the white-hot proofs of Newman, was really or very nearly achieved by a
crowd of impossible people. In the centre stood that citadel of atheist
industrialism: and if indeed it has ever been taken, it was taken by the
rush of that unreal army.



The Victorian novel was a thing entirely Victorian; quite unique and
suited to a sort of cosiness in that country and that age. But the novel
itself, though not merely Victorian, is mainly modern. No clear-headed
person wastes his time over definitions, except where he thinks his own
definition would probably be in dispute. I merely say, therefore, that
when I say "novel," I mean a fictitious narrative (almost invariably,
but not necessarily, in prose) of which the essential is that the story
is not told for the sake of its naked pointedness as an anecdote, or for
the sake of the irrelevant landscapes and visions that can be caught up
in it, but for the sake of some study of the difference between human
beings. There are several things that make this mode of art unique. One
of the most conspicuous is that it is the art in which the conquests of
woman are quite beyond controversy. The proposition that Victorian women
have done well in politics and philosophy is not necessarily an untrue
proposition; but it is a partisan proposition. I never heard that many
women, let alone men, shared the views of Mary Wollstonecraft; I never
heard that millions of believers flocked to the religion tentatively
founded by Miss Frances Power Cobbe. They did, undoubtedly, flock to
Mrs. Eddy; but it will not be unfair to that lady to call her following
a sect, and not altogether unreasonable to say that such insane
exceptions prove the rule. Nor can I at this moment think of a single
modern woman writing on politics or abstract things, whose work is of
undisputed importance; except perhaps Mrs. Sidney Webb, who settles
things by the simple process of ordering about the citizens of a state,
as she might the servants in a kitchen. There has been, at any rate, no
writer on moral or political theory that can be mentioned, without
seeming comic, in the same breath with the great female novelists. But
when we come to the novelists, the women have, on the whole, equality;
and certainly, in some points, superiority. Jane Austen is as strong in
her own way as Scott is in his. But she is, for all practical purposes,
never weak in her own way - and Scott very often is. Charlotte Brontë
dedicated _Jane Eyre_ to the author of _Vanity Fair_. I should hesitate
to say that Charlotte Brontë's is a better book than Thackeray's, but I
think it might well be maintained that it is a better story. All sorts
of inquiring asses (equally ignorant of the old nature of woman and the
new nature of the novel) whispered wisely that George Eliot's novels
were really written by George Lewes. I will cheerfully answer for the
fact that, if they had been written by George Lewes, no one would ever
have read them. Those who have read his book on Robespierre will have
no doubt about my meaning. I am no idolater of George Eliot; but a man
who could concoct such a crushing opiate about the most exciting
occasion in history certainly did not write _The Mill on the Floss_.
This is the first fact about the novel, that it is the introduction of a
new and rather curious kind of art; and it has been found to be
peculiarly feminine, from the first good novel by Fanny Burney to the
last good novel by Miss May Sinclair. The truth is, I think, that the
modern novel is a new thing; not new in its essence (for that is a
philosophy for fools), but new in the sense that it lets loose many of
the things that are old. It is a hearty and exhaustive overhauling of
that part of human existence which has always been the woman's province,
or rather kingdom; the play of personalities in private, the real
difference between Tommy and Joe. It is right that womanhood should
specialise in individuals, and be praised for doing so; just as in the
Middle Ages she specialised in dignity and was praised for doing so.
People put the matter wrong when they say that the novel is a study of
human nature. Human nature is a thing that even men can understand.
Human nature is born of the pain of a woman; human nature plays at
peep-bo when it is two and at cricket when it is twelve; human nature
earns its living and desires the other sex and dies. What the novel
deals with is what women have to deal with; the differentiations, the
twists and turns of this eternal river. The key of this new form of art,
which we call fiction, is sympathy. And sympathy does not mean so much
feeling with all who feel, but rather suffering with all who suffer. And
it was inevitable, under such an inspiration, that more attention should
be given to the awkward corners of life than to its even flow. The very
promising domestic channel dug by the Victorian women, in books like
_Cranford_, by Mrs. Gaskell, would have got to the sea, if they had been
left alone to dig it. They might have made domesticity a fairyland.
Unfortunately another idea, the idea of imitating men's cuffs and
collars and documents, cut across this purely female discovery and
destroyed it.

It may seem mere praise of the novel to say it is the art of sympathy
and the study of human variations. But indeed, though this is a good
thing, it is not universally good. We have gained in sympathy; but we
have lost in brotherhood. Old quarrels had more equality than modern
exonerations. Two peasants in the Middle Ages quarrelled about their two
fields. But they went to the same church, served in the same semi-feudal
militia, and had the same morality, which ever might happen to be
breaking it at the moment. The very cause of their quarrel was the cause
of their fraternity; they both liked land. But suppose one of them a
teetotaler who desired the abolition of hops on both farms; suppose the
other a vegetarian who desired the abolition of chickens on both farms:
and it is at once apparent that a quarrel of quite a different kind
would begin; and that in that quarrel it would not be a question of
farmer against farmer, but of individual against individual. This
fundamental sense of human fraternity can only exist in the presence of
positive religion. Man is merely man only when he is seen against the
sky. If he is seen against any landscape, he is only a man of that land.
If he is seen against any house, he is only a householder. Only where
death and eternity are intensely present can human beings fully feel
their fellowship. Once the divine darkness against which we stand is
really dismissed from the mind (as it was very nearly dismissed in the
Victorian time) the differences between human beings become
overpoweringly plain; whether they are expressed in the high caricatures
of Dickens or the low lunacies of Zola.

This can be seen in a sort of picture in the Prologue of the _Canterbury
Tales_; which is already pregnant with the promise of the English novel.
The characters there are at once graphically and delicately
differentiated; the Doctor with his rich cloak, his careful meals, his
coldness to religion; the Franklin, whose white beard was so fresh that
it recalled the daisies, and in whose house it snowed meat and drink;
the Summoner, from whose fearful face, like a red cherub's, the children
fled, and who wore a garland like a hoop; the Miller with his short red
hair and bagpipes and brutal head, with which he could break down a
door; the Lover who was as sleepless as a nightingale; the Knight, the
Cook, the Clerk of Oxford. Pendennis or the Cook, M. Mirabolant, is
nowhere so vividly varied by a few merely verbal strokes. But the great
difference is deeper and more striking. It is simply that Pendennis
would never have gone riding with a cook at all. Chaucer's knight rode
with a cook quite naturally; because the thing they were all seeking
together was as much above knighthood as it was above cookery. Soldiers
and swindlers and bullies and outcasts, they were all going to the
shrine of a distant saint. To what sort of distant saint would Pendennis
and Colonel Newcome and Mr. Moss and Captain Costigan and Ridley the
butler and Bayham and Sir Barnes Newcome and Laura and the Duchess
d'Ivry and Warrington and Captain Blackball and Lady Kew travel,
laughing and telling tales together?

The growth of the novel, therefore, must not be too easily called an
increase in the interest in humanity. It is an increase in the interest
in the things in which men differ; much fuller and finer work had been
done before about the things in which they agree. And this intense
interest in variety had its bad side as well as its good; it has rather
increased social distinctions in a serious and spiritual sense. Most of
the oblivion of democracy is due to the oblivion of death. But in its
own manner and measure, it was a real advance and experiment of the
European mind, like the public art of the Renaissance or the fairyland
of physical science explored in the nineteenth century. It was a more
unquestionable benefit than these: and in that development women played
a peculiar part, English women especially, and Victorian women most of

It is perhaps partly, though certainly not entirely, this influence of
the great women writers that explains another very arresting and
important fact about the emergence of genuinely Victorian fiction. It
had been by this time decided, by the powers that had influence (and by
public opinion also, at least in the middle-class sense), that certain
verbal limits must be set to such literature. The novel must be what
some would call pure and others would call prudish; but what is not,
properly considered, either one or the other: it is rather a more or
less business proposal (right or wrong) that every writer shall draw the
line at literal physical description of things socially concealed. It
was originally merely verbal; it had not, primarily, any dream of
purifying the topic or the moral tone. Dickens and Thackeray claimed
very properly the right to deal with shameful passions and suggest their
shameful culminations; Scott sometimes dealt with ideas positively
horrible - as in that grand Glenallan tragedy which is as appalling as
the _Œdipus_ or _The Cenci_. None of these great men would have
tolerated for a moment being talked to (as the muddle-headed amateur
censors talk to artists to-day) about "wholesome" topics and suggestions
"that cannot elevate." They had to describe the great battle of good and
evil and they described both; but they accepted a working Victorian
compromise about what should happen behind the scenes and what on the
stage. Dickens did not claim the license of diction Fielding might have
claimed in repeating the senile ecstasies of Gride (let us say) over his
purchased bride: but Dickens does not leave the reader in the faintest
doubt about what sort of feelings they were; nor is there any reason why
he should. Thackeray would not have described the toilet details of the
secret balls of Lord Steyne: he left that to Lady Cardigan. But no one
who had read Thackeray's version would be surprised at Lady Cardigan's.
But though the great Victorian novelists would not have permitted the
impudence of the suggestion that every part of their problem must be
wholesome and innocent in itself, it is still tenable (I do not say it
is certain) that by yielding to the Philistines on this verbal
compromise, they have in the long run worked for impurity rather than
purity. In one point I do certainly think that Victorian Bowdlerism did
pure harm. This is the simple point that, nine times out of ten, the
coarse word is the word that condemns an evil and the refined word the
word that excuses it. A common evasion, for instance, substitutes for
the word that brands self-sale as the essential sin, a word which weakly
suggests that it is no more wicked than walking down the street. The
great peril of such soft mystifications is that extreme evils (they
that are abnormal even by the standard of evil) have a very long start.
Where ordinary wrong is made unintelligible, extraordinary wrong can
count on remaining more unintelligible still; especially among those who
live in such an atmosphere of long words. It is a cruel comment on the
purity of the Victorian Age, that the age ended (save for the bursting
of a single scandal) in a thing being everywhere called "Art," "The
Greek Spirit," "The Platonic Ideal" and so on - which any navvy mending
the road outside would have stamped with a word as vile and as vulgar as
it deserved.

This reticence, right or wrong, may have been connected with the
participation of women with men in the matter of fiction. It is an
important point: the sexes can only be coarse separately. It was
certainly also due, as I have already suggested, to the treaty between
the rich _bourgeoisie_ and the old aristocracy, which both had to make,
for the common and congenial purpose of keeping the English people
down. But it was due much more than this to a general moral atmosphere
in the Victorian Age. It is impossible to express that spirit except by
the electric bell of a name. It was latitudinarian, and yet it was
limited. It could be content with nothing less than the whole cosmos:
yet the cosmos with which it was content was small. It is false to say
it was without humour: yet there was something by instinct unsmiling in
it. It was always saying solidly that things were "enough"; and proving
by that sharpness (as of the shutting of a door) that they were not
enough. It took, I will not say its pleasures, but even its
emancipations, sadly. Definitions seem to escape this way and that in
the attempt to locate it as an idea. But every one will understand me if
I call it George Eliot.

I begin with this great woman of letters for both the two reasons
already mentioned. She represents the rationalism of the old Victorian
Age at its highest. She and Mill are like two great mountains at the end
of that long, hard chain which is the watershed of the Early Victorian
time. They alone rise high enough to be confused among the clouds - or
perhaps confused among the stars. They certainly were seeking truth, as
Newman and Carlyle were; the slow slope of the later Victorian vulgarity
does not lower their precipice and pinnacle. But I begin with this name
also because it emphasises the idea of modern fiction as a fresh and
largely a female thing. The novel of the nineteenth century was female;
as fully as the novel of the eighteenth century was male. It is quite
certain that no woman could have written _Roderick Random_. It is not
quite so certain that no woman could have written _Esmond_. The strength
and subtlety of woman had certainly sunk deep into English letters when
George Eliot began to write.

Her originals and even her contemporaries had shown the feminine power
in fiction as well or better than she. Charlotte Brontë, understood
along her own instincts, was as great; Jane Austen was greater. The
latter comes into our present consideration only as that most
exasperating thing, an ideal unachieved. It is like leaving an
unconquered fortress in the rear. No woman later has captured the
complete common sense of Jane Austen. She could keep her head, while all
the after women went about looking for their brains. She could describe
a man coolly; which neither George Eliot nor Charlotte Brontë could do.
She knew what she knew, like a sound dogmatist: she did not know what
she did not know - like a sound agnostic. But she belongs to a vanished
world before the great progressive age of which I write.

One of the characteristics of the central Victorian spirit was a
tendency to substitute a certain more or less satisfied seriousness for
the extremes of tragedy and comedy. This is marked by a certain change
in George Eliot; as it is marked by a certain limitation or moderation
in Dickens. Dickens was the People, as it was in the eighteenth century
and still largely is, in spite of all the talk for and against Board
School Education: comic, tragic, realistic, free-spoken, far looser in
words than in deeds. It marks the silent strength and pressure of the
spirit of the Victorian middle class that even to Dickens it never
occurred to revive the verbal coarseness of Smollett or Swift. The other
proof of the same pressure is the change in George Eliot. She was not a
genius in the elemental sense of Dickens; she could never have been
either so strong or so soft. But she did originally represent some of
the same popular realities: and her first books (at least as compared
with her latest) were full of sound fun and bitter pathos. Mr. Max
Beerbohm has remarked (in his glorious essay called _Ichabod_, I think),
that Silas Marner would not have forgotten his miserliness if George
Eliot had written of him in her maturity. I have a great regard for Mr.
Beerbohm's literary judgments; and it may be so. But if literature

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Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Victorian Age in Literature → online text (page 4 of 10)