G.K. Chesterton.

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means anything more than a cold calculation of the chances, if there is
in it, as I believe, any deeper idea of detaching the spirit of life
from the dull obstacles of life, of permitting human nature really to
reveal itself as human, if (to put it shortly) literature has anything
on earth to do with being _interesting_ - then I think we would rather
have a few more Marners than that rich maturity that gave us the
analysed dust-heaps of _Daniel Deronda_.

In her best novels there is real humour, of a cool sparkling sort; there
is a strong sense of substantial character that has not yet degenerated
into psychology; there is a great deal of wisdom, chiefly about women;
indeed there is almost every element of literature except a certain
indescribable thing called _glamour_; which was the whole stock-in-trade
of the Brontës, which we feel in Dickens when Quilp clambers amid rotten
wood by the desolate river; and even in Thackeray when Esmond with his
melancholy eyes wanders like some swarthy crow about the dismal avenues
of Castlewood. Of this quality (which some have called, but hastily, the
essential of literature) George Eliot had not little but nothing. Her
air is bright and intellectually even exciting; but it is like the air
of a cloudless day on the parade at Brighton. She sees people clearly,
but not through an atmosphere. And she can conjure up storms in the
conscious, but not in the subconscious mind.

It is true (though the idea should not be exaggerated) that this
deficiency was largely due to her being cut off from all those
conceptions that had made the fiction of a Muse; the deep idea that
there are really demons and angels behind men. Certainly the increasing
atheism of her school spoilt her own particular imaginative talent: she
was far less free when she thought like Ladislaw than when she thought
like Casaubon. It also betrayed her on a matter specially requiring
common sense; I mean sex. There is nothing that is so profoundly false
as rationalist flirtation. Each sex is trying to be both sexes at once;
and the result is a confusion more untruthful than any conventions. This
can easily be seen by comparing her with a greater woman who died before
the beginning of our present problem. Jane Austen was born before those
bonds which (we are told) protected woman from truth, were burst by the
Brontës or elaborately untied by George Eliot. Yet the fact remains that
Jane Austen knew much more about men than either of them. Jane Austen
may have been protected from truth: but it was precious little of truth
that was protected from her. When Darcy, in finally confessing his
faults, says, "I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice
_though not in theory_," he gets nearer to a complete confession of the
intelligent male than ever was even hinted by the Byronic lapses of the
Brontës' heroes or the elaborate exculpations of George Eliot's. Jane
Austen, of course, covered an infinitely smaller field than any of her
later rivals; but I have always believed in the victory of small

The Brontës suggest themselves here; because their superficial
qualities, the qualities that can be seized upon in satire, were in this
an exaggeration of what was, in George Eliot, hardly more than an
omission. There was perhaps a time when Mr. Rawjester was more widely
known than Mr. Rochester. And certainly Mr. Rochester (to adopt the
diction of that other eminent country gentleman, Mr. Darcy) was simply
individualistic not only in practice, but in theory. Now any one may be
so in practice: but a man who is simply individualistic in theory must
merely be an ass. Undoubtedly the Brontës exposed themselves to some
misunderstanding by thus perpetually making the masculine creature much
more masculine than he wants to be. Thackeray (a man of strong though
sleepy virility) asked in his exquisite plaintive way: "Why do our lady
novelists make the men bully the women?" It is, I think, unquestionably
true that the Brontës treated the male as an almost anarchic thing
coming in from outside nature; much as people on this planet regard a
comet. Even the really delicate and sustained comedy of Paul Emanuel is
not quite free from this air of studying something alien. The reply may
be made that the women in men's novels are equally fallacious. The reply
is probably just.

What the Brontës really brought into fiction was exactly what Carlyle
brought into history; the blast of the mysticism of the North. They were
of Irish blood settled on the windy heights of Yorkshire; in that
country where Catholicism lingered latest, but in a superstitious form;
where modern industrialism came earliest and was more superstitious
still. The strong winds and sterile places, the old tyranny of barons
and the new and blacker tyranny of manufacturers, has made and left that
country a land of barbarians. All Charlotte Brontë's earlier work is
full of that sullen and unmanageable world; moss-troopers turned
hurriedly into miners; the last of the old world forced into supporting
the very first crudities of the new. In this way Charlotte Brontë
represents the Victorian settlement in a special way. The Early
Victorian Industrialism is to George Eliot and to Charlotte Brontë,
rather as the Late Victorian Imperialism would have been to Mrs. Humphry
Ward in the centre of the empire and to Miss Olive Schreiner at the edge
of it. The real strength there is in characters like Robert Moore, when
he is dealing with anything except women, is the romance of industry in
its first advance: a romance that has not remained. On such fighting
frontiers people always exaggerate the strong qualities the masculine
sex does possess, and always add a great many strong qualities that it
does not possess. That is, briefly, all the reason in the Brontës on
this special subject: the rest is stark unreason. It can be most clearly
seen in that sister of Charlotte Brontë's who has achieved the real
feat of remaining as a great woman rather than a great writer. There is
really, in a narrow but intense way, a tradition of Emily Brontë: as
there is a tradition of St. Peter or Dr. Johnson. People talk as if they
had known her, apart from her works. She must have been something more
than an original person; perhaps an origin. But so far as her written
works go she enters English letters only as an original person - and
rather a narrow one. Her imagination was sometimes superhuman - always
inhuman. _Wuthering Heights_ might have been written by an eagle. She is
the strongest instance of these strong imaginations that made the other
sex a monster: for Heathcliffe fails as a man as catastrophically as he
succeeds as a demon. I think Emily Brontë was further narrowed by the
broadness of her religious views; but never, of course, so much as
George Eliot.

In any case, it is Charlotte Brontë who enters Victorian literature. The
shortest way of stating her strong contribution is, I think, this: that
she reached the highest romance through the lowest realism. She did not
set out with Amadis of Gaul in a forest or with Mr. Pickwick in a comic
club. She set out with herself, with her own dingy clothes, and
accidental ugliness, and flat, coarse, provincial household; and
forcibly fused all such muddy materials into a spirited fairy-tale. If
the first chapters on the home and school had not proved how heavy and
hateful _sanity_ can be, there would really be less point in the
insanity of Mr. Rochester's wife - or the not much milder insanity of
Mrs. Rochester's husband. She discovered the secret of hiding the
sensational in the commonplace: and _Jane Eyre_ remains the best of her
books (better even than _Villette_) because while it is a human document
written in blood, it is also one of the best blood-and-thunder detective
stories in the world.

But while Emily Brontë was as unsociable as a storm at midnight, and
while Charlotte Brontë was at best like that warmer and more domestic
thing, a house on fire - they do connect themselves with the calm of
George Eliot, as the forerunners of many later developments of the
feminine advance. Many forerunners (if it comes to that) would have felt
rather ill if they had seen the things they foreran. This notion of a
hazy anticipation of after history has been absurdly overdone: as when
men connect Chaucer with the Reformation; which is like connecting Homer
with the Syracusan Expedition. But it is to some extent true that all
these great Victorian women had a sort of unrest in their souls. And the
proof of it is that (after what I will claim to call the healthier time
of Dickens and Thackeray) it began to be admitted by the great Victorian
men. If there had not been something in that irritation, we should
hardly have had to speak in these pages of _Diana of the Crossways_ or
of _Tess of the D'Urbervilles_. To what this strange and very local sex
war has been due I shall not ask, because I have no answer. That it was
due to votes or even little legal inequalities about marriage, I feel
myself here too close to realities even to discuss. My own guess is that
it has been due to the great neglect of the military spirit by the male
Victorians. The woman felt obscurely that she was still running her
mortal risk, while the man was not still running his. But I know nothing
about it; nor does anybody else.

In so short a book on so vast, complex and living a subject, it is
impossible to drop even into the second rank of good authors, whose name
is legion; but it is impossible to leave that considerable female force
in fiction which has so largely made the very nature of the modern
novel, without mentioning two names which almost brought that second
rank up to the first rank. They were at utterly opposite poles. The one
succeeded by being a much mellower and more Christian George Eliot; the
other succeeded by being a much more mad and unchristian Emily Brontë.
But Mrs. Oliphant and the author calling herself "Ouida" both forced
themselves well within the frontier of fine literature. _The Beleaguered
City_ is literature in its highest sense; the other works of its author
tend to fall into fiction in its best working sense. Mrs. Oliphant was
infinitely saner in that city of ghosts than the cosmopolitan Ouida ever
was in any of the cities of men. Mrs. Oliphant would never have dared to
discover, either in heaven or hell, such a thing as a hairbrush with its
back encrusted with diamonds. But though Ouida was violent and weak
where Mrs. Oliphant might have been mild and strong, her own triumphs
were her own. She had a real power of expressing the senses through her
style; of conveying the very heat of blue skies or the bursting of
palpable pomegranates. And just as Mrs. Oliphant transfused her more
timid Victorian tales with a true and intense faith in the Christian
mystery - so Ouida, with infinite fury and infinite confusion of
thought, did fill her books with Byron and the remains of the French
Revolution. In the track of such genius there has been quite an
accumulation of true talent as in the children's tales of Mrs. Ewing,
the historical tales of Miss Yonge, the tales of Mrs. Molesworth, and so
on. On a general review I do not think I have been wrong in taking the
female novelists first. I think they gave its special shape, its
temporary twist, to the Victorian novel.

Nevertheless it is a shock (I almost dare to call it a relief) to come
back to the males. It is the more abrupt because the first name that
must be mentioned derives directly from the mere maleness of the Sterne
and Smollett novel. I have already spoken of Dickens as the most homely
and instinctive, and therefore probably the heaviest, of all the
onslaughts made on the central Victorian satisfaction. There is
therefore the less to say of him here, where we consider him only as a
novelist; but there is still much more to say than can even conceivably
be said. Dickens, as we have stated, inherited the old comic, rambling
novel from Smollett and the rest. Dickens, as we have also stated,
consented to expurgate that novel. But when all origins and all
restraints have been defined and allowed for, the creature that came out
was such as we shall not see again. Smollett was coarse; but Smollett
was also cruel. Dickens was frequently horrible; he was never cruel. The
art of Dickens was the most exquisite of arts: it was the art of
enjoying everybody. Dickens, being a very human writer, had to be a very
human being; he had his faults and sensibilities in a strong degree; and
I do not for a moment maintain that he enjoyed everybody in his daily
life. But he enjoyed everybody in his books: and everybody has enjoyed
everybody in those books even till to-day. His books are full of baffled
villains stalking out or cowardly bullies kicked downstairs. But the
villains and the cowards are such delightful people that the reader
always hopes the villain will put his head through a side window and
make a last remark; or that the bully will say one thing more, even from
the bottom of the stairs. The reader really hopes this; and he cannot
get rid of the fancy that the author hopes so too. I cannot at the
moment recall that Dickens ever killed a comic villain, except Quilp,
who was deliberately made even more villainous than comic. There can be
no serious fears for the life of Mr. Wegg in the muckcart; though Mr.
Pecksniff fell to be a borrower of money, and Mr. Mantalini to turning a
mangle, the human race has the comfort of thinking they are still alive:
and one might have the rapture of receiving a begging letter from Mr.
Pecksniff, or even of catching Mr. Mantalini collecting the washing, if
one always lurked about on Monday mornings. This sentiment (the true
artist will be relieved to hear) is entirely unmoral. Mrs. Wilfer
deserved death much more than Mr. Quilp, for she had succeeded in
poisoning family life persistently, while he was (to say the least of
it) intermittent in his domesticity. But who can honestly say he does
not hope Mrs. Wilfer is still talking like Mrs. Wilfer - especially if it
is only in a book? This is the artistic greatness of Dickens, before and
after which there is really nothing to be said. He had the power of
creating people, both possible and impossible, who were simply precious
and priceless people; and anything subtler added to that truth really
only weakens it.

The mention of Mrs. Wilfer (whom the heart is loth to leave) reminds one
of the only elementary ethical truth that is essential in the study of
Dickens. That is that he had broad or universal sympathies in a sense
totally unknown to the social reformers who wallow in such phrases.
Dickens (unlike the social reformers) really did sympathise with every
sort of victim of every sort of tyrant. He did truly pray for _all_ who
are desolate and oppressed. If you try to tie him to any cause narrower
than that Prayer Book definition, you will find you have shut out half
his best work. If, in your sympathy for Mrs. Quilp, you call Dickens the
champion of downtrodden woman, you will suddenly remember Mr. Wilfer,
and find yourself unable to deny the existence of downtrodden man. If in
your sympathy for Mr. Rouncewell you call Dickens the champion of a
manly middle-class Liberalism against Chesney Wold, you will suddenly
remember Stephen Blackpool - and find yourself unable to deny that Mr.
Rouncewell might be a pretty insupportable cock on his own dung-hill. If
in your sympathy for Stephen Blackpool you call Dickens a Socialist (as
does Mr. Pugh), and think of him as merely heralding the great
Collectivist revolt against Victorian Individualism and Capitalism,
which seemed so clearly to be the crisis at the end of this epoch - you
will suddenly remember the agreeable young Barnacle at the
Circumlocution Office: and you will be unable, for very shame, to
assert that Dickens would have trusted the poor to a State Department.
Dickens did not merely believe in the brotherhood of men in the weak
modern way; he was the brotherhood of men, and knew it was a brotherhood
in sin as well as in aspiration. And he was not only larger than the old
factions he satirised; he was larger than any of our great social
schools that have gone forward since he died.

The seemingly quaint custom of comparing Dickens and Thackeray existed
in their own time, and no one will dismiss it with entire disdain who
remembers that the Victorian tradition was domestic and genuine, even
when it was hoodwinked and unworldly. There must have been some reason
for making this imaginary duel between two quite separate and quite
amiable acquaintances. And there is, after all, some reason for it. It
is not, as was once cheaply said, that Thackeray went in for truth, and
Dickens for mere caricature. There is a huge accumulation of truth,
down to the smallest detail, in Dickens: he seems sometimes a mere
mountain of facts. Thackeray, in comparison, often seems quite careless
and elusive; almost as if he did not quite know where all his characters
were. There is a truth behind the popular distinction; but it lies much
deeper. Perhaps the best way of stating it is this: that Dickens used
reality, while aiming at an effect of romance; while Thackeray used the
loose language and ordinary approaches of romance, while aiming at an
effect of reality. It was the special and splendid business of Dickens
to introduce us to people who would have been quite incredible if he had
not told us so much truth about them. It was the special and not less
splendid task of Thackeray to introduce us to people whom we knew
already. Paradoxically, but very practically, it followed that his
introductions were the longer of the two. When we hear of Aunt Betsy
Trotwood, we vividly envisage everything about her, from her gardening
gloves to her seaside residence, from her hard, handsome face to her
tame lunatic laughing at the bedroom window. It is all so minutely true
that she must be true also. We only feel inclined to walk round the
English coast until we find that particular garden and that particular
aunt. But when we turn from the aunt of Copperfield to the uncle of
Pendennis, we are more likely to run round the coast trying to find a
watering-place where he isn't than one where he is. The moment one sees
Major Pendennis, one sees a hundred Major Pendennises. It is not a
matter of mere realism. Miss Trotwood's bonnet and gardening tools and
cupboard full of old-fashioned bottles are quite as true in the
materialistic way as the Major's cuffs and corner table and toast and
newspaper. Both writers are realistic: but Dickens writes realism in
order to make the incredible credible. Thackeray writes it in order to
make us recognise an old friend. Whether we shall be pleased to meet the
old friend is quite another matter: I think we should be better pleased
to meet Miss Trotwood, and find, as David Copperfield did, a new friend,
a new world. But we recognise Major Pendennis even when we avoid him.
Henceforth Thackeray can count on our seeing him from his wig to his
well-blacked boots whenever he chooses to say "Major Pendennis paid a
call." Dickens, on the other hand, had to keep up an incessant
excitement about his characters; and no man on earth but he could have
kept it up.

It may be said, in approximate summary, that Thackeray is the novelist
of memory - of our memories as well as his own. Dickens seems to expect
all his characters, like amusing strangers arriving at lunch: as if they
gave him not only pleasure, but surprise. But Thackeray is everybody's
past - is everybody's youth. Forgotten friends flit about the passages of
dreamy colleges and unremembered clubs; we hear fragments of unfinished
conversations, we see faces without names for an instant, fixed for ever
in some trivial grimace: we smell the strong smell of social cliques
now quite incongruous to us; and there stir in all the little rooms at
once the hundred ghosts of oneself.

For this purpose Thackeray was equipped with a singularly easy and
sympathetic style, carved in slow soft curves where Dickens hacked out
his images with a hatchet. There was a sort of avuncular indulgence
about his attitude; what he called his "preaching" was at worst a sort
of grumbling, ending with the sentiment that boys will be boys and that
there's nothing new under the sun. He was not really either a cynic or a
_censor morum_; but (in another sense than Chaucer's) a gentle pardoner:
having seen the weaknesses he is sometimes almost weak about them. He
really comes nearer to exculpating Pendennis or Ethel Newcome than any
other author, who saw what he saw, would have been. The rare wrath of
such men is all the more effective; and there are passages in _Vanity
Fair_ and still more in _The Book of Snobs_, where he does make the
dance of wealth and fashion look stiff and monstrous, like a Babylonian
masquerade. But he never quite did it in such a way as to turn the
course of the Victorian Age.

It may seem strange to say that Thackeray did not know enough of the
world; yet this was the truth about him in large matters of the
philosophy of life, and especially of his own time. He did not know the
way things were going: he was too Victorian to understand the Victorian
epoch. He did not know enough ignorant people to have heard the news. In
one of his delightful asides he imagines two little clerks commenting
erroneously on the appearance of Lady Kew or Sir Brian Newcome in the
Park, and says: "How should Jones and Brown, who are not, _vous
comprenez, du monde_, understand these mysteries?" But I think Thackeray
knew quite as little about Jones and Brown as they knew about Newcome
and Kew; his world was _le monde_. Hence he seemed to take it for
granted that the Victorian compromise would last; while Dickens (who
knew his Jones and Brown) had already guessed that it would not.
Thackeray did not realise that the Victorian platform was a moving
platform. To take but one instance, he was a Radical like Dickens; all
really representative Victorians, except perhaps Tennyson, were
Radicals. But he seems to have thought of all reform as simple and
straightforward and all of a piece; as if Catholic Emancipation, the New
Poor Law, Free Trade and the Factory Acts and Popular Education were all
parts of one almost self-evident evolution of enlightenment. Dickens,
being in touch with the democracy, had already discovered that the
country had come to a dark place of divided ways and divided counsels.
In _Hard Times_ he realised Democracy at war with Radicalism; and
became, with so incompatible an ally as Ruskin, not indeed a Socialist,
but certainly an anti-Individualist. In _Our Mutual Friend_ he felt the
strength of the new rich, and knew they had begun to transform the
aristocracy, instead of the aristocracy transforming them. He knew that
Veneering had carried off Twemlow in triumph. He very nearly knew what
we all know to-day: that, so far from it being possible to plod along
the progressive road with more votes and more Free Trade, England must
either sharply become very much more democratic or as rapidly become
very much less so.

There gathers round these two great novelists a considerable group of
good novelists, who more or less mirror their mid-Victorian mood. Wilkie
Collins may be said to be in this way a lesser Dickens and Anthony
Trollope a lesser Thackeray. Wilkie Collins is chiefly typical of his
time in this respect: that while his moral and religious conceptions
were as mechanical as his carefully constructed fictitious conspiracies,
he nevertheless informed the latter with a sort of involuntary mysticism
which dealt wholly with the darker side of the soul. For this was one
of the most peculiar of the problems of the Victorian mind. The idea of
the supernatural was perhaps at as low an ebb as it had ever
been - certainly much lower than it is now. But in spite of this, and in
spite of a certain ethical cheeriness that was almost _de rigueur_ - the
strange fact remains that the only sort of supernaturalism the
Victorians allowed to their imaginations was a sad supernaturalism. They
might have ghost stories, but not saints' stories. They could trifle
with the curse or unpardoning prophecy of a witch, but not with the
pardon of a priest. They seem to have held (I believe erroneously) that
the supernatural was safest when it came from below. When we think (for
example) of the uncountable riches of religious art, imagery, ritual and
popular legend that has clustered round Christmas through all the
Christian ages, it is a truly extraordinary thing to reflect that
Dickens (wishing to have in _The Christmas Carol_ a little happy

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Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Victorian Age in Literature → online text (page 5 of 10)