G.K. Chesterton.

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supernaturalism by way of a change) actually had to make up a mythology
for himself. Here was one of the rare cases where Dickens, in a real and
human sense, did suffer from the lack of culture. For the rest, Wilkie
Collins is these two elements: the mechanical and the mystical; both
very good of their kind. He is one of the few novelists in whose case it
is proper and literal to speak of his "plots." He was a plotter; he went
about to slay Godfrey Ablewhite as coldly and craftily as the Indians
did. But he also had a sound though sinister note of true magic; as in
the repetition of the two white dresses in _The Woman in White_; or of
the dreams with their double explanations in _Armadale_. His ghosts do
walk. They are alive; and walk as softly as Count Fosco, but as solidly.
Finally, _The Moonstone_ is probably the best detective tale in the
world.

Anthony Trollope, a clear and very capable realist, represents rather
another side of the Victorian spirit of comfort; its leisureliness, its
love of detail, especially of domestic detail; its love of following
characters and kindred from book to book and from generation to
generation. Dickens very seldom tried this latter experiment, and then
(as in _Master Humphrey's Clock_) unsuccessfully; those magnesium blazes
of his were too brilliant and glaring to be indefinitely prolonged. But
Thackeray was full of it; and we often feel that the characters in _The
Newcomes_ or _Philip_ might legitimately complain that their talk and
tale are being perpetually interrupted and pestered by people out of
other books. Within his narrower limits, Trollope was a more strict and
masterly realist than Thackeray, and even those who would call his
personages "types" would admit that they are as vivid as characters. It
was a bustling but a quiet world that he described: politics before the
coming of the Irish and the Socialists; the Church in the lull between
the Oxford Movement and the modern High Anglican energy. And it is
notable in the Victorian spirit once more that though his clergymen are
all of them real men and many of them good men, it never really occurs
to us to think of them as the priests of a religion.

Charles Reade may be said to go along with these; and Disraeli and even
Kingsley; not because these three very different persons had anything
particular in common, but because they all fell short of the first rank
in about the same degree. Charles Reade had a kind of cold coarseness
about him, not morally but artistically, which keeps him out of the best
literature as such: but he is of importance to the Victorian development
in another way; because he has the harsher and more tragic note that has
come later in the study of our social problems. He is the first of the
angry realists. Kingsley's best books may be called boys' books. There
is a real though a juvenile poetry in _Westward Ho!_ and though that
narrative, historically considered, is very much of a lie, it is a good,
thundering honest lie. There are also genuinely eloquent things in
_Hypatia_, and a certain electric atmosphere of sectarian excitement
that Kingsley kept himself in, and did know how to convey. He said he
wrote the book in his heart's blood. This is an exaggeration, but there
is a truth in it; and one does feel that he may have relieved his
feelings by writing it in red ink. As for Disraeli, his novels are able
and interesting considered as everything except novels, and are an
important contribution precisely because they are written by an alien
who did not take our politics so seriously as Trollope did. They are
important again as showing those later Victorian changes which men like
Thackeray missed. Disraeli did do something towards revealing the
dishonesty of our politics - even if he had done a good deal towards
bringing it about.

Between this group and the next there hovers a figure very hard to
place; not higher in letters than these, yet not easy to class with
them; I mean Bulwer Lytton. He was no greater than they were; yet
somehow he seems to take up more space. He did not, in the ultimate
reckoning, do anything in particular: but he was a figure; rather as
Oscar Wilde was later a figure. You could not have the Victorian Age
without him. And this was not due to wholly superficial things like his
dandyism, his dark, sinister good looks and a great deal of the mere
polished melodrama that he wrote. There was something in his all-round
interests; in the variety of things he tried; in his half-aristocratic
swagger as poet and politician, that made him in some ways a real
touchstone of the time. It is noticeable about him that he is always
turning up everywhere and that he brings other people out, generally in
a hostile spirit. His Byronic and almost Oriental ostentation was used
by the young Thackeray as something on which to sharpen his new razor of
Victorian common sense. His pose as a dilettante satirist inflamed the
execrable temper of Tennyson, and led to those lively comparisons to a
bandbox and a lion in curlpapers. He interposed the glove of warning and
the tear of sensibility between us and the proper ending of _Great
Expectations_. Of his own books, by far the best are the really charming
comedies about _The Caxtons_ and _Kenelm Chillingly_; none of his other
works have a high literary importance now, with the possible exception
of _A Strange Story_; but his _Coming Race_ is historically interesting
as foreshadowing those novels of the future which were afterwards such a
weapon of the Socialists. Lastly, there was an element indefinable about
Lytton, which often is in adventurers; which amounts to a suspicion that
there was something in him after all. It rang out of him when he said to
the hesitating Crimean Parliament: "Destroy your Government and save
your army."

With the next phase of Victorian fiction we enter a new world; the
later, more revolutionary, more continental, freer but in some ways
weaker world in which we live to-day. The subtle and sad change that
was passing like twilight across the English brain at this time is very
well expressed in the fact that men have come to mention the great name
of Meredith in the same breath as Mr. Thomas Hardy. Both writers,
doubtless, disagreed with the orthodox religion of the ordinary English
village. Most of us have disagreed with that religion until we made the
simple discovery that it does not exist. But in any age where ideas
could be even feebly disentangled from each other, it would have been
evident at once that Meredith and Hardy were, intellectually speaking,
mortal enemies. They were much more opposed to each other than Newman
was to Kingsley; or than Abelard was to St. Bernard. But then they
collided in a sceptical age, which is like colliding in a London fog.
There can never be any clear controversy in a sceptical age.

Nevertheless both Hardy and Meredith did mean something; and they did
mean diametrically opposite things. Meredith was perhaps the only man
in the modern world who has almost had the high honour of rising out of
the low estate of a Pantheist into the high estate of a Pagan. A Pagan
is a person who can do what hardly any person for the last two thousand
years could do: a person who can take Nature naturally. It is due to
Meredith to say that no one outside a few of the great Greeks has ever
taken Nature so naturally as he did. And it is also due to him to say
that no one outside Colney Hatch ever took Nature so unnaturally as it
was taken in what Mr. Hardy has had the blasphemy to call Wessex Tales.
This division between the two points of view is vital; because the turn
of the nineteenth century was a very sharp one; by it we have reached
the rapids in which we find ourselves to-day.

Meredith really is a Pantheist. You can express it by saying that God is
the great All: you can express it much more intelligently by saying that
Pan is the great god. But there is some sense in it, and the sense is
this: that some people believe that this world is sufficiently good at
bottom for us to trust ourselves to it without very much knowing why. It
is the whole point in most of Meredith's tales that there is something
behind us that often saves us when we understand neither it nor
ourselves. He sometimes talked mere intellectualism about women: but
that is because the most brilliant brains can get tired. Meredith's
brain was quite tired when it wrote some of its most quoted and least
interesting epigrams: like that about passing Seraglio Point, but not
doubling Cape Turk. Those who can see Meredith's mind in that are with
those who can see Dickens' mind in Little Nell. Both were chivalrous
pronouncements on behalf of oppressed females: neither has any earthly
meaning as ideas.

But what Meredith did do for women was not to emancipate them (which
means nothing) but to express them, which means a great deal. And he
often expressed them right, even when he expressed himself wrong. Take,
for instance, that phrase so often quoted: "Woman will be the last thing
civilised by man." Intellectually it is something worse than false; it
is the opposite of what he was always attempting to say. So far from
admitting any equality in the sexes, it logically admits that a man may
use against a woman any chains or whips he has been in the habit of
using against a tiger or a bear. He stood as the special champion of
female dignity: but I cannot remember any author, Eastern or Western,
who has so calmly assumed that man is the master and woman merely the
material, as Meredith really does in this phrase. Any one who knows a
free woman (she is generally a married woman) will immediately be
inclined to ask two simple and catastrophic questions, first: "Why
should woman be civilised?" and, second: "Why, if she is to be
civilised, should she be civilised by man?" In the mere intellectualism
of the matter, Meredith seems to be talking the most brutal sex
mastery: he, at any rate, has not doubled Cape Turk, nor even passed
Seraglio Point. Now why is it that we all really feel that this
Meredithian passage is not so insolently masculine as in mere logic it
would seem? I think it is for this simple reason: that there is
something about Meredith making us feel that it is not woman he
disbelieves in, but civilisation. It is a dark undemonstrated feeling
that Meredith would really be rather sorry if woman were civilised by
man - or by anything else. When we have got that, we have got the real
Pagan - the man that does believe in Pan.

It is proper to put this philosophic matter first, before the ├Žsthetic
appreciation of Meredith, because with Meredith a sort of passing bell
has rung and the Victorian orthodoxy is certainly no longer safe.
Dickens and Carlyle, as we have said, rebelled against the orthodox
compromise: but Meredith has escaped from it. Cosmopolitanism,
Socialism, Feminism are already in the air; and Queen Victoria has
begun to look like Mrs. Grundy. But to escape from a city is one thing:
to choose a road is another. The free-thinker who found himself outside
the Victorian city, found himself also in the fork of two very different
naturalistic paths. One of them went upwards through a tangled but
living forest to lonely but healthy hills: the other went down to a
swamp. Hardy went down to botanise in the swamp, while Meredith climbed
towards the sun. Meredith became, at his best, a sort of daintily
dressed Walt Whitman: Hardy became a sort of village atheist brooding
and blaspheming over the village idiot. It is largely because the
free-thinkers, as a school, have hardly made up their minds whether they
want to be more optimist or more pessimist than Christianity that their
small but sincere movement has failed.

For the duel is deadly; and any agnostic who wishes to be anything more
than a Nihilist must sympathise with one version of nature or the
other. The God of Meredith is impersonal; but he is often more healthy
and kindly than any of the persons. That of Thomas Hardy is almost made
personal by the intense feeling that he is poisonous. Nature is always
coming in to save Meredith's women; Nature is always coming in to betray
and ruin Hardy's. It has been said that if God had not existed it would
have been necessary to invent Him. But it is not often, as in Mr.
Hardy's case, that it is necessary to invent Him in order to prove how
unnecessary (and undesirable) He is. But Mr. Hardy is anthropomorphic
out of sheer atheism. He personifies the universe in order to give it a
piece of his mind. But the fight is unequal for the old philosophical
reason: that the universe had already given Mr. Hardy a piece of _its_
mind to fight with. One curious result of this divergence in the two
types of sceptic is this: that when these two brilliant novelists break
down or blow up or otherwise lose for a moment their artistic
self-command, they are both equally wild, but wild in opposite
directions. Meredith shows an extravagance in comedy which, if it were
not so complicated, every one would call broad farce. But Mr. Hardy has
the honour of inventing a new sort of game, which may be called the
extravagance of depression. The placing of the weak lover and his new
love in such a place that they actually see the black flag announcing
that Tess has been hanged is utterly inexcusable in art and probability;
it is a cruel practical joke. But it is a practical joke at which even
its author cannot brighten up enough to laugh.

But it is when we consider the great artistic power of these two
writers, with all their eccentricities, that we see even more clearly
that free-thought was, as it were, a fight between finger-posts. For it
is the remarkable fact that it was the man who had the healthy and manly
outlook who had the crabbed and perverse style; it was the man who had
the crabbed and perverse outlook who had the healthy and manly style.
The reader may well have complained of paradox when I observed above
that Meredith, unlike most neo-Pagans, did in his way take Nature
naturally. It may be suggested, in tones of some remonstrance, that
things like "though pierced by the cruel acerb," or "thy fleetingness is
bigger in the ghost," or "her gabbling grey she eyes askant," or "sheer
film of the surface awag" are not taking Nature naturally. And this is
true of Meredith's style, but it is not true of his spirit; nor even,
apparently, of his serious opinions. In one of the poems I have quoted
he actually says of those who live nearest to that Nature he was always
praising -

"Have they but held her laws and nature dear,
They mouth no sentence of inverted wit";

which certainly was what Meredith himself was doing most of the time.
But a similar paradox of the combination of plain tastes with twisted
phrases can also be seen in Browning. Something of the same can be seen
in many of the cavalier poets. I do not understand it: it may be that
the fertility of a cheerful mind crowds everything, so that the tree is
entangled in its own branches; or it may be that the cheerful mind cares
less whether it is understood or not; as a man is less articulate when
he is humming than when he is calling for help.

Certainly Meredith suffers from applying a complex method to men and
things he does not mean to be complex; nay, honestly admires for being
simple. The conversations between Diana and Redworth fail of their full
contrast because Meredith can afford the twopence for Diana coloured,
but cannot afford the penny for Redworth plain. Meredith's ideals were
neither sceptical nor finicky: but they can be called insufficient. He
had, perhaps, over and above his honest Pantheism two convictions
profound enough to be called prejudices. He was probably of Welsh
blood, certainly of Celtic sympathies, and he set himself more swiftly
though more subtly than Ruskin or Swinburne to undermining the enormous
complacency of John Bull. He also had a sincere hope in the strength of
womanhood, and may be said, almost without hyperbole, to have begotten
gigantic daughters. He may yet suffer for his chivalric interference as
many champions do. I have little doubt that when St. George had killed
the dragon he was heartily afraid of the princess. But certainly neither
of these two vital enthusiasms touched the Victorian trouble. The
disaster of the modern English is not that they are not Celtic, but that
they are not English. The tragedy of the modern woman is not that she is
not allowed to follow man, but that she follows him far too slavishly.
This conscious and theorising Meredith did not get very near his problem
and is certainly miles away from ours. But the other Meredith was a
creator; which means a god. That is true of him which is true of so
different a man as Dickens, that all one can say of him is that he is
full of good things. A reader opening one of his books feels like a
schoolboy opening a hamper which he knows to have somehow cost a hundred
pounds. He may be more bewildered by it than by an ordinary hamper; but
he gets the impression of a real richness of thought; and that is what
one really gets from such riots of felicity as _Evan Harrington_ or
_Harry Richmond_. His philosophy may be barren, but he was not. And the
chief feeling among those that enjoy him is a mere wish that more people
could enjoy him too.

I end here upon Hardy and Meredith; because this parting of the ways to
open optimism and open pessimism really was the end of the Victorian
peace. There are many other men, very nearly as great, on whom I might
delight to linger: on Shorthouse, for instance, who in one way goes with
Mrs. Browning or Coventry Patmore. I mean that he has a wide culture,
which is called by some a narrow religion. When we think what even the
best novels about cavaliers have been (written by men like Scott or
Stevenson) it is a wonderful thing that the author of _John Inglesant_
could write a cavalier romance in which he forgot Cromwell but
remembered Hobbes. But Shorthouse is outside the period in fiction in
the same sort of way in which Francis Thompson is outside it in poetry.
He did not accept the Victorian basis. He knew too much.

There is one more matter that may best be considered here, though
briefly: it illustrates the extreme difficulty of dealing with the
Victorian English in a book like this, because of their eccentricity;
not of opinions, but of character and artistic form. There are several
great Victorians who will not fit into any of the obvious categories I
employ; because they will not fit into anything, hardly into the world
itself. Where Germany or Italy would relieve the monotony of mankind by
paying serious respect to an artist, or a scholar, or a patriotic
warrior, or a priest - it was always the instinct of the English to do it
by pointing out a Character. Dr. Johnson has faded as a poet or a
critic, but he survives as a Character. Cobbett is neglected
(unfortunately) as a publicist and pamphleteer, but he is remembered as
a Character. Now these people continued to crop up through the Victorian
time; and each stands so much by himself that I shall end these pages
with a profound suspicion that I have forgotten to mention a Character
of gigantic dimensions. Perhaps the best example of such eccentrics is
George Borrow; who sympathised with unsuccessful nomads like the gipsies
while every one else sympathised with successful nomads like the Jews;
who had a genius like the west wind for the awakening of wild and casual
friendships and the drag and attraction of the roads. But whether George
Borrow ought to go into the section devoted to philosophers, or the
section devoted to novelists, or the section devoted to liars, nobody
else has ever known, even if he did.

But the strongest case of this Victorian power of being abruptly
original in a corner can be found in two things: the literature meant
merely for children and the literature meant merely for fun. It is true
that these two very Victorian things often melted into each other (as
was the way of Victorian things), but not sufficiently to make it safe
to mass them together without distinction. Thus there was George
Macdonald, a Scot of genius as genuine as Carlyle's; he could write
fairy-tales that made all experience a fairy-tale. He could give the
real sense that every one had the end of an elfin thread that must at
last lead them into Paradise. It was a sort of optimist Calvinism. But
such really significant fairy-tales were accidents of genius. Of the
Victorian Age as a whole it is true to say that it did discover a new
thing; a thing called Nonsense. It may be doubted whether this thing was
really invented to please children. Rather it was invented by old
people trying to prove their first childhood, and sometimes succeeding
only in proving their second. But whatever else the thing was, it was
English and it was individual. Lewis Carroll gave mathematics a holiday:
he carried logic into the wild lands of illogicality. Edward Lear, a
richer, more romantic and therefore more truly Victorian buffoon,
improved the experiment. But the more we study it, the more we shall, I
think, conclude that it reposed on something more real and profound in
the Victorians than even their just and exquisite appreciation of
children. It came from the deep Victorian sense of humour.

It may appear, because I have used from time to time the only possible
phrases for the case, that I mean the Victorian Englishman to appear as
a blockhead, which means an unconscious buffoon. To all this there is a
final answer: that he was also a conscious buffoon - and a successful
one. He was a humorist; and one of the best humorists in Europe. That
which Goethe had never taught the Germans, Byron did manage to teach the
English - the duty of not taking him seriously. The strong and shrewd
Victorian humour appears in every slash of the pencil of Charles Keene;
in every undergraduate inspiration of Calverley or "Q." or J. K. S. They
had largely forgotten both art and arms: but the gods had left them
laughter.

But the final proof that the Victorians were alive by this laughter, can
be found in the fact they could manage and master for a moment even the
cosmopolitan modern theatre. They could contrive to put "The Bab
Ballads" on the stage. To turn a private name into a public epithet is a
thing given to few: but the word "Gilbertian" will probably last longer
than the name Gilbert.

It meant a real Victorian talent; that of exploding unexpectedly and
almost, as it seemed, unintentionally. Gilbert made good jokes by the
thousand; but he never (in his best days) made the joke that could
possibly have been expected of him. This is the last essential of the
Victorian. Laugh at him as a limited man, a moralist, conventionalist,
an opportunist, a formalist. But remember also that he was really a
humorist; and may still be laughing at you.


CHAPTER III

THE GREAT VICTORIAN POETS


What was really unsatisfactory in Victorian literature is something much
easier to feel than to state. It was not so much a superiority in the
men of other ages to the Victorian men. It was a superiority of
Victorian men to themselves. The individual was unequal. Perhaps that is
why the society became unequal: I cannot say. They were lame giants; the
strongest of them walked on one leg a little shorter than the other. A
great man in any age must be a common man, and also an uncommon man.
Those that are only uncommon men are perverts and sowers of pestilence.
But somehow the great Victorian man was more and less than this. He was
at once a giant and a dwarf. When he has been sweeping the sky in
circles infinitely great, he suddenly shrivels into something
indescribably small. There is a moment when Carlyle turns suddenly from
a high creative mystic to a common Calvinist. There are moments when
George Eliot turns from a prophetess into a governess. There are also
moments when Ruskin turns into a governess, without even the excuse of
sex. But in all these cases the alteration comes as a thing quite abrupt
and unreasonable. We do not feel this acute angle anywhere in Homer or
in Virgil or in Chaucer or in Shakespeare or in Dryden; such things as
they knew they knew. It is no disgrace to Homer that he had not
discovered Britain; or to Virgil that he had not discovered America; or
to Chaucer that he had not discovered the solar system; or to Dryden
that he had not discovered the steam-engine. But we do most frequently
feel, with the Victorians, that the very vastness of the number of
things they know illustrates the abrupt abyss of the things they do not
know. We feel, in a sort of way, that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like


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