Frances Theresa Peet Russell.

Satire in the Victorian novel online

. (page 22 of 25)
Online LibraryFrances Theresa Peet RussellSatire in the Victorian novel → online text (page 22 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

In pursuance of this comfortable philosophy,

"* * * the rich ate and drank freely, accepting gout and
apoplexy as things that ran mysteriously in respectable families,
and the poor thought that the rich were entirely in the right
of it to lead a jolly life."

In another story we are introduced to some " pious Dis-
senting women, who took life patiently, and thought that
salvation depended chiefly on predestination, and not at
all on cleanliness." 4 In a higher social class this inno-

1 Middlemarch, III, 264..
z lbid., 271.

3 Silas Marner, 26-27. In the same narrative the author uses the misfortunes
of Godfrey to illustrate the truth that " Favorable Chance is the god of all men
who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in. J

The evil principle deprecated in that religion, is the orderly sequence by which
the seed brings forth a crop after its kind." 91.

4 Felix Holt, I, 6.


cence of the connection between effort and achievement
leads to the fatuous complacency from which Gwendolen
Harleth was aroused by the cruel shock of being told the
truth about her musical abilities: 1

"She had moved in a society where everything, from low
arithmetic to high art, is of the amateur kind politely supposed
to fall short of perfection only because gentlemen and ladies
are not obliged to do more than they like otherwise they would
probably give forth abler writings and show themselves more
commanding artists than any the world is at present obliged to
put up with."

Another busy circle had made two important discov-
eries: the superiority of the probable over the actual; and
the advantage of a well-chosen nomenclature, whereby a
taste for cruelty may be gratified by the simple device
of calling it kindness. The first was made over the gossip
about Bulstrode: 2

"Everbody liked better to conjecture how the thing was, than
simply to know it; for conjecture soon became more confident
than knowledge, and had a more liberal allowance for the incom-

The second developed in a later phase of the same
affair: 3

"To be candid, in Middlemarch phraseology, meant, to use
an early opportunity of letting your friends know that you did
not take a cheerful view of their capacity, their conduct, or
their position; and a robust candour never waited to be asked
for its opinion."

It was because of this understanding of the limitless
possibilities and universal prevalence of self-deception

1 Daniel Deronda, I, 395. 2 Middlemarch, III, 288. 3 Ibid., 329.


that Meredith was able to see the absurdity in egoism,
which is the form of the malady induced by vanity. And
this perception, as a modern critic observes, is the source
of the contrast between two well-known egoists, Sir
Charles Grandison and Sir Willoughby Patterne: 1

"Both, superficially viewed, are the same type: a male para-
gon before whom a bevy of women burn incense. But O the
difference! Grandison is serious to his author, while Meredith,
in skinning Willoughby alive like another Marsyas, is once and
for all making the worship of the ego hateful."

If one should ask, remembering the necessity for self-
assertion in the exacting requirements of our human des-
tiny, why so indispensable a thing as egoism should be ri-
diculous, Meredith has his answer ready: 2

"Nay, to be an exalted variety is to come under the calm
curious eye of the comic spirit, and to be probed for what you


It is in "imposing figures" that the malign imps "love
to uncover ridiculousness." Moreover, 3

"They dare not be chuckling while Egoism is valiant, while
sober, while socially valuable, nationally serviceable. They


This turn of the satiric road from the hypocritical to the
sentimental side of deceit marked a passage not only
through traits of character, as already noted, but through
the realm of institutions, where it might at first seem to be
more out of place. But there is no reason why organiza-
tions should not be as sentimental as the individuals of

1 Burton, Masters of the English Novel, 290.
* Essay on Comedy, 21.
Prelude to The Egoist.


which they are composed. Indeed, so far as crowd psy-
chology is in operation, they would be strengthened in
self-deception by their very numbers. Whether this is
the case or not, it is true that the tendency increased from
Peacock to Butler to see in organized groups the absurdity
of a complacent inefficiency. Not because they were fail-
ures did English institutions come under the rod, but be-
cause they flourished under a mighty delusion of success.
Smug incompetence, self-satisfied futility, these were the
gaping incongruities between pretense and performance
that made tempting targets out of Society, Church, School,
and State; and thitherward were trained the big and lit-
tle guns of the satirists.

There is, of course, an underlying cause of this trans-
ference of interest from the more simple and patent hyp-
ocrite to the more subtle and baffling sentimentalist,
individual and collective, and that is found in the spirit
of investigation, analysis, probing beneath surfaces, not
new, to be sure, but newly operative on a large scale,
known as Science. Science in the intellectual world, and
democracy in the political are the two forces which began
in the nineteenth century the Conquest of Canaan that
now in the twentieth they are gradually completing.

That these two armies are allies is obvious. The end
of democracy is an elevation of the whole plane of human
life, a leveling up and not the leveling down so feared
by Carlyle and the conservative English opinion of the
time. On the emotional and ethical side it is humanita-
rian, but in itself it is a rational utilitarian principle. For
this unquestionably practical end, Pure Science furnishes
the justification, indeed, the initial premises, by showing
the biology and psychology of all relationships, the re-
spective effects of cooperation and antagonism in the nat-


ural world, and kindred factors; while Applied Science
supplies the means to that end by discoveries and inven-
tions bearing on the amelioration and enhancement of
living conditions.

The recognition of such startling innovations would be
inevitably slow, and their adoption still slower. But it is
precisely in their ultimately successful struggle for admis-
sion into the life and thought of the nineteenth century
that we trace the evolution of the satire of the period, for
the satiric reaction is merely one of the many reflections
of that struggle.

A humanitarian democracy has turned the old ex ca-
thedra criticism into the forensic. The satirist has been
obliged, as one commentator observes, to descend from
the upper window whence he had been haranguing the mob
below; he might have added, much of the mob itself has
been admitted into the entrance halls at least of the
great Administration Building of modern life. But mean-
while the scientific method has added reason to emotion,
so that while the democratic ideal was conceived in a
rationalized sympathy, the stress has slipped more and
more from the sympathetic to the rational element. None
of the Victorians expressly would have denied the Moral
Obligation to be Intelligent, but George Eliot, Meredith,
and Butler were the first to make a real point of it.
For by the latter half of the century the laboratory had
come to be acknowledged as the colleague, if not the
successor, of the pulpit, for implicit sermonizing as well
as explicit instruction. And in the exercise of these func-
tions, while the pulpit may indulge at times in a dec-
orous ridicule, it is the laboratory that is the real, spon-
taneous, unconscious satirist. When the solemn moral
exhortation, Ought, was supplanted by the autocratic sci-


entific command. Must if, the expression changed from
earnest pleading to detached humor. For the moralist
takes himself, his message, and his hearers, seriously, but
the scientist has the indifferent attitude that if you refuse
to obey, the consequences, serious indeed and not to be
averted or escaped, will come, not in the guise of punish-
ment or retribution, but through the inexorable operation
of law. Accordingly, if you try to delude yourself into the
supposition that you can evade the orders of nature, the
joke is on you.

While, therefore, in Victorian satire the old familiar
faces of Society, State, and Church reappear, they are
subjected to a new treatment, as the result of a new

The School and the Press are the only additions to the
time-honored objects, because of their more recent emer-
gence into the light. The erection of the School into a pub-
lic institution, together with the subsidence of the Church
into the sphere of private life, marks indeed a radical
change in viewpoint, advancing from the assumption
that the State must insure the religion of its citizens, let
them be educated how they might (except that for a long
time they had no choice but to take their secular learn-
ing from the hands of the clergy) to the realization that
if those responsible for the general welfare would provide
for a general diffusion of enlightenment, the religious
sentiment might safely be trusted to those whom it
concerned, namely, the individuals themselves. In re-
gard to all these institutions the old, sharply defined con-
trast between guilty, satirized protagonist and indicting,
satirical antagonist has disappeared. In its place is a de-
cided tendency toward the fellow-member, fellow-citizen,
fellow-sinner attitude, which at least has the advantage


always held by the empiric knowledge of the insider over
the deductive inference of the outsider.

In the social field the most notable alteration is in the
satire of woman. From the time of the Greek Simonides
and the Hebrew epigrammatists, feminine foibles have
been alluring game for masculine-made arrows. The
shrew, the gossip, the blue-stocking, the interfering step-
mother, the intriguing wife, the extravagant daughter, the
lady of fashion, have been detected with unerring clarity
of vision and pursued with accomplished skill. They have
also been taken for granted. It was not until the modern
inquiry into cause and effect was instituted that the fem-
inine failure was viewed as an effect of which society was
largely the cause, by withholding opportunity on one hand,
and on the other encouraging the very ignorance and in-
anity it affected to despise. This discovery led logically
to the shifting of the satire from effect back to cause, and
the addition of another item to the list wherein the con-
certed action of the social group is held accountable for
any malign influence on its members.

This probing into causes is even more sweepingly oper-
ative in the larger society of mankind and the body poli-
tic. The study of economics and sociology inevitably has
switched the old partisan antagonism into a new opposi-
tion based more consciously on theories of government,
still partisan, to be sure, but less on personal and more on
philosophical grounds. The new element this brings into
political satire is the effort to create a public sense of shame
for. official incompetence, since in a democracy (and such,
in some form or other, is almost every modern State) the
blame for this incompetence rests ultimately on the pub-
lic. Modern critics may echo Isaiah's scornful com-
plaint of state officialdom, "The ancient and the honor-


able man, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth
lies, he is the tail/' but their remedy would lie not in in-
creased reliance on a theocracy but in a more adequate
popular referendum. John Barton concludes his impas-
sioned tirade against mill-owners and capitalists with the
argument, 1

"Don't think to come over me with th' old tale, that the
rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don't
know, they ought to know. We're their slaves as long as we can
work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and
yet we are to live as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a
great gulf betwixt us: but I know who was best off then."

On another occasion he adds this explanation, 2

"What we all feel sharpest is the want of inclination to try
and help the evils which come like blights at times over the man-
ufacturing places, while we see the masters can stop work and
not suffer."

To this serious and personal grief Meredith responds,
as it were, in his more impersonal and ironic manner. Di-
ana represents the view from a position of equality, and
the satire of one's own class: 3

"And charity is haunted, like everything we do. Only I say
with my whole strength yes, I am sure, in spite of the men pro-
fessing that they are practical, the rich will not move without
a goad. I have and hold you shall hunger and covet, until
you are strong enough to force my hand; that's the speech of
the wealthy. And they are Christians. In name. Well, I thank
heaven I'm at war with myself.' "

Kingsley is spurred by the subject to a bitter sar-
casm: 4

1 Mary Barton, 6. * Diana of the Crossways, 48.

2 Ibid., 3 17. * Yeasty 34.


"The finest of us are animals, after all, and live by eating and
sleeping, and, taken as animals, not so badly off, either unless
we happen to be Dorsetshire laborers or Spitalfield weavers
or colliery children or marching soldiers or, I am afraid, one
half of English souls this day."

Nor is he lacking in a constructive outlook. In con-
nection with a fling at the "amusingly inconsistent, how-
ever well-meant scene in Coningsby^ in which Disraeli
illustrates his idea of a beneficent aristocracy, he has one
of his characters meditate that l

"It may suit the Mr. Lyles of this age * * * to make the
people constantly and visibly comprehend that property is their
protector and their friend, but I question whether it will suit the
people themselves, unless they can make property understand
that it owes them something more definite than protection."

At that time there was not much disposition to believe
these ills could be cured by legislation. On the contrary,
the numerous satiric hits at various governmental depart-
ments were aimed not at the general laissezfaire policy
of the State, but at its indifferent success in the matters
over which it had already assumed jurisdiction, and its
unwarranted encroachment into others. The reasoning
seemed to be that an institution which had been unfaith-
ful and convicted of inertness, graft, and stupidity in its
limited operations would be unlikely to be more alert,
honest, and intelligent if its burdens were increased. Da-
vid Copperfield is shocked to learn from Mr. Spenlow the
ways of the law, and still more so at Mr. Spenlow's cold-

1 Yeasty 236. He also has a sneer for the patronizing scheme of Vieuxbois, in
which "of course the clergy and the gentry were to educate the poor, who were
to take down thankfully as much as it was thought proper to give them: and
all beyond was * self-will ' and 'private judgment,' the fathers of Dissent and
Chartism, Trades-union strikes, and French Revolutions." 117.


ness toward the idea of reform. 1 Henry Little wades
through and climbs over all sorts of official obstacles until
"he had done, in sixty days, what a true inventor will do
in twenty-four hours, whenever the various metallic ages
shall be succeeded by the age of reason." 2 A prison in-
spector is finally confronted with actual facts of a horrify-
ing nature: 3

"How unreal and idle appeared now the twenty years gone
in tape and circumlocution! Away went his life of shadows
his career of watery polysyllables meandering through the
great desert into the Dead Sea."

But more subtle and vital than all these errors, the
error indeed at the root of them all, is the failure of the
State to utilize the fine material placed at its disposal,
potentially if not actually, in the lives of noble and capa-
ble youth. No one before Lytton could have laid at the

1 He reflects, "I had not the hardihood to suggest to Dora's father that pos-
sibly we might even improve the world a little, if we got up early in the morn-
ing, and took off our coats to the work; but I confessed that I thought we might
improve the Commons." David Copperfield, II, 44. The counter argument
brought forward to dampen his enthusiasm was that more good was done to the
sinecurists than harm to the public, whose ignorance was its bliss. "Under
the Prerogative Office, the country had been glorious. Insert the wedge into
the Prerogative Office, and the country would cease to be glorious, He con-
sidered it the principle of a gentleman to take things as he found them."

2 Put Yourself in his Place, 401.

3 Never too Late to Mend y 411. In the same story Reade lays great stress on
the importance of the inspector's duty: "Only for this task is required, not the
gullibility that characterizes the many, but the sagacity that distinguishes the
few." 360.

It was this sagacity, combined with keen imagination, quick sympathy, and
prompt and efficient action, that rendered the chaplain Eden a success under
discouraging difficulties. The very foundation of his success was laid when he
insisted on experiencing for himself the straight jacket and the solitary con-
finement, to the unbounded but amused mystification of the jail officials. And
the shrewd coup d'ttat by which he converted one of them revealed the profound
truth that "ignorance is the mother of cruelty."


door of society the wasted possibilities of a Godolphin. No
one before Meredith could have made the thwarted career
of a Beauchamp a pitiful satire on "his indifferent Eng-
land," who appeared, "with a quiet derision that does
not belie her amiable passivity, to have reduced in Beau-
champ's career the boldest readiness for public action, and
some good stout efforts besides, to the flat result of an
optically discernible influence of our hero's character in
the domestic circle: perhaps a faintly outlined circle or two
beyond it." 1

In Society and the State all opposition is necessarily
factional, for none can stand entirely outside. This was
true of the Church also, during its undisputed supremacy,
when to be excommunicated was equivalent to being im-
prisoned or otherwise put outside the pale. But by the
sixteenth. century Skelton could say in Colyn Clout,

"For, as farre as I can se,
It is wrong with eche degre;
For the temporalte
Accuseth the spiritualte;
The spirituall agayne
Dothe grudge and complayne
Upon the temporall men:"

By the eighteenth, Voltaire could get a hearing, albeit
a hostile and scandalized one. And by the nineteenth, we
have not only Bronte and Kingsley censuring from within,
but Meredith and Butler from without. So far as there
is a new note in the censure, it is in harmony with the
whole strain of the time. For the old crude gibes against
the old crude faults of hypocrisy, sensuality, and greed,
is substituted the criticism that a huge organization fails

1 Beauchamp's Career, 40.


to utilize the tremendous power of its equipment, pres-
tige, and authority, in the furtherance of general progress
and the establishment of a genuine kingdom of God here
upon earth. For from the spiritualte as well as the tem-
poralte the new humanitarian spirit demands recogni-
tion and service.

These modifications in form and substance were in-
duced by a modification, probably unconscious, of the idea
of satire itself, and they in turn reacted on it to strengthen
the changing conception. The two main elements, a
wider socialization in the point of view, and a firmer in-
sistence on an understanding of conditions such as could
not be secured under the old artless habit of accepting the
premises, stand for that union of feeling and intelligence
which was the ideal of the nineteenth century. "Men,"
says Meredith, " and the ideas of men, which are * * *
actually the motives of men in a greater degree than their
appetites; these are my theme;" 1 and again, "The Gods
of this world's contests demand it of us, in relation to them,
that the mind, and not the instincts, shall be at work." 2
The corollary of this is that though satire may be " a pas-
sion to sting and tear," it must do so "on rational
grounds." 3 "Satire," says Trollope, "though it may ex-
aggerate the vice it lashes, is not justified in creating it in
order that it may be lashed. Caricature may too easily
become a slander, and satire a libel." 4 Sympathy and in-

1 Beauchamp's Career, 7.

2 Diana of the Cros sways, 153.

3 One of Our Conquerors, 70. Etymologically, it is only the sarcastic variety
which pushes the attack so far.

4 Autobiography, 86. Even the ingenuous Mr, Brooke of Middlemarch had
made the subtle discovery that " Satire, you know, should be true up to a cer-
tain point." And a century before, satire's warmest defender, John Brown,
had cautioned the wits against degrading her "to a scold."


telligence have no objection to pungency and force-
fulness, but they have no real need for truculence or un-
fairness. It is, as Garnett suggests, the unsophisticated
man who regards satire as the offspring of ill-nature. Such
was the intellectual status of Lady Middleton, who could
not feel an affinity for Elinor and Marianne Dashwood: 1

"Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she
could not believe them good-natured; and because they were
fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without ex-
actly knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not sig-
nify. It was censure in common use, and easily given."

The vague notion that a satirist is something disagree-
able will of course never quite be eradicated, at least not
until people learn to like being ridiculed and criticised.
But in manner he is undeniably growing less disagreeable
than has been his wont. Another reason for this, in addi-
tion to the changes already noted, is the increased activity
of that reflexive sense of humor which operates as an anti-
toxin to the vanity inherent in all critics. A wholesome
fear of being absurd serves to reduce one's chances of be-
ing that rich anomaly, a ridiculous satirist. The modern
satirist may possess a mind conscious to itself of right and
a conviction that he has a mission to perform. But he is
more prone to conceal or even disclaim these things than
to advertise them. Even Fielding did not proclaim, as he
might have done, that he first adventured. Peacock trusted
to his readers to discover that fools being his theme,
satire must be his song. Since his time, satire, while ques-
tioning all things with a new penetration, has succeeded
in taking on an air of unconcern and in realizing that nei-
ther promises nor apologies are necessary. Post-Byronic

1 Sense and Sensibility, 244.


satire seldom vaunts itself, and, however superior it may
feel, it pretends that it is not puffed up. A historian de-
scribes the change that takes place between the Age of
Elizabeth, when satire "was the pastime of very young
men, who * railed on Lady Fortune in good set terms,"
and the Commonwealth, when the combatants "left Na-
ture and Fortune with their withers un wrung, and aimed
at the joints in the harness of their enemies." l To the
Victorians, satire was neither a pastime nor a matter for
deadly earnestness. Armored antagonists had gone out
of fashion; and Lady Fortune was left to the metaphy-

It is, indeed, a matter of curious interest that one object
of satire, life itself, which had drawn fire occasionally all
the way from Aristophanes to Bryon, should have been
neglected by the Victorians, though the neglect may be
accounted for by their interest in the concrete and their
generally optimistic outlook. On the other hand, one of
the most philosophic and least optimistic of them devotes
several bow-shots to a sort of counter attack, against those
who consider the universe a fit subject for satire. The
Prelude to Middlemarch identifies the heroine as one of
those unfortunate women of deep souls and shallow cir-
cumstances, "who found for themselves no epic life
wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant
action." To this the comment is added: 2

"Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the in-

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 22 24 25

Online LibraryFrances Theresa Peet RussellSatire in the Victorian novel → online text (page 22 of 25)