John Hill Burton.

The book-hunter : etc. online

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King, can boast of having read the Statutes at large through, I venture
to give a title of an Act - a title only, remember, of one of the bundle
of acts passed in one session - as an instance of the comprehensiveness
of English statute law, and the lively way in which it skips from one
subject to another. It is called -

"An Act to continue several laws for the better regulating of pilots,
for the conducting of ships and vessels from Dover, Deal, and the Isle
of Thanet, up the River Thames and Medway; and for the permitting rum or
spirits of the British sugar plantations to be landed before the duties
of excise are paid thereon; and to continue and amend an Act for
preventing fraud in the admeasurement of coals within the city and
liberties of Westminster, and several parishes near thereunto; and to
continue several laws for preventing exactions of occupiers of locks and
wears upon the River Thames westward; and for ascertaining the rates of
water-carriage upon the said river; and for the better regulation and
government of seamen in the merchant service; and also to amend so much
of an Act made during the reign of King George I. as relates to the
better preservation of salmon in the River Ribble; and to regulate fees
in trials and assizes at nisi prius," &c.

But this gets tiresome, and we are only half way through the title after
all. If the reader wants the rest of it, as also the substantial Act
itself, whereof it is the title, let him turn to the 23d of Geo. II.,
chap. 26.

No wonder, if he anticipated this sort of thing, that Bacon should have
commended "the excellent brevity of the old Scots acts." Here, for
instance, is a specimen, an actual statute at large, such as they were
in those pigmy days: -

"Item, it is statute that gif onie of the King's lieges passes in
England, and resides and remains there against the King's will, he shall
be halden as Traiter to the King."

Here is another, very comprehensive, and worth a little library of
modern statute-books, if it was duly enforced: -

"Item, it is statute and ordained, that all our Sovereign lord's lieges
being under his obeisance, and especially the Isles, be ruled by our
Sovereign lord's own laws, and the common laws of the realm, and none
other laws."

The Irish statute-book conveys more expressively than any narrative the
motley contrasts of a history in the fabric of which the grotesque and
the tragic are so closely interwoven. So early as the middle of the
sixteenth century, English statesmen discover usquebaugh, and pass an
act to extinguish it at once: "forasmuch as _aqua vitæ_, a drink nothing
profitable to be daily drunken and used, is now universally throughout
this realm of Ireland made, and especially in the borders of the
Irishry, and for the furniture of Irishmen, and thereby much corn,
grain, and other things are consumed, spent, and wasted," and so forth.

To get men to shave and wash themselves, and generally to conform to the
standard of civilisation in their day, seems innocent if not laudable;
yet is there a world of heartburning, strife, oppression, and
retaliatory hatred expressed in the title of "an act, that the Irishmen
dwelling in the counties of Dublin, Meath, Uriell, and Kildare, shall go
apparelled like Englishmen, and wear their beards after the English
manner, swear allegiance, and take English surnames." Further on we have
a whole series of acts, with a conjunction of epithets in their titles
which, at the present day, sounds rather startling, "for the better
suppressing Tories, Robbers, and Rapparees, and for preventing
robberies, burglaries, and other heinous crimes." The classes so
associated having an unreasonable dislike of being killed, difficulties
are thus put in the way of those beneficially employed in killing them,
insomuch that they, "upon the killing of any one of their number, are
thereby so alarmed and put upon their keeping, that it hath been found
impracticable for such person or persons to discover and apprehend or
kill any more of them, whereby they are discouraged from discovering and
apprehending or killing," and so forth. There is a strange and
melancholy historical interest in these grotesque enactments, since they
almost verbatim repeat the legislation about the Highland clans passed a
century earlier by the Lowland Parliament of Scotland.

There is one shelf of the law library laden with a store of which few
will deny the attractive interest - that devoted to the literature of
Criminal Trials. It will go hard indeed, if, besides the reports of mere
technicalities, there be not here some glimpses of the sad romances
which lie at their heart; and, at all events, when the page passes a
very slight degree beyond the strictly professional, the technicalities
will be found mingled with abundant narrative. The State Trials, for
instance - surely a lawyer's book - contains the materials of a thousand
romances: nor are these all attached to political offences; as,
fortunately, the book is better than its name, and makes a virtuous
effort to embrace all the remarkable trials coming within the long
period covered by the collection. Some assistance may be got, at the
same time, from minor luminaries, such as the Newgate Calendar - not to
be commended, certainly, for its literary merits, but full of matters
strange and horrible, which, like the gloomy forest of the Castle of
Indolence, "sent forth a sleepy horror through the blood."

There are many other books where records of remarkable crimes are mixed
up with much rubbish, as, The Terrific Register, God's Revenge against
Murder, a little French book called Histoire Générale des Larrons
(1623), and if the inquirer's taste turn towards maritime crimes, The
History of the Bucaniers, by Esquemeling. A little work in four
volumes, called the Criminal Recorder, by a student in the Inner Temple,
can be commended as a sort of encyclopædia of this kind of literature.
It professes - and is not far from accomplishing the profession - to give
biographical sketches of notorious public characters, including
"murderers, traitors, pirates, mutineers, incendiaries, defrauders,
rioters, sharpers, highwaymen, footpads, pickpockets, swindlers,
housebreakers, coiners, receivers, extortioners, and other noted persons
who have suffered the sentence of the law for criminal offences." By far
the most luxurious book of this kind, however, in the English language,
is Captain Johnston's Lives of Highwaymen and Pirates. It is rare to
find it now complete. The old folio editions have been often mutilated
by over use; the many later editions in octavo are mutilated by design
of their editors; and for conveying any idea of the rough truthful
descriptiveness of a book compiled in the palmy days of highway robbery,
they are worthless.

All our literature of that nature must, however, yield to the French
Causes Célèbres, a term rendered so significant by the value and
interest of the book it names, as to have been borrowed by writers in
this country to render their works attractive. It must be noted as a
reason for the success of this work, and also of the German collection
by Feuerbach, that the despotic Continental method of procedure by
secret inquiry affords much better material for narrative than ours by
open trial. We make, no doubt, a great drama of a criminal trial.
Everything is brought on the stage at once, and cleared off before an
audience excited so as no player ever could excite; but it loses in
reading; while the Continental inquiry, with its slow secret development
of the plot, makes the better novel for the fireside.

There is a method by which, among ourselves, the trial can be imbedded
in a narrative which may carry down to later generations a condensed
reflection of that protracted expectation and excitement which disturb
society during the investigations and trials occasioned by any great
crime. This is by "illustrating" the trial, through a process resembling
that which has been already supposed to have been applied to one of
Watts's hymns. In this instance there will be all the newspaper
scraps - all the hawker's broadsides - the portraits of the criminal, of
the chief witnesses, the judges, the counsel, and various other
persons, - everything in literature or art that bears on the great

He who inherits or has been able to procure a collection of such
illustrated trials, a century or so old, is deemed fortunate among
collectors, for he can at any time raise up for himself the spectre as
it were of the great mystery and exposure that for weeks was the
absorbing topic of attraction for millions. The curtains are down - the
fire burns bright - the cat purrs on the rug; Atticus, soused in his
easy-chair, cannot be at the trouble of going to see Macbeth or
Othello - he will sup full of horrors from his own stores. Accordingly he
takes down an unseemly volume, characterised by a flabby obesity by
reason of the unequal size of the papers contained in it, all being
bound to the back, while the largest only reach the margin. The first
thing at opening is the dingy pea-green-looking paragraph from the
provincial newspaper, describing how the reapers, going to their work at
dawn, saw the clay beaten with the marks of struggle, and, following the
dictates of curiosity, saw a bloody rag sticking on a tree, the leaves
also streaked with red, and, lastly, the instrument of violence hidden
in the moss; next comes from another source the lamentations for a young
woman who had left her home - then the excitement of putting that and
that together - the search, and the discovery of the body. The next
paragraph turns suspense into exulting wrath: the perpetrator has been
found with his bloody shirt on - a scowling murderous villain as ever was
seen - an eminent poacher, and fit for anything. But the next paragraph
turns the tables. The ruffian had his own secrets of what he had been
about that night, and at last makes a clean breast. It would have been a
bad business for him at any other time, but now he is a revealing angel,
for he noted this and that in the course of his own little game, and
gives justice the thread which leads to a wonderful romance, and brings
home desperate crime to that quarter where, from rank, education, and
profession, it was least likely to be found. Then comes the trial and
the execution; and so, at a sitting, has been swallowed all that
excitement which, at some time long ago, chained up the public in
protracted suspense for weeks.

The reader will see, from what I have just been saying, that I am not
prepared to back Charles Lamb's Index Expurgatorius.[49] It is
difficult, almost impossible, to find the book from which something
either valuable or amusing may not be found, if the proper alembic be
applied. I know books that are curious, and really amusing, from their
excessive badness. If you want to find precisely how a thing ought not
to be said, you take one of them down, and make it perform the service
of the intoxicated Spartan slave. There are some volumes in which, at a
chance opening, you are certain to find a mere platitude delivered in
the most superb and amazing climax of big words, and others in which you
have a like happy facility in finding every proposition stated with its
stern forward, as sailors say, or in some other grotesque mismanagement
of composition. There are no better farces on or off the stage than when
two or three congenial spirits ransack books of this kind, and compete
with each other in taking fun out of them.

[Footnote 49: "In this catalogue of _books which are no books - biblia a
biblia_ - I reckon court calendars, directories, pocket-books,
draught-boards bound and lettered on the back, scientific treatises,
almanacs, statutes at large; the works of Hume, Gibbon, Robertson,
Beattie, Soame Jenyns, and generally all those volumes which 'no
gentleman's library should be without;' the histories of Flavius
Josephus (that learned Jew) and Paley's Moral Philosophy. With these
exceptions, I can read almost anything. I bless my stars for a taste so
catholic, so unexcluding. I confess that it moves my spleen to see these
_things in books' clothing_ perched upon shelves, like false saints,
usurpers of true shrines, intruders into the sanctuary, thrusting out
the legitimate occupants. To reach down a well-bound semblance of a
volume, and hope it some kind-hearted play-book, then, opening what
'seem its leaves,' to come bolt upon a withering population essay. To
expect a Steele, or a Farquhar, and find - Adam Smith. To view a
well-arranged assortment of block-headed encyclopædias (Anglicanas or
Metropolitanas) set out in an array of russia or morocco, when a tithe
of that good leather would comfortably reclothe my shivering folios,
would renovate Paracelsus himself, and enable old Raymund Lully to look
like himself again in the world. I never see these impostors but I long
to strip them, to warm my ragged veterans in their spoils." - Essays of

There is a solid volume, written in an inquiring spirit, but in a manner
which reminds one of deep calling unto deep, about the dark
superstitions of a country which was once a separate European kingdom. I
feel a peculiar interest in it, from the author having informed me, by
way of communicating an important fact in literary history, and also as
an example to be followed by literary aspirants, that, before committing
the book to the press, he had written it over sixteen times. It would
have been valuable to have his first manuscript, were it only that one
might form some idea of the steps by which he had brought it into the
condition in which it was printed. But its perusal in that condition was
not entirely thrown away, since I was able to recommend it to a teacher
of composition, as containing, within a moderate compass - after the
manner, in fact, of a handbook - good practical specimens of every
description of depravity of style of which the English language is

In the present day, when few scholars have opportunities of enriching
the world with their prison hours, perhaps the best conditions for
testing how far any volume or portion of printed matter, however
hopeless-looking, may yet yield edifying or amusing matter to a
sufficient pressure, will occur when a bookish person finds himself
imprisoned in a country inn, say for twenty-four hours. Such things are
not impossible in this age of rapid movement. It is not long since a
train, freighted with musical artistes, sent express to perform at a
provincial concert and be back immediately in town for other
engagements, were caught by a great snow-storm which obliterated the
railway, and had to live for a week or two in a wayside alehouse, in one
of the dreariest districts of Scotland. The possessor and user of a
large library undergoing such a calamity in a modified shape will be
able to form a conception of the resources at his disposal, and to
calculate how long it will take him to exhaust the intellectual
treasures at his command, just as a millionaire, haunted as such people
sometimes are by the dread of coming on the parish, might test how long
a life his invested capital would support by spending a winter in a
Shetland cottage, and living on what he could procure. Having exhausted
all other sources of excitement and interest, the belated traveller is
supposed to call for the literature of the establishment. Perhaps the
Directory of the county town is the only available volume. Who shall say
what the belated traveller may make of this? He may do a turn in local
statistics, or, if his ambition rises higher, he may pursue some
valuable ethnological inquiries, trying whether Celtic or Saxon names
prevail, and testing the justice of Mr Thierry's theory by counting the
Norman patronymics, and observing whether any of them are owned by
persons following plebeian and sordid occupations. If in after-life the
sojourner should come in contact with people interested in the politics
or business of that county town, he will surprise them by exhibiting his
minute acquaintance with its affairs.

If, besides the Directory, an Almanac, old or new, is to be had, the
analysis may be conducted on a greatly widened basis. The rotations of
the changes of the seasons may at the same time suggest many appropriate
reflections on the progress of man from the cradle to the grave, and all
that he meets with between the alpha and omega; and if the prisoner is
a man of genius, the announcements of eclipses and other solar phenomena
will suggest trains of thought which he can carry up to any height of
sublimity. A person in the circumstances supposed, after he has
exhausted the Directory and the Almanac, may perhaps be led to read (if
he can get) Zimmerman On Solitude, Hervey's Meditations, Watts on the
Improvement of the Mind, or Hannah More's Sacred Dramas. Who knows what
he may be reduced to? I remember the great Irish liberator telling how,
when once detained in an inn in Switzerland, he could find no book to
beguile the time with but the Lettres Provinciales of Pascal. I have no
doubt that the coerced perusal of them to which he had to submit did him
a deal of good.

Let us imagine that nothing better is to be found than the advertising
sheet of an old newspaper - never mind. Let the unfortunate man fall to
and read the advertisements courageously, and make the best of them. An
advertisement is itself a fact, though it may sometimes be the vehicle
of a falsehood; and, as some one has remarked, he who has a fact in hand
is like a turner with a piece of wood in his lathe, which he can
manipulate to his liking, tooling it in any way, as a plain cylinder or
a richly ornamented toy. There have been fortunate instances of people
driven to read them finding good jokes and other enjoyable things in
advertisements - such things as make one almost regret that so little
attention has been paid to this department of literature.[50] Besides
the spontaneous undesigned attractions to be found in it, there have
been men of distinguished parts whose powers have found development in
the advertisement line. George Robins, a hero in his day, is surely not
yet quite forgotten; and though he were, doubtless his works will be
restored to notice by future philosophers who will perhaps find in them
the true spirit of the nineteenth century. Advertisements, more prosaic
than his, however, bring us into the very heart of life and business,
and contain a world of interest. Suppose that the dirty broadside you
pick up in the dingy inn's soiled room contains the annual announcement
of the reassembling of the school in which you spent your own years of
schoolboy life - what a mingled and many-figured romance does it recall
of all that has befallen to yourself and others since the day when the
same advertisement made you sigh, because the hour was close at hand
when you were to leave home and all its homely ways to dwell among
strangers! Going onward, you remember how each one after another ceased
to be a stranger, and twined himself about your heart; and then comes
the reflection, Where are they all now? You remember how

"He, the young and strong, who cherished
Noble longings for the strife,
By the roadside fell and perished,
Weary with the march of life."

You recall to your memory also those two inseparables - linked together,
it would seem, because they were so unlike. The one, gentle, dreamy, and
romantic, was to be the genius of the set; but alas, he "took to bad
habits," and oozed into the slime of life, imperceptibly almost, hurting
no creature but himself - unless it may be that to some parent or other
near of kin his gentle facility may have caused keener pangs than others
give by cruelty and tyranny. The other, bright-eyed, healthy, strong,
and keen-tempered - the best fighter and runner and leaper in the
school - the dare-devil who was the leader in every row - took to Greek
much about the time when his companion took to drinking, got a
presentation, wrote some wonderful things about the functions of the
chorus, and is now on the fair road to a bishopric.

[Footnote 50: Take, for instance, the announcement of the wants of an
affluent and pious elderly lady, desirous of having the services of a
domestic like-minded with herself, who appeals to the public for a
"groom to take charge of two carriage-horses of a serious turn of mind."
So also the simple-hearted innkeeper, who founds on his "limited charges
and civility;" or the description given by a distracted family of a
runaway member, who consider that they are affording valuable means for
his identification by saying, "age not precisely known - but looks older
than he is."]

Next arises the vision of "the big boy," the lout - the butt of every
one, even of the masters, who, when any little imp did a thing well,
always made the appropriate laudation tell to the detriment of the big
boy, as if he were bound to be as superfluous in intellect as in flesh.
He has sufficiently dinned into him to make him thoroughly modest, poor
fellow, how all great men were little. Napoleon was little, so was
Frederic the Great, William III., the illustrious Condé, Pope, Horace,
Anacreon, Campbell, Tom Moore, and Jeffrey. His relations have so
thoroughly given in to the prejudice against him, that they get him a
cadetship because he is fit for nothing at home; and now, years
afterwards, the newspapers resound with his fame - how, when at the
quietest of all stations when the mutiny suddenly broke out in its most
murderous shape, and even experienced veterans lost heart, he remained
firm and collected, quietly developing, one after another, resources of
which he was not himself aware, and in the end putting things right,
partly by stern vigour, but more by a quiet tact and genial appreciation
of the native character. But what has become of the Dux - him who, in the
predictions of all, teachers and taught, was to render the institution
some day illustrious by occupying the Woolsack, or the chief place at
the Speaker's right hand? A curious destiny is his: at a certain point
the curve of his ascent was as it were truncated, and he took to the
commonest level of ordinary life. He may now be seen, staid and sedate
in his walk, which brings him, with a regularity that has rendered him
useful to neighbours owning erratic watches, day by day to a lofty
three-legged stool, mounted on which, all his proceedings confirm the
high character retained by him through several years for the neatness of
his handwriting, and especially for his precision in dotting his i's and
stroking his t's.

This is all along of the use which the reflective man may make of an old
advertisement. If it be old, the older the better - the more likely is it
to contain matter of curious interest or instruction about the ways of
men. To show this, I reprint two advertisements from British newspapers.

From the Public Advertiser of 28th March 1769.

"TO BE SOLD, A BLACK GIRL, the property of J. B - - , eleven years
of age, who is extremely handy, works at her needle tolerably, and
speaks English perfectly well: is of an excellent temper, and
willing disposition.

"Inquire of Mr Owen, at the Angel Inn, behind St Clement's Church
in the Strand."

From the Edinburgh Evening Courant, 18th April 1768.


"TO BE SOLD, A BLACK BOY, with long hair, stout made, and
well-limbed - is good tempered, can dress hair, and take care of a
horse indifferently. He has been in Britain nearly three years.

"Any person that inclines to purchase him may have him for £40. He
belongs to Captain ABERCROMBIE at Broughton.

"This advertisement not to be repeated."

There was at that time probably more of this description of property in
Britain than in Virginia. It had become fashionable, as one may see in
Hogarth. Such advertisements - they were abundant - might furnish an apt
text on which a philosophical historian could speculate on the probable
results to this country, had not Mansfield gone to the root of the
matter by denying all property in slaves.

So much for the chances which still remain to the devourer of books, if,
after having consumed all the solid volumes within his reach, he should
be reduced to shreds and patches of literature, - like a ship's crew
having resort to shoe-leather and the sweepings of the locker.


But now to return to the point whence we started - the disposition, and
almost the necessity, which the true enthusiast in the pursuit feels to
look into the soul, as it were, of his book, after he has got possession

Online LibraryJohn Hill BurtonThe book-hunter : etc. → online text (page 16 of 33)