[Whipple, Edwin Percy.] "Novels of the Season." North American Review 67 (Oct. 1848): 354-69.
ART. IV.1.Jane Eyre, an
Autobiography. Edited by CURRER BELL. Boston: Wilkins,
Carter, & Co. 1848. 12mo.
2. Wuthering Heights. By the Author of Jane Eyre. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1848. 2 vols. 12mo.
3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. By ACTON BELL, Author of Wuthering Heights. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1848. 2 vols. 12mo.
4. Hawkstone: A Tale of and for England in 184. Fifth American Edition. New York: Stanford & Swords. 1848. 2 vols. 12mo.
5. The Bachelor of the Albany. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1848. 12mo.
6. Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings. By SIR E. BULWER LYTTON, BART. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1848. 8vo.
7. Grantley Manor, a Tale. By LADY GEORGIANA FULLERTON. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1848. 12mo.
8. Vanity Fair, a Novel without a Hero. By WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY. With Illustrations by the Author. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1848. 8vo.
THERE was a time when the appearance of a clever novel would justify its separate examination in a Review, and a nice discussion of the claims of its Mr. Herbert or Lady Jane to be enrolled among men and women. But in this age of ready writers, romances must be reviewed in battalions, or allowed to pass unchallenged. Every week beholds a new irruption of emigrants into the sunny land of fiction, sadly disturbing the old balance of power, and introducing a fearful confusion of names and habits. Within a few years, all the proprieties of the domain have been violated by the intrusion of hordes of ruffians, pickpockets, and vagabonds. Sir Charles Grandison finds himself face to face with Jack Shepard, and no scorn sparkling in the eyes of Die Vernon can abash the impudence of Mr. Richard Turpin. The swagger of Vulgar villany, the lisp of genteel imbecility, and the free and easy manner of Wapping, are now quite the rage in the Elysian fields of romance. Another evil is the comparative absence of individualities, amid all the increase of population. Opinions have nearly supplanted characters. We look for men, and discern propositions,for women, and are favored with women's rights. Theologians, metaphysicians, politicians, reformers, philanthropists, prophets of the general overturn and the good time coming, the march-of-intellect boys in a solid phalanx, have nearly pushed the novelist aside. The dear old nonsense, which has delighted the heart for so many centuries, is so mixed up with nonsense of another kind, that it cannot be recognized either in drawing-room or kitchen. The sacred flame still burns in some sixpenny or ninepenny novellettes, the horror of the polite and the last hope of the sentimental; but it burns in a battered copper lamp, and among ruins.
Accordingly, in the novels whose titles grace the head of the present article, our readers must not expect to find, in its full perfection, that peculiar aspect of human weakness of which the novelist is the legitimate exponent. They must be content with a repast of matters and things in general, among which may be named some good philosophy, several dishes of controversial theology, much spicy satire, a little passable morality, a little impertinent immorality, and a good deal of the philosophy of history and the science of the affections.
The first three novels on our list are those which have proceeded from the firm of Bell & Co. Not many months ago, the New England States were visited by a distressing mental epidemic, passing under the name of the "Jane Eyre fever," which defied all the usual nostrums of the established doctors of criticism. Its effects varied with different constitutions, in some producing a soft ethical sentimentality, which relaxed all the fibres of conscience, and in others exciting a general fever of moral and religious indignation. It was to no purpose that the public were solemnly assured, through the intelligent press, that the malady was not likely to have any permanent effect either on the intellectual or moral constitution. The book which caused the distemper would probably have been inoffensive, had not some sly manufacturer of mischief hinted that it was a book which no respectable man should bring into his family circle. Of course, every family soon had a copy of it, and one edition after another found eager purchasers. The hero, Mr. Rochester, (not the same person who comes to so edifying an end in the pages of Dr. Gilbert Burnet,) became a great favorite in the boarding-schools and in the worshipful society of governesses. That portion of Young America known as ladies' men began to swagger and swear in the presence of the gentler sex, and to allude darkly to events in their lives which excused impudence and profanity.
While fathers and mothers were much distressed at this strange conduct of their innocents, and with a pardonable despair were looking for the dissolution of all the bonds of society, the publishers of Jane Eyre announced Wuthering Heights, by the same author. When it came, it was purchased and read with universal eagerness; but, alas! it created disappointment almost as universal. It was a panacea for all the sufferers under the epidemic. Society returned to its old condition, parents were blessed in hearing once more their children talk common sense, and rakes and battered profligates of high and low degree fell instantly to their proper level. Thus ended the last desperate attempt to corrupt the virtue of the sturdy descendants of the Puritans.
The novel of Jane Eyre, which caused this great excitement, purports to have been edited by Currer Bell, and the said Currer divides the authorship, if we are not misinformed, with a brother and sister. The work bears the marks of more than one mind and one sex, and has more variety than either of the novels which claim to have been written by Acton Bell. The family mind is strikingly peculiar, giving a strong impression of unity, but it is still male and female. From the masculine tone of Jane Eyre, it might pass altogether as the composition of a man, were it not for some unconscious feminine peculiarities, which the strongest-minded woman that ever aspired after manhood cannot suppress. These peculiarities refer not only to elaborate descriptions of dress, and the minutiae of the sick-chamber, but to various superficial refinements of feeling in regard to the external relations of the sex. It is true that the noblest and best representations of female character have been produced by men; but there are niceties of thought and emotion in a woman's mind which no man can delineate, but which often escape unawares from a female writer. There are numerous examples of these in Jane Eyre. The leading characteristic of the novel, however, and the secret of its charm, is the clear, distinct, decisive style of its representation of character, manners, and scenery; and this continually suggests a male mind. In the earlier chapters, there is little, perhaps, to break the impression that we are reading the autobiography of a powerful and peculiar female intellect; but when the admirable Mr. Rochester appears, and the profanity, brutality, and slang of the misanthropic profligate give their torpedo shocks to the nervous system,and especially when we are favored with more than one scene given to the exhibition of mere animal appetite, and to courtship after the manner of kangaroos and the heroes of Dryden's plays,we are gallant enough to detect the band of a gentleman in the composition. There are also scenes of passion, so hot, emphatic, and condensed in expression, and so sternly masculine in feeling, that we are almost sure we observe the mind of the author of Wuthering Heights at work in the text.
The popularity of Jane Eyre was doubtless due in part to the freshness, raciness, and vigor of mind it evinced; but it was obtained not so much by these qualities as by frequent dealings in moral paradox, and by the hardihood of its assaults upon the prejudices of proper people. Nothing causes more delight, at least to one third of every community, than a successful attempt to wound the delicacy of their scrupulous neighbours, and a daring peep into regions which acknowledge the authority of no conventional rules. The authors of Jane Eyre have not accomplished this end without an occasional violation of probability and considerable confusion of plot and character, and they have made the capital mistake of supposing that an artistic representation of character and manners is a literal imitation of individual life. The consequence is, that in dealing with vicious personages they confound vulgarity with truth, and awaken too often a feeling of unmitigated disgust. The writer who colors too warmly the degrading scenes through which his immaculate hero passes is rightly held as an equivocal teacher of purity; it is not by the bold expression of blasphemy and ribaldry that a great novelist conveys the most truthful idea of the misanthropic and the dissolute. The truth is, that the whole firm of Bell & Co. seem to have a sense of the depravity of human nature peculiarly their own. It is the yahoo, not the demon, that they select for representation; their Pandemonium is of mud rather than fire.
This is especially the case with Acton Bell, the author of Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and, if we mistake not, of certain offensive but powerful portions of Jane Eyre. Acton, when left altogether to his own imaginations, seems to take a morose satisfaction in developing a full and complete science of human brutality. In Wuthering Heights he has succeeded in reaching the summit of this laudable ambition. He appears to think that spiritual wickedness is a combination of animal ferocities, and has accordingly made a compendium of the most striking qualities of tiger, wolf, cur, and wild-cat, in the hope of framing out of such elements a suitable brute-demon to serve as the hero of his novel. Compared with Heathcote, Squeers is considerate and Quilp humane. He is a deformed monster, whom the Mephistopheles of Goethe would have nothing to say to, whom the Satan of Milton would consider as an object of simple disgust, and to whom Dante would hesitate in awarding the honor of a place among those whom he has consigned to the burning pitch. This epitome of brutality, disavowed by man and devil, Mr. Acton Bell attempts in two whole volumes to delineate, and certainly he is to be congratulated on his success. As he is a man of uncommon talents, it is needless to say that it is to his subject and his dogged manner of handling it that we are to refer the burst of dislike with which the novel was received. His mode of delineating a bad character is to narrate every offensive act and repeat every vile expression which are characteristic. Hence, in Wuthering Heights, he details all the ingenuities of animal malignity, and exhausts the whole rhetoric of stupid blasphemy, in order that there may be no mistake as to the kind of person he intends to hold up to the popular gaze. Like all spendthrifts of malice and profanity, however, he overdoes the business. Though be scatters oaths as plentifully as sentimental writers do interjections, the comparative parsimony of the great novelists in this respect is productive of infinitely more effect. It must be confessed that this coarseness, though the prominent, is not the only characteristic of the writer. His attempt at originality does not stop with the conception of Heathcote, but he aims further to exhibit the action of the sentiment of love on the nature of the being whom his morbid imagination has created. This is by far the ablest and most subtile portion of his labors, and indicates that strong hold upon the elements of character, and that decision of touch in the delineation of the most evanescent qualities of emotion, which distinguish the mind of the whole family. For all practical purposes, however, the power evinced in Wuthering Heights is power thrown away. Nightmares and dreams, through which devils dance and wolves howl, make bad novels.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is altogether a less unpleasing story than its immediate predecessor, though it resembles it in the excessive clumsiness with which the plot is arranged, and the prominence given to the brutal element of human nature. The work seems a convincing proof, that there is nothing kindly or genial in the author's powerful mind, and that, if he continues to write novels, he will introduce into the land of romance a larger number of hateful men and women than any other writer of the day. Gilbert, the hero, seems to be a favorite with the author, and to be intended as a specimen of manly character; but he would serve as the ruffian of any other novelist. His nature is fierce, proud, moody, jealous, revengeful, and sometimes brutal. We can see nothing good in him except a certain rude honesty; and that quality is seen chiefly in his bursts of hatred and his insults to women. Helen, the heroine, is doubtless a strong-minded woman, and passes bravely through a great deal of suffering; but if there be any lovable or feminine virtues in her composition, the author has managed to conceal them. She marries a profligate, thinking to reform him; but the gentleman, with a full knowledge of her purpose, declines reformation, goes deeper and deeper into vice, and becomes at last as fiendlike as a very limited stock of brains will allow. This is a reversal of the process carried on in Jane Eyre; but it must be admitted that the profligate in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is no Rochester. He is never virtuously inclined, except in those periods of illness and feebleness which his debaucheries have occasioned, thus illustrating the old proverb,
When the devil was well, the devil a monk was he."
He has almost constantly by him a choice coterie of boon companions, ranging from the elegant libertine to the ferocious sensualist, and the reader is favored with exact accounts of their drunken orgies, and with numerous scraps of their profane conversation. All the characters are drawn with great power and precision of outline, and the scenes are as vivid as life itself. Everywhere is seen the tendency of the author to degrade passion into appetite, and to give prominence to the selfish and malignant elements of human nature; but while he succeeds in making profligacy disgusting, he fails in making virtue pleasing. His depravity is total depravity, and his hard and impudent debauchees seem to belong to that class of reprobates whom Dr. South considers "as not so much born as damned into the world." The reader of Acton Bell gains no enlarged view of mankind, giving a healthy action to his sympathies, but is confined to a narrow space of life, and held down, as it were, by main force, to witness the wolfish side of his nature literally and logically set forth. But the criminal courts are not the places in which to take a comprehensive view of humanity, and the novelist who confines his observation to them is not likely to produce any lasting impression, except of horror and disgust.
The next work on our list is Hawkstone. This is a theological novel, the hero of which is a knight-errant of the Church of England. Though the book contains many powerful and some pathetic scenes, and is written with considerable force and beauty, events are made so subsidiary to doctrines, that it can hardly claim the dubious honor of being called a novel. Its authorship is ascribed to Professor Sewall, of Oxford, a learned gentleman, who took a prominent part in the disgraceful scene at that university on the occasion of presenting President Everett with an honorary degree. From his connection with that paltry outburst of religious and political bigotry, the character of his opinions may be inferred. He looks upon the world through a pair of theological spectacles, and instead of seeing things as they are, he views them altogether in relation to his creed. Were he a fanatic, we might excuse his illiberality, for passion is some extenuation of dogmatism; but the bigotry of our author is of that cool, smooth, contemptuous, self-satisfied kind, which irritates without stimulating. Assuming to speak by the authority of the Church, he quietly makes his own perceptions the limits of human intelligence, and from his pinnacle of self-content judges mankind. His whole wisdom consists in opposing the world as it is, and taking exactly the opposite view of every question from that held by liberal men. He is not content with stigmatizing Chartists, Radicals, and Whigs, but takes every opportunity to inform his readers what poor creatures are Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington. It is difficult to say whether he most dislikes Papists or Dissenters; but we should judge there was more rancor in his representations of the former than of the latter. To be sure, the sects he despises may have the consolation of knowing, that he has represented his own church in the person of a young clergyman whom every reader must consider an impertinent puppy; but he has done it with a beautiful unconsciousness of the fact.
We hardly know of a book which shows a greater ignorance of the world, or more intolerance and dogmatism, based on so small a foundation of common sense. If the writer had confined himself to theology, and contented his egotism with connecting all dissent from his own dogmas with folly or sin, he might be allowed to pass with a herd of other self-constituted popes, of whom Ranke makes no mention; but when he invades every department of moral, social, and political science, and views with a certain pitying contempt the labors of great and good men, convicting them of ignorance, presumption, or wickedness, because they do not hold the same extreme notion of the functions and offices of the Church of England which he is pleased to entertain, it is difficult to treat his absurd intolerance with common courtesy. In his speculations on political economy, especially, he revels in all the impertinence of ignorance, and wantons in helpless and hopeless fatuity. He has discovered that it is a sin to take interest on money, and has made a masterly assault on the law of supply and demand. In his next work he will probably take ground against the attraction of gravitation. The only allusion he makes to the United States is quite in character; he speaks pityingly of "that unhappy country." He did not probably think, at the time, that the country was happy in possessing persons who would call for five editions of his book, and that it would be ushered into notice by a puffing preface from an eminent clergyman. In truth, we think the author of Hawkstone does us injustice; we have our full share of those peculiar ideas of church and state, of which Oxford is the nursing mother.
Hawkstone is interesting in one respect, as it exhibits the a degree of dogmatism of which every true Englishman is capable, and in which he is equalled only by the Russian serf. Education seems to work but little change in him, as far as regards the solidity of his self-esteem, though it may mitigate the blindness and ferocity of its expression. Here is a writer having all the characteristics of a scholar and a gentleman, whose mind from early youth has been trained in what are called liberal studies; and yet he has acquired no power of learning from other minds, no toleration for what he considers error, no comprehension either of heart or head. It is true, that this bigotry is one cause of England's colossal power. It makes every man self-sufficient, and, at the same time, places him in antagonism to other nations. The moment the mind of the nation rose from its local ethics to general principles of reason or morality, its manners and institutions, and with these its material supremacy, would pass away.
Very different from Hawkstone, both in style and opinion, are the sparkling and pungent Bachelor of the Albany, and The Falcon Family. Both are not so much novels as dashing essays on life and manners cast in a narrative form; but they are replete with brilliant common-sense, and the interest they lack in regard to events and characters is supplied by the unflagging vigor and elastic spring of the style, and the perpetual sparkle of satire and epigram. The author's mind preserves that due balance between sharpness and good-nature which is the condition of pleasantry, and be touches in a light and graceful, but decisive manner, on a hundred topics, without exhausting one. His style is strown with verbal felicities, and there are passages exhibiting one continuous glitter of the glancing lights of fancy and wit. Occasionally a string of sentences go off in epigrams, one after another, like a series of percussion-caps.
The author is a sensible hut superficial English Whig, and like all his class, whether brilliant or stupid, he has a contempt for extremes, without understanding the internal causes which lead men into extremes. The most exhilarating portions of his novels are those in which he subjects the pedantic absurdities of the "earnest" men of the day to a process of merry caricature, or with a few probing witticisms emancipates the air shut up in a political bubble. He takes life himself in evident good-humor, and is troubled very little with the mysteries of his nature or his mission to the human race. He does not appear to think that the eyes of the world are upon him, or that his utterance of an axiom is to make an era in the history of humanity. But it must be admitted that, in avoiding bathos, he also avoids depth, and purchases his persiflage at the expense of all serious thought. Life with him is composed of two portions, a portion to be enjoyed and a portion to be laughed at, and with this comprehensive philosophy it cannot be expected that he should succeed in the exhibition of character or passion. Most of his personages are embodied epigrams, or rather jokes elevated to the dignity of persons. There is a great difference between being jocose and being a jest.
In Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings, Sir Bulwer Lytton has attempted an historical romance, and has certainly displayed scholarship, research, and remarkable talent in the undertaking. But we fear that the work derives little help from the subject. The author is master of a style which is singularly attractive, and contrives to give a degree of interest to every thing his pen touches, whether he treats it well or ill. No one can read Harold without feeling the force of this charm; but we think it is less felt in this novel than in many of his less ambitious productions. Neither in Harold, nor in The Last of the Barons, does he evince the power of a great historical novelist. The great defect of Harold, especially, is its heterogeneousness. Fact and fiction are either placed side by side, or huddled together, instead of being fused into one consistent narrative. Harold, the Saxon king of history, and Harold, the hero of Sir Bulwer Lytton's romance, so modify each other, that the result somewhat resembles Mrs. Malaprop's Cerberus,he is "two gentlemen at once." Indeed, though it cannot be said that the author is utterly devoid of imagination, he does not possess the faculty for any available purpose of history or romance. As he unconsciously blends his own morbid feelings with his representations; he cannot vividly reproduce the persons and events of a past age in their original life and coloring, as the historian Thierry has done in his Norman Conquest; and therefore, though his imagination, considered separately, may be larger than that of many graphic and picturesque historians, he has not in any degree their power of historical imagination. We think that this will be evident to any clear-headed person who will take Harold and Duke William as they appear in the charming pages of Thierry, and compare them with the same princes as conceived by Sir Bulwer Lytton. If this defect in regard to historical personages was balanced by a power of combining the elements of human nature into new forms of character, through the creative processes of the imagination, he might still be a great novelist; but in this respect, also, Bulwer is deficient. Though in romance and the drama, the power of creating or delineating character supposes a healthy mind, gifted with a sure vision of external objects, and capable of a quick sympathy with opposite natures, this power is still often possessed in a limited degree by men who can create original characters, but are incapable of reproducing real persons. Ian Godwin's Life of Chaucer, and in his historical productions generally, his kings, dukes, barons, and rebels are as dead as those of Mr. Hallam; and yet the power of vital conception cannot be denied to the author of Caleb Williams and St. Leon. Though a creative imagination is thus sometimes possessed by persons deficient in its inferior form of historical resurrection, all ample minds will be found to possess both. An intellect thoroughly alive cannot be content either with names of persons or with aggregates of abstract qualities, but by its very nature conceives living beings.
Now we must profess our inability to discover any capacity in Sir Bulwer Lytton to conceive character at all. With considerable respect for his talents and accomplishments, we think that he always fails in every attempt demanding creative energy or clear representation. As an historical novelist, he stands half-way between Scott and James, between truth and stupidity. He is often true to the external fact, but never penetrates to its internal meaning. The readers of his novels are made acquainted with life and character in the past or present, as his own ingenious and brilliant, but morbid and discoloring, mind has conceived them,not as they are in themselves. He is an illustration of Kant's theory, that the qualities of objects are not perceived by the mind, but projected from it; and accordingly all his novels, whether the hero be Pelham or Warwick, Devereux or Harold, leave a similar impression.
This absence of objective perception, this confinement of the mind within itself, is not only fatal to Bulwer's claims to dramatic delineation, but it explains the sombre and unsatisfying tone of his productions. There is a singular lack of cheerfulness in his novels, and they are accordingly read without any refreshment to the mind. Compare him with Fielding, or Goldsmith, or Scott, or Dickens, novelists widely differing from each other, and it will be readily seen how different are his feverish excitement and hectic flush from their healthy and bracing tone. After reading one of Bulwer's novels, we have a feeling that mankind is composed of scoundrels and sentimentalists, and that the world is effete. The atmosphere is that of a hot-house, not the exhilarating breeze of the moors. The vices of the novelist have that character of sickly licentiousness which we might expect from the rhetorical character of his virtues. He is not a free-spoken fellow like Fielding, and in his whole writings there is not one burst of downright hearty sensuality, such as we often meet with in the pages of Tom Jones; but instead of this, we have a plentiful quantity of the "self-improved morals of elegant Souls," in which adultery and seduction are gracefully adorned in alluring sentiments, and saunter, with a mincing gait, to the pit that is bottomless.
In Harold, to be sure, there is a marked improvement in our author's literary morals. As Thomas Moore wrote pretty little hymns to offset his pen's early peccadilloes, so Bulwer in the present novel ventures on Platonic love to compensate for the peculiar kind of passion he has inculcated in other novels. It must be delightful news to many good people, that the author of Pelham and Paul Clifford has sown his wild oats, and now ranks "in the first file of the virtuous"; and as he formerly seemed to object to marriage because it interfered with the natural rights of passion, he now has no other quarrel with it than that it is needless to the pure love of the soul. The lady whom history pronounces to be Harold's mistress Bulwer converts into the object of Harold's spirit love; while he follows history in giving Harold a wife, but one whom he marries as a matter of state convenience and policy. This is a notable reconciliation of the conflicting claims of earth and heaven, which will doubtless much edify the saints.
There are two besetting peculiarities of Bulwer's mind, which are more prominent, perhaps, in Harold than in any other of his novels. These are an affectation of philosophy and an affectation of noble sentiments. By the former, we do not mean that air of thoughtful ennui, which is one characteristic of his diction; we refer rather to his assiduous personification of abstract terms, his emphatic mode of uttering commonplaces, and his way of reaching climaxes in dissertation by fiercely printing axiomatic phrases in capital letters. These are cheap substitutes for depth of thought; but to us they are more endurable than his substitutes for depth of feeling. His fine sentiments and delicate emotions can hardly impose on any mind which has arrived at the consciousness of sentiment and emotion, or understands the difference between elegance and genuineness. They are the cheap manufactures of ambitious rhetoric, contrived with malice afore-thought to awaken the reader's admiration. The heart never speaks its own language in Bulwer's writings. No outbreak of genuine passion seizing and shaping its own expression, no touch of humanity falling from the pen with a beautiful unconsciousness, ever surprises and delights us in his pages. There is one infallible test of a man's sincerity which Bulwer's expression of sensibility cannot stand for a moment. Natural emotion compels the mind to lose itself for the time in the objects which stir and arouse it. Now Bulwer, instead of celebrating the beauty and grandeur of what be feels, is continually celebrating the beauty and grandeur of his feelings. This is the exact difference between real and rhetorical passion, and it is a difference of some moment.
Indeed, allowing to Bulwer the merit of wit, fancy, learning, an ingenious mechanical apparatus of understanding, and considerable power of appropriation, he is still, in all that relates to the living movements of the heart and brain, the most superficial writer that ever acquired the reputation of a great novelist. As his capacity, such as it is, is under the control of a morbid egotism and a still more morbid vanity, his productions appear more like the consequences of intellectual disease than as intellectual nutriment. This disease is as regularly taken by persons at a certain age of the mind, as the measles are at a certain age of the body. If Bulwerism, however, saves any intellect from Byronism, it doubtless has its uses. The varioloid is bad in itself, but it is better than the small-pox. The great English poet's vitality may be the vitality of poison, but still it is life.
We cannot pass from Bulwer to Lady Georgiana Fullerton without taking a perilous leap. Grantley Manor is a novel having the rose-color of Young England and the purple light of Puseyism on its pages, and doubtless presents a very one-sided view of many important matters with which it deals; but it evinces talent of a very high order, and is one of the most pleasing novels of the season. The author is perhaps too elaborate, occasionally, in her diction, and is stirred too often by an ambition for the superfine, to catch that flowing felicity of style which should be the aim of the novelist,a style in which sentences should only represent thought or fact, and never dazzle away attention from the matter they convey. But with some faults of manner, and some blunders in plot, the novel evinces considerable dramatic power, and has a number of striking characters. The interest is well sustained, though rapidity of movement in the story is ever subsidiary to completeness of delineation in the characters. Perhaps the chief element in the plot, and the source of all the agony which torments the principal personages, is too provokingly slight to be strictly probable; but it serves its purpose of developing the piety of Ginevra and the selfishness of Neville. No one can criticize the novel with any justice to the writer, without keeping constantly in mind, that her object is not so much a consistent or even probable story, as a forcible and subtile representation of character, when influenced by such events as are best calculated to bring out all its hidden virtues or vices. Thus, Neville, who is about as abject a combination of arrogance, selfishness, and littleness of spirit as ever was chosen for a hero, would probably pass in ordinary life for a free, hearty, independent, and high-toned gentleman. One event converts him into a compendium of small vices, such as Sir Forcible Feeble himself might hoot at. Besides, his degradation was necessary to bring out all the resources of Ginevra's nature; and it is but common gallantry to admit the right of a lady-writer to abase the hero rather than the heroine, when it is necessary to degrade either.
Ginevra is an original and beautiful delineation, the foundation of whose character is imagination intensified by passion and purified by religion. So fine a union of sensibility and fortitude, of impulse and will, is a rare appearance in a popular novel. Margaret, her half-sister, a sweet, good-natured creature, with her magnanimous superficiality of feeling, is well conceived and sustained, though the writer ventures on some perilous edges of experiment in her case, and barely saves her, in two or three instances, from being a failure. Walter is genuine and manly in general, with an occasional touch of sickliness and feebleness. Though far from being a lady's man, he is unmistakably a man delineated by a lady. Colonel Leslie is a bore and a blunder. Perhaps, to those who appreciate results from the difficulties in the way of their production, the delineation of the amiable but commonplace old people of the novel will be considered a great proof of the writer's skill in character. It evinces much of the shrewdness and nicety of Miss Austen,qualities which we should hardly expect to see in connection with so strong an idealizing tendency, and with so much passionateness.
Vanity Fair, by W. M. Thackeray, one of the most brilliant of English magazine-writers, is an attempt, somewhat after the manner of Fielding, to represent the world as it is, especially the selfish, heartless, and cunning portion it. The author has Fielding's cosy manner of talking to his readers in the pauses of his narrative, and, like Fielding, takes his personages mostly from ordinary life. The novel, though it touches often upon topics which have been worn threadbare, and reproduces many commonplace types of character, is still, on the whole, a fresh and vigorous transcript of English life, and has numerous profound touches of humanity and humor. Sir Pitt Crawley, a sort of combination of Sir John Brute, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, and Squire Western, is a very striking piece of caricature; but though exceedingly ludicrous, is hardly natural. George Osborne, Dobbin, and Amelia are characters almost literally true to nature, and are developed with consummate skill and fidelity. Mr. Osborne, we fear, is too fair a representative of the English man of business of the middle class,selfish, arrogant, purse-proud, cringing to superiors, and ferocious to inferiors, rejoicing in a most profound ignorance of his own meanness and cruelty, and ever disposed to rise on the ruin of his neighbours. That disposition in English society, of every class, to trample on the one immediately beneath it, and to fawn on the one immediately above it, Thackeray felicitously represents in this portrait and in other characters. Nothing can be more edifying than Mr. Osborne's conversations with his son George, on his intimacy with men of rank who fleece him at cards, and on his duty to break off a match with Amelia after her father has become bankrupt. But the finest character in the whole novel is Miss Rebecca Sharp, an original personage, worthy to be called the author's own, and as true to life as hypocrisy, ability, and cunning can make her. She is altogether the most important person in the work, being the very impersonation of talent, tact, and worldliness, and one who works her way with a graceful and effective impudence unparalleled among managing women.
Of all the novels on our list, Vanity Fair is the only one in which the author is content to represent actual life. His page swarms with personages whom we recognize at once as genuine. It is also noticeable, that Thackeray alone preserves himself from the illusions of misanthropy or sentimentality, and though dealing with a host of selfish and malicious characters, his book leaves no impression that the world is past praying for, or that the profligate have it. His novel, as a representation of life, is altogether more comprehensive and satisfying than either of the others. Each may excel him in some particular department of character and passion, but each is confined to a narrow space, and discolors or shuts out the other portions of existence. Thackeray looks at the world from no exclusive position, and his view accordingly includes a superficial, if not a substantial whole; and it is creditable to the healthiness of his mind, that be could make so wide a survey without contracting either of the opposite diseases of misanthropy or worldliness. His book is adorned, after a fashion which is common among the novelists of his class, with illustrations designed by the author himself; but so far as we can judge of these from the engraved copies of them in the American edition, they do him no honor as an artist. They are stiff and witless caricatures.
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