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THOUGHTS ON THE ELECTION; A COMEDY, BY JOANNA BAILLIE.
(Lately published with the Mirror of Taste.)
[The following observations, though we think them, in some points, not per
fectly orthodox, deserve the attention which the author wishes to have paid to them. To all the encouragement which youth, laudably ambitious of exercising considerable talents, can lay claim, Lerida is intitled; and so far as a place in this work goes, we wish to allow it to him. At the same time he labours under a radical mistake in bis premises, which however detracts nothing from the ingenuity of his criticism. But of that more hereafter.]
TO THE EDITOR OF THE MIRROR OF TASTE. SIR, He who censures has an easy task; but the man who undertakes to discriminate between perfection and imperfection, or right and wrong; he who wishes, with the cool and determined dignity of justice, to set forth all the qualities of an author, to exhibit the symmetrical as well as the deformed parts of his productions, is in great danger of falling on the one hand or the other into error. He is in danger of having his conduct ascribed to improper motives; and those who admire, and those who do not admire the object of his investigation, think they have each an equal right to defame him. Such is the situation of him who undertakes the part of a critic. But it has become the practice of the day to examine all works which intrude themselves upon the public eye; and that practice must be acknowledged to be a correct one: for without it (so numerous are the productions constantly appearing), taste might and would become vitiated, and judgment perverted. In hazarding this assertion, I by no means urge my own competency to such a decision; nor do I, by any underhanded stratagem, veil in obscurity my own imperfection: I avow it; but, at the same time, I avow that any man has an undeniable right to scrutinize the productions of another, provided he does it with respect and moderation. If I should be wrong then in my conclusions, let it be proved.
The play upon which I propose offering a few remarks is the comedy of “ The Election," by the justly admired poetess, Joanna Baillie, published with a late number of the Mirror. My review may be considered novel, for I confess myself, at once, unacquainted with the philosophic evolutions of professed reviewers; but my determination shall be fashioned after my own ideas of correctness and of candour.
Perhaps, at the first glance of the reader, there is nothing in this play so conspicuous as its similarity in one of the main points to De Monfort. So great indeed is this similarity, as to subject the piece to the epithet of a tame imitation of the above tragedy, produced by the same author.
Here it may not be amiss to offer a few words on these kinds of imitations.-An author may think himself privileged to mould his own productions in whatever various forms he sees fit; but in this he is mistaken; for any thing once given to the world becomes irrevocably its property, and whatever of later creation assimilates to it is an imposition and a counterfeit. Neither is the author at all justifiable: for when he has made a voluntary resignation of his productions, he should, for the sake of his own fame, hold that resignation sacred. Moreover, he incurs, with the appearance of much plausibility, the imputation of want of invention; his muse is dubbed with barrenness; and, in the mortification of known or supposed sterility, finds no admirers: those whom she had perhaps before enchanted with the eloquence and music of her voice, or inticed by her “ speaking demeanor," or whose breasts she had disturbed by awakening their envy, gaze at her with the pity and pain of disappointed expectation in her glory, with the triumph of malicious scorn, or with the same facetious exultation which Horace expresses to an ancient maid who, when young, was surrounded by crowds of suiters and myriads of flatterers, but now was deserted in her wrinkles, and left to brood over her former acts of folly.
That I may not be considered as wanting in the first requisite of a critic (liberality) to prove that my assertions are not vague and unfounded, I shall mention, without particular method, as they fall under the eye of hasty observation, so that the reader may see them at a coup d'ail, several similarities between the two aforementioned plays.
In the characters of De Monfort and Baltimore there is scarcely a shadow of difference; each temper is blackened with the most direful and inveterate hate, and in Baltimore we only lose sight of De Monfort in the reconciliation, in the last scene. While De Monfort declares that Rezenvelt
His envious gibing malice, poorly veild
In the affected carelessness of mirth: ---
But when honours came,
Baltimore says, in plain prose, very much the same of Freeman:
Balt. Ay; by my soul, he pretends to be affable! -He has extended his insolent liberalities over the whole country round. The very bantlings lisp his name as they sit on their little stools in the sun.
Mrs. Balt. My dear friend!
BALT. He has built two new towers to his house, and it rears up its castled head amongst the woods, as if its master were the lord and chieftain of the whole surrounding country.
Mrs. Balt. And has this power to offend you!
BALT. No, no; let him pile his house up to the clouds, if he will. I can bear all this patiently: it is his indelicate and nauseous civility that drives me mad. He goggles, and he smiles; he draws back his full wat’ry lip like a toad; then he spreads out his nail-bitten fingers as he speaks—hah!
Mrs. BALT. And what great harm does all this do you?
Balt. What harın!-it makes my very flesh creep, like the wriggling of a horse-leech or a maggot.* It is an abomination beyond endurance.
And again, when De Monfort's friends are endeavouring to bring him and Rezenvelt (who is very anxious for it) to an accommodation, he shrinks back, and in a cold and lofty tone replies
Nay, if you please; I am not so prepar'd!
I have not time to speak of this sentence. Let the reader comment for himself
we see something of the same nature with regard to the rencontre of Freeman and Baltimore, after the latter had preserved the life of the former, by rescuing him from the water.
Numerous, very numerous, are the passages which might be adduced to the same purport; but trusting that the point of the great similarity in the first characters will be no longer considered contestable, we will proceed to our examination of the play before us, as it regards itself alone, and endeavour for a time to lay De Monfort entirely aside.
Notwithstanding this principal, this insuperable objection to the Election, it must be confessed the author has displayed considerable comic humour, and no small degree of judgment in the distribution of her incident. Thus, in the very first scene, we are informed of the aim of the play, by the rough esteem for her master of old Margery; and before we reach the conclusion of the first act, we know much of the blackhearted character of Baltimore. If a want of incentives to so diabolical a hatred be urged against De Monfort (which by the by, although it appears strikingly so, to the “careless eye in naked abstraction,” I am now inclined to doubt) it is certainly a piece of censure far more due to Baltimore.-Freeman is a man of a noble and liberal spirit, calculated by his benevolence to do much good. And what is Baltimore's charge against him of so heinous a nature as not only to preclude from him his esteem, but to awaken against him the most unlimited and inveterate abhorrence? He had not ill treated him when a boy, nor had they then,
E'en in their early sports, like two young whelps
For such are the words of De Monfort, in his éclaircissement of his conduct to his sister: No! nothing of the kind appears in the declarations of Baltimore. What then, I repeat, are the causes which have influenced him so powerfully against the man that would be his friend?- They are these:-He has acquired his well appropriated wealth by the honest exertions of active industry;--" his father was a--a--weaver, "--and the haughtiness of the lordly Baltimore is offended; he has purchased lands once belonging to the family of Baltimore, but which he is no longer able to hold, and it shocks his VOL. IV.
pride: but to conclude all, and rivet his hatred still more strongly, Freeman is his rival in a borough election. And for these reasons it is that Baltimore renders himself an object of absolute horror. De Monfort melts us into pity for himself at the saine time that he rouses us to abhorrence of his crime. It is not so with Baltimore: it is forced-it is unnatural.
However in the blaze of the most glaring meteors, the more modest lustre of the others must not be lost. In Mrs. Baltimore we have plain Jane De Monfort married, and in Truebridge no less a character than Freberg. What is the uniform aim of Jane De Monfort!--is it not to endeavour to root out of the breast of her brother that devouring passion which consumed him, and
drove him forth from kindred peace,
And with regard to her husband, is Mrs. Baltimore's less? - What was the fondest wish of the good hearted Freberg? To bring De Monfort and Rezenvelt to an accommodation. And what other end has Truebridge in view as it respecis Baltimore and Freeman?
Pardon me, reader, I thought I had laid the rule of comparison aside; but I see at each step more and more plainly, that if I proceed in my labour without it, I will erect but an irregular, mishapen and tottering structure.
In the more originally stamped characters of the idle Charles, the frivolous Mrs. Freeman, and her rather uncouth but good na. tured daughter, the author succeeds well.
In Baltimore' I see nothing endearing; his hatred of Freeman absorbs every sentiment of his soul; and in the second act the exulting malice which he betrays when, (upon being previously informed of Freeman's having received a fall from his horse, after having praised his horsemanship for some time) he puts to him the question, “ What do you jockeys reckon the best way of managing a fiery mettled steed, when a brown calf sets his face through the hedge and cries mow?”-has something in it insignificant and disgraceful. When he afterwards abuses Peter for misinforming him, he has no longer any interest; I cannot view him as " a man of old and respectable family.” And when he is first told of Mr. Freeman's supposed fall, by Peter (Act 2, scene 3,) and