« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
England, under the reign of George the Second, in which the rise of Methodism is not even mentioned. A hundred years hence this breed of authors will, we hope, be extinct. If it should still exist, the lale ministerial interregnum will be described in terms which will seem to imply that all government was at an end; that the social contract was annulled, and that the hand of every man was against his neighbour, until the wisdom and virtue of the new cabinet educed order out of the chaos of anarchy. We are quite certain that misconceptions as gross prevail at this moment, respecting many important parts of our annals.
The effect of historical reading is analogous, in many respects, to that produced by foreign travel. The student, like the tourist, is transported into a new state of society. He sees new fashions : he hears new modes of expression. His mind is enlarged by contemplating the wide diversities of laws, of morals, and of manners. But men may travel far, and return with minds as contracted as if they had never stirred from their own markeltown. In the same manner, men may know the dates of many baltles, and the genealogies of many royal houses, and yet be no wiser. Most people look at past times, as princes look at foreign countries. More than one illustrious stranger has landed on our island amidst the shouts of a mob, has clined with the King, has hunted with the master of the stag-hounds, has seen the Guards reviewed, and a knight of the garter installed; has canlered along Regent Street; has visited St. Paul's, and noted down its dimensions; and has then departed, thinking that he has seen England. He has, in fact, seen a few public buildings, public men, and public ceremonies. But of the vast and complex system of society, of the fine shades of national character, of the practical operation of government and laws, he knows nothing. He who would understand these things rightly must not confine his observations to palaces and solemn days. lle must see ordinary men as they appear in their ordinary business and in their ordinary pleasures. He must mingle in the crowds of the exchange and the coffee-house. He must obtain admillance to the convivial table and the domestic hearth. He must bear with vulgar expressions. He must not shrink from exploring even the retreats of misery. He who wishes to understand the condition of mankind in former ages, must proceed on the same principle. If he attends only to public transactions, to wars, congresses, and debates, his studies will be as unprofitable as the travels of those imperial, royal and serene sovereigns, who rm their judgment of our island from having gone in state to a few fine sights, and from having held formal conferences with a few great officers.
The perfect historian is he in whose work the character and spirit of an age is exhibited in miniature. He relates no fact, he allributes no erpression to his characters, which is not authenticated by sufficient testimony. But by judicious selection, rejection, and arrangement, he gives to truth those attractions which have been usurped by fiction. In his narrative a due subordination is observed; some transactions are prominent, others relire. But the scale on which he represents them is increased or diminished, not according to the dignity of the persons concerned in them, but according to the degree in which they elucidate the condition of society and the nalure of man. He shows us the court, the camp, and the senale. But he shows us also the nation. He considers no anecdote, no peculiarity of manner, no familiar saying, as too insignificant for his notice, which is not too insignificant to illustrate the operation of laws, of religion, and of educa
tion, and to mark the progress of the human mind. Men will not merely be described, but will be made intimately known to us. The changes of manners will be indicated, not merely by a few general phrases, or a few extracts from statistical documents, but by appropriate images presented in every line.
If a man, such as we are supposing, should write the history of England, he would assuredly not omit the battles, the sieges, the negotiations, the seditions, the ministerial changes. But with these he would intersperse the details which are the charm of historical romances. At Lincoln Cathedral there is a beautiful painted window, which was made by an apprentice out of the pieces of glass which had been rejected by his master. It is so far superior to every other in the church, that, according to the tradition, the vanquished artist killed himself from mortification. Sir Walter Scott, in the same manner, has used those fragments of truth which historians have scornfully thrown behind them, in a manner which may well excite their envy. He has constructed out of their gleanings works which, even considered as histories, are scarcely less valuable than theirs. But a truly great historian would reclaim those materials which the novelist has appropriated. The history of the government, and the history of the people, would be exhibited in that mode in which alone they can be exhibited justly, in inseparable conjunction and intermixture. We should not then have to look for the wars and votes of the Puritans in Clarendon, and for their phraseology in Old Mortality; for one half of King James in Hume, and for the other half in the Fortunes of Nigel.
The early part of our imaginary history would be rich with colouring from romance, ballad, and chronicle. We should find ourselves in the company of knights such as those of Froissart, and of pilgrims such as those who rode with Chaucer from the Tabard. Society would be shown from the highest to the lowest,—from the royal cloth of state to the den of the outlaw; from the throne of the legate, to the chimney-corner where the begging friar regaled himself. Palmers, minstrels, crusaders,--the stately monastery, with the good cheer in its refectory, and the high-mass in its chapel, -the manor house, with its hunting and hawking,—the tournament, with the heralds and ladies, the trumpets and the cloth of gold, -would give truth and life to the representation. We should perceive, in a thousand slight touches, the importance of the privileged burgher, and the fierce and haughty spirit which swelled under the collar of the degraded villain. The revival of letters would not merely be described in a few magnificent periods. We should discern, in innumerable particulars, the fermentation of mind, the eager appetite for knowledge, which distinguished the sixteenth from the fifteenth century. In the Reformation we should see, not merely a schism which changed the ecclesiastical constitution of England, and the mutual relations of the European powers, but a moral war which raged in every family, which set the father against the son and the son against the father, the mother against the daughter and the daughter against the mother. Henry would be painted with the skill of Tacitus. We should have the change of his character, from his profuse and joyous youth, to his savage and imperious old age. We should perceive the gradual progress of selfish and lyrannical passions, in a mind not naturally insensible or ungenerous; and lo the last we should detect some remains of that open and noble temper, which endeared him to a people whom he oppressed, struggling with the hardness of despotism, and the irritability of disease. We should see
Elizabeth in all her weakness, and in all her strength, surrounded by the handsome favourites, whom she never trusted, and the wise old stalesmen, whom she never dismissed, uniling in herself the most contradictory qualities of both her parents, the coquetry, the caprice, the pelly malice of Anne, -the haughty and resolute spirit of Henry. We have no hesitation in saying, that a great artist might produce a portrait of this remarkable woman, at least as striking as that in the novel of Kenilworth, without employing a single trait not authenticated by ample testimony. In the meantime, we should see arts cultivated, wealth accumulated, the conveniences of life improved. We should see the keeps, where nobles, insecure themselves, spread insecurity around them, gradually giving place to the halls of graceful opulence, to the oriels of Longleat, and the stately pinnacles of Burleigh. We should see towns extended, deserts cultivated, the hamlets of fishermen turned into wealthy havens, the meal of the pea sant improved, and his hut more commodiously furnished. We should see those opinions and feelings which produced the great struggle against the house of Stuart slowly growing up in the bosom of private families, before they manifested themselves in parliamentary debates. Then would come the Civil War. Those skirmishes, on which Clarendon dwells so minutely, would be told, as Thucydides would have told them, 'with perspicuous conciseness. They are merely connecting links. But the great characteristics of the age, the loyal enthusiasm of the brave English gentry, the fierce licentiousness of the swearing, dicing, drunken reprobates, whose excesses disgraced the royal cause—the austerity of the Presbyterian Sabbaths in the city, the extravagance of the independent preachers in the camp,-the precise garb, the severe countenance, the pelty scruples, the affected accent, the absurd names and phrases which marked the Puritans,—the valour, the policy, the public spirit, which lurked beneath these ungraceful disguises, -the dreams of the raving Fifth-monarchy-man,—the dreams, scarcely less wild, of the philosophic republican,-all these would enter into the representation, and render it at once more exact and more striking.
The instruction derived from history, thus written, would be of a vivid and practical character. It would be received by the imagination as well as by the reason. It would be not merely traced on the mind, but branded into it. Many truths, too, would be learned, which can be learned in no other manner. As the history of states is generally written, the greatest and most momentous revolutions seem to come upon them like supernatural inflictions, without warning or cause. But the fact is, that such revolutions are almost always the consequences of moral changes, which have gradually passed on the mass of the community, and which ordinarily proceed far, before their progress is indicated by any public measure. An intimate knowledge of the domestic history of nations, is therefore absolutely necessary to the prognosis of political events. A narrative, defective in this respect, is as useless as a medical treatise, which should pass by all the symptoms attendant on the early stage of a disease, and mention only what occurs when the patient is beyond the reach of remedies.
An historian, such as we have been attempting to describe, would indeed be an intellectual prodigy. In his mind, powers, scarcely compatible with each other, must be tempered into an exquisite harmony. We shall sooner see another Shakspeare or another Homer. The highest excellence to which any single facully can be brought, would be less surprising than such a happy and delicate combination of qualities. Yet the contemplation of
imaginary models is not an unpleasant or useless employment of the mind. It cannot indeed produce perfection, but it produces improvement, and nourishes that generous and liberal fastidiousness, which is not inconsistent with the strongest sensibility to merit, and which, while it exalts our conceptions of the art, does not render us unjust to the artist.
CERVANTES, FIELDING, SMOLLETT, RICHARDSON, STERNE,
MISS EDGEWORTH, and MISS BURNEY.*
There is an exclamation in one of Gray's letters—“ Be mine lo read eternal new romances of Marivaux and Crebillon!" If we did not utter a similar aspiration at the conclusion of the Wanderer, it was not from any want of affection for the class of writing to which it belongs; for, without going quite so far as the celebrated French philosopher, who thought that more was to be learnt from good novels and romances, than from the gravest treatises on history and morality, we must confess, that there are few works to which we oftener turn for profit or delight, than to the standard productions in this species of composition. With the exception of the violently satirical, and the violently sentimental specimens of the art, we find there the closest imitation of men and manners; and are admitted to examine the very web and texture of society, as it really exists, and as we meet with it when we come into the world. If the style of poetry has “ something more divine in it,” this savours more of humanity. We are brought acquainted with an infinite variety of characters-all a little more amusing, and, for the greater parl, more true to general nature than those which we meet with in actual life-and have our moral impressions far more frequently called out, and our moral judgments exercised, than in the busiest career of existence. As a record of past manners and opinions, too, such writings afford both more minute and more abundant information than any other. To give one example only: -We should really be at a loss where to find, in any authentic documents of the same period, so satisfactory an account of the general state of society, and of moral, political and religious feeling, in the reign of George II, as we meet with in the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his friend Mr. Abraham Adams. This work, indeed, we take to be a perfect piece of statistics in its kind; and do not know from what other quarter we could have acquired the solid information it contains, even as to this comparatively recent period. What a thing it would be to have such a work of the age of Pericles or Alexander! and how much more would it teach us as to the true character and condition of the people among whom it was produced, than all the tragedies and histories, and odes and orations, that have been preserved of their manufacture! In looking into such grave and ostentatious performances, we see little but the rigid skeleton of public transactions--exaggerations of party zeal, and vestiges of literary ambition; and if we wish really to know what was the state of manners and of morals, and in what way, and into what forms, principles and institutions were actualiy moulded in practice, we cannot do better than refer to the works of those writers, who having no other object than lo imitate nature, could only hope for success from the
* The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties, by Madame D'Arblay.--Vol. xxiv. page 320. le bruary, 1815.
fidelity of their pictures; and were bound in their own defence) to reduce the boasts of vague theorists, and the exaggerations of angry disputants, lo the mortifying standard of reality.
We will here confess, however, that we are a little prejudiced on the point in question; and that the effect of many fine speculations has been lost upon us, from an early familiarity with the most striking passages in the little work to which we have just alluded. Thus, nothing can be more captivating than the description somewhere given by Mr. Burke, of the indissoluble connexion between learning and nobility; and of the respect universally paid by wealth to piety and morals. But the effect of this splendid representation has always been spoiled to us, by our recollection of Parson Adams sitting over his cup of ale in Sir Thomas Booby's kitchen. Echard " on the Contempt of the Clergy," in like manner, is certainly a very good book, and its general doctrine most just and reasonable ; but an unlucky impression of the reality of Parson Trulliber always checks, in us, the respectful emotions to which it should give rise : while the lecture which Lady Booby reads to Lawyer Scout on the expulsion of Joseph and Fanny from the parish, casts an unhappy shade over the splendid pictures of practical jurisprudence that are to be found in the works of Blackstone or De Lolme. The most moral writers, after all, are those who do nol pretend to inculcate any moral : the professed moralist almost unavoidably degenerates into the partisan of a system; and the philosopher warps the evidence to his own purpose. But the painter of manners gives the facts of human nature, and leaves us to draw the inference: if we are not able to do this, or do it ill, at least it is our own fault.
The first-rate writers in this class are of course few; but those few we may reckon, without scruple, among the greatest ornaments and the best benefactors of our kind. There is a certain set of them, who, as it were, take their rank by the side of reality, and are appealed to as evidence on all questions concerning human nature. The principal of these are Cervantes and Le Sage: and, among ourselves, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, and Sterne.* · As this is a department of criticism which deserves more attention than we have ever yet bestowed on it, we shall venture to treat il a little in detail ; and endeavour to contribute something towards sculling the standard of excellence, both as to degree and kind, in these several writers.
We shall begin with the renowned history of Don Quixote ; who always presents something more stately, more romantic, and at the same time more real to the imagination, than any other hero upon record. His lineaments, his accoutrements, his pasteboard visor, are familiar to us, as the recollections of our early home. The spare and upright figure of the hero paces distinctly before our eyes : and Mambrino's helmet still glitters in the sun! We not only feel the greatest love and veneration for the knight himself, bul a certain respect for all those connected with him—the Curate, and Master Nicholas the Barber-Sancho and Dapple—and even for Rosinante's leanness and his errors! Perhaps there is no work which combines so much originality with such an air of truth. Its popularity is almost unexampled; and yet its real merits have not been sufficiently understood. The story is the least part of them; though the blunders of Sancho, and the unlucky adventures of his master, are whal naturally calch the attention of ordinary
* We have not forgotten De Foe as one of our own writers. The author of Robinson Crusve was an Englishman; and one of those Englishmen who make us proud of the name