A WRITER in the last number of the Quarterly Review expresses tart dissatisfaction with the present state of criticism in England. It has fallen, he asserts, for the most part, into the hands of novices and pen-weary hacks, and they manage things much better in France. They manage things very differently in France, for literary criticism is practised there under conditions Altiora Peso. By Laurence Oliphant. London: William Blackwood and 8011I. 1883. which differ toto coelo from those which obtain in England. Nine-tenths of the books which are reviewed in England are marked by mediocrity which would ensure exemption from criticism of any kind in France. Now, of all books, the hardest to review at all well, are the books which bring the critic's work, willy-nilly, to the level of the works of the Angel of the Church of Laodicea. It is small blame to him, therefore, if he sometimes, in the bitterness of his heart, treats mediocrity too severely, or, as is far more frequently the case, if he treats it in a spirit of indolent charity. On the whole, however, with the exception of an occasional example of flagrant partiality, which for the rest is generally rectified. by counter- criticisms, English critics do their work well, and any author who can produce books at all above the level of respectable mediocrity may safely reckon on an appreciative reception from the class who are popularly supposed to he the natural foes of all authors. They are not so, of course, nor are they by any means such fools as they are supposed to be by those who never read their criticisms. Lord Beaconsfield's famous plagiarism is often in the mouths of men who would be surprised to learn that if nothing were taken from Lord Beaconsfield's novels except what would fall strictly under the definition of criticism, the residue would be "duller than a great thaw," and "a joy of wild asses" for eter. . But enough of this. Altiora Peto rises far above the level of mediocrity, and may be characterised as a novel of a thousand, if only for the fact that it may be read through con- secutively twice, or even thrice, with augmented pleasure to the reader from every fresh perusal. Not all of it, indeed, for there is a rift, so to speak, in Mr. Oliphant's lute, and that rift is by no means a little one. We shall have a word to say about it by- and-by, but not before we have marked to the best of our ability some of the strokes in this most entertaining book which deserve to be applauded to the echo. An outline of the story is necessary, for the reader to understand the extracts which it will be his pleasure to read, as it will be ours to make them, but that outline may well be of the briefest. Mr. Oliphant is probably as indifferent to what is called a plot as Tourgenief was, and it is not as a story that Altiora Pete chal- lenges warm admiration, but as a brilliant picture of life and manners. Two clever and high-spirited American girls from the slopes of the Pacific—in other words, from California—descend upon Paris in search of husbands, for it comes to that. One of these girls, Stella Walton, is heiress to millions of dollars; her friend, Mattie Terrill, has an income of £150 per annum. They have changed names, and the reader has to remember through- out the book that Stella Walton is Mattie Terrill, and vice versa.
With excellent judgment, Mr. Oliphant fits the real heiress at once and sans facon with an eligible partner, one Bob Aldeniy. Impediments, which the reader may discover for himself, for a time delay the marriage of the non-heiress with the man of her choice, Lord Sark. These high-spirited and thoroughly loveable girls, and their elderly companion, Miss Hannah Coffin, are the salt of the book. The last-named is an "original," and in her knack of saying at any given time the precise thing that is most likely to disconcert an adversary she resembles Sam Weller, resembles him also in promptness of action. But Hannah has gifts and graces that Mr. Pickwick's famous body-servant was far, indeed, from having. She has an intuitive perception of what is going on in the hearts and heads of every one with whom she comes in contact, and, to judge from some of her references to her own and other folk's "innards," it might seem that she reads character as somnambulists are thought by some to see, through the organ which Menenius en- dows with speech in Coriolanus. She also, as it happens, " knows all the ropes," as she would say, and baffles with ease the machinations of all the naughty people who cross her path. In fact her knowledge and energy are so great that she seems to move about amongst these naughty ones like Teiresias in Hades,— - "Ole, wiwwwrcu, Tel 51 crntal dlowovoi."
A highly improbable character, then P Well, in some respects, yes. But what exceptionally amusing and useful character in any novel that was ever written is not open to the same charge P One thing is certain, whenever " old Hannah" acts or speaks, it is to do or say something which will delight the reader ; and he will not fail to agree with a remark passed upon her by a certain Sir George Dashington, who is electrified by her smart talk,—" that old woman is perfectly delicious !" The professional beauty, and the financiers, the aesthete, and the ladies of quality, and.the rest of. Mr. Oliphant's dramatis personae we must leave
unintrodnced to the reader. They are all drawn with light, firm touches, which mark the hand of a master; but what of Altiora Peto herself P What of the heroine who gives her name to this capital tale P Alas ! there yawns the rift we mentioned. Altiora Pete is a bore, and would be a bore of the first magni- tude, were it not that the portentous prig who marries her is a bigger bore still. We shall reserve what we have to say of these meet companions to the end of this notice, and quote as a specimen of Mr. Oliphant's genius, for so it deserves to be called, the beginning of a dialogue, which if we are not mis- taken beats Lord Beaconsfield at his smartest. It takes place at a dinner-party at the above-mentioned Sir George Dash- ington's :—
" I didn't rightly catch your name,' said Hannah, 'but I suppose you're the minister.'—' My name is Chalfont—Sidney Chalfont ; and as you rightly observe, I am in holy orders.'—' Holy orders is mighty difficult to obey ; don't you find 'em ?' she remarked, rising and taking his arm.—' The present state of the law in this country ren- ders it impossible, very often,' replied Mr. Chalfont, who had long made up his mind on the first convenient opportunity to become an ecclesiastical martyr.—` Do tell !' exclaimed Hannah.—' I beg your pardon, Miss Coffin.'—' Oh, I ain't noways offended, but it does beat all !'—' What beats all ?'—' Well, I don't know as I understood you, but you seemed to say that you couldn't keep the laws of God because of the laws of man—and you a minister, too ; and I say that beats all—and what's more, I stick to it !'- 'Dear me,' thought the Reverend Sidney Chalfont, this American is a very plain-spoken woman.' My dear madam, I don't wonder that you are astonished. I am well aware that the Anglican priest. hood of America are not subject to the same tyranny that we are in this country.'—' Then, why do you stand it ?'—' We don't stand it ; we go to prison for it.'—' Seems to me, if they put you in prison for it, as it is them as won't stand it. Did you know before you became a minister, that you would either have to obey the laws of man, or else go to prison for not obeying 'em ?'—' That consideration was not sufficient to deter me from following a vocation to which I felt in- ternally called, and from being a witness for the truth, and a martyr for conscience' sake.'—' And you feel sure that them laws you won't obey was made to uphold truth, and you was made to uphold the truth ?' —' I can only act according to my conscience, and what I believe to be truth.'—`And them as puts you into prison acts the same, maybe ?'- `I
give them credit for being sincere.'—' Well, now,' pursued the old lady, 'I've been in search of the highest truth since I was a gell ; that's a matter of half a century ; always on the search. How old might you ha' bin when you determined to obey the holy orders r — 'About two-and-twenty,' said Chalfont.—`And you was so sure that you'd got the truth, that you decided to go where you could break the laws of a country as calls itself Christian,
to testify to it ? Well, I don't think that's altogether a fair way of putting it,' said Chalfont, laughing ; 'but the subject is a large one, and involves the whole question of the govern. ment of the Church by the Church, instead of by the State. May I ask what was the result of your fifty years' search after truth ?'- `Well, I guess I'm on the track at last.'—' What! only on it now ?'— 'It's difficult saying when I first got on ; a body can't jest always give dates in them things. I dessay I was on all the time, but if I didn't know it, there was no peace. It's only with the knowledge as peace comes. It's not by readin', nor by study, nor by spekilatin that you find Divine truth ; it's by lovin' what is good, and a doin' of I should have said that Divine revelation and the teaching of the Church were the guides to truth,' said Chalfont.—' If one set of people as is guided by 'em puts another set of people as is guided by 'em into prison, because they can't agree which way they pint, seems to me they 're mighty onsartin guides.'—'It has been so from all time,' replied Chalfont, mournfully. The history of Christendom is a history of religious strife ; till man is regenerate, it cannot be otherwise.'"
We wish that we had space to quote the rest of this conver- sation, and more of Mr. Oliphant's good things, and especially the scene in the Lonvre, where Hannah drives the professional beauty from pillar to post, till the latter, feeling herself to be too heavily handicapped, affects not to hear the American lady's pitiless questions, "but to be absorbed in admira- tion of a recumbent Venus of Titian, at which Hannah, following the direction of her eyes, could only gasp My sakes !' and then, turning abruptly round, walked off, for once fairly beaten, from the field." All that we can do, how- ever, is to say that three-fourths of Mr. Oliphant's book is as good reading as the moat exigent novel-reader needs to ask for. The remaining fourth is filled with the diary and sayings of Altiora Peto, and with the pompons inanities of her lover, Mr. Keith Hetherington. She bores, but he crashes us. " A greater than I said that," he remarks, on one occasion ; and as that "greater than I" is He who was " greater than Jonas " and " greater than Solomon," and as Mr. Keith Hetherington is at the most a tenth-rate philosophaster, his remark, for the sublime conceit which it ventilates, may be said to " beat the record." And " beat the record. " his plan for renovating society unquestionably does. But dull, priggish, and perplexing as this gentleman's utterances are, we would not have called them pompons inanities,
if we could not cite Mr. Hetherington himself as witness to their being so. Brought to book by Mattie Terrill as to the nature and results of the " experiences " of the " hundreds " who are consciously preparing for the " new evolutionary process " which is' o save the world, or save the hundreds, for Mr. Hethering- ton is as ambiguous as Virgirs Sibyl or Dickens's Captain Bunsby, he calmly answers, "I hope you will not think me rude, but I could no more describe to you the experiments or the results, than I could discourse to a New Zealander on the laws of elec- tricity, or attempt to make him understand the nature of their action." Well, be it so ; but we marvel much that so wise and witty a man of the world as Mr. Oliphant should expect his readers to shut their eyes and open their mouths, and gulp down such an answer. It is not fury, but it is sound signify- ing nothing. Altiora Peto, however, is charmed beyond measure with this puzzle-headed philanthropist's tinkling cymbals, and the novel closes with a love-scene between the pair which certainly has the merit of novelty. In some such way, perhaps, old Godwin wooed and won Mary Woolstonecraft ; and, indeed, "Keithy," as Hannah always calls him, is good, or rather, Godwinish, enough to tell his dear Altiora that it would not be necessary, except for what the workl might say, that they should marry, since their love was of a kind that the world knows nothing of, and depended on something more internal, and, therefore, more solid than that which unites ordinary mortals. Shelley said that he could 'never look on Retsch's picture of the summer- house scene in Faust without a feeling akin to vertigo. We warrant that he would have gazed oculo irretorto on the kiss which ended the love conference between this strange pair of lovers. "That was beyond the power of Church or priest," said "Keithy," with stately solemnity ; and they arise and go to Sark and Stella, to tell them that they will add their ceremony
to theirs. The curtain falls, but we lift it for a moment, to • express a strong belief that, in the words of Tennyson, "a brace of twins will weed her of her folly ;" and a faint hope that when those twins are old enough to climb their father's knees, that even he, impracticable blockhead though he be, may learn from nature to concentrate his affections, and not dissi- pate over all the world the love which was meant for home. Coleridge was right, no doubt, when he said that,-
" He prayeth well who loveth well,
Both man, and bird, and beast ;"
but we must draw the line somewhere ; we draw it at vultures, bugs, and —, but the reader may select for himself what particular variety of knave, or fool, or coward it is which, if he says he loves, he knows that he is speaking in a Pickwickian sense, or, not to use too strong a phrase, is romancing iu his throat.