THE MUTILATION OF LITERATURE.*
THE literary art of the day has taken a strange turn. Great authors, we are taught, have written too much, and small authors have undertaken to compress the thoughts and fancies of men of genius within what they consider a reasonable com- pass. Noble literature in these days must be taken in homceo- pathic doses, life being too short and too busy for the leisure which such literature demands. Books are to be produced so that men who run in express trains may read them at a sitting. The superfluities of genius must be docked, the splendid freedom of genius must be curtailed, and the public, whose interests are so dear to the soul of the compiler, are fed, infant-like, with the spoon-meat he deems fit for their digestion. Selections and abridgments, no doubt, have their uses, and are not to be con- demned wholesale. When a writer so distinguished as Mr. Browning publishes the poems of his great poet-wife which be estimates most highly ; when Mr. Matthew Arnold undertakes to give the world an anthology of Wordsworth, "relieved of the poetical baggage which now encumbers him ;" when Mr. Stop- ford Brooke collects together the pare gold of Shelley, the critic must have a niggard nature who is unable to appreciate the labour of such compilers. An illustrious poet is, indeed, best studied with all his imperfections on his head. The student does not admire his genius the less because he sees marks of its weak- ness or limitation, any more than he enjoys a sunny landscape the less because a fleecy cloud sometimes throws its shadow across the sun. But selections such as we have mentioned, and several might be added to the list, serve to take a reader to the
• Sir Walter Scott's Novels. Abridged and Edited by M. E. Braddon. London : J. and B.. Maxwell.
entire works of the poets from which they are chosen. This is their chief purpose, and if they fail in it, their value, from a literary standing-point, is comparatively slight. There are poets who will not bear such treatment, even from the most careful and loving hands. Lyrics and poems brief enough to be inserted entire, are, as Mr. Brooke justly says, "the best material for selection." It is possible to do justice to a Barns or a Shelley, but it is a grievous wrong to Shakespeare to attempt to serve him up in "Beauties," and the absurdity of abbreviating Milton is almost equally evident.
No one familiar with literature will doubt that there are numerous prose works upon which that harmless drudge, the abridger, may usefully exercise his skill. Southey, though he failed to justify his own criticisms, said that every long work might be improved by compression. This is not altogether true. Books written by ordinary men upon general topics will rarely lose their interest or their usefulness, if contracted within narrower limits. With some writers, a sea of words often threatens to wreck altogether the small barque which contains their treasure ; with others, the fault lies in giving too large a prominence to trivial matters, and in such cases, if the books thus produced be worthy of living at all, a judicious abridgment will afford them the best chance of life. On the contrary, great works of genius, or works which, like Boswell's Life of Johnson, are of consummate literary interest, can rarely be touched in this way without peril. George Henry Lewes was a man of the finest taste for good literature, but as Homer sometimes nods, so did he forget himself in recommending an abridgment of Boswell. A more conspicuous failure than Mr. Main's version of the greatest biography in our language has rarely been achieved. Lockhart's life of Scott, which, in point of literary interest, ranks next to Boswell's Johnson, will perhaps better bear compression. It has been done by Lockhart himself, and with greater condensation by Mr. Jenkinson. Neither of these abridgments will wholly satisfy the admirer of Scott, but for popular service their merit is considerable. It is in imaginative works of the highest order that labour of this kind is exercised most uselessly. It is impossible, with any happy result, to abridge Don Quixote; and one laughs at the silly attempt of a silly writer to turn Shakespeare's Plays into rhyme, a labour which was once, if we remember rightly, expended idly on the Book of Job. Men have been found weak enough to " Bowdlerise " the Bible, and to put the Pilgrim's Progress into "genteel English." These are the foibles of ignorance and eccentricity ; but literary blunders, less foolish, indeed, though almost equally useless, have been some- times made by writers of reputation. The late Mr. Dallas, for example, a critic of high ability, endeavoured once to reduce Clarissa Harlowe to what he considered reasonable proportions, and failed ignominiously. Of works of imagina- tion, diffusiveness is often a special characteristic, a peculiar charm, and Richardson's art needs the amplest space for its development. He cannot tell a story succinctly, and to attempt to make him do so is an effort as idle as that of the child who opposes the inroad of the ocean with a bank of sand. The reader who finds Richardson tedious had better leave him alone. Abridge his novels, no matter how skilfully, and they cease to represent the novelist. The remark applies with yet stronger force to the works of a far greater novelist.
Sir Walter Scott, that beloved writer, who, to quote the words of George Eliot, "has made a chief part in the happiness of many young lives," had as Goethe said, "a wholly new art, with laws of its own." No man knew better how to tell a story, or appreciated more keenly the value of a good plot. But the construction of a Waverley Novel, admirable though it be, is not its chief distinction. The charm of these immortal tales is to be found in the vivid imagination, the quiet humour, the pic- turesque description, the keen sense of natural beauty, the recognition of what is noble as well as of what is grotesque in human life, which inspires every page. The soul of Scott breathes through them all, giving them unity, colour, and poetical vitality. No modern writer has had such fame, not in England, and English colonies alone, bat on the Con- tinent. One million five hundred thousand copies of his novels are said to have been sold in France before 1830, his popularity has not waned since, and no author has more richly deserved his fame. For Scott is one of the healthiest and purest of writers, as he was the most manly and lovable of men. Sir Walter, said a poor dependent, speaks to us as if we were blood-relations ; and it is his humanity, his large-heartedness, that make him akin to Shake- speare. In one sense, of course, there can be no comparison between these poets, but in the art that elevates and sweetens human life Shakespeare and Scott are brothers.
The author of Lady Audley's Secret, and of a number of equally sensational tales, has undertaken to abridge and edit Sir Walter Scott's novels, each of which is to be produced for one penny. In the advertisement of this extraordinary publica-
tion, an "earnest appeal" is made to every one engaged in the education of youth, and the hope is expressed that, whatever objection may have been felt hitherto by the cleric and the layman to placing fiction before children of tender years, this new penny edition will be found to satisfy every scruple and to realise every requirement. The publishers add that they anxiously invite the co-operation of the clerical and scholastic professions to secure, at the earliest possible moment, the widest circulation of Miss Braddon's edition. It would seem, therefore, that it has been left to this lady to make these great romances fit for family perusal, and worthy of being recommended by the clerical and scholastic professions. We had always thought that the Waverley Novels, each volume of which, as Dean Stanley once said, is marked by a lofty sense of Christian honour, purity, and justice, did "satisfy every scruple," in their original form,
and ranked with the healthiest literature that could be placed in the hands of young people. It appears, however, that we were mistaken. Scott must be reduced to pennyworths, before the youth of our day can safely choose him as a companion This appeal to schoolmasters and clergymen would strike us as
impertinent, if it did not strike us still more forcibly as grotesquely comic, and the more so, as it cannot be said that Scott in his integrity is represented in those produc- tions. It is always a bold thing to abridge works of genius, but to recast them as Miss Braddou has done, is a mark of rashness rather than of courage. Not only in many instances is the plan of the novel altered, but even where the dialogu,e is in a measure preserved, the words employed by the novelist are daringly and unnecessarily altered. Elo- quent and humorous passages are pared down so as to lose all their eloquence and humour, and characters to which con- siderable interest attaches are turned into lay figures. Sir Walter is not, with one or two exceptions, particularly happy
in his heroines ; but in the novel of Rob Roy, Diana Vernon takes a prominent and highly interesting position. In Miss
Braddon's version of the story that lively and brave-hearted girl cannot be said to possess a character, but the reader is told that she has a powerful intellect and many charms, and is of "a
somewhat masculine character," a statement to which Sir Walter would probably have objected, as he would assuredly have objected to the occasionally silly talk that is put into the mouths of his dramatis personae. The conclusion of Rob Roy
in the "popular new edition" is written very much in the style of the penny sensational novels so dear to the hearts of un- educated apprentices and shop-girls.
"'Now, Rashleigh,' cried MacGregor, ask for mercy, foryour soul's sake!'—' Never!' replied Rashleigh, standing on his guard. Claymore, then !' shouted MacGregor, rushing upon his foe. 'Die, traitor, in your treason !' There was a short and desperate struggle, at the end of which Rashleigh fell a corpse at the feet of the man he had
betrayed. Brave Highlander !' exclaimed Sir Frederick Vernon, you have saved more than my life,—you have preserved my honour ! You, young man,' he went on, turning to Francis, have proved your-
self worthy of my child, and to you I give her.' We shall rejoice in your happiness, though we may not share it,' said the High- lander, clasping the hands of Diana and her lover in his own ; if you ever think upon MacGregor, think kindly of him, and when you cast a look upon poor old Scotland, do not forget Rob Roy.'"
It is needless to say that these words are not to be found in Scott, and that his generous freebooter would neither have acted nor spoken as the editor's Rob Roy is made to act and speak.
Miss Bracldon is more successful with some of the stories than with "Rob Roy." "The Heart of Midlothian" and "The Bride of Lammermoor" are fairly well told, so far as the bare plot of those wonderful tales is concerned ; but almost all the charm of language, almost all the characteristic touches of the great Magician, all of the side-play, as it were, in which he so delighted and excelled, is lost in these skeleton stories. In the pathetic conversation between the two sisters in prison, in the famous trial scene, in Jeanie's interview with Queen Caroline, in the terribly impressive description of Lucy Ashton's marriage, much of Scott is, no doubt, retained ; but so much is lost that these passages, if not distorted, as so frequently happens else-
where, are shorn of half their strength. It may be said that this result is inevitable when the abridger undertakes to produce a novel in thirty-two pages that occupied originally two or three volumes. It may be so, but then was it worth while to do such work at all, and to present Sir Walter Scott to the rising generation in so deformed and mutilated a shape ? Miss Braddon has not even thought it necessary to pay any regard to proportion, and Scott's longest novel, Peveril of the Peak, occupies in her edition no more space than the Black Dwarf, which is one of the shortest.
Enough, perhaps, has been said of this preposterous attempt to edit Scott for the million. That these penny Waverleys will sell is probable enough. They may benefit the editor and publisher, but they will do nothing for the fame of the writer, and nothing for readers who want to understand the secret of that fame. Scott deprived of all that constitutes his glory is not an attractive object to contemplate. It is to be hoped that the "lovers of pure literature" who are asked "to vie with one another in making known" Miss Braddon's edition of the Waverley Novels, understand too well what pure and fine literature is to attend to the appeal.