THE BEGGAR'S BENISON.*
THIS is a fiction—so far as it is fiction—of a rather fresh and striking kind, fresh at least to this generation. It professes to be the autobiography of a " self-made man," one who pushed his selfish way from the company of thieves and burglars in his child- hood into the highest rank of Scotch society, without, however, becoming morally any better than the class from which he rose, and remaining indeed greatly the inferior in disinterestedness and capacity for self-denial of many who live by crime and plunder. The style is full of blunders and vulgarisms, no doubt intentionally inserted to be in keeping with the low origin and imperfect educa- tion of the supposed author. Thus, in the very first line, we have veniality " for " venality," and like blunders, generally of a kind showing a slight desire to use fine language, without the power of using it correctly, run through the whole tale. Thus the two little thieves who are the hero and heroine of the story " join issue" with their mother's tears and laughter, when what is meant is that they join in with it; and errors of this kind, but unaccompanied by errors of spelling, errors of course intentional, and very skilfully imagined, dot the whole autobiography. The style is taken from the school of Defoe and Mr. Gilbert,—the earthy school of fiction, as it may be called,— which delights in the commonest details of common life, and would record every tying of a shoe if there were time and space for it, and if it added anything to the realistic force of the effect. Indeed the book shows rather more of the defects of this school, more of a tendency to smother individual character in sordid details, than either the great writer we have named or his able modern disciple, the author of The Goldsworthys. Our author shows, however, a power in his many clever caricaturist pen-and-ink illustrations which lightens the narrative, and adds largely even to the force of the style by this pictorial commentary, with its strong sense of humour, a gift only half impressed on his written words. Nothing can be much cleverer than the greater number of these rough pen-and-ink illustrations. The humour of the written book, as is usual with writers of little sentiment, is of the driest kind, and it becomes tangible and visible to the reader chiefly in the drawings by which the descriptions are accompanied. Mr. Gilbert showed a power of the same kind in the illus- • The Beggar's Benison, or a Hero without a Name but with an Aim. A Clydesdale story. Illustrated by upwards of SOO pen•and-ink sketches. 2 role. London: Cassell, Fetter, and Halpin. trations with which he adorned his little book of fairy tales issued last year, The Magic Mirror, the engravings of which were full of a caustic and sarcastic power very like that of the peu.and- ink sketches which occur on every second page of these volumes. Indeed they add to the book by the help of the eye very much the same sort of quality which Mr. Dickens's power of literary carica- ture gave to his earlier works. Of course it is not at all in the same degree an intellectual quality to be able to so exaggerate the expression of a face or figure, in order to convey a sense of the ludicrous belonging to it, as it is to find illustrations which, convey that impression to the mind by the help of words, and of words alone. Many a man has enough eye to catch the ludicrous effect of a very high white collar in a hypocrite of Mr. Pecksniff's type, who would never think of describing him as " look- ing benevolently over a low wall of collar " at the exter- nal world ; and many a man could catch the solemn official demeanour of a water-rate collector, who would never think of expressing it by saying that " he assumed before all men a solemn and portentous dignity, as if he had all the world on his books, and it was all two quarters in arrear." Intellectual caricature requires all the quick perception needed by a caricaturist who uses. the pencil only, and a great power of perceiving humorous- analogies as well. But still, if the highest power of intellec- tual caricature be wanting in one in whom the humour of mere perception is not wanting, such rough clever sketches as the author of this book gives us supply a commentary on his real meaning which adds very greatly even to its literary effect. Cleverer sketches,—caricaturist, but not broadly caricaturist, in their character,—than many of these we have seldom seen. Look at that picture, Vol. I. p. 195, of Miss Tucker, the dressy show-woman of the great haberdashery establish- ment in Glasgow putting on a shawl, so as to exhibit its effect to an old dowager customer. She is throwing back her head and casting her great, black, vulgar eyes at the possible purchaser, evidently intent less on recommending the shawl than on observing the dramatic effect of her own showy person and gorgeous ringlets on the innocent old lady. There is another dowager sitting by, waiting perhaps till her turn comes,—a quiz- zical old person in spectacles, with her hands in her muff, gazing straight into empty space, and taking great pains to show that she does not want the shawl, and is not admiring either the show or the show-woman. There is just a touch of caricature in the picture, the slightest possible exaggeration of the show-woman's vanities and affectations, and something rather more grotesque in the innocent admiration of the one old dowager and the tart unconsciousness of the other, than would be observable in them if they were in flesh and blood and crape and velvet before our eyes, but the caricature only brings out the humours of the situation, and does not disgust us with excess. Or look at that admirable sketch (p. 148) of the boy asking for employment from an old huckster, who only vouchsafes the pithy answer, " Cut !" The attitude of the lad, with his top-heavy head, suggestive of a certain general precocity, and his deferential mode of holding his cap in his hand suggesting especially a precocious worldliness and no timidity, just hits the official style of the question, " Do. you require a boy ?" but the snuffy old huckster, glaring through his spectacles at him, without taking the trouble even to remember that a question had been asked, indeed evidently regarding the boy only as something to be cleaned out of the shop as speedily, and with as little waste of energy, as possible, is a sketch worthy of the most humorous artists in Punch. Nor are these sketches better than a hundred others in the book. Even fine shades of character are occasionally taken off admirably. Look at that lady (Vol. II., p. 63), who is taking the hero by the button as she sits beside him on the sofa, and evidently impressing on him something with amiable enthusiasm. The feeble, amiable- religious face, with parted lips, receding chin, and a watery smile, has never been better touched off. She is warning our hero—who, needs little enough warning against religion of any sort—against the " mere morality " of a preacher who has made some impression upon him. " He's a mere moralist and expounder of sentiments," she exclaims, " that serve as an excuse to the materialist and the schismatic ; but will such bring us to the true interests of religion? Will they bring us to the bosom and embrace of the Church ? Will they, above all, bring us to Zion?" The com- mentary of the picture on this speech is admirable. You can see that the lady is in earnest, that she leans heavily on her own religious adviser, and that she has scarcely mind enough to do more. The half-alarm and half-embarrassment in the face of our worldly hero who is the subject of her appeal is also admirably expressed. Both the religious and the medical adviser of this same lady are sketched, and sketched with equal humour. The parson, the Rev. Nahum Gust, who proportions the fervour of his graces before meat to the splendour of the feast set before him, appears in all manners of attitudes throughout the book, praying with a devout widow, taking snuff, sipping rum punch, and, greatest of all, asking a blessing over a grand aldermanic feast at Glasgow. This picture (Vol. IL, p. 154) is one of the most humorous in the book. We have previously been informed that " if he [Dr. Nahum Gust] sees that there is only one soup, and that the best plate,—the silver dish-covers, let us suppose,—are not out, he merely prays that we may be thankful for the mercies now spread before us.' If, in addition, however, to the soup there should be a display of silver, thus indicating something superior beneath it, he craves the Deity that ' it may be blessed exceedingly, and that we may esteem it beyond price, and with becoming gratitude to the Giver of all Good.' But if there should be an inordinate display of plate,—two soups in silver tureens, the French corner dishes, and so on,—with perhaps three or four sawlies ' to wait at the table, then there are no bounds to the reverend gentleman's pious enthusiasm, for under such circumstances he is observed to throw up his arms, exclaim- ing ' Bountiful Jehovah !' and to give a grace like a tether,' as Burns says." It is in illustrating this last condition of of things, that the sketch we have spoken of is given, and the mingled cleverness, worldliness, and hypocrisy in the reverend gentleman's face are hit off with a touch that few caricaturists now command. Nor is the medical adviser of the amiable lady to whom we have alluded,—a subtler conception,—less admirable. He is given us as he persuades her to take a glass of champagne at her own table (Vol. II., p. 71), and saying, " My dear malun, I am not pressing upon you anything that will do harm. On the contrary, I am actually prescribing a medicine—and a medicine that I only wish all my patients could afford to take—without looking for a fee. Permit me therefore to fill your glass, aye, even to the brim,—and [to ask you'?] to imbibe it before the effer- vescence flies off, when all I have to say is, that if it does you any harm, blame me." The merry cunning in his eye, and bland, comfortable chuckle with which the doctor presses on the lady the wine in which he wishes also to indulge himself, is given with the
• greatest spirit. Aud yet none of these pictures are very excep- tionally clever, so high is the general range of ability in the rough -drawings which are the greatest attraction of the book.
But the book itself, though scarcely equal to its own illustra- tions, is sufficiently able. It is the autobiography of a sort of tame, low-class Barry Lyndon, who after being extricated from the criminal class in which he finds himself in his childhood, never .again (but once) commits a crime of any sort, and yet is never once guilty of doing anything which he does not conceive to be strictly for his own advantage. A more atrocious and mean sort of self-love we have never seen delineated except in Mr. Thack- eray's Barry Lyndon, though no doubt Barry Lyndon is apparently guilty of loving meanness and treachery for its own sake, while this nameless hero is guilty only of loving himself (which is not a very different thing), and is mean only when it tells in favour of his own advancement in the world. The defect of the story is that the writer, while intentionally showing up the meanness of his hero, and fully aware, and intending his hero to be fully aware, of its ugliness, is disposed to treat it as a venial sort of selfishness, which needs no practical repent- ance or self-abasement before it may fade away, be pardoned and forgotten. Here is a fellow who actually turns from his door his own mother and sister (who have been all generosity and love to him), in order that he may not be shamed by his connection with them,—who, with the same motive, disowns his father, and betrays to the poor old sailor, in the old age of the latter, the bad be- haviour of his mother during one of his long voyages taken twenty Tears previously,—who devotes himself, body and soul, to the lowest and most selfish worship of money-getting,—who picks his master's pocket of business letters in order to know further the secrets of the firm and the best means to his own advancement,—who allows his father-in-law elect to suppose that he has done from pure disinterestedness what he has really done to purchase his consent to the marriage,—who, in short, from beginning to end of the book never commits one grateful or generous action, but who is yet represented as sliding quietly into satisfaction with himself and a better and more generous character in his old age without any complete breach with himself, without .either confessing or abjuring the monstrous treacheries, worthy only of a Judas, of his youth. In Barry Lyndon every line ex- presses the author's sense of the loathsomeness of the character he is drawing. But in this plebeian Barry Lyndon, while there is a temperate and moderate sense of misconduct, there is no loathing of one of the most hateful sins of which man was ever guilty. The man who commits them slides quietly on, not only into prosperity, but apparently into virtue and gentle regrets, without true remorse or any reparation. The hero is a scoundrel at heart, who is turned by a moral dissolving view into a decent sort of character without any real change. And this it is which gives the story the effect of an utterly superficial literary faculty. It sketches people's habits, and oddities, and tricks, very cleverly indeed, from the burglar and pickpocket up to the rich mer- chant, but their characters and motives it does not probe adequately at all. The strength of the book is after all in the writer's quick eye, as shown in his drawings. All that is visible to the eye is sketched with admirable minute- ness and dry caricaturist humour, but the further you go from the surface the further we are from the truth of human nature. There is real beauty and pathos in the conduct of the hero's little sister, Sissy, whom he betrays, and abandons, and eventually leaves to be transported as a convict, though she is quite innocent of the crime for which she is punished, and whose lave for him and perfect delicacy of feeling are the only beautiful touches in the story. But then how completely the denouement, even in her case, belies the character previously sketched. She ends in being a mere vulgar, common-place woman of the world, after showing a beauty and disinterestedness of character that were really touch- ing. The end of the book is its worst part. The story is a very poor autobiography, and a worse novel ; but it is full of ability, capacity, and humour, as a series of superficial sketches of manners, and especially of the manners of tradesmen, touched off with a very happy power of caricature. If the author is a beginner, we do not doubt that we shall hear of him often again, and before long not anonymously.