LOVE OR LUCRE.*
THERE is no country in Europe which has such reason to be proud of its novelists as England. France alone might compete with us in this respect, were it not that French fiction, with some noble exceptions, while abounding in genius, is also debased by immorality, and by the representation of scenes which are utterly inconsistent with the purity of domestic life. Some English novel- ists, especially of recent years, are far from blameless in this respect, and the worst offenders, we regret to say, have been women. But the greatest of our romance-writers even when, as in Fielding's case, coarse in expression, have never written with a prurient purpose ; and a splendid catalogue of names, from the time of Miss Burney or Miss Austen to George Eliot, reminds us that the last century has produced a library of romance unequalled for eleva- tion of purpose, for delineation of character, for variety of plot, for the combination of humour and pathos, for splendour of imagination and brilliancy of fancy. Scott's great name is in itself a host, and Dickens, as a humourist, is unsurpassed ; but even if we place these names foremost among the male writers of fiction, and give the highest place to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot among women, we are reminded that these illustrious novelists do but head a list, and a considerable list, too, which contains names almost equally illustrious.
We often wonder whether the reader who is eager for the last new novel by such writers as " Ouida," Miss Broughton, Miss Braddon, and Mrs. Wood has ever read, or would care to read, the really great works of fiction which have taken, one may con- fidently believe, a permanent place in literature. But the four novelists we have mentioned, defective as in many respects they are, understand the mysteries of their craft, and can so write as to enchain the attention of readers who take up a novel for the sake of amusement and excitement. They supply a want, and reap, we doubt not, the commercial benefit of so doing. But what want, we may well ask, is supplied by the indifferent novels in three volumes issued weekly by the press ? Who takes the trouble to read them, and is it possible that they can benefit either publisher or author ? Love or Lucre belongs to this common-place description of novel. It is not in any degree immoral, and so far the writer deserves credit ; but it is a vulgar, stupid story, of stupid, vulgar, or wicked people, put together, no doubt, with some mechanical skill, for Mr. Robert Black knows something of his art, but destitute of all the qualities which give a charm to fiction. The lack of verisimilitude is evident throughout. The hero of the tale is Thomas Triggs, a man who begins life as a shop-boy to Mr. Pritt (who had also worked his way to wealth from the ranks), and before the story ends is made a partner of the firm, marries his former master's eldest daughter, whose life he had saved from fire, and eventually, on the death of old Pritt, becomes the owner of his house at Notting Hill. There is nothing in the facts related that is at all impossible, but the absurdity of the story is seen in the delineation of the characters. Triggs is a handsome man, a very powerful man, and he does not rob Nis employer, but these are all the virtues of which he has to boast. He is a brute of the meanest type, coarse in language, reckless in action, and not only unscrupulous, but
• Lore or Lucre: a Novel. By Robert Black. 3 vols. London: Bentley and Son. 1878.
ready to commit any wickedness, so long as it can be done without discovery and will promote his selfish purposes. His crimes are of the worst type, but some of these are known only to the novelist and his readers. His brutality and vulgarity are undisguised, and yet we are to believe that he won the love of a gentle, beautiful girl, of a thoroughly refined nature ; and also that the wealthy and handsome Miss Pritt, who, although not particularly refined, showed a conscientious sense of right and wrong, and had been educated as a lady, flung herself into the arms of this ignorant and bad man, did not scruple to meet him secretly, in Kensington Gardens, and there indulge in caresses described in the following elegant style :-
"After a lapse of some minutes, the sitters rise from their chairs, walk a dozen paces or so, glance furtively round, become for a few seconds an indistinguishable mass of hat, bonnet, boots, and drapery, part asunder as if with a wrench, and the wearer of the bonnet walks with a stately, but hasty step in one direction, whilst the wearer of the hat, frequently turning round to watch the fleeting drapery, and hoping, perhaps, but in vain, for the further adieu expressed by a fluttered handkerchief, saunters slowly away in another."
Nor is this all, for when Triggs, whom his master resolves to honour for his money-making virtues, is asked to a dinner party at Notting Hill, Miss Pritt receives him " with the flush upon the cheek, and the sparkle of the eye, and the display of dazzling teeth, and the warm pressure of the hand that betoken unfeigned pleasure ;" while her sister Lurline, smiling scornfully on Triggs, lays two gloved fingers upon his outstretched palm, and exchanges " an elevation of the eyebrows" with her lover, Captain Davies. At dinner, Triggs is represented as conversing with his neighbour, Caroline Farquharson, as follows:-
"' dessay you don't care to know that coffees are very quiet, Miss?' he had said, interrogatively. 'I'm afraid I don't understand yon, Sir,' she had answered, with a rigid face and a stony stare. 'No ; I should say sugars were more in your line,' Triggs had rejoined, with a cool glance of admiration, which brought a tinge of colour to her pale face. Sir !' she had exclaimed, haughtily. ' Sugars are sweet, you know,' Triggs had said, confidentially, and as she made no remark, he had added, gruffly, Well, sugars are quiet too.' "
Upon this, the younglady gives Triggs a long, sharp, searching look, and feels the influence of a powerful impression. She admires his massive frame and muscular hand, the frown upon the forehead, the determined set of the mouth, and the tawny, wavy beard and moustachios put her in mind of Coeur de Lion, and she admits to her own heart that her neighbour is "the goodliest man of all." So Miss Farquharson, charmed by this "splendid example of bodily man," addresses him more graciously, and laughs with pleasure when he says, " Gals have the pull of men this weather ; they look so cool and comfortable in their white, thin things ; and us all smothered in black ;" and when, for the benefit of the company, Triggs bursts into a loud tirade on the courage of men of business, she is " transfixed with admiration at his sheer audacity, rough eloquence, and heroic Coeur-de-Lion-like demeanour."
Triggs's master takes him into partnership, but before this rise in his fortunes Triggs casts off the young girl to whom he had been engaged when his prospects were less flattering, having first offered, in a brutal style, to make her his mistress. She dies of a broken heart, a alight matter to Triggs, who eventually marries the eldest Miss Pritt ; while her sister Lurline marries the gentlemanly Captain, an easy sort of fellow, who loses all his money at races, and borrows at an exorbitant rate of interest from Triggs. The Captain's wife is heartless and unprincipled, and tries, when her husband's exchequer is empty, to elope with a gentleman, who declines to have her. Mrs. Triggs, who is represented as an exemplary wife and sister, offers Lurline a home and all sisterly affection at the very time the latter is denouncing Triggs as a Jew and a rascal :—" It couldn't be, Etta ; I could never rest under the roof of that bru—that wre—that scou—that man—I mean your husband. Pray excuse me, dear ; I can't help it ; I should mur—I mean I should give him a dose of something ; I'm sure I should ;" and she explains at the same time her indifference to her husband, because he was of no account among the great people she had met abroad, while she won admiration from every one :—
" A prince would bold my fan, Etta, and a duke my gloves, and an ambassador would look as pleased at one of my smiles as if he had re- ceived some new Order. I have danced with a king, and millionaires have left the prettiest women to come and join my circle. I found that it was no great honour to be the wife of Captain Davies, but that it was considered a great distinction to be the husband of Mrs. Davies."
Yet Mrs. Triggs continues to implore Lurline to live with her, while her husband, with more sagacity, observes, " She'd as soon think of comin' to live out Clapham way, and with our lot, as she'd think of goin' to Greenland, and takin' up with a pack of slimy seals."
We do not propose following any longer the careers of Mr. .Pritt's married daughters, or of their husbands. The vulgarity of the story is almost unrelieved, and not only are the principal characters of a vulgar type, but the novelist's own style of 'writing is wholly lacking in literary charm, and approaches occasionally to slang. Thus, when des2ribing Triggs's house at Balham, he writes :—
"The house was not of the Elizabethan order or of the Gothic order, or of any but what may may be termed, for lack of a better term, the Suburban order, by which it will be understood that though it was a house which would not be generally sneezed at, still it was a house which would not lead a spectator to suppose that its architect was a modern Michael Angelo, or even a star of lesser magnitude."
The writer's descriptive passages, his " aside " remarks upon his characters, his incidental allusions, his epithets, his feeble attempts at humour, have this taint of literary coarseness. A glass of Château d'Yquem is said to be as soft and precious as the oil that trickled down Aaron's beard, as golden-bright as a liquefied sunbeam, as sweetly odorous as myrrh and aloes and cassia ; a policeman who has something to surprise him expresses his feelings " by elevating himself to premature beatification with an emphatic, ' Well, I am blest !'" The description of a wedding, or rather of the people who would be present at it, occupies several pages, and the simple fact of placing a wedding-ring upon .a finger is described with the following rodomontade :- " There had been no fumbling after the ring, and no awful moment of suspense ; it had been forthcoming at the very nick of time, and had been placed at the very first attempt upon the legitimate finger. Nor had it stuck at the knuckle, suggesting that the bride was a trifle bony ; it had slipped down easily into its place, for though Lurline, being human, had doubtless joints and knuckles, her supple hands had no protuberances."
We have lingered too long, some of our readers may say, over a worthless novel, but we have not done so without a purpose. Love or Lucre may be regarded as an average specimen of the novels that see the light constantly, occupy for a few weeks some space upon Mr. Mudie's shelves, and are then utterly for- gotten. We conclude, therefore, that the last new novel, when issued from a respectable publishing house, and placed in the proper channel for circulation, will always secure a certain num- ber of readers, and the inference follows that the ordinary novel- reader is well-nigh indifferent as to the kind of fare provided for him by the circulating library. It is even a question whether a reader of this stamp would be able to discern the difference in literary quality between such a tale as Love or Lucre, and let us say, Miss Austen's Emma, or George Eliot's Silas Marner.