THERE are critics who imagine that the empire of the Novel is passing away ; they tell us that the time is fast coming—nay, is already upon us—when poems and histories and other very various forms of literary effort will be more generally asked for at the libraries and read by the fireside. They say, in a word, that the novelist—who for the last twenty years has exercised an influence as great as the preacher—will have to tell his tale and deliver his week-day sermon to a dwindling as well as an indifferent audience. Whether this be so or not, the poor stories must go to the wall, and the sooner they go, the better. Plots may pall, and excessive simplicity may become wearisome ; but as long as men can be found who have the gift of analyzing character in works of fiction, a public will surely be ready and willing to see and to learn. A George Eliot need never despair of getting an audience : a Thackeray cannot fail of admirers.
* Hester's History. A Novel. Reprinted from All the Year Round. London: Chapman and Hall. 1569. But the class of novel most likely to win approval must, no doubt, vary with time. Now the fashion may set in favour of
Mies Austen's tranquillity ; now in favour of Miss Braddon's rapid movement. And at present we see, or think we see, two sorts of novels monopolizing the attention of the public or the publishers, while new writers—with a few rare and noteworthy exceptions —range themselves as followers of the sensational or of the placid school. And after all that has been said about sensationalism, many of the younger writers of the present day do not seem in- clined to err in this direction. Placidity appears just now to be the vogue. Because Miss Braddon has faults—because we really were overdone with bigamies and mysteries—some writers fall into the opposite extreme, and they give us stories which contain no story, and narrations which are nothing more than descriptive and meditative.
It is to this class that Hester's History appears to us to belong. We do not say it has no story, for it has a story, though a very
slight one. Now, a novel, if it have no absorbing plot, should have strongly marked or finely-drawn character. Or else it should be a lively picture of society, a picture the scenes of which pass easily and vividly before us. Or it should con- tain detached thoughts which, when once seen, are remem- bered. In a word, it should have something distinctive, and
should not merely be written in grammatical English. Every one
knows this, but it is constantly forgotten. The reviewer has a task that is not of the easiest when he has to give an opinion of
such a book as Hester's History. Here are two volumes,
each of them containing two hundred and fifty pages, that is, here are five hundred pages ; and when you have finished them, you ask what it is all about. For the life of us, we do not know that we can tell. A little girl lives with an austere, proud lady, at Hampton Court ; she becomes a dressmaker's apprentice ; she is received again into the favour of her benefac- tress; she goes to a fancy ball ; she is there made the victim of a practical joke, played off upon her by some particularly naughty and very young men. She goes through other adventures, which we can assure the reader are not in the least sensational, and yet they are of a kind which seems to us very far from natural. The book is absolutely harmless, and absolutely dull. We commend it as a school-prize, the reading of which will not be likely to inter- fere with the pupil's studies. This is exactly the sort of book which Mr. Swinburne had in his mind when he made the very needful protest that the nursery and the school-room are not the final courts of appeal in which all literature must come and be judged, and it is not because we ourselves find fault with
very much that Mr. Swinburne has written that we should deny the justice of this protest. If Hester's History had called
itself a story for girls, there would, undoubtedly, have been lees to complain of, though we might still have expressed our sympathy with the young persons condemned to partake of such mental food. But the book calls itself a novel, and it is the business of a novel to be in some way a work of art. Now, an artist must allow himself a wider field and must take a broader survey of
men and things than is apparently congenial to the author of Hester's History. This story is redolent of dill-water ; or, at the best, rose-water. There is not much " gush " in it, it is true : the weaker element of French stories—" ce cher Alphonse," and all that sort of thing—is absent, along with the stronger.
But it is as flat and mild as e,au sucre'e, and its very smoothness of language (which would be a merit, had the author anything to
say) becomes a source of irritation and weariness. For nobody
is so tiresome as the man who persists in saying nothing very e]aborately,—who detains you with rounded sentences, but leaves
you. not a fact to be remembered. Take a page of the story, and notice the words it contains ; we can pick out, from the second page, some half-dozen, which may serve for a key-note to the whole work. "Fairyland of history," "dreamy alleys," "bees," "swans," "lilies," "sunbeams."—it is of these things that the story is composed.
We give no extract, and we will say why. Nothing but a very lung one could afford the reader a just idea of the book's vacuity. Take each page separately, and you say to yourself, "a smoothly- written page, leading to something else, I suppose." But that is the mistake : all this smooth, fluent writing leads to nothing at au. You never acquire an interest in the story, and very certainly you are never struck with the expression of thoughts that were worth recording. " Goody " people may find it satisfactory, be- cause it is so very meaningless. But whether they do or not, the reviewer's verdict must be the same—that the author of Hester's History has mistaken his vocation, and that he needs to be re- minded that the faculty of stringing together an immense series of smooth phrases is not the only or the chief thing required by a novelist. A novelist, if he is to do anything worth doing, must know human nature, and have lived in and studied the world. We have no evidence that the author of Hester's History hat studied anything more life-like and real than the washed-out portraits of men and women supplied by the weakest of the lady.. writers of our day.