ROBERT CHAMBERS'S ESSAYS.
THE literary fashion of the day has even reached the practical utilitarian- ism of Robert Chambers ; his Select Writings are to appear in a compact form and by the serial system of publication. It is calculated that they will fill seven stout volumes ; of which one will be devoted to his well- known Historyof the Rebellion of' 1745-46, another to the equally well-known Traditions of Edinburgh, a third to antiquarian and mis- cellaneous publications, and the remaining four volumes to essays of various kinds, collected, we suppose, from the Edinburgh Journal. Of these, a volume of Familiar and Humorous compositions is before us. Unless we assume that the germ of the essay may be found in the writings of Theophrastns and some of the philosophical pieces of Seneca, Montaigne must be considered its originator. The first to apply it to periodical literature was Steele, in the Tatler ; though it received its completer form and character from Addison. Its brevity, which enables a man to dismiss a piece at a single heat—the limitation of subject, that forbade exhaustion, though it might sometimes require a condensation as difficult—and the facility with which it was applied to descriptions of contemporary life and manners—naturally made it a favourite with the "wits"; those literary men of the last century who loved pleasure and society as much as learning, and who found it easier as well as more agreeable to strike off in the intervals of dissipation a sketch of what they had observed, with the moral it contained, than to give themselves up to laborious research, or even to the continuous exertion of a long imaginative work. The same advantages rendered it a favourite with the man of study or business : to the literary aspirant and the amateur it was equally tempting. To such an extent did the fashion of essay-writing prevail daring the last century, that, independently of separate publita- dons by individual authors, and the nameless rank and file in periodical works, the collected British Essayists form, or formed not long since, a standard work in forty-five volumes. But though things may last long they will not last for ever. The capabilities of the essay itself seemed to be exhausted ; men of ability found it more advantageous to embody their matter in new forms ; and the public got tired of the very name of a thing which seemed utterly worn out. The short story—the little more than instructive anecdote— was expanded into a "tale," with attempts at dialogue and dramatic effects, borrowed from the modern novel. The occasional opinion upon a new work with a touch of compliment would suffice no longer ; the growing mass, facetiously called the reading public, wanted something which should supersede the books themselves; and systematic "reviews" or " notices " became an essential article of supply. Where manners were not included in the tale, they were turned into the " sketch "; and popular disquisition or exposition was merged in the " article." Putting aside what are really sermons or disquisitions, Lamb and Leigh Hunt are the only authors who have succeeded in continuing the old essay, and their essays appeared nearly a generation ago. Then how, it may be asked, has Robert Chambers managed to succeed, not only to the extent shown by the Edinburgh Journal, but by the probable demand that must exist for a collected reprint, before so shrewd a judge would venture upon it? The reply is, by the same mode as his first predecessors succeeded : by looking upon life as it actually was, and supplying a want in the way it was wanted. The essayists of the last century chiefly addressed themselves to their own class—the gentry or people of fashion ; and manners, with a little of not too rigid morality, and some sentiment, useful if not always real, were their topics. If the lower classes were mentioned, it was with goodnatured badinage, carica- ture, or that general hortative which smacks more of the schoolmaster than the companion. Robert Chambers addressed what in England is called the lower part of the middle class—the shopkeepers, the strug- gling professional men, who have had their loftier notions pretty well knocked out of them, and the better sort of mechanics. He looked at life from their points of view, with their judgments ; and he looked at it as it really was : so that he brought a new sort of mind to nearly a new field. For example, the man who did not pay his debts, and who ex- hibited in his person the fickleness of friends and fortune, was from sympathy, a love of literary claptrap, and perhaps some social circum- stances that operate no longer, rather a favourite with the older writers. Chambers judged him by a sterner and less sentimental standard. He knew that failure implies fault ; that a man who cannot maintain his po- sition must have weakness, vice, or folly, of some kind ; and the steadier morality necessary to the business and working classes made him look up- on the consequent laxity with no indulgent eyes. But though he has ex- hibited the broken-down man in various phases without sentimentality, there is plenty of the milk of human kindness, with that goodnatured allowance which the world generally imparts. Other subjects are pur- stied in the same real, matter-of-fact, work-a-day manner. Tried critic- ally, some of the topics are of too common a kind, and the treatment often verges upon the literal ; but we are speaking of the pervading mind, Rot of particular papers. To us some of the essays appear rather trivial in substance and wire-drawn in style ; but to the mass of the author's readers this may be a recommendation. The subjects attract them from sympathy, and their stomachs cannot bear the administration of essences. Very often, however, the composition of Robert Chambers, in its peculiar way, may challenge competition with any of his elder brethren. What fulness of matter, closeness of style, and justness of observation, are there in these opening paragraphs from the essay on " Victims." " Victims are persons who have dropped out of the ranks of society, and be- some a prey to fortune. There are tasks which philosophers apply to, less worthy of them than might be an inquiry into the various causes which degrade men from their piece in society. Some are vicious and imprudent, which of course are causes of very direct operation: but there is also an immense number whose decline is strictly the effect of that for which they cannot be blamed—want of the intellect and courage necessary for the place to which they were born. A certain quality called by the common world softness, but which a metaphysician would trace to weak judgment, excessive kindness of disposition, and want of ambition and self-love, brings about a great number of bankruptcies in the mercantile world, and causes many a youth to forfeit commissions and appointments obtained for him by friends, even where there has been little to find fault with in the moral life. We must remember that this is a very artificial kind of world which prevails now-a-days: every individual is not to be expected to be suitable for a system. In the pastoral stage, all can make a certain livelihood, for all can tend sheep and cattle; but all are not calculated to adapt themselves to the many nice require- ments of a mechanical :era, such as is now passing. Hence victims are in some measure an unavoidable result of our social condition. The men, baffled in one thing, might go a step lower and try another; but we very well know that all men cannot do so, however much they ought. " There is, nevertheless, generally an element of bad conduct in the lives of rictinls. If their first decline is not the result of any such cause, they are sure to go wrong in some way before they are allowed by friends to attain the ripeness of the character. And for such errant behaviour there is usually but too much temptation or stimulus in the unpleasant circumstances in which they are placed. Friends, too, perhaps, are not always sufficiently forbearing. It is, unluckily, so very easy to pick holes in the doublets of unfortunate men. A rejected advice is enough to set off a rich uncle any day. Others, it must be owned, are more lenient, and stick longer. Still, one way or another, men out of suits with for- tune are extremely apt to be thrown off the right balance. And it is only then that victimhood commences, or can commence. So long as there is self-respect, it may be considered as almost impossible. This recalls to mind that married men are far less liable to victimization than single. The wife is a conservative being. A family system goes on by its greater weight, where a bachelor's estab- lishment stands etill. There is more to struggle for against misfortune; and con- siderations of wife and small children bring many wellwishers and supporters. Ergo, a married man must be a considerably worse man before he victimizes than a single one needs to be."
We have spoken of the cause of the success of Robert Chambers as a writer ; and to the same circumstance is owing his success with the Edinburgh Journal. The true character of his own mind, how- ever, is a love of fact. Fact—a collection of all that is recorded— is at bottom the great merit of the History of the Rebellion : facts too, though not always obvious in their generalization, and sometimes but too obvious in their minuteness, form the distinguishing characteristic of his essays. For instance, the papers on the manner in which one age may be linked on to another widely different by means of "Long Livers," equally show this author's love of facts, his skill in using them, and the justness with which he draws the palpable conclusion though he is unable to reach the latent.
" Loma LIVERS.
[WRITTEN 114 1833•7 " Human life is not so short but that very distant ages, or ages at least very different in character from each other, are sometimes strangely connected by the existence of an individual of the species. The progress of civilization, and the im- provement of all the arta of life, is in this country so rapid, that no one who has snrvived to even middle life can fail to observe the great difference between his early and his latter days. How greatly, however, is the wonder increased, when we find persons who can look back for the better part, if not the whole of a century, and describe a state of things as having obtained in their young days tehich is so entirely unlike anything we see now around us, that it appears like a chapter of ancient history narrated by an eye-witness, who has by some strange chance survived the general wreck! At the present time, for instance, there must be individuals alive, who, in the midst of all the enlightenment and all the conveniences and appliances for which the age takes so much credit—in this age of intellect, in short—recollect a time when there was no intellect, or at most very little, and when men of course lived a very strange sort of life. We are accustomed to regard the question of the Stuart dynasty as altogether a seventeenth-century question—a thing quite foreign to our feelings and associations: yet people must still live who not only recollect the pretensions of that family being defended by a respectable party, but saw a prince of the line invade the country, and, with a band of primitive people, who still kept alive manners, dress, and language that had existed since before the days of the Romans, sweep through the island almost from end to end in quest of the throne. We look upon Sir Robert Walpole as a man of quite a different day from this; and certainly one who was born in 1676, and suffered imprisonment in the Tower as an unruly Member of Parliament in Queen Anne's time, is entitled to be so considered. Yet, if I am not mistaken, a daughter of his, Lady Catherine Walpole, appeared in our newspaper obituaries only about two years ago. Our own present Duke of Montrose is but the grand- son of a man who bore the family honours in the year 1684, in the reign of King Charles IL—nearly one hundred and fifty years ago; though it is curious that, during the thirty-four preceding years, the same number of generations had borne them. What a difference between the circumstantial world of the grandfather and that of the grandson ! Persons yet alive may recollect old Countess Margaret of Roxburghe, whose husband was drowned in the Gloucester frigate coming down to Scotland with the Duke of York in 1682. She died so lately as 1758, a widow of seventy-one years. 1 have heard that Sir play Campbell, who died in 1811, had conversed with an ancestor who had witnessed the execution of Charles L: the space between the death of the monarch and that of the gentleman who had seen the witness of his execution, was a hundred and sixty-two years. Sir Walter Scott's mother who died in 1820 or 1821, had spoken to a woman who recollected lacing Oliver Cromwell when in Scotland—or rather his nose, for she had forgot everything else about him. This was still more wonderful than the case of Sir Bay Campbell; for the space between Cromwell's last departure from Scotland to fight the battle of Worcester, in August 1651, and the death of the lady whose friend had seen him, was a hundred and seventy years ! Such facts, though quite within the range of nature, and perhaps occurring not infrequently, strike the mind with a kind of wonder; for they bring together into one idea two ideas re- motely different, and for a moment clasp the associations of a rude and unsettled age with those of one in every respect orderly and refined. It soothes us, more- over, with a pleasing notion of the extent of what we generally complain of as too short, namely, human life; and affords the encouraging idea, that man or his im- mediate children may witness more of the effects of his own good work than is generally expected?'
Facts of this kind naturally strike the mind : the imagination of the reader contrasts the two extremes, and realizes, according to his own powers, all that such long livers might possess. This possession, how- ever, depends upon the long liver's power of observation ; which in nine cases out of ten amounts to nothing, and the person who went in search of a long liver would have his labour for his pains. The woman who had seen Cromwell saw nothing but his nose, and that doubtless from an ex- treme point of view ; for though the libels of the Royalists show that it was a prominent feature, the Protector's portraits prove that it was not the overwhelming feature of that strong, massy, English face.