VICTOR HUGO'S " WORKERS OF THE SEA."
IN the Seven Lamps of Architecture,—perhaps among Mr. Ruskin's works one of those in which the most of gold and precious stones is mixed with the least of draff and rubbish,—a chapter long to be remembered is that on " The Lamp of Power." Such a lamp is unquestionably that of Victor Hugo's genius. Every quality almost has been by turns attributed and denied to him, but of the gift of power no one has ventured to contest his possession. That gift is unmistakable, even in the late disgrace to his name, the string of wearisome erotica published under the title of Chansons des Rues et des Bois; but how far more so in the present work ! What other writer is there who would cast forth to the world a novel—or what is called so—in three -volumes, of which very nearly one full third is solely taken up with the mere descrip- tion of the salvage by a fisherman of the machinery from a wrecked steamboat, such salvage being in fact the action of the work, to which all the rest of the plot is but subordinate? Had any weaker man attempted such a tour de force, he must have sunk crushed under it ; must have either steeped his reader in slumber, or made him fling the book away in disgust. Victor Hugo, on the contrary, has worked this situa- tion into a struggle of truly epical grandeur between the human will and the forces of nature, so that in spite of the accumulation of all his worst faults of style and manner, it is impossible for us not to feel chained to the book by the spell and sway of a master hand. But the fact is that he is himself under a spell. It would perhaps be impossible, throughout the whole of his works, to find any one action into which he has thrown himself so completely as into this cuttingoutby Gilliatt single-handed of the engines from the Burande, suspended between the two Dover rocks in the Channel. The fight of man with sea and storm, as he has had in his old age the opportunities of watching it from the island home of his exile, has evidently exercised the mightiest fascination over him, and he has rendered it as it never has been rendered before, and probably never will be rendered again by human pen. But this has been to the detriment of the artistic keeping of the book ; for amidst Gilliatt's gigantic labours, both the author and the reader often lose sight of all else, and there are few perhaps who will not turn over the pages which follow the fisherman's hardly won victory over wind and wave (and cuttle-fish to boot) far more hastily than those which preceded his heroic venture. In short, so powerful is this part of the book that, like an over finished and too highly coloured portion in a picture, it kills the remainder, rendering it sketchy and tame by comparison.
And, Booth to say, beyond the framework of Guernsey nature and life in which they move (the " noble little people " of Guern- sey stands henceforth immortalized in literature, and should be grateful accordingly to its guest), there is not much of novelty among the personages of the book. Gilliatt, the hero, is but our old friend Jean Yaljean, untainted by crime and undeveloped, who has taken to a sea life; Deruchette, the heroine, is but Cosette in a different dress,—that as yet unfallen grisette who seems to be in M. Hugo's eyes the ideal of womanhood ; the vicar, Ebenezer, Ddru- chette's lover, is a weaker Marius, or at farthest his twin-brother ; Mess Lethierry, Deruchette's uncle, althoughsomewhat more distinc- tively drawn, recalls for the most part just those elements in Jean Valjean's character which are not reproduced in Gilliatt. The two really original figures in the book (beyond some subordinate ones which are merely sketched in, such as the weatherwise Captain and the "high and dry" Dean) are its two scoundrels, Rantaine and Clubin. Both these are drawn with marvellous artistic skill; equals in scoundrelism, yet so individual, that the one character detaches itself clearly upon the other, like shade upon shade of the same colour under the hands of some master of painting. Rantaine is the humbug, Clubin is the -hypocrite. Rantaine (in whose phy- siognomy one cannot mistake certain Imperial resemblances) is no one knows who, has been everywhere, and everything by turns; of herculean presence, he is "cunning sheathed in strength." Clubin is small, soft-voiced, looks the notary rather than the sailor,
• Vidor Hugo: lea Travailkurs de la tiler. Brume's, Lacroix, VerboeckboTen, et
Cie. 1866. 3 cola. 8TO.
has spent his life at home under the eyes of his fellow islanders, and knows how to play but one part, that of an honest man ; but this he plays to such perfection that even while deliberately wrecking the steamer trusted to his command, he succeeds in filling with admiration for his self-devoted faithfulness the very eye- witnesses of his calculated blunders. By an exquisite stroke of art, M. Hugo has made these two scoundrels divine each other's true character, so that whilst Clubin is the man who has foretold Rantaine's treachery, and who eventually forces him to restitution in the name of their plundered employer, Rantaine alone sees through his mask, and by way of revenge writes home to old Lethierry an account of what he terms the repayment to his con- fidential man of the "somewhat irregularly" borrowed money. The tale, however, comes too late to reach his rival yet alive, for Clubin has been sucked to death by a huge cattle-fish. Nothing is truer to fact, by the way, than the manner in which Victor Hugo describes the gradual change in the public mind respecting Clubin after his disaster and disappearance, the slow oozing through, as it were by a thousand little cracks of evidence or pre- sumption, of an opinion instinctively conformable to the truth, and which rises at once into certainty with the revelations of Rantaine's letter.
Are the Workers of the Sea, then, to be held one of Victor Hugo's master-pieces ? Few perhaps would be disposed to assert this, though the work contains parts at least equal to anything he has ever done. But whilst his power shows not the faintest symptom of decay, his faults increase upon it. Floods of words welter more unwieldy, avalanches of metaphors and illustrations fall more overwhelming than ever in his pages. If omniscience was the weakness of the late Master of Trinity, how much more is it that of the French poet? To show his mastery of a foreign language, some ten or twelve pages must be written in Spanish, and trans- lated at the foot. He seems never to be satisfied until he can make his readers believe that he knows more on every possible subject than themselves. One of his greatest delights is to be for ever stun- ning you with a hailstorm of unintelligible technicalities. He sel- dom makes an attempt to raise you to the level of his knowledge, or if he does so, it is with the air of a pedagogue opening fiercely a huge dictionary, and telling the small boys round to stand quiet, or he'll smash their heads with it. And yet we have the feeling all through that much of this learning is but parade. His wearisome enumera- tions recall to us in self-defence the retort of Dr. Parr to a late Whig election agent,—" Oh ! P—, 13--, you are nothing but a catalogician !" In point of fact there is no difficulty in picking out dozens of glaring blunders and anachronisms, spawned of this itch and mania of apparent omniscience. Thus he speaks of the Zamorin of Calicut as an existing power, whereas that once great name has long been only that of a pensioned nobleman. The scene is laid at Guernsey, forty years ago, or say in 1825 or 1826, and on board a steamer, which surely never could then have run, between St. Malo and Guernsey, American tourists are introduced, who were then little likely to be found on such a route, with names and nick- names of American statesmen on their lips, many of them full twenty years older than the time assigned. Thus the " little giant" Douglas is spoken of as senator for Illinois, when he could only have been about thirteen years old, and could not have become senator under the American Constitution till 1843. Mr. Corwin is termed Secretary of the Treasury, which he only became in 1850 ; and Texas, annexed in 1845, is referred to as a State. M. Hugo's blunders in English are made with imperturbable self-assur- ance. Fancy entitling a whole " book" "Le Bug Pipe" (bag pipes)-!
One regrets the more to see a man of Victor Hugo's genius descend to charlatanism, that he needs it so little to be effective. No eye can be truer than his, so long as he does not choose to squint upon reality from out of a theory, a foible, or a conceit. A scene in which three children, birdnesters who have overstayed the light, come across a supposed haunted house, in reality occupied by smugglers, and are tempted on and on by the very fascination of their terror, their French leader at once denying the possibility of the supernatural and reasoning upon it as a reality, is inimitably happy. Equally true, though opposite in character and most pathetic in its simplicity, is Gilliatt's farewell to Deruchette, when disabused of all dreams of winning her heart, and hardly con- scious of his own heroism, he tells the poor sad tale of his love, and apologizes for its presumption and folly. Not less fine for its truth is Lethierry's divining recognition of all Gilliatt's soli- tary labours, and his exclamation, over the rough, ragged, grimy, gaunt, hideous hero, "How handsome he is !" As genuine a cry from the depths of the man's heart, as that of the mother whose son Abraham Lincoln had released " I knew it was only a Copper- head lie—he's the handsomest man I ever saw."
Morally indeed, M. Hugo has not got one step beyond the dark motto of his Notre Dame de Paris, A yecyzi," except that he has for- gotten his Greek genders, and cruelly unsexes the dread goddess into " un ananke." A mighty heathen,not without capacity for discerning the outward aspects of Christianity, he oscillates for ever between pantheistic sensuality, as in his last volume of verse, and a dreary fatalism. His most highly wrought pictures of self-abnegation may move and harrow, but they do not elevate us, for they are mere glori- fications of human power, like the self-inflicted tortures of the Indian yogi. The essence of sacrifice is absent,—the making holy to One who is holiness, the self-surrender to a higher will. It would almost seem as if moral degradation were for Victor Hugo an essen- tial element in self-sacrifice. Gilliatt certainly lies less habitually than Jean Valjean, but he must be made to lie and cheat before his heroic surrender of the woman he loves to the man whom she loves can be completed ; which he then caps by slowly drown- ing himself as the vessel bears them away. This is what M. Hugo apparently terms "rananke supreme, le coeur humain." That is, the one thing perhaps in man which he feels to be most himself, which testifies to him of something distinct from all around, something which is capable of rebelling against every outward force and law, the heart, with its affluence of affection and impulse, with its well-springs of inner life, is only for the French poet " the supreme necessity."
Such fatalism, the fatalism of those whom we may call the unchristianized of modern times, is far gloomier than that of the heathens of old, from an .2Eschylus to an Aurelius. The instincts of the people's heart, as we may see throughout the Greek tragedians, tended always then to raise Fate into a stern, yet in the long run sternly just, Providence. Even to more culti- vated minds there was repose, however chill, in escaping from capricious, passion-led, often malevolent gods, to a supreme, passionless, unalterable Law ; and when by the refinements of later times those had been subtilized into abstractions, this would still retain its substantial reality. But the passage of Christ through the earth, the full revelation of the Divine Humanity, has given to the modern mind a personality so intense that it can scarcely ever rest in such a view. From the True God, the God of Righteousness, there is no rising to a Fate, as from a Zeus or a Siva, there is but descent to it ; Fate becomes of necessity an Ahriman, a power which may be greater than man, yet which he cannot choose but struggle with, because it would crush him, and he will not be crushed. And so Victor Hugo, utterly incapable of entering into the true meaning of the word which he is using, as it spoke to the minds of the people from whom he borrows it, tells us in his preface of his having exhibited in various works the struggle of man with three forms of " ananke," the " ananke of dogmas," the " ananke of law," the " ananke of things," with all three of which is mixed the " ananke " of the human heart. The meaning whereof is at bottom this :—" I have re- fused to bow before a Sovran Will of Righteous Love, therefore all in the spiritual world, all in the social world, all in nature, all in my own heart is henceforth at war with me. Huge powers are on all sides seeking to overwhelm me ; I struggle, and that is all." A dreary faith, surely, even when claiming to be lit up by the gleam of a " progress" which has nothing to reach to, which. is itself but a form of fatality, a motion of the world's clockwork, a dizzy ladder mounting into the void,—a dreary faith to sustain exile and old age, and one which calls for the profoundest pity towards the great writer who, in the course of more than sixty years of life, has found none better. J. M. L.