M. VICTOR HUGO'S "BY ORDER OF THE KING."* THE first
thing that strikes us in this book is the extraordinary English in which it is written. We do not set this down to peculiar ignorance or want of skill in the translator ; for some things, doubtless, he is responsible, for talking about "the vesicles of the otter," for instance, and for this sentence, which may be presumed to have some meaning in French, but is utterly baffling as it stands : "You felt that the man had known the foretaste of evil which is the calculation, and the aftertaste which is the zero." The fact is, that M. Victor lingo's French demands about as much trouble before it can be properly rendered into English as does the Greek of Pinder or Eschylus. The work is not absolutely impossible, only relatively so when we consider the time and money which authors and publishers can afford to expend upon the translation of a novel. We make no complaint, therefore, on this score ; but only notice the fact that the English exceeds anything that we have ever seen, not written by a manifest lunatic, for grotesque- ness and absurdity.
But we hare a serious complaint to make against the book. It is indecent beyond anything that we have ever read out of classi- cal literature. We say indecent, not immoral. We do not accuse M. Hugo of any evil purpose in his close, subtle, and minute analysis of Gwynplaine's feelings when he is awaking to the sense of love. Very possibly it is quite true to nature. True to nature, too, though here it is a perverted and corrupted nature, may be the account of the thoughts of the strange creature, a sort of virgin * By Order of the King: a Romance of English History. The Authorized English Translation of M. Victor lingo's " L'Ilomme Qui Bit." 3 voLs. London: Bradbury and Evans. 1870.
Messalina, whom we have represented to us in the Duchess Josiana. We can even acquit of evil, though not so readily, the nude picture
of the Duchess in her chamber. But that these things are grossly indecent ; that they ought never to have been written ; that their presence in a magazine which probably lies on ordinary drawing
room tables, and in volumes which bear on their title-page the name of a respectable firm, is a disgrace to every one concerned in publishing them, we do not hesitate to affirm. We say "a dis- grace," because there are errors of judgment which are so inexcus- able and so injurious in their effect that they merit no less emphatic a condemnation. Any one with a grain of sense must know that the indecent is often just as noxious as the immoral. A scientific book, for instance, which will be simply instructive to the readers for whom it is intended, may be harmful in the last degree to those who find in it what it is not their business to learn.
This fault, however, is only occasionally manifest ; there is another that runs through the whole book. Briefly, "this romance of English history," as it is called, represents a state of things wholly unlike anything that England could ever have pre- sented. M. Hugo is, for all the world, like the ex-Emperor, whom he hates so cordially. He makes, or fancies that he has made, elaborate preparations, and then throws himself on an undertaking for which be is totally unfit. He courts disaster by gratuitous audacity, only, happier in this than the unlucky Napoleon,—he never discovers that this disaster has overtaken him. He might have written even "a romance of English history," and escaped conspicuous blunders, had he been content to aim at lass.
But he seeks to overwhelm us with historical and antiquarian knowledge, to give us islanders a picture of our country, as it existed some hundred and fifty years ago, more minutely accurate than we could ever have dreamed of seeing. To this end he makes with prodigious industry an enormously large collection of facts. Unfortunately he does not know how to put them together. The mosaic that he makes of them is a picture monstrous and impos- sible in the last degree. We say "facts," and do not doubt that he has authority for most of his statements ; the great mistake is in the use of them ; and the result is about as unlike historical truth as a number of undoubtedly Ciceronian words put together by a blundering school-boy is unlike Ciceronian Latin. Some-. times, indeed, he makes downright blunders ; as when, for
instance, he talks of a "presbyterian chapel of non-jurors;" when he says that "Irish and Basque are kindred languages," it being a notorious fact that the Basque has no relationship whatever to other European languages ; when he writes, "This [Ugly] Club was still in existence in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Mirabeau was elected an honorary member," a statement which implies an amount of ignorance about Mirabeau which is inconceivable in any Frenchman, much more in such an admirer of the principles of 1790 as M. Hugo ; when he says that the Sovereign of England receives for doing nothing £1,250,000 a year ; when he talks of a Roman amphora having floated about for 1,500 years ; and declares that the English Barons in 1086 "laid the foundations of feudality, and its basis was Doomsday Book p or gives us this very curious reading of English history, that "in the War of the Roses the weight of the Lords was
thrown, now on the side of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, now on the side of Edmund, Duke of York." This, perhaps, is the climax of all. It occurs in the latter part of the third volume, and even after reading seven or eight hundred pages of M. Hugo one stands aghast at the audacity of a man who writes "a romance of English history," and fancies that John of Gaunt and Edmund Duke of York were the rival claimants in the War of the Roses.
But, as we said before, the greatest blunders are found in the monstrous collocations of things which are in themselves true enough. There is an instance of this, of trifling importance, but yet typical of its class, in the nickname which is attributed to Lord David Dirrymoir. Tom, Jim, and Jack are all undoubted nicknames, but who ever heard of their being put together, of a
man, in fact, being called Tom-Jim-Jack ? The same may be said of things of a far more serious kind. It is very likely true that Queen Anne was anxious to introduce more ceremony into the forms of the House of Lords, and it is also true that there are such personages as Garter King-at-Arms, Lyon King-at-
Arms, as Lancaster Herald, Richmond Herald, and so on. But who can believe in such a scene as this?—
" The person clothed in velvet, quitting his place in the ranks, bowed to the ground before Gwynplaine, and said,—' My Lord Fermain Clan- charlie, I am Garter, Principal King-at-Arms of England. I am the officer appointed and installed by his grace the Duke of Norfolk, here- ditary Earl Marshal. I have sworn obedience to the king, peers, and knights of the Garter. The day of my installation, when the Earl Marshal of England anointed me by pouring a goblet of wine on my head, I solemnly promised to be attentive to the nobility ; to avoid baa company ; to excuse, rather than accuse, gentlefolks; and to assist widows and virgins. It is I who have the charge of arranging the funeral ceremonies of peers, and the supervision of their armorial bear- ings. I place myself at the orders of your lordship.' The first of those wearing satin tunics, having bowed deeply, said,—' My lord, I am Clarenceaux, Second King-at-Arms of England. I am the officer who- arranges the obsequies of nobles below the rank of peers. I atio at your lordship's disposal.' The other wearer of the satin tunic, bowed, and spoke thus,—' My lord, I am Norroy, Third King-at Arms of England. Command me.' The second row, erect and without bowing, advanced a pace. The right-hand man said,—' My lord, we are the six Dukes-at- Arms of England. I am York.' Then each of the heralds, or Dukes- at-Arms, speaking in turn, proclaimed his title. 'I am Lancaster.'—' I am Richmond.'—' I am Chester.'—' I am Somerset.'—' I am Windsor.' The coats-of-arms embroidered on their breasts were those of the counties and towns from which they took their names. The third rank, dressed in black, remained silent. Garter King-at-Arms, pointing them out to Gwynplaine, said,—' My lord, these are the four Pursuivants-at- Arms. Blue Mantle.' The man with the blue cape bowed. 'Rouge Dragon.' He with the St. George inclined his head. 'Rouge Croix.' He with the scarlet crosses saluted. Portcullis.' He with the sable. fur collar made his obeisance."
Again, at the beginning of Vol. I. is a list of privileges which are said to belong to peers, that is, to peers in the time of Queen Anne. It is possible that every one of these privileges may have existed at some time, though we do not believe it, but that they all existed together and in the beginning of the eighteenth century, is utterly incredible. The list is too long to quote. Suffice it to- say that it includes almost every conceivable immunity and impunity. The effect is, of course, to give a very serious misre- presentation of English history, to ignore what has been one great characteristic of the position of our aristocracy. Privileges they have had, and still have ; but their safety has been that they have not had them in such measure as has roused the popular wrath, such popular wrath, for instance, as for this very reason swept away the nobility of France.
As regards its literary merit, the book is certainly below Hugo's usual standard. The story is of the very faintest interest ; a few incidents, for the whole tale might be told in twenty pages, are overloaded with masses of language, sometimes fine, more often bombastic. There is even such proof of a failure of invention as- is given by a manifest repetition. Those who remember the death
of the young fisherman in Les Travailleurs du Mer will find it almost reproduced in the wreck of the "hooker," where the crew are
swallowed up by the sea without a cry or a struggle, and the old man who has been leading their devotions, which M. Hugo has compiled out of a polyglot Lord's Prayer, turns with surprise to- find himself alone :—
"He looked down. All their heads were under water. They bad let themselves be drowned on their knees. The doctor took in his right hand the flask which he had placed on the companion, and raised it above his head. The wreck was going down. As he sank, the doctor murmured the rest of the prayer. For an instant his shoulders were- above water, then his head, then nothing remained but his arm holding up the flask, as if he were showing it to the Infinite."
And yet the book has proofs enough of the genius which, how- ever great M. Hugo's absurdities, never deserts him for long. The description of the corpse on the gibbet, in Vol. I., wholly unnecessary as it is to the progress of the story, is unquestionably fine. So is the scene genuinely dramatic wherein Ursus sustains the character of Gwynplaine, whom he imagines lost, in order to deceive for a time the blind Des who loves him. And isolated sentences which are imaginative and poetical frequently meet us. Such sayings as— "blindness is a precipice ;" "a knell is an ugly punctuation in space ; it breaks the preoccupation of the mind into funereal paragraphs," have certainly something effective about them.
Andwhatever they are worth, they are heaped together with pro- fusion. There is manifestly no limit to M. Hugo's capacity of supplying them. But it would take much more than this to re- deem the book ; nay, more, every proof that we see of the writer's.
power makes us feel more plainly the duty of saying as frankly as possible that By Order of the King or the Man with a Grin is in the highest degree mischievous and absurd, and unfit for the reading of decent and sensible people.