25 MARCH 1882, Page 12


WE have recently brought against Literature the accusa- tion of being, in one important respect—its picture of the relative importance of Youth and Age—an unscrupulous libel ; and our indictment, which has been questioned in these columns, appears to us unanswerable, if we keep to that depart- ment of literature which can boast of most readers—Fiction. We would return to-day to the authors of this libellous produc- tion in a less hostile spirit, and inquire by what service to morality they have atoned for their misrepresentations of the course of average life. We need not spend much time in proving that these services to morality exist. There used, it is true, to be a vague theory among a certain set of critics—envious moralists themselves, let us suppose, or perhaps simply very lazy readers—that moral purpose in fiction was fatal to art ; but that theory of art which had to ignore the Greek dramatists, Milton, and Dante (to go no further) could never have been very vigorous, and could hardly have had any adherents, one would have thought, among a generation rivetted by the writings of George Eliot. The author of the only novel of the day that may take rank with hers must also, it appears, be reckoned among its opponents. In a new preface to a recent edition of "John Inglesant," Mr. Shorthouse recognises a moral purpose as one of the chief aims of fiction,—which, indeed, is, as he truly urges, the only channel through which anew moral idea can reach the many. Moral truth is first fully intelligible to ordinary humanity when it is clothed in parable. The scribe who asked, "Who is my neighbour ?" might have been answered (if we may venture to translate into abstractions a fiction that has become so dear to the heart of our race)," You will never succour the neighbour, if you aim at succouring none but the neighbour. He who associates the word with a sense of exclusion fails to understand it in its narrowest sense, while for him who disregards the conventional barriers that limit its application, and finds a neighbour where he finds need, remains the rich reward of divorcing hostility from actual neighbourhood, and effacing bitter recollections in the hearts of those who have been turned away from a hospit-

able door in a neighbour-land because their face is set towards their native city." How cold, how dim is the answer in such a form, compared with its embodiment in the most familiar narrative of Christendom ! Truth illustrated is, to the ordi- nary thinker, truth apprehended, and there is a large half of moral truth that is capable of no illustration but from ideal character. It is only under this disguise that the most in- teresting part of human experience can be revealed, and if this kind of literature were not vulgarised by the ease and popu- larity of mere invention,—if the true creators stood out in any permanent distinctness from the crowd of mere literary crafts- men who vary and repeat a familiar theme, we should recognise that there is no moral teacher like the dramatist. Homer has bequeathed more influence to the world than Plato, Shake- speare than Bacon ; and the comparison would hold good on a very humble scale, if it were not that when we come down to the ordinary writer of novels, we are in want of a philosopher to form his background. But there is no doubt that every one who has put his own experience or aspiration into fiction has been a real moral, or immoral, teacher. It is in this way as possible to teach error as truth (and the strange theory which makes it impossible for Art to teach morality is curiously con- futed by the fact that it has always been conceded that Art may teach immorality), but it is an important fact that it is possible thus to teach something.

We have admitted, however, that this fact is less questioned than it used to be, and, perhaps, it now concerns the authors whom we have taken as our clients to strengthen their position on the opposite side. The triumphant success of our last great imaginative writer, together with her distinct moral "aim, has made it more natural to ask whether fiction must, than whether it may, enforce a moral theme. We should say no to the first question, almost as decidedly as yes to the last, and might cite works of the highest genius as our justification in both cases. It is interesting to compare the same theme in Shakespeare under both kinds of treatment. Let us take, for instance, Macbeth and Julius Ocesar ; we might add Hamlet, but the comparison is simpler between two members. In both these plays, the hero commits a murder; in both, the person mur- dered is his friend; in both, disaster follows the act ; in both, his own violent death is its direct consequence. Perhaps we might give point to the comparison, by remarking that in the historical play even history seems violated to reduce the person killed to an insignificance which shall give his slayer the relative prominence of a hero ; and we should not, at all events, feel ourselves refuted by being told that Shakespeare had followed Plutarch in all that tends to represent "the mightiest Julius" as a puny, deaf hypochondriac. But to turn to what is indisputable, Macbeth and Brutus both kill a ruler ; and while on the one hand the deed is consistently represented as a crime, and on the other as an act of heroism, we presume that no one would say that Julius Cfesar exhibits the tragedy of arduous duty in the same sense that Macbeth exhibits the tragedy of remorse. A gentle nature, hurried into a bloody and fierce act by the passions of men less noble than himself, does not become nobler, as in the corresponding case the crime, of a weak nature makes its author worse. Brutus is and remains "the noblest Roman of them all ;" but the concluding eulogy from which these words are taken reminds us that he acted under the influence of men who did what they did "for envy of great Cresar," and we are left with the impression that the proportions of good and evil here are mysterious, and that the results of the actions narrated contain no unmistakable index to their moral colouring.

This impression, in a much stronger degree, is that which is produced by the greater part of the experience of life. It is impossible that it should ever be the impression of a work of art to the same extent that it is the impression of life. The result would be too confused for art. We may measure the distance between the two from the instance we have given. The very fact that the hero of ,Tulius Ccesar is, by almost the only modern poet who can be compared with Shakespeare, relegated to the lowest hell, side by side with the traitor Judas, may serve as a reminder of the many-sidedness of all actual life and character, though there may be something of accident in this extreme sharpness of contrast. The vengeance to which Dante consigns Brutus, the gentle and fearless hero of the English poet, no doubt overtakes him less as an individual character than as the typical opponent of the naacent Empire, of that Heaven-ordained secular dominion of which the Papacy, in its righteous purity, was to be the spiritual counterpart. But this is merely another illustration of our meaning. Life is so varied, so intricate, so full of perplexed meaning, that there is no great character or institution of which it is not possible to take opposite views ; and an empire may appear the framework of true government, or a barrier in its path. A man may be to one poet a hero, and to another the worst of criminals. Nay, the pictures of which he forms the original are sometimes separated by a wider gulf even than that which divides the hero from the criminal, between whom the very completeness of antagonism forms a link ; we need only call to mind that the subject of one of Mr. Tennyson's latest poems, the martyred Sir John Oldcastle, is believed to be the original of Shake- speare's Falstaff, in order to present an antagonism far more fundamental than that between Brutus the hero of Shakespeare, and Brutus the comrade of Judas. The man who perished by a hideous death for his religion is, if the best authenticated opinion be correct, perpetuated on the page which will never lack readers as a profligate and a voluptuary, "a man gluttonous and a wine-bibber." The contrast between this Rubens-like picture and Mr. Tennyson's slight water-colour sketch from the same original, forces us to recognise how little fiction can de- pend on history for moral purpose, even when its narrative is a mere loan from history.

If history thus differs from fiction, may not fiction differ from fiction ? The moral uncertainties of history should, indeed, never in any work of art be fully reproduced. If for no other reason, there is not space for them. The dramatis persona which should hesitate between Falstaff and Oldcastle would lack all unity, the drama cannot embrace enough of life to add to its portrait of the hero even tbe slightest sketch of the caricature. But the drama may approach the reality so far that it may, like the greater number of Shakespeare's plays, make the events of history, (or of imagination, possibly) the object of a certain disinterestedness of attention, as certainly it may also, as in Macbeth or Agamemnon, represent in them the action of a divine Nemesis, and make this the key-note of the whole. And a is a striking tribute to the grasp of this idea on the human mind, that we may select specimens of the moral drama from the works of writers whose sympathies are, in the sense we have given the word, most "unmoral." In the case of Shakespeare, we have already done so, and in the case of the only writer who can be compared to Shakespeare in width and variety of range (however much his comparative shallowness may seem to render the comparison inappropriate), we would cite the bulk of Scott's novels as illustrations of what we mean by moral disinterestedness, and one of them as the very type of what we mean by a moral drama. "The Bride of Lammermoor" strikes a far deeper note than any of its fellows, recalling, in its simplicity of idea, decision of movement, and deepening intensity of moral colouring, the solemn march of a Greek tragedy ; and it seems to us that this almost solitary instance may be cited as showing the way in which a man's own weakness sometimes unconsciously gives the bent to his genius, and the warning within becomes the warning without. Scott was too unconscious to be aware of his temptation to the worldliness which was to cast so marked a shadow on his own later life, and perhaps he hardly recognised the lesson as to the close connection between worldliness and cruelty which is woven in with the pathetic tale, yet we cannot but believe that he painted with richer colouring when he de- lineated the perils of a vulgar ambition, because, unknown to himself, the palette of imagination had been touched by con- science. Apart from this influence, or one equally exceptional, Scott is as definitely the type of the unmoral writer of fiction as George Eliot is of the opposite. In the pages of both there is rich and varied painting ; but, if we are allowed a certain pardonable exaggeration, we might almost sum up the effect of both, by saying that he sings and she preaches. And we could hardly bring home to the reader the two kinds of fiction we are endeavouring to contrast more forcibly, than by citing these two great artists as relatively a specimen of either kind.

Surely, there can be but little doubt as to the division to which we are to relegate the new and vigorous writer with whom we started. We cannot make the statement quite absolutely, for it appears (if we have rightly understood his sew preface), that the author of "John Inglesant " himself holds a different opinion on the matter from his critic, and there is a certain awkwardness in persisting in our own view, against one which may appear that of so much better an authority. Nevertheless, we do venture on this audacity. The peculiar charm of "John Ingleaant," it seems to us, is that it mirrors the subtle complexity with which, in actual experience, the pro- portions of the moral life are blended with the unmoral. The hero resists a great temptation, and is sensible of only lassitude and a sense of loss. He draws back from what he feels to be a call from the spiritual world, and feels the spiritual life flow on with undiminished volume. He is sensible of worldliness and cowardice, which seem rewarded; his devotion and self-sacrificing loyalty have brought him nothing but ill. Yet there is nothing accentuated in these surprises, nothing which, as in some pro- tests against the idea of the Divine government of the world, might come as itself a great moral protest. They come in the story, as they come in life, subtly mingled with much that takes off their sharpness, are passed by rapidly, and, as it were, for- gotten, yet still give their tone to the picture, and reproduce in the work of the artist something of the futility, the disap- pointingness, and then, again, of the many-sided unexpected- ness on its best side, of this wonderful web of experience which we call life. This, we are certain, is what mainly gives the book its fascination. If we suppose the theme treated, for instance, by Mr. Kingsley, we might, of course, have had an equal amount of interest of a. very different kind ; but we should miss the peculiar repose (as we feel it) of a thoroughly historical study. We should have had the hero undergo severe punishment for his loyal perjury, and should have been called on to watch the gradual disentanglement of what was noble in this complex act, under the purifying dis- cipline. All life, under this point of view, is a fragment from the Purgatorio. We firmly believe that life is this, but can- not but feel that there is a certain refreshment in those pictures of life which give it some other aspect, for human. experience is a manifold thing, and right and wrong do not form the only antithesis in human life ; at strange, inex-

plicable moments, when the unfathomable part of our nature seems opened to us, we would say they do not appear to form its deepest antithesis. There are times in some lives when the man might almost imagine himself a survivor from some forgotten world, where goodness showed itself against some other background, than that against which alone it is recognisable as virtue, and where emotion is justified by its intensity alone. Some such dim imagination must often have haunted a student of any great work of art; and, indeed,

the banal maxim we began by quoting, as to the incompatibility of Art with moral purpose, is, no doubt, a distorted tribute

to this sense of something in poetry, or painting, or more especially in music, which appeals to a part of man's nature deeper even than the moral sense.

If such speculations as these appear too fanciful to serve as a basis for criticism, we may find a simpler justification for unmoral fiction in the mere fact that every part of our nature needs rest in turn, and none needs it more urgently than the moral judgment. We have often thought that a part of the pleasure found in the study of mathematics may be traced to the fact that it is the object of human attention most remote from all moral association whatever. And we believe that those pictures of life and character, in which there is least estimate of merit and demerit, have a great value, even in re- gard to a true estimate of merit and demerit. Whatever gives our faculties repose, gives them strength. There is a tendency in human nature, to which the very meaning of words bears witness, to judge too much,—to stamp neutral qualities with praise or blame, and leave hardly an epithet which can be used to describe a mere quality, without connoting an opinion as to its merit. Why, for instance, should we be displeased at hearing that a friend has passed animadversions on our conduct ? Why must he turn his mind to us with a purpose of blame ? Why is it a disaster in humble life for a man and wife to "have words" together ? Nay, why should the very word censure have any unpleasant meaning ? or why should it be a bad thing to be conceited, when the verb "to conceive" is constantly used, and absolutely colourless. Or even when the words we use have remained mere epithets, why does this habit of judging infuse condemnation into a mere attempt to give a true description of character ? Say, for in- stance, that a man is egotistic, and you are supposed to be finding fault with him. Yet, you are only saying what may be said of almost all the men of genius that ever lived, and of many of the best of men morally. A character which is very in- dividual or originative, and is not occupied with itself, is a mar- vel ; and some of the most egotistic people are some of the most sympathetic. And yet, we believe, few persons would hear the word spoken of any one dear to them without a little shock. Or, again, let us suppose that in giving a servant a character, we were to act on the universal concession that no one is perfect, and aim at conveying a true notion of the kind of dangers to which our butler or housekeeper were liable—a kind of infor- mation which would be most valuable—we should be understood, by an average hearer, as giving an opinion against him or her. This habit of changing description to judgment is more in- jurious than we are apt to suppose. It blunts the quality we most need in daily life,—perception of character. The habitual assumption to which it leads, that all good qualities are tied up in a bunch, and that if you have one, you have all, prepares the way for intolerance and injustice, and for what is most virulent in party spirit. The truth is that in this world good quali- ties are never tied up in a bunch. If you have enthusiasm, you must forego scrupulous justice. Where you find much generosity, you will rarely find much gratitude. Where there is entire tenderness, there is hardly ever a. very rigorous standard of truth. Not that enthusiasm and justice, generosity and gratitude, or tenderness and truthfulness are in the slightest degree hostile to each other, but it requires the whole sphere of goodness to take them in, and each human being has no more than a fragment of it. The fiction which warns its readers against this spirit, which insists on the fragmentary character of human goodness, and recognises a neutral territory between the domain of good and evil, may reinforce not only our intellectual, but our moral being. So far as it allots to us a disinterested position with regard to the dramatis persance, and asks for neither acquittal nor condemnation at our hands, it is a preparation for no small part of the duty of life. We are far from saying that the power thus manifested cannot be abused. But it is not abused when the creator of fictitious beings seeks to make us regard with sympathetic eye, even the failures and errors of characters sufficiently large and lofty to be the object of contempla- tion from that stand-point which he seeks to attain. Some- times all that we need for patience and pity is the dis- cernment of this complex moral life, under the light of in- tellectual sympathy. Could we but be taught to believe in the tenderness that may co-exist with falsehood from which we turn in disgust, in the pity latent in some character that has repelled us by its envy, in the generosity consistent with a de- plorable surrender to the lower appetites of our nature, we shpuld not thereby be taught sympathy with deceit, envy, or unbridled appetite, we should rather be endowed with the strength, the fortitude, and the hopefulness needed to wage warfare against them. He alone can take the part of healer who can endure to contemplate the disease, and the teacher who makes us realise the mysterious alliance of evil with good under which our lot is cast, is the teacher who can best whisper a promise of their eternal divorce, and lead us to await with patient hope the triumph of which some foresight is implied in his insight and in his repose.