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The History of Yesterday and Exotic Settings
eaving the romance of history, we come to that of adventure, which is linked with its predecessor by the fact that the adventure-story of to-day often deals with the history of yesterday. This was notably the case in the Early Victorian era, which had left the Napoleonic wars less than five-and-twenty years behind, and to which the Greek War of Independence lay only in the immediate past. Side by side with the novel of Society, patronised by would-be fine ladies, such as the Mrs Wititterly of Nicholas Nickleby, and the historical romance, dear to the heart of the young and impression able of both sexes, there grew up a school of what might almost be called "technical" novels, sea-stories written by seamen, romances of war by soldiers, and so on. So closely interwoven were fact and fiction in some of these books, that Maxwell, the historian of the Irish Rebellion, quotes in his magnum opus the description of one of the skirmishes of the war which he had written as part of the mise-en-scene of one of his 'Stories of Waterloo,' and no one appears to have taken any exception to this somewhat topsy-turvy method of procedure. The ambition to mingle history and romance so deftly as to make a novel a trustworthy chronicle of a campaign, which is not dead even yet, as a recent conspicuous example has shown clearly, was then at its height, and the hand of the expert is visible also in books dealing with the manners and customs of foreign nations rather than with recent history. "One of my chief aims," says the Hon. Charles Murray, in the preface to The Prairie-Bird, "has been to afford you correct information respecting the habits, condition, and character of the North American Indians and those bordering on their territory."
The locality chosen is worthy of remark. North-West America was to the novelists of that age what South Africa is to those of to-day, and boys dreamed of wigwams and tomahawks where now their thoughts are busied with kraals and assegais. The noble Red Indian occupied the place now filled by the lofty-minded Zulu, the medicine-man that of the witch-doctor, and the lean frontiersman from Kentucky, instead of the British trader or the Boer hunter, held the affec tions of the reader. The Spanish Main was still (or, at any rate, a polite convention was maintained between authors and readers on the fact) the haunt of pirates, who must now be relegated to the East Indian Islands or the China Seas, and Turkey, Egypt, and Persia afforded a happy hunting-ground for the writer who loved the gorgeous East, but had not yet dis covered India as a background to fiction. The Indian Mutiny, which is in request in so many modern novels as a means of killing off undesirable characters and giving the hero rapid promotion, is replaced sixty years ago by the Peninsular War; and since the writer of military stories had no Lord Roberts to adore or patronise, he dedicated his work to "Arthur, Duke of Wellington, the greatest captain of the age."
And in this connection we must venture to put in a word for a much-contemned person, the lady novelist, who has long laboured under the stigma of ascribing to the bold dragoon not merely the feelings of ordinary humanity, but also a more than human sensibility. The lady should be held justified, or at least excused, since she followed only where her masculine confreres had led the way. The novelist, male or female, who was bold enough nowadays to represent a military man as one-half so sentimental as the Peninsular and Waterloo heroes of Lever, Maxwell, and their followers, or as much addicted to embracing other gentle men or wiping away a silent tear, would become a butt for the laughter of the whole civilised world. These heroes may, indeed, be somewhat prone to act in haste and without due reflection; but they repent very much at leisure, and their reflections after the deed is done are both long and very frequent. Nor is it only in connection with their own past transgressions that they jot down their meditations; for the weather, the scenery, passing events or the absence of any, and even the time of day, will furnish opportunity for the exercise of their peculiar talent, and they publish abroad their in most feelings, such as an English man of to-day would die rather than make known, with artless innocence. We might almost adopt the theory which M. Taine has broached somewhere in connection with the age of Elizabeth, and suppose that the English character has altered in the interval; but it is not necessary to go quite so far. Not character, but fashion, has changed.
Byronic Heroes and Not-So-Secret Sorrows
he Early Victorian era was still dominated by the influence of Byron, as its predecessor had been by that of Rousseau, and the type of hero acceptable to the general public was that still dear to the lady novelist — the dark haughty being, whose countenance wears an expression of impenetrable gloom. He exhibits a curious predilection for walking abroad on stormy nights, wrapped in a large cloak and with a slouched hat drawn low upon his brows, and thus clad he apostrophises wildly any natural object which, in spite of the darkness and his hat, may succeed in meet ing his gaze. He has a guilty conscience, and lets fall occasionally fearful hints as to the nature of the deeds which burden it; but his great (perhaps we should say his only) delight is to secure a sympathetic listener — the general public will do as well as any individual — and proceed to enjoy the luxury of confession. One might almost say that he experiences an artistic pleasure in setting forth the heinousness of his deeds and the loneliness to which they condemn him; and when his listener is the heroine, and she pities and forgives him, and expresses it as her opinion that the dark record may now be closed for evermore, one feels that, whatever he has gained, he has lost two main sources of happiness.
This was the type which influenced the authors of even the adventure-books of the day. The delight in setting down one's credit able feelings, the necessity of calling upon Nature to be partaker in one's moods, and reviling her if she did not see fit to acquiesce, and the perpetual straining after language suited to the greatness of the occasion, are all in evidence. And, although the hero declaiming against his wrongs is especially sublime, yet the hero stooping to woo falls little short of him in moral dignity. His language, under such circumstances, is equally elevated and impassioned, and must have proved somewhat embarrassing to the heroine, who could scarcely be expected, when taken by surprise, as of course she always was, to be able to summon up fitting terms for a reply. What, for instance, would be a suitable answer to such a request as this? —
"Lady, the blood that warms me is not more vital than the love with which I worship you. I would toil throughout the life that is unspent, even in the bowels of the earth, so I might but hope to die beside you at last. Lady! — beautiful Ida! — I want nothing from you — not even love, which comes to all — say only that you accept my love, whether it may ever be returned or no — say only, 'Julian, you may serve me,' and I will bless you before heaven as I kneel."
But the heroines are not unworthy of their lovers — save in the power of replying suitably to their declarations of affection. In the book from which we have just quoted, a page and a half of close printing is devoted to the description of the sister of the gentleman whose sentiments were at once so lofty and so modest — her face, figure, course of life, dress, manners, temper, and spirits. We learn that she had
a magnificent eye. It might have done for a genius, and yet something whispered to you, while you looked upon it, that it belonged only to a meek and lowly Christian; for there was a pure depth of innocence, a holy and quenchless light of womanly devotion in it, which might have been mistaken for poesie, had not the simple and disengaged liveliness of her address carried conviction with it that her enthusiasm was of the happiest and healthiest tone, and her reason and principle undimmed by a beam from the poisoned atmosphere of this world's passions.
In combating thus vigorously the imputation of genius, the author has contrived to bestow a back handed slap upon Christianity, which was obviously not her intention; but in other novels of the period also it is evident that the writers have scarcely succeeded in gaining a satisfactory mastery over the instrument of language. To find a lady not inferior to the one just described in charms of person and qualities of mind introduced in the first instance as "a young female," is calculated to cause a shock. This particular atrocity is taken from one of Fenimore Cooper's books; but it is quite common to find the ladies of a party designated as "the females," where a modern writer would say "the girls." To atone for this error of judgment, however, the Early Victorian writer, who is no thing if not gallant, makes all the amends in his power by attaching, wherever it is possible, the adjective "fair," as a kind of inseparable epithet, or after the manner of the days of chivalry, to any word descriptive of his heroine. "The fair passenger," "her fair hand," " his fair cousin " (the hero and heroine are generally cousins, somehow), "the fair rider — artist — embroideress — enthusiast," and so on, ad nauseam, are phrases of constant occurrence, more especially in the works of Captain Armstrong, who was a follower of Marryat as a writer of sea-stories, the latest in date of which deals with the Crimean War. In contrast with the tendency we have noted in most of his contemporaries to adopt an attitude hostile to the nobility, Captain Armstrong, like the average Briton, "dearly loves a lord," and is not ashamed to show his preference. His virtuous heroes succeed to peerages and magnificent estates, and are de scribed with an affectionate re spect bordering on adoration. "Lord Courtland" is never named without his title, although the author has been on the most familiar terms with him before his accession to honours, and when he is mentioned as "his Lordship" a capital letter is used.
Artificiality of Style
nother peculiarity common to most of the novels of our period is the artificiality of their style. It is as though the author donned the tragic buskin himself in order not to be out of harmony with his characters, and as though the characters were never allowed to lay aside their masks even in their most solitary moments. In Country Quarters, the officers, who are intended to be a gay and jovial set of fellows, joke "wi' deefi-culty," and in a way that suggests dancing on stilts. There is a heavy-handedness about the society badinage which is enough to make a modern reader believe that the actors had grown into a state of romantic gloom, and only unbent in obedience to a sense of duty and with sadly preoccupied minds. The consequences of maintaining this tragic atmosphere are twofold. Scenes which would convulse the public of to-day with inextinguishable laughter are accepted in sad and sober earnest, and a false note runs through the story carried on at such an un natural pitch. We may be unfortunate in our reminiscences; but, so far as our experience goes, we can only recall a single touch of nature, such as would appeal to the average man or woman to-day, in the whole of the voluminous works of Captain Marryat. This occurs in Settlers in Canada, at the moment at which Captain Sinclair and Alfred are reconnoitring the Indian camp in which Mary is a prisoner. The soldier is too much excited to keep still, and when his friend warns him of the necessity for prudence, he replies, "But, Alfred, my good fellow, she's there." We quote from memory; but the reply has always struck us as a singular and welcome exception to the forced tone of the whole story.
It is an interesting question whether the conventions of the Early Victorian novel have not descended to the melodramatic stage of the present day. If we may judge from the testimony of so competent a witness as Mr Jerome, the charge may be considered proved. In both we have the feckless hero, with a mania for getting into trouble, and a turn for tall talk, and the incapable heroine, who faints at inopportune moments, and exclaims, "Unhand me, sir!" when the villain seizes her. We have the comic lovers and the ideal peasants, the Child (this is a Lyttonian feature), and the stage Irishman. We have the prevalence of sudden death, and the frequency of murders, forced or mock marriages, and bubble companies bringing ruin upon their shareholders. We have a similar lack of humorous perception, although even the Transpontine theatre would, we believe, reject a "curtain" such as Lady Blessington provides in Country Quarters The hero and heroine have been long estranged by the usual misunderstanding. Having discovered his mistake, the gentleman is returning to his allegiance, but suffers shipwreck on his voyage to Ireland, and narrowly escapes a serious illness as the result of the hardships he undergoes. We mention this in some degree to excuse his subsequent procedings, for on reaching the lady's house, and entering the room in which she is seated, he falls fainting on the floor. She does not call for help, nor even attempt to restore him, but faints immediately on his prostrate form, leaving her grand mother to revive them both. With this affecting tableau we may fitly close our survey of Early Victorian fiction.[648-55]
Related Material on the Victorian Novel
“Early Victorian Fiction.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. 148 (October 1890): 641-55. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 15 September 2020.
Last modified 15 September 2020