Page images
PDF
EPUB

(Continued from p. 172.)

The Pirate, by the Author of view to the general trash of the "Waverley, Kenilworth, &c." circulating library; we shall not so strictly confine our remarks, as not occasionally to urgé arguments which may not apply, at least in their full force, to the writings immediately under our consideration; a warning which we think it but fair to give, lest we should seem to impute to the author of Waverley faults with which he is not chargeable. Our readers, therefore, in justice both to the author and to us, will make the necessary abatements in the application of our strictures to his particular case.

IN our last Number we stated our intention of entering, somewhat at large, into a view of the evils which appear to us to flow from a habit of trifling reading, particularly in the line of fictitious narrative. In order fairly to meet the case, we divided works of imagination-not very logically perhaps, but conveniently for our purpose-into three classes; namely, those which are written with an obviously bad intention; those which are written with no definite intention at all, except fame or profit to the author and amusement to the reader; and those which are written with a positively good intention. The first class we dismissed in a few words, as too palpably evil to require an argumentative reprehension. The second class seemed to deserve a more lengthened discussion; and to furnish a basis for our remarks, we selected, as a somewhat favourable specimen, the tales of the unknown author of Waverley; and had proceeded so far in our plan as to give an outline of "The Pirate," with extracts, this being his last production, and though inferior to several which have preceded it in literary merit, yet presenting a fair sample of the moral qualities of his novels. Now, we do not hesitate to say, that even were no novel more exceptionable than the Pirate, or than Waverley, or Kenilworth, or any other of these tales, the effect of habitually indulging in the perusal of such works would be decidedly injurious; and we purpose to fortify our remarks by a specification of some of the evils which appear to us naturally to result from this habit. We should however premise, that though we have selected the Waverley Novels as a sort of standard by which to try the question at issue, and have thus taken ground much less favourable to our own views than if we had extended our

The first objection which presses upon our attention in regard to the habit of novel-reading, is the INJURIOUS excitement which it tends to produce. And here let it be kept in mind, that the works of fictitious narrative to which our observations are meant to apply, are those which are written with no definite views, except of fame or profit to the author, or of amusement to the reader. Now, works of this description may differ widely in their degrees of morality, or immorality; but one property is common to almost all of them, that they are intended to be stimulating. If they fail in this, it is generally the author's misfortune, and not his purpose. He intends his work to be irresistible in arresting the imagination, and absorbing, for the time, every faculty of the mind, and every affection of the heart. If his readers can contentedly eat, drink, sleep, study, or pray from the time they commence his narrative, till they have followed the vicissitudes of his hero or heroine to their conclusion, it is so much detracted from the potency of his genius. wishes his spell to be inextricable: his ideal world is to cast into the shade all the tame realities of this visible sphere: joy and sorrow, health and duty, are all to be for gotten while, following the mazes of the artist's fancy, the enchanted reader plies the volume by the ray of the sickly taper into the darkest

He

son.

watches of midnight. We do not aver that every novel is thus alluring; but this is only to say that every novel is not written by a Richardson, a Burney, a Ratcliffe, or by the author of Waverley. What is called a "good" novel, and what for that very reason perhaps we ought to call a "bad" one, certainly approaches this standard of excellence. It introduces its reader to a new world; it rivets his attention by an artfully adjusted series of incidents, and a highly-wrought description of characters; stimulating the feelings and the curiosity in so powerful a manner as, for the time, to render almost every thing else uninteresting in the compariThe excitement may be more or less injurious in its character, or in its intensity, or in its duration. In many novels, the character or quality, so to speak, of the excitement, is of a decidedly exceptionable kind: they add fuel to the flame of passions which we are bound to mortify and subdue: they lead the reader to the margin of temptation, and too often precipitate him over the brink. We shall Hot complain very seriously of the Waverley Tales in this respect; for the excitement they cause is not for the most part strictly that of the passions. But still an intense excitement of long duration, even if not positively vicious, is generally hurtful in its effects. It enervates the mind; it generates a sickliness of fancy; and it renders the ordinary affairs of life insipid. Should it be objected, that this argument, if allowed at all, would go much too far; that it would banish music, and poetry, and all works of imagination, and many of the severer sciences themselves, since all these cause excitement; it may be replied, that it would certainly go so far as to restrict these within due bounds, where they are matters of mere recreation: where they are matters of business, they do not come fairly within the scope of the present discussion. We admit that a

mathematical treatise may create as long and powerfully sustained an interest as a novel; and that the excitement will be injurious, if it cause a person to neglect any duty of life for its gratification." But then there are many qualifications in the one case, which do not apply to the other. For example, the interest excited by the Principia of Newton, is not of an impassioned character: it may indeed, like a novel, so arrest the mind as to cause the student to neglect the claims of business, or devotion, or health itself; but it does not minister to any corrupt appetite, which is more than can be said of most novels: nor is such a course of reading open to various other important objections, which we shall have to urge against an inordinate indulgence in works of fiction. Again; the faculties called into exercise by severe study, are of a very different nature to those which are stimulated by novel-reading; nor is the vigour of the mind impaired, but on the contrary increased, by such an application of its powers. Besides which, the one may be an affair of business; whereas the other can only be at best a recreation. A Cambridge wrangler, we allow, may be as much engrossed by his pursuits, as a novel reader; but the one is engrossed in his proper calling, the other for no assignable good end or purpose whatever. If a clergyman in active duty, as a mere amusement, were to give up his mind to the same degree of mathematical study as he might lawfully do when a college student, he would doubtless be open to a part of the charge which we are urging against novel-reading: he would find his studies entrenching on his publie labours, and would shrink perhaps from the ordinary calls of his duty to indulge in these pleasures of intellect. There would however still be many degrees of difference in the two cases; though in both the claims of a family, or a parish,

might be neglected in the intoxication of habitual mental excitement. Our argument, however, is by no means intended to go so far as to exclude a temperate degree of mental excitement arising from a variety of pursuits, as well as from the study of mathematics. With respect to such poetry, or music, or fictitious literature, as have no vicious tendencies, the chief danger consists in the intensity and duration of the excitement they produce. But the intensity and duration of that produced by novel reading is usually very considerable. Few novel readers can take up a well written tale, consisting of several volumes, for five or ten minutes at a time, and lay it down again, and return to the ordinary and less interesting pursuits of life, without having their minds injuriously stimulated, and being led to cast many "a longing lingering look behind." There is an evil in this respect in the general construction of our novels: they are usually long-much longer than any person ought to be able to find time to read at one, two, three, or even many more sittings; yet they are so contrived, as to be incapable of being read in repose by instalments. The mind is absorbed; the imagination is heated; and the affections are engaged. The moment arrives to lay down the volume; but it is not so easy to banish the subject: we quit it in a feverish state of mind, and are in this fever till we return to it. Business, study, devotion, the requirements of nature, and the obligations of society, are but an irksome parenthesis, till some imaginary hero is extricated from his perilous jeopardy, or some sentimental heroine is united to the object of her uncontrollable affections. The result, may be best seen in young and badly educated persons, and in general wherever the mind has not been disciplined to self-control. In such cases, the struggle between the call of duty, and the stimulus of

curiosity, is but too plain the midnight novel, if it does not colour the next day's conversation, gives at least its tone to the feelings; and it is well if it do not through the day occupy by stealth many a moment clandestinely taken from business requiring close and undivided attention, and if it do not also engross the thoughts even while it is not allowed to fill the hands.

A mind under the genuine influence of novel-reading, shrinks from every thing like effort in study. It is stimulated with artificial condiments, till it loses all natural and healthy appetite. Not only the graver departments of literature, but even books of amusement of a less piquant character become dull and prosing in comparison with these highly seasoned viands. We question whether a few months unrestrained indulgence in. Waverley novels themselves, sober and manly as they are when compared with the ordinary class of such productions, would not generate for a time at least, a distate, for our standard essayists, and for most writers of true and unromantic narrative; to say nothing of the more serious walks of metaphysics, theology, and other abstract studies, which could not be supposed to present any attractions to the habitual novel-reader.

Were we Medical Reviewers instead of Christian Observers, we might feel it necessary to add to our charge against novel-reading, on the score of excitement, the physical evils often attendant on the practice when carried to excess. We know, at least, that medical men have frequently urged this point; and have stated that the habit of novel-reading is almost as enervating to one class of their patients as the use of opium, or of spiritous liquors, to another. It is very clear, that the passions of the human mind cannot be strongly excited day after day, and year after year, without causing subsequent languor and exhaustion, both men

tal and bodily; and though we freely confess, that the novels of the Waverley school are less injurious, in their effects on the nervous system, than those of the sentimental class, yet they must still be ranged under the general head of deleterious stimulants; and the difference of a few drops, more or less, of alcohol in the potion, will not be sufficient to render it an innocent beverage, however mildly it may operate as an occasional cordial.

A second objection which strikes us, in connexion with a habit of novel-reading, is the serious waste of time which it occasions.-This blame the Waverley Tales must, in their measure, share with the trash which loads the shelves of the circulating library; for it surely will not be pretended, that taking them generally, they pay their readers in profit for the consumption of time they occasion. In one view, they are more dangerous than ordinary novels; because, many persons whose age, or habits, or education, exempt them from the temptation of promiscuous novel-reading, are seduced by the talents of this author to devote more hours to his performances than they ought to subtract from their positive duties, or to dedicate to works of mere entertainment. Let any person calculate the number of solid hours expended in a large family, where, perhaps, thirty or more of these volumes have been perused by five or six individuals, or let him multiply this into the aggregate of the national reading, and he will probably be surprised at the vast consumption of time involved in the process. We are aware, that to a thorough novel-reader, time is an article of little or no value, except, like game to a sportsman, to be "killed;" but to persons not quite so far advanced in frivolity, the estimate may appear of more importance. We believe, that some serious and well-disposed persons would be shocked, were they care

fully to number the hours which they devote annually to trifling reading; and then compare this startling record with the time given to the first great purpose of human existence. And is it not, we would ask, in the view of every reflecting man, an evil of incalculable magnitude, that the few remnants of time which persons, immersed in the business of the world, can spare for the occasional relaxation of their minds; for the amiable endearments of the social circle; for the instruction of their families; and for that private meditation and prayer, and that study of the Scriptures, which are so necessary to fit them to bear up against the temptations of the world, and "so to pass through things temporal that finally they lose not the things eternal," instead of being improved for beneficial purposes, should be engrossed and rendered pernicious by an indulgence in frivolous, not to say noxious, reading. In this view it is not necessary that every volume, or any one volume, should be of a decidedly exceptionable tendency; it is enough for our argument, if the general result is such that the individual is not benefited, that his family has been neglected, and that his general train of thought and feeling, already too secular, has been debased instead of elevated; has been alienated from God and heaven, instead of being attracted to them by his few select moments of retirement and leisure.

A third injurious effect attendant on the generality of those works of fictitious narrative, which form the subject of our observations, arises from the false and dangerous views which they present of the actual circumstances of life.— It is a prime secret for happiness to learn the art of lowering our expectations; to be satisfied with a little; to be content with the state of life in which we are placed; to improve, and thus to enjoy, the present hour, and to look for no per

fection either in men or things. But how different the lessons taught by the bulk of poets and novelists! Extatic joy and insupportable sorrow are almost the only conditions of life for which their scale is graduated. The mediocrity of talent, of property, and of personal endowment, which generally presents itself in the actual intercourse of mankind, is banished from their ideal world. Men are heroes, and women are angels: love is the master passion; and the pursuit of a cap tivating object the great business of human existence. Now it is impossible that a person can habitually enter with full zest into the spirit of this fictitious creation, without feeling a little dissatisfied with the tame realities of the actual scene of his own "work-day" state of being. The best, the most natural, of mere novels, must necessarily be overcharged; their lights must be made brighter than the reality, to give contrast to their shadows; and their shadows darker than the reality, to give effect to their lights. But young and inexperienced persons will not easily be persuaded to believe that these fascinating representations are fabulous: true, they do not find the prototypes among their own relations and acquaintance; but then, they doubt not they are to be found elsewhere: they succeed in persuading themselves that they shall meet with more sentiment, and more sensibility, and more exquisite joys, and more pungent sorrows, in some other more favoured region, than they have yet been able to trace in that which happens to lie within the bounds of their daily vision: the enchanted paradise exists, though hitherto it has not been their happy fate to discover its precincts. Surely nothing can be more ensnaring to ardent and youthful minds, or more calculated to destroy that tranquil acquiescence in the allotments of Providence which forms a grand constituent in human happiness, than CHRIST, OBSERV. No. 244.

such highly wrought exhibitions of ideal scenes and characters. And,― what we think has not been sufficiently dwelt upon by those who have reprobated novels on account of their splendid fictions, -even where scenes in real life are displayed, and displayed faithfully, they may, to many readers, have all the evil effect of the most intoxicating ideal world. To a young man or woman in a humble station, many even of the ordinary incidents of novels may thus be fatally injurious. To wear silk stockings, and go to the play, may appear as alluring a phantom to a lady's maid in a country village, as, to her more sentimental mistress, to be a Clementina della Peretta, or, if our readers will, a Minna Troil. And what is the next step? We refer to other pages than our own for an answer. The annals of the Magdalen and Lock Hospitals, and of the Guardian Society, if the secret history of the first aberrations of the heart could always be known, would too probably furnish many a record of the baneful effects of habits of novel-reading on ignorant and inexperienced minds.

With regard to the Waverley Tales, we have before admitted that the excitement of the passions is not by any means their characteristic quality; yet we cannot exempt them from the charge of exhibiting delusive and injurious views of human life. We need go no farther than the novel immediately before us; for who among the young admirers of these imaginary scenes, would contentedly sit down amidst books or ledgers, or engross parchment, or follow any regular honest vocation, if he could spend his life like Mordaunt Mertoun, free as an eagle, and without a care or a thought beyond wandering from crag to crag, encountering the perils, and enjoying the pleasures, of an adventurous sportsman, and relaxing from these rougher joys in the society of the beautiful and fascinating inmates of Burg Westra? 2 I

« PreviousContinue »