Page images
PDF
EPUB

We are not sure that the habits of the bold jovial Pirates themselves would not find admirers; and we fear that poor Minna is not singular in her attachment to the freebooter Cleveland. But we shall have occasion to advert to the evil effects arising from the way in which characters are delineated in novels, in a subsequent part of our remarks. What we intend exclusively to allege in the present argument, is, that professed novels are almost always unlike real life; and that the dissimilarity is such as to lead to the formation of false and injurious estimates of its actual nature. Even the novels of the author of Waverley, whose graphic skill no person can dispute, present us, when calmly considered, with very little more than the figments of his own splendid imagination. It is true that by his enchantments he, not only raises new worlds before us, but for the time has power almost to make us believe them real. But when we close the volume, and look around our apartment to be sure of our own identity, and coolly ask, whether even his comparatively temperate representations-we had almost said his historical memoranda-are not mere romance, we cannot but feel that we have been, if not absolutely in an ideal world, yet in a still more perplexing scene, compounded so indiscriminately of truth and fable, that no beneficial moral impression, nor any valuable lesson of experience, much less any certain matter of fact, is gained from the narrative. And were it perfectly true that the whole is strictly natural, yet this would not obviate the evil effects of a novel in which virtue and vice-we must not, we suppose, use more strictly theological phrases are not the constant test by which the whole conduct of the story is regulated. It was justly remarked by Dr. Johnson, that "in the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment were so remote from all that passes among men, that the

reader was in very little danger of making any application to himself: the virtues and crimes were equally beyond the sphere of his activity; and he amused himself with heroes and with traitors, deliverers, and persecutors, as with beings of another species. But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama as may be the lot of any other man, young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope, by observing his behaviour and success, to regulate their own practices. If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account, or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shews all that presents itself without discrimination. It is not a sufficient vindication of a narrative, that the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience; for that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good."

Connected with the last mentioned objection, there is another, already partially adverted to, arising from the injurious delineations of character which abound in most novels and other works of imagination, written for the mere purpose of entertainment. The historian of real life is not responsible for the actions and qualities of his personages. Like a portrait painter, his chief study must be accuracy of delineation: as to beauty and grouping, and many other things of prime importance in a fancy piece, he is answerable only so far as he can avail himself of them without violating the laws of truth and nature. And happily, in general, in real life, a really correct description is seldom dangerous. The novel before us furnishes a case strongly in point. The incident on which it is founded, is described by the author in his historic capacity as follows:

"In the month of January 1724-5, a vessel, called the Revenge, bearing twenty large guns, and six smaller, commanded by John Gow, or Goffe, or Smith, came

to the Orkney Islands, and was discovered to be a pirate, by various acts of insolence and villany committed by the crew. These were for some time submitted to, the inhabitants of these remote islands not possessing arms nor means of resistance; and so bold was the captain of these banditti, that he not only came ashore, and gave dancing parties in the village of Stromness, but,

before his real character was discover

ed, engaged the affections and received the troth-plight of a young lady, possessed of some property. A patriotic individual, James Fea, younger of Clestron, formed the plan of securing the buccaneer, which he effected by a mixture of courage and address, in consequence chiefly of Gow's vessel having gone on shore near the harbour of Calf-sound,

on the island of Eda, not far distant from a house then inhabited by Mr. Fea. In the various stratagems by which Mr. Fea contrived finally, at the peril of his life, they being well armed and desperate, to make the whole pirates his prisoners, he was much aided by Mr. James Laing, the grandfather of the late Malcolm Laing, Esq. the acute and ingenious historian of Scotland during the seven

teenth century.

"Gow, and others of his crew, suffered by sentence of the High Court of Admiralty, the punishment their crimes had long deserved. He conducted himself with great audacity when before the Court; and, from an account of the matter by an eye-witness, seems to have been subjected to some unusual severities, in order to compel him to plead. The words are these: John Gow would not plead, for which he was brought to the bar, and the judge ordered that his thumbs should be squeezed by two men, with a whip-cord, till it did break; and then it should be doub. led, till it did again break, and then laid threefold, and that the executioners should pull with their whole strength; which sentence Gow endured with a great deal of boldness.' The next moruing, (27th May, 1725,) when he had seen the preparations for pressing him to death, his courage gave way, and he told the Marshal of Court, that he would not have given so much trouble had he been assured of not being hanged in chains. He was then tried, con

demned, and executed, with others of his crew." Vol. I. pp. i—iv.

No reader, however young or inexperienced, is likely to be injured by such a description. The only sympathy we feel for the lawless plunderer is that which arises from the cruelty of his judges. Abating this, all our feelings in perusing the narrative are on the side of moral and poetical justice. But let the reader compare this with the description of the bold, enterprising, generous Cleveland, in the novel; the young and handsome adventurer, whose humanity is the only blot on his piratical escutcheon; and he will instantly be sensible that what is perfectly safe, and may even have a moral tendency, when related as history, is very capable of being rendered pernicious when exhibited in the false colouring of fictitious narrative. A painter of imaginary scenes is bound in duty to endeavour to make his reader love, as well as coldly approve, whatever is truly good; and to hate, as well as feebly censure, whatever is of a contrary character. But is this done in the majority of novels? Is it always done even in the comparatively guarded pages of the author of Waverley? Far from it. What is Cleveland? A gentleman pirate, capable by his person and address, and still more by his manly qualities, his generosity, his devotedness to his unhappy crew, and his sentimentalism of character, of attracting, and, as is too much insinuated, of deserving, the regard of the heroine of the tale. Instead of being conducted to a gibbet, he is suffered honourably to enter the service of his country, and to die "in the field of glory.”

And what shall we say of the character of the heroine, Minna Troil, herself? High-spirited, imaginative, and approaching the sublime in her mysterious developments, she yet attaches herself to a pirate,under the idea that a pirate resembled one of those lawless, but

tonous, overbearing, low-lived, swearing, and passionate fellow, who kept his dependents in good humour by a vicious prodigality, and whose character was only relieved by a sort of jovial good nature, and a tender attachment to his daughters. From such a delineation, no moral injury could have resulted. But the skill of the novelist has so dressed up this mere ale-house pot-companion that the reader is taught almost to respect him, and very sincerely to shake him by the hand, as one of the best, most generous, most hospitable, most frank, most hearty fellows in the world.

of course-or the moral would not be complete-brave and generous spirits who reigned in a former age by terror and devastation over the Northern seas and islands. The whole delineation of her character is dangerous and delusive to a young and romantic mind; and we believe that many a visionary heroine would infinitely prefer becoming a Minna Troil in "The Pirate," to imitating the modest, sensible, tender, persevering, and Christian-but, alas! homely-Jeannie Deans in "The Heart of Mid-Lothian." Will it be credited that this same Minna, who is made to engross the chief sympathy of the story-far more so than her artless and lovely sister Brenda-should have reason to suppose that a man is being murdered under her window; that that man is no other than Mordaunt Mertoun, the playmate of her infancy, the companion of her youth, the attached friend of her sister; that his murderer is a bold, quarrelsome, overbearing stranger, an acknowledged freebooter-and yet that she forbears to alarm the family, to call for assistance to rescue the victim, and to pursue the supposed murderer, because, forsooth, "what a tale had she to tell! and of whom was that tale to be told!" Thus, like a truly faithful heroine of a novel, with whom blind passion is to swallow up every principle of duty and common humanity, she seals her lips in secrecy; her attachment to Cleveland is not at all abated; and though to be sure there is occasionally a half-moral reflection, and though she makes up her mind, under all the conflicting circumstances of the case, to discard the Pirate as a lover and a husband, yet the whole interest of the piece is so contrived as to be almost constantly in opposition to the impartial dictates of a virtuous judging a man who in his own way pro

ment.

The character of the Udaller himself is open to somewhat similar exceptions. History would have described him as a drunken, glut

The character of Bryce Snailsfoot, the Jagger, is still more exceptionable. He is represented as a base, sneaking, pilfering, lying, and cheating rascal, whose only claim not to be detested is, that he is only worthy of being despised. Yet this wretch is, forsooth, a canting hypocrite, and talks of religion! The better characters of the tale make little or no pretensions to Christianity; unless perhaps Minna and Brenda saying their prayers be an exception: as for Mordaunt Mertoun he seems scarcely to have ever heard of a God. But the weak, or selfish, or ridiculous characters, such as Triptolemus and sister Baby, have religious phrases always on their lips, and profess to consult the dictates of conscience in their most uuhallowed actions. The climax, however, is to frame such a character as Bryce Snailsfoot, or, as the author is pleased to call him, "the devout Bryce Snailsfoot;" but whose devotion" is generally so contrived as to break out just when, for the honour of religion, it could best be spared. He lived by plundering wrecks, "for which," says the author," be

fessed great devotion, he seldom failed to express his grateful thanks to Heaven." So again, when Mordaunt Mertoun, indignant at the Jagger's inhumanity in deliberately

plundering, instead of assisting, clergy; and that not only in those

an unfortunate fellow-creature who had been washed on shore from the wreck, and was apparently dying, uttered some vehement injunctions to him to forbear, the author puts into Bryce's mouth the following reply: "Dinna swear, sir; dinna swear, sir;-I will endure no swearing in my presence; and if you lay a finger on me that am taking the lawful spoil of the Egyptians, I will give ye a lesson ye shall remember from this day to Yule." The moral effect of the tale required that Bryce should have been the swearer, and Mordaunt the reprover; and in a "Cheap Repository Tract" it would have been so contrived. The Waverley Novels abound in characters thus excep. tionably delineated; a fault for which there is no excuse, even of a literary kind, as the author had all the regions of nature, and possibility, and romance, to cull from, and was both able, as well as in duty bound, to make such a selection of materials as should not injure but promote the cause of religion and Christian virtue.

We must pass over minor moral faults in the delineation of character, otherwise we should feel it necessary to object to several of the sketches in the present tale. As one instance among many-we select one of the less flagrant sort is it expedient to represent law, and order, and magistracy, in the ridiculous light in which they appear in the Pirate, particularly in the characters of the magistrates of Kirkwall? No person certainly will suspect" the author of Waverley" of wishing to subvert principles of loyalty and respect for lawful authority in his countrymen; but many of his delineations of character are eminently calculated for such an effect. The revered authoress of the admirable Tracts just mentioned seems to have felt how much injury had been done by a similar style of painting in the bulk of tales and novels, as regards the

publications in which they are exhibited as mere drones and hirelings, fat, sleek, self-important, and bigotted, with as much knavery and Jesuitism in their composition as is consistent with a quantum sufficit of mental imbecility,-but even in others where they are represented as generally benevolent and respectable, as in the case of the Vicar of Wakefield, yet with such a tincture of whim, or vanity, or weakness, as materially to derogate from the weight of their characters. Mrs. More has accordingly introduced in most of her tales an interesting pattern of a re. spectable and pious English clergyman; and has taken special care, in delineating the characters of these and all other useful orders of men, not to dash the composition in such a manner as to render its moral impression injurious to the best interests of society.

We are not however, upon the whole, so much inclined to augur evil effects from rendering good men weak, as from rendering bad ones agreeable. The consequence, in either case, is doubtless injurious so far as it extends; but it is more circumscribed in the former than the latter instance. Fewer persons would be perverted by the character of Bryce Snailsfoot than by that of Cleveland. In both indeed the tendency of the ideal portrait is injurious; in the one, because we are taught to blend religious sentiments with base and odious conduct; and in the other, because vice and irreligion are combined with qualities which are too apt to ensnare a thoughtless mind, and win upon an unguarded heart. Such a compound character as Richardson's Lovelace has perhaps assisted to make many profligates; but we do not suspect that it ever reclaimed one. Dr. Johnson justly remarks on this very point; " Vice should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety or the dignity of courage be so united with it as to

reconcile it to the mind. Whereever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems; for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will seldom be heartily abhorred." By this test we are willing that the character of Cleveland should be tried; and we are convinced that the result will be, that such delineations are deeply injurious to the cause of good morals, and calculated to pervert the heart. And if such writers as the respectable author of Waverley thus incautiously combine good and evil in their characters, what may we not expect from less scrupulous narrators of fabulous adventures ?

As Christians, we might proceed much farther on this point; for it is remarkable how little the portraits even of the most virtuous novel-writers resemble those which are made up of Christian graces. Frequently, where no wrong impression is intended to be conveyed, much mischief insinuates itself from the incidental touches which characterize the various personages of the scene. Rank, figure, beauty, external accomplishments, and other adventitious circumstances, are interwoven with characters in such a manner as to make an inseparable part of the portrait. A really good man-a irue Christian-a man who should live above the world, and as not of the world, crucifying the flesh with its affections and lusts-would be generally represented in a novel, if represented at all, as a poor tame creature, devoid of taste, and incapable of gratification. Thus, in a variety of instances it might be shewn, without selecting gross cases, that the ordinary delineations of novels are detrimental to those habits and principles which as Christians it is our duty, and we may add our privilege, to maintain.

[ocr errors]

But we pass on to another exceptionable feature in most professed novels; namely, that they

generally tend to weaken our reverence for religion.- We have already seen one principal way in which they may do this; namely, by injurious delineations of character. There are, however, other modes of effecting the same object; and into some of which the author of Waverley, however unsuspectedly, has been betrayed; and betrayed to such an extent, as cannot but prove highly prejudicial to many of his readers. We allude particularly to the irreverent manner in which he introduces the words and sentiments of holy Scripture in his tales; a fault (we use the lightest word our vocabulary suggests) on which so much has been said, both in our own pages and elsewhere, that we shall not dwell upon it at present as its gratuitous enormity deserves.

And while the generality of novels thus tend, directly or incidentally, to weaken the reverence due to religion, they often further cause injury by the encouragement they afford to the violation of God's commandments.-The light way in which they frequently speak of sinful dispositions and actions, is in itself a tacit encouragement to them. It is not necessary to ask whether duelling, and suicide, and adultery, are offences against the Divine law? Yet even these are too often upheld, or at least palliated, rather than frowned upon, in the class of writings under consideration; and where this is not the case, other less glaring, but still unchristian, propensities, are suffered to pass into the rank of virtues. The hero of a novel is not thought the worse of, but often the contrary, for being proud and ambitious; and should a considerable infusion of resentment or revenge mix itself with his character, it is so shaded off by a constellation of relieving virtues, that we are taught to resolve his " failing" into an exuberance of the generous passions. Even the novels of the present author are obnoxious to

« PreviousContinue »