Oracular Novels

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George Eliot (not silly)

The most pitiable of all silly novels by lady novelists are what we may call the oracular species—novels intended to expound the writer’s religious, philosophical, or moral theories. There seems to be a notion abroad among women, rather akin to the superstition that the speech and actions of idiots are inspired, and that the human being most entirely exhausted of common-sense is the fittest vehicle of revelation. To judge from their writings, there are certain ladies who think that an amazing ignorance, both of science and of life, is the best possible qualification for forming an opinion on the knottiest moral and speculative questions. Apparently, their recipe for solving all such difficulties is something like this: Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English when not required.

——George Eliot, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”

Egyptian Tales

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Messrs. Methuen & Co. have published a volume of Egyptian Tales, translated from the papyri, and edited by Professor W. M. Flinders Petrie. The tales are apparently the work of several different authors, but they are all more or less readable. The author of the first four stories displays undoubted powers of invention, and he may safely be regarded as a very promising young writer. He will do well to avoid extravagance in the miracles of his magicians, for since the recent exposures of Theosophical mysteries, magic and miracles are rather at a discount. The story of the “Shipwrecked Sailor” is quite in the vein of our old friend “Sinbad,” though there is no reason to regard it as, in any way, an imitation of the latter. Perhaps the best tale in the collection is the one entitled, “The Adventures of Sanehat.” This, the editor tells us, is later than the others. Doubtless, the editor is right; and, indeed, the story reminds the reader somewhat of Mr. Rider Haggard’s ingenious African romances. Nevertheless, it is not in the least what might be called an up-to-date story. There is a curious flavour of Herodotus about all these stories. Whether this is due to a desire on the part of the writers to give to their stories the appearance of historical truth, or to the fact that they are fresh from the University, and the study of that admirable author, is not clear. Professor Petrie’s notes add much to the interest and value of the book, and one could wish that he would kindly annotate certain other stories, especially some of those which have recently been written by the Advanced Women of this country. The illustrations are also good, and the volume is, in every way, an attractive one. Professor Petrie tells us that the stories were written at different dates from the time of the Fourth Dynasty to that of the Twelfth. This, doubtless, conveys an idea to his profoundly learned mind, but it has little meaning to the general public. Doubtless, the Fourth Dynasty preceded the Hanoverian Dynasty, but more than that it will be difficult for most readers confidently to assert.

——W. L. Alden, The Idler, Vol. VII (1895).

Editorial Tortures

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James Ashcroft Noble

The journal was called The Argus; this volume contains the issues on and between October 21st, 1876, and October 13th, 1877; and on the forefront of about half of them appears the legend, “Edited by James Ashcroft Noble.” That legend is a perpetual lesson to me. Were I to hear that a literary friend had been appointed editor of a weekly journal at a salary of five thousand pounds per annum, the sight—the very thought—of those five words would suffice to kill at the birth all feelings of envy; and it is no small thing to have at hand so efficient a protection from one of the seven deadly sins. Thackeray—who only conducted a monthly magazine—spoke sadly of editorial “thorns”: he should have spoken of blisters, thumb-screws, red-hot pincers, racks, boiling oil, and nitro-glycerine bombs; and even in this multiplicity of metaphor he would have done scanty justice to the miseries of editorship.

——James Ashcroft Noble, “A Book of Beginnings,” The Idler, Vol. VII.

Fiction and Statistics

There are many people who seem to have the idea that it is impossible for a novelist to create a character. They imagine that he is as dependent on a model as is the figure painter, and that every one of his characters is a portrait, drawn with more or less accuracy, of some one whom he has known. Dickens and Thackeray are supposed by the believers in this method of novel-writing to have put all their friends, enemies, and acquaintances into their books. I knew, some years ago, a young man who had persuaded himself that he was the original of “Steenforth,” and who came to complicated grief by striving to live up to the character. There is no doubt that in David Copperfield, which was virtually Dickens’ autobiography, Dickens did introduce his father, and several other persons whom he had known in his childhood days. It is also true that Disraeli caricatured Thackeray under the name of “St. Barbe,” but this was avowedly in retaliation for an attack upon Disraeli made by Thackeray before the latter had discovered, to poor Edmund Yates’s cost, that it was an unpardonable offence for one author to write of another’s physical peculiarities. It may, however, be safely asserted that no novelist worthy of the name copies his characters from living models. He prefers to create them, because the process is both easier and more satisfactory. The same thing may be said of statistics. I was once associated in the office of a daily newspaper with a man who frankly confessed that he always made his own statistics. He argued that statistics thus made did not lend themselves to undesirable conclusions as readily as do other statistics; and that it is an immense saving of time and labour to invent statistics rather than to search for them in encyclopaedias and other literary safedeposit storehouses. If my friend were alive to-day he would probably invent a series of statistics as to the characters of eminent novelists, which would fully prove that there are no “originals” of the men and women who people the world of romance. The theory that Defoe modelled Robinson Crusoe upon Alexander Selkirk; that Lord Steyne was a faithful study of a well-known British peer; and that Hardy works exclusively from models, is one of the most baseless delusions of the day.

——W. L. Alden, The Idler, February 1895.

South Carolina in Rebellion

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William Howard Russell, the famous English war reporter, visited Charleston at the beginning of our Civil War. His description of the feelings of South Carolina gentlemen explains the Civil War better than any dry catalogue of social forces.

Nothing I could say can be worth one fact which has forced itself upon my mind in reference to the sentiments which prevail among the gentlemen of this state. I have been among them for several days. I have visited their plantations; I have conversed with them freely and fully, and I have enjoyed that frank, courteous, and graceful intercourse which constitutes an irresistible charm of their society. From all quarters have come to my ears the echoes of the same voice; it may be feigned, but there is no discord in the note, and it sounds in wonderful strength and monotony all over the country. Shades of George III., of North, of Johnson, of all who contended against the great rebellion which tore these colonies from England, can you hear the chorus which rings through the state of Marion, Sumter, and Pinckney, and not clap your ghostly hands in triumph? That voice says, “If we could only get one of the royal race of England to rule over us, we should be content.” Let there be no misconception on this point. That sentiment, varied in a hundred ways, has been repeated to me over and over again. There is a general admission that the means to such an end are wanting, and that the desire cannot be gratified. But the admiration for monarchical institutions on the English model, for privileged classes, and for a landed aristocracy and gentry, is undisguised and apparently genuine. With the pride of having achieved their independence is mingled in the South Carolinians’ hearts a strange regret at the result and consequences, and many are they who “would go back to-morrow if we could.” An intense affection for the British connection, a love of British habits and customs, a respect for British sentiment, law, authority, order, civilization, and literature, pre-eminently distinguish the inhabitants of this state, who, glorying in their descent from ancient families on the three islands, whose fortunes they still follow, and with whose members they maintain not unfrequently familiar relations, regard with an aversion of which it is impossible to give an idea to one who has not seen its manifestations, the people of New England and the populations of the Northern States, whom they regard as tainted beyond cure by the venom of “Puritanism.” Whatever may be the cause, this is the fact and the effect. “The state of South Carolina was,” I am told, “founded by gentlemen.” It was not established by witch-burning Puritans, by cruel persecuting fanatics, who implanted in the North the standard of Torquemada, and breathed into the nostrils of their newly-born colonies all the ferocity, bloodthirstiness, and rabid intolerance of the Inquisition. It is absolutely astounding to a stranger who aims at the preservation of a decent neutrality to mark the violence of these opinions. “If that confounded ship had sunk with those —— Pilgrim Fathers on board,” says one, “we never should have been driven to these extremities!” “We could have got on with the fanatics if they had been either Christians or gentlemen,” says another; “for in the first case they would have acted with common charity, and in the second they would have fought when they insulted us; but there are neither Christians nor gentlemen among them!” “Any thing on the earth!” exclaims a third, “any form of government, any tyranny or despotism you will; but”—and here is an appeal more terrible than the adjuration of all the gods—“nothing on earth shall ever induce us to submit to any union with the brutal, bigoted blackguards of the New England States, who neither comprehend nor regard the feelings of gentlemen! Man, woman, and child, we’ll die first.” Imagine these and an infinite variety of similar sentiments uttered by courtly, well-educated men, who set great store on a nice observance of the usages of society, and who are only moved to extreme bitterness and anger when they speak of the North, and you will fail to conceive the intensity of the dislike of the South Carolinians for the free states. There are national antipathies on our side of the Atlantic which are tolerably strong, and have been unfortunately pertinacious and long-lived. The hatred of the Italian for the Tedesco, of the Greek for the Turk, of the Turk for the Russ, is warm and fierce enough to satisfy the Prince of Darkness, not to speak of a few little pet aversions among allied powers and the atoms of composite empires; but they are all mere indifference and neutrality of feeling compared to the animosity evinced the “gentry” of South Carolina for the “rabble of the North.”

——William Howard Russell, Pictures of Southern Life.