Page images
PDF
EPUB

SEVENTE SERIES

VOLUME LI.

No. 3482 April 1, 1911

FROM BEGINNING,
VOL. COLXIX.

55

.

ས སོ ས

.

[blocks in formation]

DEMOCRACY IN ENGLISH FICTION. *

However we may despise fiction, there is no doubt that it often unconsciously fulfils purposes which no other form of writing, except perhaps diaries and familiar letters, can pretend to fulil. It gives us the atmosphere of an age or a generation, and it clothes the dry bones of history with flesh and blood. We shall find, as might be expected, that just in proportion as the lower classes—we use the term in no invidious sense rise in importance, so do works of fiction concern themselves with their doings. In the days of Homer, while the adventures and exploits of kings and chiefs were chronicled with abundance of loving and admiring detail, the common herd were almost passed over in silence." So tales of chivalry, the delight of the Middle Ages, dealt mainly with the doIngs of noble knights and beautiful ladies. Chaucer and Piers Plowman reflect in their poems the change that was coming over English thought and life.

The characters, largely drawn from the middle classes, who appear in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, herald a new era in English literature. But in the Tales themselves the serious element is chiefly supplied by the "privileged classes,” while the lower orders are mainly employed to give comic relief. The old ballad of Chevy Chase puts into the mouth of perhaps Its bravest warrior the characteristic words: You be two earls, quoth Witherington, And I a squire alone. Even Shakespeare does not, as a rule, concern himself much with the doings of the baser sort. He has a great con

• “The Vicar of Wakefield.” By Oliver Goldsmith. (London. 1766.)

"Bleak House." By Charles Dickens. (London. 1853.)

"The Old Wives' Tales." by Arnold Bensett. (London: Chapman and Hall. 1908.) "Thompson's Progress." By Cutcliffe

tempt for the masses, as we may see in the opening scene of Juliras Cæsar, and, like Chaucer, he generally utilizes them to supply the comic element in his plays.

But there is at least one notable exception. The finest scene in Henry V is without doubt the one where the king, unrecognized in the early morning twilight before the battle of Agincourt, takes part in the dialogue between “Bates, Court and Williams," three English soldiers, on the probable fortunes of the day. Here Shakespeare shows a genuine sympathy with the point of view of the common soldier, and the reality which this gives to the situation adds to the impressiveness of the magnificent soliloquy which follows:

Upon the king! This, however, is almost a solitary instance, for the beautiful figure of "Adam" in As You Like It-a part which tradition tells us, and which we love to believe, was once performed by the poet himself—shows us one whose chief characteristic is that of fidelity to his superiors. It is in this character, and not merely on his own account, that he interests us.

Long indeed after Shakespeare's time the main interest of English fiction, as well as of the drama, continued to lie with the upper classes. “Every reader" (says Goldsmith in the Vicar of Wakefield), “however beggarly himself, is fond of high-lived dialogues, with anecdotes of Lords, Ladies and K ghts of the Garter.” This delightful romance loses, nevertheless, none of its charm from the circumstance that it deals with the fortunes of simHyne. (London: T. Nelson and Sons. 1910.) And other Works,

1 The delightful episodes of Eumæus and Euryclea, both in the Odyssey, might be quoted as exceptions; but the poet's main interest is in their relations with Odysseus.

[ocr errors]

spy?

ple and humble folk; and Fielding's Year after year, with savings long laid novels also show that the public taste

by, was shifting, and that "low life" had They bought the future dwelling's full

supply; begun to have an interest of its own.

Her frugal fancy cull'd the smaller "Except what Dr. Burdock does" (says

ware, Lady Blarney in the Vicar of Wakefield)

The weightier purchase asked her: "and our dear countess at Hanover

Reuben's care! Square there's nothing comes out but Together then their last year's gain, the most lowest stuff in nature, not a they threw, bit of high life among them.” This

And lo! an auction'd bed with curtains

neat and new! was written about 1765. Fielding had died in 1749, but his popularity was What if, when· Rachel gave her hand, very high when Goldsmith wrote, and

'twas one the art of Hogarth, though chiefly con- Embrowned by winter's ice and sumcerned with the vices and follies of the mer's sun? rich, was as broad in its sympathies What if in Reuben's hair the female, as it doubtless was in its humor. It

eye was long, however, before literature

Usurping gray among the black could seriously occupied itself with the for

What if, in both, life's bloomy flush tunes of the very poor. Some of the

was lost, most exquisite lines of Gray's Elegy

And their full autumn felt the mellowshow a fine and real sympathy with ing frost? the "rude forefathers of the hamlet,” Yet Time, who blowed the rose of though we may venture to doubt if

youth away, the shy sensitive inmate of Peterhouse

Had left the vigorous stem without would have had very much to say to

decay.” one of the rustics of Stoke Pogis if If Crabbe was one of the most prohe lad found himself in his company. saic of poets, there is no doubt that Shenstone's delightful Schoolmistress his great admirer Walter Scott was one and Goldsmith's Deserted Village some- of the most poetical of prose writers; what idealize the rustic life. Per- and it is remarkable that a man of his haps the first writer who ventured to aristocratic tastes and old world propaint the English poor as they really clivities should have been inimitable are was Crabbe. Such lines as the in his representation of humble and following make one wonder that he middle-class life. He is far more and Robert Burns could have existed "convincing" in his portraits of David in the same century and in the same and Jeanie Deans than he is—to our kingdom:

mind at least-in the somewhat con

ventional figures of his tales of chiv, Reuben and Rachel, though as fond as

alry who, while placed in the twelfth doves,

century, converse in quasi-Elizabethan Were yet discreet and cautious in their English. We have only to mention his loves;

great novels—the Antiquary, Guy ManNor would attend to Cupid's wild com

nering, the Bride of Lammermoor, etc., mands

to remind ourselves of scenes in which Till cool reflection made them join

he shows a sympathy, quite unpatrontheir hands. When both were poor, they thought it

izing, with the peasant, the fisherman, argued ill

the gipsy, the beggar, the Liddesdale Of hasty love to make them poorer yeoman and the Highlander. One feels still;

2 "Parish Register."

that he has lived with the people, eaten the hands of the "privileged" or "eduand drunk and talked with them, and cated" classes. Men and women write all this without the slightest sacrifice about the poor, but they are not really of delicacy or refinement.

of them. We cannot, especially with Mr. With the advent of Dickens the new Barnes' delightful Dorset poems in our school of modern fiction may be said to mind, exactly say of the English peas- begin. Dickens was a man of the peoantry, "carent vate sacro."

But we

ple, and wrote for the people. Born fear it must be owned that they are and reared in poverty, scrappily and less susceptible of poetical handling imperfectly educated (though it is exthan their northern neighbors. The traordinary how his brilliant ability English peasant of the Midlands and turned to account the few opportunities the South finds scarcely a place in the he had), trained in the hard school of pages of Jane Austen. We feel little adversity, and in very many departdoubt that one of so kindly a nature, ments of that school, he had seen more especially in her character of clergy- of life before he was thirty than many man's daughter, was "good to the men do in double or treble the time. poor." But hardly ever in her pages On the publication of Pickwick he may is a poor man or woman sympathet- be said to have "awakened and found ically painted. The north of England himself famous." In every circle of fared better. Much of Wordsworth's society his books were read, discussed, genius was devoted to the presentation laughed over, cried over, wondered at, of the poetical side of humble life, and and doubtless criticized. We can of those emotions which are shared by hardly doubt that some great social re"the general heart of men,” as illus- forms were indirectly promoted by trated in the lives of Cumbrian shep- them. "Mr. Pecksniff," "Mrs. Gamp," herds and other simple folk. Mrs. and “Dotheboys Hall” have become Gaskell's Mary Barton, with its vivid part of the English language. People photographs of Manchester workmen protested at the “vulgarity" of Dickand workwomen, may be said to have ens, but they bought and read. They been an "epoch-making" book. And might have said with truth that it was the greatest of English women writers, not the vulgarity as such which atGeorge Eliot, chose for the hero of her tracted them, but the exuberant, bubmost perfect work (the exquisite tale bling humor which played around it, of Silas Marner) a Derbyshire weaver; and the wholesome, kindly and, at botwhile in her other great novels, the tom, religious nature of the writer. No novels in which she is most truly her- one could ever say that Dickens had a self, we find a gallery-second only to coarse mind. Even when describing Scott's, and drawn as it would seem the foulest and most loathsome situafrom Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Notts, tions, we never feel that he is foul or and Warwickshire of men and women loathsome. His sympathies are always of nearly every class, whose enthusi- on the right side. Like Dante's Verasm has been aroused by the great gil, he takes us down to some hideous Wesleyan and Evangelical movement- circles of the Inferno, but he is himself that one redeeming feature, apart from unstained by their impurities. There the great European struggle, in the is something Hogarthian in the touches trass dullness of eighteenth century of human tenderness with which he relife.

lieves some of his darkest pictures So far, however, be the theme what such as the faithful dog-like devotion it may be, we find the pen always in of the woman to Bill Sikes, despite all

« PreviousContinue »