Chapter XI. Period IX. The Victorian Period. About 1830 To 1901 (Page 4)
'Tristram of Lyonesse.' His chief importance, however, is as a lyric poet, and his lyric production was large. His earlier poems in this category are for the most part highly objectionable in substance or sentiment, but he gradually worked into a better vein. He was a friend of George Meredith, Burne-Jones, Morris, Rossetti (to whom he loyally devoted himself for years), and the painter Whistler. He died in 1909.
Swinburne carried his radicalism into all lines. Though an ardently patriotic Englishman, he was an extreme republican; and many of his poems are dedicated to the cause of Italian independence or to liberty in general. The significance of his thought, however, is less than that of any other English poet who can in any sense be called great; his poetry is notable chiefly for its artistry, especially for its magnificent melody. Indeed, it has been cleverly said that he offers us an elaborate service of gold and silver, but with little on it except salt and pepper. In his case, however, the mere external beauty and power often seem their own complete and satisfying justification. His command of different meters is marvelous; he uses twice as many as Browning, who is perhaps second to him in this respect, and his most characteristic ones are those of gloriously rapid anapestic lines with complicated rime-schemes. Others of his distinctive traits are lavish alliteration, rich sensuousness, grandiose vagueness of thought and expression, a great sweep of imagination, and a corresponding love of vastness and desolation. He makes much decorative use of Biblical imagery and of vague abstract personifications--in general creates an atmosphere similar to that of Rossetti. Somewhat as in the case of Morris, his fluency is almost fatal--he sometimes pours out his melodious but vague emotion in forgetfulness of all proportion and restraint. From the intellectual and spiritual point of view he is nearly negligible, but as a musician in words he has no superior, not even Shelley.
OTHER VICTORIA POETS. Among the other Victorian poets, three, at least, must be mentioned. Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), tutor at Oxford and later examiner in the government education office, expresses the spiritual doubt and struggle of the period in noble poems similar to those of Matthew Arnold, whose fine elegy 'Thyrsis' commemorates him. Edward Fitzgerald
(1809-1883), Irish by birth, an eccentric though kind-hearted recluse, and a friend of Tennyson, is known solely for his masterly paraphrase (1859) of some of the Quatrains of the skeptical eleventh-century Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam. The similarity of temper between the medieval oriental scholar and the questioning phase of the Victorian period is striking (though the spirit of Fitzgerald's verse is no doubt as much his own as Omar's), and no poetry is more poignantly beautiful than the best of this. Christina Rossetti (1830-94), the sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, lived in London with her mother in the greatest seclusion, occupied with an ascetic devotion to the English Church, with her poetry, and with the composition, secondarily, of prose articles and short stories. Her poetry is limited almost entirely to the lyrical expression of her spiritual experiences, much of it is explicitly religious, and all of it is religious in feeling. It is tinged with the Pre-Raphaelite mystic medievalism; and a quiet and most affecting sadness is its dominant trait; but the power and beauty of a certain small part of it perhaps entitle her to be called the chief of English poetesses.
THE NOVEL. THE EARLIER SECONDARY NOVELISTS. To Scott's position of unquestioned supremacy among romancers and novelists Charles Dickens succeeded almost immediately on Scott's death, but certain secondary early Victorian novelists may be considered before him. In the lives of two of these, Bulwer-Lytton and Benjamin Disraeli, there are interesting parallels. Both were prominent in politics, both began writing as young men before the commencement of the Victorian period, and both ended their literary work only fifty years later. Edward Bulwer, later created Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and finally raised to the peerage as Lord Lytton
(1803-1873), was almost incredibly fluent and versatile. Much of his life a member of Parliament and for a while of the government, he was a vigorous pamphleteer. His sixty or more really literary works are of great variety; perhaps the best known of them are his second novel, the trifling 'Pelham'
(1828), which inaugurated a class of so-called 'dandy' novels, giving sympathetic presentation to the more frivolous social life of the 'upper' class, and the historical romances 'The Last Days of Pompeii' (1834) and
'Harold' (1843). In spite of his real ability, Bulwer was a poser and sentimentalist, characteristics for which he was vigorously ridiculed by Thackeray. Benjamin Disraeli, [Footnote: The second syllable is pronounced like the word 'rail' and has the accent, so that the whole name is Disraily.] later Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), a much less prolific writer, was by birth a Jew. His immature earliest novel, 'Vivian Grey'
(1826), deals, somewhat more sensibly, with the same social class as Bulwer's 'Pelham.' In his novels of this period, as in his dress and manner, he deliberately attitudinized, a fact which in part reflected a certain shallowness of character, in part was a device to attract attention for the sake of his political ambition. After winning his way into Parliament he wrote in 1844-7 three political novels,' Coningsby,' 'Sybil,' and 'Tancred,' which set forth his Tory creed of opposition to the dominance of middle-class Liberalism. For twenty-five years after this he was absorbed in the leadership of his party, and he at last became Prime Minister. In later life he so far returned to literature as to write two additional novels.
Vastly different was the life and work of Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855). Miss Bronte, a product and embodiment of the strictest religious sense of duty, somewhat tempered by the liberalizing tendency of the time, was the daughter of the rector of a small and bleak Yorkshire village, Haworth, where she was brought up in poverty. The two of her sisters who reached maturity, Emily and Anne, both still more short-lived than she, also wrote novels, and Emily produced some lyrics which strikingly express the stern, defiant will that characterized all the children of the family. Their lives were pitifully bare, hard, and morbid, scarcely varied or enlivened except by a year which Charlotte and Emily spent when Charlotte was twenty-six in a private school in Brussels, followed on Charlotte's part by a return to the same school for a year as teacher. In 1847 Charlotte's novel 'Jane Eyre' (pronounced like the word 'air') won a great success. Her three later novels are less significant. In 1854 she was married to one of her father's curates, a Mr. Nicholls, a sincere but narrow-minded man. She was happy in the marriage, but died within a few months, worn out by the unremitting physical and moral strain of forty years.
The significance of 'Jane Eyre' can be suggested by calling it the last striking expression of extravagant Romanticism, partly Byronic, but grafted on the stern Bronte moral sense. One of its two main theses is the assertion of the supreme authority of religious duty, but it vehemently insists also on the right of the individual conscience to judge of duty for itself, in spite of conventional opinion, and, difficult as this may be to understand to-day, it was denounced at the time as irreligious. The Romanticism appears further in the volcanic but sometimes melodramatic power of the love story, where the heroine is a somewhat idealized double of the authoress and where the imperfect portrayal of the hero reflects the limitations of Miss Bronte's own experience.
Miss Bronte is the subject of one of the most delightfully sympathetic of all biographies, written by Mrs. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell. Mrs. Gaskell was authoress also of many stories, long and short, of which the best known is 'Cranford' (1853), a charming portrayal of the quaint life of a secluded village.
CHARLES DICKENS. [Footnote: The life of Dickens by his friend John Forster is another of the most famous English biographies.] The most popular of all English novelists, Charles Dickens, was born in 1812, the son of an unpractical and improvident government navy clerk whom, with questionable taste, he later caricatured in 'David Copperfield' as Mr. Micawber. The future novelist's schooling was slight and irregular, but as a boy he read much fiction, especially seventeenth and eighteenth century authors, whose influence is apparent in the picaresque lack of structure of his own works. From childhood also he showed the passion for the drama and the theater which resulted from the excitably dramatic quality of his own temperament and which always continued to be the second moving force of his life. When he was ten years old his father was imprisoned for debt (like Micawber, in the Marshalsea prison), and he was put to work in the cellar of a London shoe-blacking factory. On his proud and sensitive disposition this humiliation, though it lasted only a few months, inflicted a wound which never thoroughly healed; years after he was famous he would cross the street to avoid the smell from an altogether different blacking factory, with its reminder 'of what he once was.' To this experience, also, may evidently be traced no small part of the intense sympathy with the oppressed poor, especially with helpless children, which is so prominent in his novels. Obliged from the age of fifteen to earn his own living, for the most part, he was for a while a clerk in a London lawyer's office, where he observed all sorts and conditions of people with characteristic keenness. Still more valuable was his five or six years' experience in the very congenial and very active work of a newspaper reporter, where his special department was political affairs. This led up naturally to his permanent work. The successful series of lively 'Sketches by Boz' dealing with people and scenes about London was preliminary to 'The Pickwick Papers,' which made the author famous at the age of twenty-four.
During the remaining thirty-three years of his life Dickens produced novels at the rate of rather more than one in two years. He composed slowly and carefully but did not revise greatly, and generally published by monthly installments in periodicals which, latterly, he himself established and edited. Next after 'The Pickwick Papers' came 'Oliver Twist,' and 'David Copperfield' ten years later. Of the others, 'Martin Chuzzlewit,' 'Dombey and Son,' 'Bleak House,' and 'A Tale of Two Cities,' are among the best. For some years Dickens also published an annual Christmas story, of which the first two, 'A Christmas Carol' and 'The Chimes,' rank highest.
His exuberant physical energy gave to his life more external variety than is common with authors. At the age of thirty he made a visit to the United States and travelled as far as to the then extreme western town of St. Louis, everywhere received and entertained with the most extravagant enthusiasm. Even before his return to England, however, he excited a reaction, by his abundantly justified but untactful condemnation of American piracy of English books; and this reaction was confirmed by his subsequent caricature of American life in 'American Notes' and 'Martin Chuzzlewit.' For a number of years during the middle part of his career Dickens devoted a vast amount of energy to managing and taking the chief part in a company of amateur actors, who performed at times in various cities. Later on he substituted for this several prolonged series of semi-dramatic public readings from his works, an effort which drew heavily on his vitality and shortened his life, but which intoxicated him with its enormous success. One of these series was delivered in America, where, of course, the former ill-feeling had long before worn away.
Dickens lived during the greater part of his life in London, but in his later years near Rochester, at Gadshill, the scene of Falstaff's exploit. He made long sojourns also on the Continent. Much social and outdoor life was necessary to him; he had a theory that he ought to spend as much time out of doors as in the house. He married early and had a large family of children, but pathetically enough for one whose emotions centered so largely about the home, his own marriage was not well-judged; and after more than twenty years he and his wife (the Dora Spenlow of 'David Copperfield') separated, though with mutual respect. He died in 1870 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in the rather ostentatiously unpretentious way which, with his deep-seated dislike for aristocratic conventions, he had carefully prescribed in his will.
Dickens' popularity, in his own day and since, is due chiefly: (1) to his intense human sympathy; (2) to his unsurpassed emotional and dramatic power; and (3) to his aggressive humanitarian zeal for the reform of all evils and abuses, whether they weigh upon the oppressed classes or upon helpless individuals. Himself sprung from the lower middle class, and thoroughly acquainted with the life of the poor and apparently of sufferers in all ranks, he is one of the most moving spokesmen whom they have ever had. The pathos and tragedy of their experiences--aged and honest toilers subjected to pitiless task-masters or to the yoke of social injustice; lonely women uncomplainingly sacrificing their lives for unworthy men; sad-faced children, the victims of circumstances, of cold-blooded parents, or of the worst criminals--these things play a large part in almost all of Dickens' books. In almost all, moreover, there is present, more or less in the foreground, a definite humanitarian aim, an attack on some time-consecrated evil--the poor-house system, the cruelties practised in private schools, or the miscarriage of justice in the Court of Chancery. In dramatic vividness his great scenes are masterly, for example the storm in
'David Copperfield,' the pursuit and discovery of Lady Dedlock in 'Bleak House,' and the interview between Mrs. Dombey and James Carker in 'Dombey and Son.'
Dickens' magnificent emotional power is not balanced, however, by a corresponding intellectual quality; in his work, as in his temperament and bearing, emotion is always in danger of running to excess. One of his great elements of strength is his sense of humor, which has created an almost unlimited number of delightful scenes and characters; but it very generally becomes riotous and so ends in sheer farce and caricature, as the names of many of the characters suggest at the outset. Indeed Dickens has been rightly designated a grotesque novelist--the greatest of all grotesque novelists. Similarly his pathos is often exaggerated until it passes into mawkish sentimentality, so that his humbly-bred heroines, for example, are made to act and talk with all the poise and certainty which can really spring only from wide experience and broad education. Dickens' zeal for reform, also, sometimes outruns his judgment or knowledge and leads him to assault evils that had actually been abolished long before he wrote.
No other English author has approached Dickens in the number of characters whom he has created; his twenty novels present literally thousands of persons, almost all thoroughly human, except for the limitations that we have already noted. Their range is of course very great, though it never extends successfully into the 'upper' social classes. For Dickens was violently prejudiced against the nobility and against all persons of high social standing, and when he attempted to introduce them created only pitifully wooden automatons. For the actual English gentleman we must pass by his Sir Leicester Dedlocks and his Mr. Veneerings to novelists of a very different viewpoint, such as Thackeray and Meredith.
Dickens' inexhaustible fertility in characters and scenes is a main cause of the rather extravagant lack of unity which is another conspicuous feature of his books. He usually made a good preliminary general plan and proceeded on the whole with firm movement and strong suspense. But he always introduces many characters and sub-actions not necessary to the main story, and develops them quite beyond their real artistic importance. Not without influence here was the necessity of filling a specified number of serial instalments, each of a definite number of pages, and each requiring a striking situation at the end. Moreover, Dickens often follows the eighteenth-century picaresque habit of tracing the histories of his heroes from birth to marriage. In most respects, however, Dickens' art improved as he proceeded. The love element, it should be noted, as what we have already said implies, plays a smaller part than usual among the various aspects of life which his books present.
Not least striking among Dickens' traits is his power of description. His observation is very quick and keen, though not fine; his sense for the characteristic features, whether of scenes in Nature or of human personality and appearance, is unerring; and he has never had a superior in picturing and conveying the atmosphere both of interiors and of all kinds of scenes of human life. London, where most of his novels are wholly or chiefly located, has in him its chief and most comprehensive portrayer.
Worthy of special praise, lastly, is the moral soundness of all Dickens' work, praise which is not seriously affected by present-day sneers at his
'middle-class' and 'mid-Victorian' point of view. Dickens' books, however, like his character, are destitute of the deeper spiritual quality, of poetic and philosophic idealism. His stories are all admirable demonstrations of the power and beauty of the nobler practical virtues, of kindness, courage, humility, and all the other forms of unselfishness; but for the underlying mysteries of life and the higher meanings of art his positive and self-formed mind had very little feeling. From first to last he speaks authentically for the common heart of humanity, but he is not one of the rarer spirits, like Spenser or George Eliot or Meredith, who transport us into the realm of the less tangible realities. All his limitations, indeed, have become more conspicuous as time has passed; and critical judgment has already definitely excluded him from the select ranks of the truly greatest authors.
WILLIAM M. THACKERAY. Dickens' chief rival for fame during his later lifetime and afterward was Thackeray, who presents a strong contrast with him, both as man and as writer.
Thackeray, the son of an East India Company official, was born at Calcutta in 1811. His father died while he was a child and he was taken to England for his education; he was a student in the Charterhouse School and then for a year at Cambridge. Next, on the Continent, he studied drawing, and though his unmethodical and somewhat idle habits prevented him from ever really mastering the technique of the art, his real knack for it enabled him later on to illustrate his own books in a semi-grotesque but effective fashion. Desultory study of the law was interrupted when he came of age by the inheritance of a comfortable fortune, which he managed to lose within a year or two by gambling, speculations, and an unsuccessful effort at carrying on a newspaper. Real application to newspaper and magazine writing secured him after four years a place on 'Eraser's Magazine,' and he was married. Not long after, his wife became insane, but his warm affection for his daughters gave him throughout his life genuine domestic happiness.
For ten years Thackeray's production was mainly in the line of satirical humorous and picaresque fiction, none of it of the first rank. During this period he chiefly attacked current vices, snobbishness, and sentimentality, which latter quality, Thackeray's special aversion, he found rampant in contemporary life and literature, including the novels of Dickens. The appearance of his masterpiece, 'Vanity Fair' (the allegorical title taken from a famous incident in 'Pilgrim's Progress'), in 'Fraser's Magazine' in
1847-8 (the year before Dickens' 'David Copperfield') brought him sudden fame and made him a social lion. Within the next ten years he produced his other important novels, of which the best are 'Pendennis,' 'Henry Esmond,' and 'The Newcomes,' and also his charming essays (first delivered as lectures) on the eighteenth century in England, namely 'English Humorists,' and 'The Four Georges.' All his novels except 'Henry Esmond' were published serially, and he generally delayed composing each instalment until the latest possible moment, working reluctantly except under the stress of immediate compulsion. He was for three years, at its commencement, editor of 'The Cornhill Magazine.' He died in 1863 at the age of fifty-two, of heart failure.
The great contrast between Dickens and Thackeray results chiefly from the predominance in Thackeray of the critical intellectual quality and of the somewhat fastidious instinct of the man of society and of the world which Dickens so conspicuously lacked. As a man Thackeray was at home and at ease only among people of formal good breeding; he shrank from direct contact with the common people; in spite of his assaults on the frivolity and vice of fashionable society, he was fond of it; his spirit was very keenly analytical; and he would have been chagrined by nothing more than by seeming to allow his emotion to get the better of his judgment. His novels seem to many readers cynical, because he scrutinizes almost every character and every group with impartial vigor, dragging forth every fault and every weakness into the light. On the title page of 'Vanity Fair' he proclaims that it is a novel without a hero; and here, as in some of his lesser works, most of the characters are either altogether bad or worthless and the others very largely weak or absurd, so that the impression of human life which the reader apparently ought to carry away is that of a hopeless chaos of selfishness, hypocrisy, and futility. One word, which has often been applied to Thackeray, best expresses his attitude--disillusionment. The last sentences of 'Vanity Fair' are characteristic: 'Oh! Vanitas Vanitatum! which, of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?--Come, children, let us shut the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.'
Yet in reality Thackeray is not a cynic and the permanent impression left by his books is not pessimistic. Beneath his somewhat ostentatious manner of the man of the world were hidden a heart and a human sympathy as warm as ever belonged to any man. However he may ridicule his heroes and his heroines (and there really are a hero and heroine in 'Vanity Fair'), he really feels deeply for them, and he is repeatedly unable to refrain from the expression of his feeling. Nothing is more truly characteristic of him than the famous incident of his rushing in tears from the room in which he had been writing of the death of Colonel Newcome with the exclamation, 'I have killed the Colonel!' In his books as clearly as in those of the most explicit moralizer the reader finds the lessons that simple courage, honesty, kindliness, and unselfishness are far better than external show, and that in spite of all its brilliant interest a career of unprincipled self-seeking like that of Becky Sharp is morally squalid. Thackeray steadily refuses to falsify life as he sees it in the interest of any deliberate theory, but he is too genuine an artist not to be true to the moral principles which form so large a part of the substratum of all life.
Thackeray avowedly took Fielding as his model, and though his spirit and manner are decidedly finer than Fielding's, the general resemblance between them is often close. Fielding's influence shows partly in the humorous tone which, in one degree or another, Thackeray preserves wherever it is possible, and in the general refusal to take his art, on the surface, with entire seriousness. He insists, for instance, on his right to manage his story, and conduct the reader, as he pleases, without deferring to his readers' tastes or prejudices. Fielding's influence shows also in the free-and-easy picaresque structure of his plots; though this results also in part from his desultory method of composition. Thackeray's great fault is prolixity; he sometimes wanders on through rather uninspired page after page where the reader longs for severe compression. But when the story reaches dramatic moments there is ample compensation; no novelist has more magnificent power in dramatic scenes, such, for instance, as in the climactic series in 'Vanity Fair.' This power is based largely on an absolute knowledge of character: in spite of a delight in somewhat fanciful exaggeration of the ludicrous, Thackeray when he chooses portrays human nature with absolute finality.
'Henry Esmond' should be spoken of by itself as a special and unique achievement. It is a historical novel dealing with the early eighteenth century, and in preparing for it Thackeray read and assimilated most of the literature of the period, with the result that he succeeded in reproducing the 'Augustan' spirit and even its literary style with an approach to perfection that has never been rivaled. On other grounds as well the book ranks almost if not quite beside 'Vanity Pair.' Henry Esmond himself is Thackeray's most thoroughly wise and good character, and Beatrix is as real and complex a woman as even Becky Sharp.
GEORGE ELIOT. The perspective of time has made it clear that among the Victorian novelists, as among the poets, three definitely surpass the others. With Dickens and Thackeray is to be ranked only 'George Eliot'
(Mary Anne Evans).
George Eliot was born in 1819 in the central county of Warwick from which Shakspere had sprung two centuries and a half before. Her father, a manager of estates for various members of the landed gentry, was to a large extent the original both of her Adam Bede and of Caleb Garth in 'Middlemarch,' while her own childish life is partly reproduced in the experiences of Maggie in 'The Mill on the Floss.' Endowed with one of the strongest minds that any woman has ever possessed, from her very infancy she studied and read widely. Her nature, however, was not one-sided; all her life she was passionately fond of music; and from the death of her mother in her eighteenth year she demonstrated her practical capacity in the management of her father's household. Circumstances. combined with her unusual ability to make her entire life one of too high pressure, and her first struggle was religious. She was brought up a Methodist, and during her girlhood was fervently evangelical, in the manner of Dinah Morris in 'Adam Bede'; but moving to Coventry she fell under the influence of some rationalistic acquaintances who led her to adopt the scientific Positivism of the French philosopher Comte. Her first literary work, growing out of the same interest, was the formidable one of translating the 'Life of Jesus' of the German professor Strauss. Some years of conscientious nursing of her father, terminated by his death, were followed by one in Geneva, nominally a year of vacation, but she spent it largely in the study of experimental physics. On her return to England she became a contributor and soon assistant editor of the liberal periodical 'The Westminster Review.' This connection was most important in its personal results; it brought her into contact with a versatile man of letters, George Henry Lewes, [Footnote: Pronounced in two syllables.] and in 1854 they were united as man and wife. Mr. Lewes had been unhappily married years before to a woman who was still alive, and English law did not permit the divorce which he would have secured in America. Consequently the new union was not a legal marriage, and English public opinion was severe in its condemnation. In the actual result the sympathetic companionship of Mr. Lewes was of the greatest value to George Eliot and brought her much happiness; yet she evidently felt keenly the equivocal social position, and it was probably in large part the cause of the increasing sadness of her later years.
She was already thirty-six when in 1856 she entered on creative authorship with the three 'Scenes from Clerical Life.' The pseudonym which she adopted for these and her later stories originated in no more substantial reason than her fondness for 'Eliot' and the fact that Mr. Lewes' first name was
'George.' 'Adam Bede' in 1859 completely established her reputation, and her six or seven other books followed as rapidly as increasingly laborious workmanship permitted. 'Romola.' [Footnote: Accented on the first syllable.] in 1863, a powerful but perhaps over-substantial historical novel, was the outcome partly of residence in Florence. Not content with prose, she attempted poetry also, but she altogether lacked the poet's delicacy of both imagination and expression. The death of Mr. Lewes in 1878 was a severe blow to her, since she was always greatly dependent on personal sympathy; and after a year and a half, to the surprise of every one, she married Mr. John W. Cross, a banker much younger than herself. But her own death followed within a few months in 1880.
George Eliot's literary work combines in an interesting way the same distinct and even strangely contrasting elements as her life, and in her writings their relative proportions alter rather markedly during the course of her career. One of the most attractive qualities, especially in her earlier books, is her warm and unaffected human sympathy, which is temperamental, but greatly enlarged by her own early experience. The aspiration, pathos and tragedy of life, especially among the lower and middle classes in the country and the small towns, can scarcely be interpreted with more feeling, tenderness, or power than in her pages. But her sympathy does not blind her to the world of comedy; figures like Mrs. Poyser in 'Adam Bede' are delightful. Even from the beginning, however, the really controlling forces in George Eliot's work were intellectual and moral. She started out with the determination to render the facts of life with minute and conscientious accuracy, an accuracy more complete than that of Mrs. Gaskell, who was in large degree her model; and as a result her books, from the beginning, are masterpieces of the best sort of realism. The characters, life, and backgrounds of many of them are taken from her own Warwickshire acquaintances and country, and for the others she made the most painstaking study. More fundamental than her sympathy, indeed, perhaps even from the outset, is her instinct for scientific analysis. Like a biologist or a botanist, and with much more deliberate effort than most of her fellow-craftsmen, she traces and scrutinizes all the acts and motives of her characters until she reaches and reveals their absolute inmost truth. This objective scientific method has a tendency to become sternly judicial, and in extreme cases she even seems to be using her weak or imperfect characters as deterrent examples. Inevitably, with her disposition, the scientific tendency grew upon her. Beginning withNext