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SCOTT'S FEMALE CHARACTERS.
BY DR. ALFRED J. H. CRESPI.
THE deep-rooted and pardonable prejudice, which the licentious novels of the last, and of the preceding, century excited against works of fiction, is rapidly dying away. If it lingers at all, it is confined to narrow-minded circles, into which broader and moreenlightened views have not succeeding in penetrating.
To the narrative form of literature, as such, no reasonable objection can possibly be made. Nor is fiction itself necessarily objectionable. The accurate and learned historian is most readable and instructive, when he thoroughly throws himself into the spirit of his subject, and describes, pleasantly and vividly, the actions of the real persons the story of whose eventful lives he is narrating. He is most successful, when he enables his reader to discover for himself, from the actions and events he is describing, the motives and circumstances which led to these events. The historical novelist, on his side, is most deserving of praise, when he contrives to give life and substance to the shadowy persons and deeds which uncertain tradition has handed down, and compels the reader to sympathise with, and for his heroes and heroines.
A well-written and successful history, ostensibly confining itself to what has actually taken place, must, therefore, produce on the mind of the reader much the same effect as that at which the novelist aims. There are, however, certain marked differences between these two forms of literature. The graphic and learned historian is closely bound down by facts, which he dares not alter; he is not permitted to give his imagination any latitude, nor to introduce into his narrative purely fictitious personages, though by so doing he might greatly enhance the interest of his work. The novelist, on the other hand, has much more freedom, though after all, not as much as he is commonly credited with having, for he too must, above all things, make his characters act consistently and naturally. To reproduce nature faithfully is the greatest triumph of art; the endeavour to do so must keep the literary artist, whether historian or novelist, within the bounds of reason and propriety.
A novel may be defined to be the history of persons, generally fictitious, but whether real or fictitious so pourtrayed as to be true to the weaknesses and peculiarities of human character. A history on the other hand, is, or professes to be, an unvarnished account of
the lives of real persons and of the events in which they actually took part. Occasionally the novelist takes for his heroes and heroines real persons and adheres closely to the story of their lives as related in authentic histories; but if he purposely departs from the known sequence of events, if he introduces fictitious characters, if he relates conversations, which probably took place, but which he cannot prove did actually take place, his work is only classed among novels, though it may give a better description of the past than half the so-called histories in existence.
Shakespeare's historical plays are brilliant pictures of the life and manners of the past, and some of the scenes he has reproduced are more exact representations of what occurred than the accounts given of them by Hume and some other historians. Still it is not felt that Richard III. and Henry V. ought to be classed among histories, properly so called.
The historian, the novelist, the dramatist, the traveller one and all have the same great object to accomplish, though each adopts a different method. They have, one and all, to describe to the reader either what has taken place, or what he may suppose has occurred, in fact, though each adopts a peculiar method, the description of men, manners, customs, events, and places is the object they all keep before them, and which they try to accomplish. The more skilfully the narrator throws himself into his subject, the more vividly he describes, the more clearly he seems to see, what he is committing to paper, the greater his triumph, the more useful his labours, the more lasting his influence for good or evil.
How especially true is this of the traveller! He must throw himself into his work, heart and soul. He must describe, as if he understood, everything he saw. Nay, more, he must compel his readers to see those scenes and places which he is describing.
All novels of necessity deal with the lives and histories of persons; the principal difference between the historical novel and the ordinary work of fiction is that though the former introduces real men and women, who have actually lived and died, fictitious personages and conversations are also made use of to heighten the interest of the narrative: the latter, that is to say novels not commonly classed as historical, concerns itself with persons not historically famous, and who, generally speaking, are the creations of the writer's imagination from first to last, but who are intended to represent the manners and customs of the age, and usually of the country to which the writer and the reader belong. Practically, therefore, well-written novels, whether treating of the past or the present, have much in common with, and are not necessarily less useful in their place, than histories. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say, that much of what has until recently, been
palmed off as sober history, has been less trustworthy and not more valuable than some of Sir Walter Scott's finest novels.
Any writer who attempts to describe the manners and customs of men, or to delineate the peculiarities of foreign nations, must have his heart overflowing with love for his fellow-creatures; must, in fact, be full of sympathy for all that belongs to man. Unless he has this generous love, this far-reaching sympathy, he may produce an able and valuable work-he may bring commanding abilities and great learning to his labour,-but he fails to touch the heart of his readers; he does not cause a chord to vibrate that places them and him in unison. It was this kindness of disposition, this wonderful sympathy with and for all men, women, and children, for their woes and joys, which made Charles Dickens the most popular novelist of his day.
Little more than a century ago, it was generally thought that the power of the novel was limited, and that it always must remain Critics fancied-they could hardly have thought seriously about the matter-that a novel might be readable and instructive, but that it could be nothing more. How it came about that they failed to perceive that any book which was unusually interesting and attractive must command many readers, and must, consequently, be capable of exercising a powerful and lasting influence over the minds of many of those who read it, is inconceivable. That the novel could ever become a favourite form of literature; that it would come to be read by all classes ard occupy the pen of some of the ablest men in every age and country,-seemed to them impossible.
Two great novels had already been produced, the history of which ought to have taught the critics wisdom. The one, Don Quixote, had, in some respects, revolutionised the opinions of Spain, and had stamped out the dying embers of Spanish chivalry; the other, Gil Blas, morally and intellectually far inferior to the work of Cervantes, had soon become an universal favourite in France, and had helped to strengthen the affectation and heartlessness of its people. Dean Swift had also published his marvellously powerful, though unpleasantly coarse, satires in the form of novels, and still the critics remained sceptical.
It was not until long after Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett had tried their hands at writing novels, and had commanded the attention of hundreds of thousands of eager and interested readers, not until after Johnson had produced "Rasselas," and Goldsmith given to the world his genial and touching "Vicar of Wakefield,” that the critics began to waver. It was not until Voltaire had produced Candide," Goethe "The Sorrows of Werther," and "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship," Manzoni "The Betrothed Lovers," and Scott the "Waverley Novels," that public opinion
and the reluctant critics confessed that novels must henceforth rank high, not merely as works of art, but for the enormous influence, for good or evil, they would exercise over the opinions and morals of
classes and nations. !
A novel of the highest order of merit can convey lessons as im. pressive as any which the preacher desires to inculcate. It may expand the sympathies of its readers, and raise their thoughts to a higher level. It may fill their hearts with love for the beautiful, the noble, the good. It may teach the history of past times and place before the reader vivid pictures of what has been, or it may enable him to see the temptations and sorrows which deep down in the abysses of modern society exist in so many homes. It may give new impulses to actions, new motives to life, and may place new aims before the reader. It may ennoble those who come under its powerful influence, and mould the lives and colour the thoughts of millions. Therefore it may-nay, it often is a powerful agent for good. But it may be a deadly instrument of evil, in other cases. It may narrow the sympathies, pervert the affections, fill the heart with low and sensual tastes, and degrade all those who drink in its baneful lessons. It may excite admiration for vice, and arouse disgust for virtue. It may unfit a man for the everyday duties of life, and make him repine at that which he ought calmly to bear and resist. The novel may as surely degrade as it can exalt. All depends on the tendencies of the work and the objects and principles of the writer.
Those who find that they cannot any longer deny the power of the novel are sometimes disingenuous enough to assert that the novel lives only on sufferance, and that it owes its immense power to the follies and ignorance of a frivolous and irreligious age. There is not a particle of truth in such statements.
In sober earnest, the novel is now the most powerful engine for good or evil which modern literature possesses. There is no reason why a well-written and moral novel should not have the greatest power for good. "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in this country at any rate, struck a chord which has never ceased to vibrate, and which forced the English to feel for and with the down-trodden slaves of America. No sermon, no book of travels, could have produced such an effect.
The greatest talents and the ripest scholarship have sometimes been found among novelists. The most lasting influence has been exerted by some of them. The loftiest morality aud the most unblushing profligacy have equally found advocates among them. The soundest philosophical and political views, the deadliest and most overt attacks on religion, the most generous invectives against despotism,-one and all have found in the novel a fitting dress, and
the surest means of approaching the hearts of the masses of the people.
Of course in this, as in every other branch of literature, it is only the well-written work which can exercise great power for gool or -evil. The inferior writer, whether he tries his unskilful hand at sermons or novels, poetry or philosophy, though he may blacken scores of reams of paper with ink, finds that his arrows are pointless, that his words fall dead and unheeded. There must be something of importance to impart; there must be the power to impart it. Whether the form adopted be that of the novel or the history, the poem or the sermon, unless the matter and style are good the effect will be ephemeral and trifling.
The fact must be admitted that a great novel is a wonderful work of art; that its good or bad influence is far reaching and lasting The finest novels of the past are eagerly read by all classes and continue to influence all ranks and conditions. No other writer can command such a constituency, no other teacher so many -enthusiastic disciples, as the novelist of genius. In all probability the power of the novel will for many years to come continue to augment, as the number of intelligent readers increases and the prejudice against this form of literature diminishes.
It is, however, only the well-written novel which is entitled to praise and respect. The sensational, badly-worked-out, and worthless stuff, which is poured into the circulating libraries, is perhaps eagerly read by excitable girls and thoughtless shopboys, but is speedily forgotten. A worthless book, because it is in the novel form, may chance to be read, but it does not and cannot influence the manners and opinions of the age. It may ruin the young people who read it, but will not influence the masses of the nation unless a work of real genius.
Although only one novel in twenty may rise above mediocrity, and only one in fifty may take a lasting place in literature, and not one in five hundred may continue to exert a marked influence, the number of novels written in a decade is so enormous that, admitting that the above figures represent the proportion of the works of merit, permanent and important additions are yearly made to the book; which are deserving of attentive perusal. For variety of subjects, learning, and numbers, the novel literature of this country deserves consideration.
It is not desirable to permit children, at any rate, to read novels; nor should anyone allow fiction to form the greater part of his real.ing. Those who never read works of fiction are not of necessity the best and wisest of men and woman; while those who only read novels are assuredly doing their best to unfit themselves for the work of life. Perhaps, however, it is better to read nothing but