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Sir Michael Shaw Stewart to R. Ward, Esq.
"Edinburgh, Feb. 26. 1823. “ My dear Ward,
“I have just been reading your admirable reply to Huine, and I feel an impulse that I cannot resist, to congratulate you on the complete drubbing which you so genteely gave him, and to express the satisfaction I experienced in the ample proofs which you so forcibly brought forward of the fair, honourable, and disinterested conduct of all the individuals concerned in the appointment he so illiberally attacked.* Nothing could be more effectually done; and, recollections of former times occurring, I really felt as if I had a share in the triumph of my old and valued friend. But what a beautiful and unprecedented epoch in parliamentary history this is; when in our annals was an exposé of a Chancellor received as the last ? Clouds and darkness did indeed seem to rest upon us; partly from actual distress, but more from the dismal croakings and exaggerated statements of the agricultural meetings; when, at once, the sun burst forth in splendour, an unchallenged, uncontroverted display of our wealth and prosperity is made manifest, and Opposition itself is disarmed. Long may this new feeling,' as Ld. Milton calls it, last; and long may the plan and principles of
* The appointment alluded to is that of Lord Beresford as Lt.-General of the Ordnance. The debate was also graced by a brilliant speech from Mr. Canning, who refused to allow the motion to be withdrawn. It was, therefore, rejected by 200 to 73.
Ministers make it a pride to their opponents to abandon their enmity to Government
“My three sons, who are here, all participate in the feelings of their father, and my wife, who is no politician,' sympathises most cordially in our general joy at your success.
“ If you have a spare moment I shall be most happy to hear from you, and of your family; your son I know is well disposed of abroad. Adieu, my dear Ward, and, with the united best wishes of me and mine, believe me ever
“ Most sincerely yours,
" Mich. SHAW STEWART."
It was at this time that Mr. Ward began an undertaking upon which his reputation and the interest that attaches to his name will mainly depend. The political events of the day are soon fogotten, and still sooner the names of those who took any except the principal part in them; but long after this will live the memory of him who, having amused and instructed in his day, can still continue to call forth a reader's sympathies in after time by any sterling literary performance of permanent interest.
Mr. Ward had before now done great service with his pen, and had exercised it upon the most varied topics. History, law, poetry, and jurisprudence; questions, personal and national, connected with the politics of the day; official reports and financial calculations, had all in turn employed his energies: but, having now retired from the turmoil of politics, he was induced to devote the restless energies of an active mind to the composition of a novel. He had ever mixed in a society where he could note down the refinements, as well as the follies, of the great and fashionable; he had been a not
a unobservant spectator of the game of politics; he had also most sedulously directed his less employed moments to the consideration of the various arguments on either side, on the all-important question of the evidences of natural and revealed religion. He determined to write a book in which he should avail himself of his experience, his speculations, and his opinions upon all these points, and that he would do so in that form most attractive to general readers — a novel.
It could not be denied that the English school of novel-writing (in more modern times) had many merits. It had the not least important one of being adapted for the perusal of all, without offending the delicacy of any; it could further boast, as its characteristic, the natural development of an interesting and seldom improbable story, a correct and original conception of individual character, a skilful adaptation of the events of history, the enforcement of a wholesome moral, and a certain elegance in the style of composition. Such, it cannot be denied, were the ordinary characteristics of the best of the modern English novels at the time Mr. Ward began his task. It will be seen, however, from this enumeration, that there is not to be ascribed to them that for which fiction may be more peculiarly made the vehicle, viz. any depth of philosophical reflection, any complete development of peculiar types of character, any such epigrammatic terseness of diction as should lead the reader to return again and again to the opinions of his author, for the sake of their depth, their originality, or the happy terms in which they were expressed.
If any one had perused such productions, pencil in hand, with a view to revert to his favourite passages, he might have marked here a pretty description of scenery, there an animated dialogue, in another place a striking situation, but he could rarely have found a gem that would sparkle when placed by itself, or which could be transferred to a fresh setting
Another defect that was found almost universally in these productions was, a perversion (unintentional no doubt, but still not the less constant) of the manners, vices, feelings, and actions of the upper classes of society, who were made alternately heroes possessed of every noble virtue, or insolent profligates ever ready to make an unfair and base use of the power given them by their position. The fact was, that the descriptions were given at second-hand, till what was considered in this respect natural in a novel, became as complete a piece of traditional conventionalism, as the interviews between a master and his valet de chambre are allowed to be on the stage.
It was with a purpose of supplying some, if not all these defects, and of affording, along with food for the thoughtful mind, the necessary relaxation which all require, that Mr. Ward began his novel. He had determined to preserve the strictest incognito, moved partly by an anxiety to have the genuine and un
biassed opinion of the reader, partly by the excitement of the mystery attendant upon it, but principally urged by considerations arising out of the two very opposite subjects which were to be combined in the same book: viz. first, sketches of fashionable society, with strictures upon its occasional emptiness and insolence; and, secondly, a discussion of some of the most important questions that can be presented to reasoning beings.
As his handwriting was sufficiently peculiar to be easily recognised, every page when written was recopied, and in this he had most willing and useful assistants in his daughters; so great was the interest taken by them in his book, that he used to boast how on one occasion, when a portion of the manuscript containing a long chapter had been lost, they were able to resupply the whole of it from memory, without (as even the author himself confessed) so much as an error in a word.
The work once ready for publication, his grand difficulty was to arrange with a publisher without running the risk of betraying his authorship, and for this purpose he fortunately bethought himself of his friend and personal solicitor, B. Austen, Esq. By his cooperation he was enabled to preserve for some time his incognito, amid the curiosity which “ Tremaine" so generally excited.
He now commenced a correspondence with a lady whose own talent, and whose ready appreciation of that of others, induced him to an exertion of his epistolary powers, such as cannot fail to render his letters