« НазадПродовжити »
An edition of the works of the principal British novelists has lately been published in Edinburgh, accompanied by a biographical notice of each author and a short criticism on his works, by Sir Walter Scott. These notices and criticisms, printed in a separate form, make the volumes before us. Beside the interest arising from the smoothness and beauty of the style, and the general soundness of the author's criticisms upon works so widely known as those of Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, &c. there is one of another kind, when we consider many of these criticisms in the light of explanation or defence of the principles which have governed him in constructing his own novels. That the author is often thinking of his own works, as well as those under his examination might be shown at great length. We shall notice only his opinions respecting the supernatural machinery of novels.
The following extract is from the remarks on Walpole's « Castle of Otranto.”
It is doing injustice to Mr Walpole's memory to allege, that all which he aimed at in The Castle of Otranto, was “the art of exciting surprise and horror;" or, in other words, the appeal to that secret and reserved feeling of love for the marvellous and supernatural, which occupies a hidden corner in almost every one's bosom. * * * * It was his object to draw such a picture of domestic life and manners, during the feudal times, as might actually have existed, and to paint it chequered and agitated by the action of supernatural machinery, such as the superstition of the period received as matter of devout credulity. The natural parts of the narrative are so contrived, that they associate themselves with the marvellous occurrences; and, by the force of that association, render those speciosa miracula striking and impressive, though our cooler reason admits their impossibility. Indeed, to produce, in a well cultivated mind, any portion of that surprise and fear which are founded on supernatural events, the frame and tenor of the whole story must be adjusted in perfect harmony with this main-spring of the interest. He who, in early youth, has happened to pass a solitary night in one of the few ancient mansions which the fashion of more modern times has left undespoiled of their original furniture, has probably experienced, that the gigantic and preposterous figures dimly visible in the defaced tapestry--the remote clang of the distant doors which divide him from living society*—the deep darkness which involves the high and fretted roof of the apartment-the dimly seen pictures of ancient knights, renowned for their valour, and perhaps for their crimes—the varied and indistinct sounds which disturb the silent desolation of a halfdeserted mansion-and, to crown all, the feeling that carries us back to ages of feudal power and papal superstition, join together to excite a corresponding sensation of supernatural awe, if not of terror. It is in such situations, when superstition becomes contagious, that we listen with
* See the Antiquary, vol. i. chap. x.
respect, and even with dread, to the legends which are our sport in the garish light of sunshine, and amid the dissipating sights and sounds of every day life. Now, it seems to have been Walpole's object to attain, by the minute accuracy of a fable, sketched with singular attention to the costume of the period in which the scene was laid, that saine association which might prepare his reader's mind for the reception of prodigies congenial to the creed and feelings of the actors. His feudal tyrant, his distressed damsel, bis resigned yet dignified churchman-the castle itself, with its feudal arrangements of dungeons, trap-doors, oratories, and galleries*-the incidents of the trial, the chivalrous procession, and the combat ;-in short, the scene, the performers, and action, so far as it is natural, form the accompaniments of his spectres and his miracles, and have the same effect on the mind of the reader, that the appearance and drapery of such a chamber as we have described may produce upon that of a temporary inmate. This was a task which required no little learning, no ordinary degree of fancy, no common portion of genius, to execute. The association of which we bave spoken is of a nature peculiarly delicate, and subject to be broken and disarranged. It is, for instance, almost impossible to build such a modern gothic structure as shall impress us with the feelings we have endeavoured to de. scribe. It may be grand, or it may be gloomy; it may excite magnificent or melancholy ideas ; but it must fail in bringing forth the sensation of supernatural awe, connected with halls that have echoed to the sounds of remote generations, and have been pressed by the footsteps of those who bave long since passed away. Yet Horace Walpole bas attained, in composition, what, as an architect, he must bave felt beyond the power of his art. The remote and superstitious period in which his scene is laid--the art with which he has furnished forth its gothic decorationsthe sustained, and, in general, the dignified tone of feudal mannersprepare us gradually for the favourable reception of prodigies which, though they could not really have happened at any period, were consistent with the belief of all mankind at that in which the action is placed. It was therefore the author's object, not merely to excite surprise and terror, by the introduction of supernatural agency, but to wind up the feelings of his reader till they became for a moment identified with those of a ruder age, which
“ Held each strange tale devoutly true.” The difficulty of attaining this nice accuracy of delineation may be best estimated by comparing The Castle of Otranto with the less successful efforts of later writers; where, amid all their attempts to assume the tone of antique chivalry, something occurs in every chapter so decidedly incongruous, as at once reminds us of an ill-sustained masquerade, in which ghosts, knights-errant, magicians, and damsels gent, are all equipped in hired dresses from the same warehouse in Tavistockstreet.*
There is a remarkable particular in which Mr Walpole's steps have been departed from by the most distinguished of his followers.
Romantic narrative is of two kinds—that which, being in itself possible, may be matter of belief at any period : and that which, though held
* See Waverley, chap. i.
impossible by more enlightened ages, was yet consonant with the faith of earlier times. The subject of The Castle of Otranto is of the latter class. Mrs Radcliffe, a name not to be mentioned without the high respect due to genius, has endeavoured to effect a compromise between those different styles of narrative, by referring her prodigies to an explanation founded on natural causes, in the latter chapters of he
To this improvement upon the gothic romance there are so many objections, that we own ourselves inclined to prefer, as more simple and impressive, the narrative of Walpole, which details supernatural incidents as they would have been readily believed and received in the eleventh or twelfth century. In the first place, the reader feels indignant at discovering that he has been cheated into sympathy with terrors, which are finally explained as having proceeded from some very simple cause ; and the interest of a second reading is entirely destroyed by his having been admitted behind the scenes at the conclusion of the first, Secondly, the precaution of relieving our spirits from the influence of supposed supernatural terror, seems as unnecessary in a work of professed fiction, as that of the prudent Bottom, who proposed that the human face of the representative of his lion should appear from under his mask, and acquaint the audience plainly that he was a man as other men, and nothing more than Snug the joiner. Lastly, these substitutes for supernatural agency are frequently to the full as improbable as the machinery, which they are introduced to explain away and to supplant. The reader who is required to admit the belief of supernatural interference, understands precisely what is demanded of him; and, if he be a gentle reader, throws his mind into the attitude best adapted to humour the deceit which is presented for his entertainment, and grants, for the time of perusal, the premises on which the fable depends. But if the author voluntarily binds himself to account for all the wondrous occurrences which he introduces, we are entitled to exact that the explanation shall be natural, easy, ingenious, and complete. Every reader of such works must reinember instances, in which the explanation of mysterious circumstances in the narrative has proved equally, nay, even more incredible, than if they had been accounted for by the agency of supernatural beings; for the most incredulous must allow, that the interference of such agency is more possible than that an effect resembling it should be produced by an inadequate cause. But it is unnecessary to enlarge further on a part of the subject, which we have only mentioned to exculpate our author from the charge of using machinery more clumsy than his tale from its nature required. The bold assertion of the actual existence of phantoms and apparations seems to us to harmonize much more naturally with the manners of feudal times, and to produce a more powerful effect upon the reader's mind, than any attempt to reconcile the superstitious credulity of feudal ages with the philosophic scepticism of our own, by referring those prodigies to the operation of fulminating powder, combined mirrors, magic lanterns, trap-doors, speaking trumpets, and such like apparatus of German phantasmagoria.*
Again he observes in his account of the novels of Mrs Radcliffe.
* See again Waverley, chap. i.
Curiosity and a lurking love of mystery, together with a germ of superstition, are more generally ingredients in the human mind, and more widely diffused through the mass of humanity, than either taste or feeling. * * * *
The present public deal as rigidly, and compel an explanation from the story-teller; and he must either at once consider the knot as worthy of being severed by supernatural aid, and bring on the stage his actual fiend or ghost, or, like Mrs Radcliffe, refer to natural agency the wbole materials of his story.
We have already, in some brief remarks on The Castle of Otranto, avowed some preference for the mode of boldly avowing the use of supernatural machinery. Ghosts and witches, and the whole tenets of superstition having once, and at no late period, been matter of universal belief, warranted by legal authority, it would seem no great stretch upon the reader's credulity to require him, while reading of what his ancestors did, to credit for the time what those ancestors devoutly believed in. And yet, notwithstanding the success of Walpole and Maturin. (to whom we may add the author of Forman), the management of such machinery must be ackowledged a task of a most delicate nature. “There is but one step,” said Buonaparte, “ betwixt the sublime and the ridiculous ;” and in an age of universal incredulity, we must own it would require, at the present day, the support of the highest powers, to save the supernatural from slipping into the ludicrous. The incredulus odi is a formidable objection.
There are some modern authors, indeed, who have endeavoured, ingeniously enough, to compound betwixt ancient faith and modern incredulity. They have exhibited phantoms, and narrated prophecies strangely accomplished, without giving a defined or absolute opinion, whether these are to be referred to supernatural agency, or whether the apparitions were produced (no uncommon case) by an overheated imagina tion, and the accompanying presages by a casual, though singular, coincidence of circumstances. This is however an evasion of the difficulty, not a solution; and besides, it would be leading us too far from the present subject, to consider to what point the author of fictitious narrative is bound by his charter to gratify the curiosity of the public, and whether, as a painter of actual life, he is not entitled to leave something in the shade, when the natural course of events conceals so many incidents in total darkness. Perhaps, upon the whole, this is the most artful mode of terminating such a tale of wonder, as it forms the means of compounding with the taste of two different classes of readers ; those who, like children, demand that each particular circumstance and incident of the narrative shall be fully accounted for; and the more imaginative class, who, resembling men that walk for pleasure through a moonlight landscape, are more teased than edified by the intrusive minuteness with which some well-meaning companion disturbs their reveries, divesting stock and stone of the shadowy semblances in which fancy had dressed them, and pertinaciously restoring to tbem the ordinary forms and common-place meanness of reality.
These are the rules; the application of them may be seen without mentioning slighter instances, in the Bodach Glas of Vich Jan Vohr, the astrological prediction and its accomplish
ment in Guy Mannering ;-the ominous traditions respecting the Kelpie's Flow and the Mermaiden's Well in the Bride of Lammermoor ; the White Lady of the Monastery and the Abbot; Horse-shoe of Redgauntlet; and the apparition of Vanda in the first of the tales now before us. In his person of critic, our author has decided on the best course ; in his capacity of author, he has uniformly followed it.
We could fill pages with evidence from this work that the author of both is one and the same, but they cannot fail to suggest themselves to évery diligent reader of the Waverley novels.
of the critical notices in these Lives, though all are highly entertaining, we think those on the works of Richardson and Mrs Radcliffe the most so. From the latter we shall make the following extract for the benefit of novel-readers.
One [tribute] might still be found of a different and higher description, in the dwelling of the lonely invalid, or the neglected votary of celibacy, who was bewitched away from a sense of solitude, of indisposition, of the neglect of the world, or of secret sorrow, by the potent charms of this mighty enchantress. Perhaps the perusal of such works may, without injustice, be compared with the use of opiates, baneful, when habitually and constantly resorted to, but of a most blessed power in those moments of pain and languor, when the whole head is sore, and the whole heart sick. If those who rail indiscriminately at this species of composition were to consider the quantity of actual pleasure which it produces, and the much greater proportion of real sorrow and distress which it alleviates, their philanthropy ought to moderate their critical pride, or religious intolerance.
While we acknowledge that there is some foundation for this, we may reply in our author's own figure and with a parody of the words of one of his own characters, the learned Counsellor Pleydell, “ a novel is like laudanum, it is easier to use it as a quack does, than to learn to apply it like a physician.”
The doctrine of our author on the effects of novels in another place is as follows.
Excluding from consideration those infamous works which address themselves directly to awakening the grosser passions of our nature, we are inclined to think the worst evil to be apprehended from the perusal of novels is, that the babit is apt to generate an indisposition to real history and useful literature; and that the best which can be hoped is, that they may sometimes instruct the youthful mind by real pictures of life, and sometimes awaken their better feelings and sympathies by strains of generous sentiment, and tales of fictious wo. Beyond this point they are a mere elegance, a luxury contrived for the amusement of polished life, and the gratification of that half love of literature which pervades all ranks in an advanced stage of society, and are read much more for amusement than with the least hope of deriving instruction from them.