The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 10, No. 58, August, 1862
Part 5 out of 5
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES
_Ravenshoe_. By HENRY KINGSLEY, Author of "Geoffry Hamlyn."
Boston: Ticknor & Fields.
This novel belongs to that class which has been most in favor of late
years, in which the incidents and characters are drawn from the daily
life that is going on around us, and the sources of interest are
sought in the acts, struggles, and sufferings of the world that lies
at our feet, discarding the idealizing charm which arises from
distance in space or remoteness in time. The novels of Disraeli,
Bulwer, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Miss Bronte, Mrs. Gaskell, Miss
Muloch, and Miss Evans, differing as they do so widely in style,
treatment, and spirit, all come under this general division.
Fictitious compositions of this class have difficulties
peculiar to themselves, but success, when attained, is proportionally
great; and from the sympathetic element in man they can secure the
interest of their readers, though their plots may be improbable and
their characters unnatural. The scene of "Ravenshoe" is laid in
England, the time is the present, and the men and women are such as
may be seen at a flower-show at Chiswick or on the race-course at
Epsom on a Derby day. The plot is ingenious, thickly strewn with
sudden and startling incidents, though very improbable; but the story
flows on in so rapid and animated a current that the reader can never
pause long enough for criticism, and it is not till he lays the volume
down, and recalls the ground he has been over, that he has leisure to
remark that the close has been reached by such stepping-stones as are
never laid down in the path of real life.
The characters are various, drawn with the greatest spirit, but not
all of them natural. Lord Saltire, for instance, is a portrait with
which the author has evidently taken much pains; but the elements we
see in him are such as never were, never could be, combined in any
living and breathing man. Father Mackworth is elaborately drawn, but
the sketch wants vitality and unity. Adelaide and Ellen present
essentially the same type, modified by difference of position and
circumstances, and, in the latter, by the infusion of a fanatical
religious element. Charles Ravenshoe, the hero, is well conceived and
consistently carried; and the same may be said of Cuthbert. But the
best character in the book is old Lady Ascot. She is quite original,
and yet quite natural; and we guess that some of her peculiarities are
drawn from life.
The descriptions of scenery are admirable,--so admirable that we
pardon the author for introducing them a little too frequently. He is
evidently one of those few men who love Nature with a manly and
healthy love,--by whom the outward world is not sought as a shelter
against invading cares, or as balm for a wounded spirit, but who find
in the sunshine, the play of the breeze, and the dance of the waves, a
cheerful, enduring, and satisfying companionship. The scenery is
English, and South English too: the author's pictures are drawn from
memory, and not from imagination. And the whole tone and spirit of the
book are thoroughly English. It represents the best aspects of English
life, character, and manners as they are to-day. Whatever is most
generous, heroic, tender, and true in the men and women of England is
here to be seen, and not drawn in colors any more flattering than it
is the right of fiction to use. We think the author carries us too
much into the stable and the kennel; but this, we need not say, is
But we have yet to mention what we consider the highest charm of this
charming book, and that is the combination which we find in it of
healthiness of tone and earnestness of purpose. A healthier book we
have never read. Earnestness of purpose is apt to be attended with
something of excess or extravagance; but in "Ravenshoe" there is
nothing morbid, nothing cynical, nothing querulous, nothing ascetic.
The doctrine of the book is a reasonable enjoyment of all that is good
in the world, with a firm purpose of improving the world in all
possible ways. It is one of the many books which have appeared in
England of late years which show the influence of the life and labors
of the late Dr. Arnold. It is as inspiriting in its influence as a
gallop over one of the breezy downs of Mr. Kingsley's own Devonshire.
It is, in short, a delightful book, in which all defects of structure
and form are atoned for by a wonderful amount of energy, geniality,
freshness, poetical feeling, and moral elevation. And furthermore, we
think, no one can read it without saying to himself that he would like
to see and know the writer. Long may he live to write new novels!
_Vanity Fair._ Volumes I.-V. New York: Louis H. Stephens,
Publisher for the Proprietors.
The American is often considered to be by nature unadapted for
jollity, if not positively averse to it. This supposition is not
without some reasonable foundation, and the stranger may be readily
excused for adopting it as an axiomatic truth. Busy calculation and
restless labor appear at first to be the grand elements of American
life; mirth is apparently excluded, as the superfluous members of his
equations are eliminated by the algebraist. Fun is not practical
enough for the American, and subserves none of his profitable
projects; it provokes to idle laughter, and militates against the
unresting career of industry which he has prescribed, and his
utilitarian spirit thinks it were as well abolished. His recreations
are akin to his toil. If he give to study such hours as business
spares, fates first claim his attention, and then philosophy or
ethics: he cannot resign himself to lighter topics. When he reads in
his Horace, "_Dulce est desipere in loco_," he grants the
proposition, with the commentary that he, at least, has very rarely
been "_in loco_." He reads tragedies, and perhaps writes one; but
he does not affect comedies, and he could have no sympathy with an
uproarious burlesque or side-shaking Christmas pantomime. His brethren
who seek the theatre for amusement are of similar opinion, and so are
they who stand behind the foot-lights. Therefore it is, that, for
every passable comedian, America can produce a whole batch of very
fair tragic actors.
This serious character the American is apt to wear abroad as well as
at home. When he travels, he is wont to be in a hurry, and to examine
curious cities as if he were making sharp bargains against time. In
spite of the wonderful power of adaptation which makes him of all men
the best cosmopolitan, he never is quite perfect in his assumption of
another nationality, and he generally falls short of a thorough
appreciation of its mirthful principle. If he emigrate to France, he
soon feasts upon frogs as freely and speaks with as accurate an accent
as the Parisian, but he cannot quite assume the gay _insouciance_
of the French; if to England, he adores method, learns to grumble and
imbibe old ale, yet does not become accustomed to the free, blunt
raillery,--the "chaff,"--with which Britons disport themselves; if to
China, he lives upon curries and inscribes his name with a
camel's-hair pencil, but all Oriental _bizarrerie_ fails to
thoroughly amuse him. Wherever he may go, he settles at once and
easily into the outward life of the people among whom he is,--while he
always reserves within himself a cold, stern individuality; he often
is angered when he should be amused, and retorts with resentment when
he should reply in repartee. Still, the American is not sombre to the
core. He has a kind of grim merriment bestowed somewhere in the
recesses of his being. It is quaint and severe, however, and abounding
in dry conceits. It inclines more to the nature of sarcasm than of
flashing wit or genial humor. There is apt to be the bitterness about
it which would provoke a heavy blow, unless it had been itself so
weighty in attack as to crush what might have sprung into
resistance. It passes from badinage into personalities and
recriminations. In these respects it is consonant with the general
bearing of the American character. The levity of wit and the
pleasantry of humor appear at first purposeless; they are immaterial,
and, even when most palpably present, seem, like Macbeth's
encountering witches, to make of themselves air, into which they
vanish. But sarcasm, and the direct application of ridicule, effect
something at once; their course may be swift and cloudy, like that of
the bullet, but it has a definite end in view; they are discharged and
sweep away invisibly, or like a dark speck at most, but the crash and
shiver of the distant target show that the shot has told. They are
practical, and the American understands them; as for mere wit and
humor, he will perhaps investigate them when there shall come to him
that season of leisure which he mythically proposes to enjoy when
there shall be no more work to do, and into which he is usually
ushered by one busier even than himself, and less tolerant of idleness
and folly,--Death, the great Chamberlain of Eternal Halls.
There is another characteristic of American wit and humor: they are
evanescent and keen, escaping adroitly from the snares of the
printer. America cannot boast of her satirists or humorists as forming
a class like the great English and European groups, and yet her
literature is enriched with many volumes wherein may be found the most
brilliant wit and the most genial, genuine humor. Seldom, however, are
these the main features of the books in which they occur; they are not
bound in the great, all-important chain, but are woven into the little
threads which underlie it; the obtuse or careless reader may easily
overlook them, passing on to the end without suspecting the treasures
which he has missed; and the foreigner, who does not look for such
qualities among a people so perversely practical as Americans, will be
apt entirely to ignore their possible existence. Again, if the
writers are first-class men, their birth is the most purely American
characteristic they possess. Their cast of thought and culture denotes
that they belong to other times and lands as well as to this. They
would have been at home among the _literati_ of Queen Anne's
day,--for their fellowship has been with such in spirit, if not in the
flesh. Therefore the prejudiced, and they whose perceptions are not
quick to recognize the finer traits which indicate the real character
of men and of their works, are wont to say that here is nothing new,
nothing indigenous to the soil, only an outgrowth of the Old
World,--merely exotics, which would soon perish from the pains of
transplanting, if they were not carefully fostered.
As a bit of drift-wood warns the most unpractised eye of the direction
which a current takes, so the light, ephemeral _brochures_ of any
epoch give a plain hint of the tendency of its thought. The librarian
and historian know the value of newspapers and pamphlets, for in them
can be found what big books and voluminous records do not
contain. From pasquinades, caricatures, and bits of comedy or satire
can be drawn an idea of the popular humor of any era, which the works
of great authors fail to convey. They are spontaneous and unstudied,
regardless alike of reputation already established, which must be
maintained, and of that which may yet be won; for they come from
unknown sources, and exist solely for their own sakes and by their own
vitality. They are, therefore, trustworthy assistants to him who
studies the spirit of any people or generation.
In this respect American humor has been ill represented. Comic
publications have appeared only at rare intervals, and comic journals
have soon degenerated into stupidity or coarseness. Yet this has not
been for lack of material, but of a proper editorial faculty, and from
the want of a habitude or a willingness on the part of those who
conceive clever things to note them down and give them out in black
and white. When "Vanity Fair" first appeared, we thought we saw in it
the germ of a journal which might be an exponent of our national
spirit of mirthfulness, and we took occasion to say so briefly. We
have not been disappointed. The five volumes which have already been
published in weekly numbers have been true to the honest purpose which
the conductors proposed to themselves and the public in their
prospectus, and are fair representatives of the wit and humor which
are in their essence allied to the merriment and the satire of
Hawthorne and Lowell, Holmes and Saxe, although, of course, they are
not yet developed with like delicacy and brilliance. There is in
these pages a vast deal of genuine, hearty fun, and of sharp, stinging
sarcasm; there are also hundreds of cleverly drawn and cleanly cut
illustrations. Better than these, there is a fearlessness of
consequences and of persons, when a wrong is to be combated, an error
to be set right. And this Touchstone has been impartial as well as
sturdy in his castigation; he has not been blind to the faults of his
friends, or slow in bidding them imitate the excellences of his
enemies; he had "a whip of scorpions" for the late Administration,
when others, whose intuitions were less quick, saw nothing to
chastise, and he has not hesitated to rebuke the official misdemeanors
of these days, because officers have _per contra_ done other
portions of their duties well. According to his creed, a wrong cannot
be palliated into a right, but must be reformed thereto; he has no
tolerance for that evil whose cure is obvious and possible, and he
treats boldly and severely the subjects of which the timid scarcely
dare to speak.
It cannot, of course, be claimed for "Vanity Fair" that it is all
clever. The brightest wit must say some dull things, and a comic
journal can hardly help letting some dreary attempts at mirth slip
into its columns. We could point out paragraphs in this serial which
are most chaotic and unmeaning, and some, indeed, which fall below its
own excellent standard of refinement; but we do not remember ever to
have met in its pages a _double-entendre_ or a foulness of
speech. We must advise its conductor (who, we may say in passing, is a
gentleman whose writings have not infrequently appeared in the
"Atlantic") never to allow his paper to descend to the level of the
_ignoble vulgus_; and we are glad that in wishing "Vanity Fair"
long life and prosperity we have to censure it only for some slight
violations of good taste, not for any offence against modesty or
decorum. It deserves admission to the library and the drawing-room.
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