The Times/1894/Editorial/Robert Michael Ballantyne
The death of Mr. R. M. Ballantyne, which we announced yesterday, is the close of long and busy and distinguished literary career. The news will have been received with regret by the many readers whom Mr. Ballantyne's books have stirred and stimulated and charmed. They were written avowedly for boys, but they have been caught up eagerly by readers of every age, old and young alike, and when once taken in hand have seldom been laid down again until the last page has been reached. Mr. Ballantyne was a writer of almost inexhaustible fertility. He is credited with being the author of 74 books for boys, all marked by the same general characteristics. They are books specially of adventure, full of stirring incidents, of hairbreadth escapes, and of deeds of courage and of devotion to duty. But if the nature of their subject is somewhat narrow, their range is none the less wide. They take us with them to all parts of the habited and uninhabited globe, We follow with rapt attention the fortunate of their young heroes over sea and land. The scene is laid sometimes at home, more often in far distant countries, but the type is everywhere the same. It is the triumph of energy and courage and perseverance over dangers and difficulties by the way. The central figures of Mr. Ballantyne's tales never fail to be interesting. They represent to boys just what boys themselves most wish to be and to do, and small blame it is to older readers if they, too, force an entrance in to the charmed circle, and submit themselves for awhile in fancy to the same spell. We need not say much about the positive instruction which Mr. Ballantyne's books afford. He was a careful writer, well aware that he must learn before he could describe, and that his own personal experience was the surest warrant for the correct setting of his descriptions. This, however, is a comparatively small matter. His readers would have been well satisfied with less accurate work. They asked not to be instructed but to be amused and Mr. Ballantyne was always ready to meet them on their ground, to amuse them to their heart's content, and to set before them at the same time those lessons of pluck and steadfastness and ready resource with which his stories are everywhere replete, and to which they owe at once their value and their charm. They are thus good reading in every sense of the word, and we do not envy those boys for whom they have no attraction and no message.
Boy in the present day have much to be thankful for. They are better treated in a thousand ways than their predecessor were half a century ago, and more perhaps in their books than in anything else. In no other department is there a more marked contrast between the present and the past, between tales for the young as they used to be and as they are now. Those of our readers whose memories can carry them back to the old days will be in no doubt as to the change which has been brought about. They will remember a time when boys' bookshelves were slenderly furnished with reading matter of any kind, and when they hardly owned a volume, except the immortal "Robinson Crusoe," which boys of the present day would so much to condescend to look at. Miss Edgeworth's Tales were among the best, and are not wholly out of favour yet, though they no longer stand in anything like the front rank. But can we say as much as this for "Sandford and Merton," for the "Fairchild Family," or for the well-meant efforts of Mrs. Barbauld and Mrs. Cameron? For Sunday reading there was the "Pilgrim's Progress" of immortal fame, but when this was exhausted there was little else, except possibly some tracts on the evils of Sabbath-breaking or of drinking and profane swearing. The present generation of boys is more lavishly supplied. It has command of the services of half a dozen first-class writers and of half a hundred others. Mr. R. M. Ballantyne is but one of them, and stories such as boys love. We will not go further with the catalogue. Our recent notices of Christmas books are proof how long it might be made, and what an almost endless variety of books of all sorts it would include. It presents, indeed, a positive embarrassment of riches, so many and so excellent are the authors of the new literature which it chronicles. And this, it must be remembered, is but one season's work, one drop, as it were, added to swell the ever-flowing tide of books for the young.
It may be thought that there is danger in the profusion, that with so many books to choose from the choice will often not be of the best, and that an age of careless, inattentive, desultory half-reading will succeed an age in which every book that was worth reading had to be read a dozen times over, and in which a good many books had to be read that were not worth reading at all. We are not sure that it is a danger much to be feared. Boys are not now the passive recipients of literature furnished for their use. They have become a critical race, with rules and canons of their own construction to which books must conform if they are to read them. They are a gregarious race, too. The word is soon passed from one to another of them what books are and what are not to be read, and though they may not always follow the best guides, it is something that they will submit to be guided, and most important of all that, pick and choose as they will, they will find nothing mischievous of debasing in any of the books written for them and likely to come into their hands. Their instincts will usually be correct. They are no hypocrites in their pleasures. They know what they like, and they turn with confidence to books which come out recommended by the right name, It is certain that a great deal of what is written form them misses its mark and falls flat and unappreciated. Ballantyne they could always trust, and their choice of him as a chief favourite is no small proof of their discernment and of their literary good sense.