Points of view/English Railway Fiction
ENGLISH RAILWAY FICTION.
Sandwiches, oranges, and penny novelettes are the three great requisites for English traveling,—for third-class traveling, at least; and, of the three, the novelette is by far the most imperative, a pleasant proof of how our intellectual needs outstrip our bodily requirements. The clerks and artisans, shopgirls, dressmakers, and milliners, who pour into London every morning by the early trains, have, each and every one, a choice specimen of penny fiction with which to beguile the short journey, and perhaps the few spare minutes of a busy day. The workingman who slouches up and down the platform, waiting for the moment of departure, is absorbed in some crumpled bit of pink-covered romance. The girl who lounges opposite to us in the carriage, and who would be a very pretty girl in any other conceivable hat, sucks mysterious sticky lozenges, and reads a story called "Mariage à la Mode, or Getting into Society," which she subsequently lends to me,—seeing, I think, the covetous looks I cast in its direction,—and which I find gives as vivid and startling a picture of high life as one could reasonably expect for a penny. Should I fail to provide myself with one of these popular journals at the book-stall, another chance is generally afforded me before the train moves off; and I am startled out of a sleepy reverie by a small boy's thrusting "A Black Business" alarmingly into my face, while a second diminutive lad on the platform holds out to me enticingly "Fettered for Life," "Neranya's Revenge," and "Ruby." The last has on the cover an alluring picture of a circus girl jumping through a hoop, which tempts me to the rashness of a purchase, circus riders being my literary weakness. I remember, myself, trying to write a story about one, when I was fourteen, and experiencing great difficulty from a comprehensive and all-embracing ignorance of my subject. It is but fair to the author of "Ruby" to say that he was too practiced a workman to be disconcerted or turned from his course by any such trivial disadvantage.
I should hardly like to confess how many coins of the realm I dissipated before learning the melancholy truth, that the seductive titles and cuts which form the tours de force of penny fiction bear but a feeble affinity to the tales themselves, which are like vials of skimmed milk, labeled absinthe, but warranted to be wholly without flavor. Mr. James Payn, who has written very amusingly about the mysterious weekly journals which lie "thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks in Vallombrosa" upon the counters of small, dark shops, "in the company of cheap tobacco, hardbake, and, at the proper season, valentines," laments with frank asperity that he can find in them neither dramatic interest, nor even impropriety. He has searched them patiently for something wrong, and his quest has been wholly unrewarded. Mr. Thomas Wright, in a paper published some years ago in the "Nineteenth Century," makes a similar complaint. The lovely heroines of these stories are "virtuous even to insipidity," and their heroes are so blamably blameless as to be absolutely revolting. Yet it has been my fate to encounter some very pretty villains in the course of my penny readings, and at least one specimen of the sinful gilded youth, who has "handsome blonde hair parted in the middle, a discontented mustache, a pale face and apathetic expression." This scion of the aristocracy, I am grieved to say, keeps beautiful Jewesses on board his sumptuous yacht, and otherwise misbehaves himself after a fashion calculated to make his relatives and well-wishers more discontented even than his mustache. He has a lovely sister, Alma, with whom, we are assured, the Prince of Wales danced three times in one night, "and was also heard to express his admiration of her looks and her esprit in some very emphatic superlatives, exciting a variety of comment and criticism." Naturally, and all the more naturally because the fair Alma discreetly reserves her esprit for royal ears and royal commendation, and is exceedingly chary of revealing any of it to interested readers, who are fain to know what kind of conversation the Prince found so diverting. From the specimens presented to our consideration, we are forced to conclude either that his Highness is easily satisfied in the matter of esprit, or that he has an almost superhuman power of detecting it when hidden from ordinary observation.
The wonderful dullness of penny fiction is not really due to the absence of incidents, of vice, or even of dramatic situations, but to the placidity with which these incidents or situations are presented and received. How can we reasonably be expected to excite ourselves over a catastrophe which makes little or no impression on the people most deeply concerned in it? When Bonny Adair engages herself, with guileless alacrity, to a man who has a wife already, the circumstance is narrated with a coolness which hardly allows of a tremor. The wife herself is not the hidden, mysterious, veiled creature with whom we are all familiar; not an actress, or a ballet girl, or an adventuress; but a highly respectable young lady, going into society, and drinking tea with poor Bonny at afternoon receptions. This would seem like a startling innovation, but as nobody else expresses any surprise at the matter, why should we? Bonny herself, it is explained, put no embarrassing questions to her suitor. "She was only a simple country maid. She knew that he loved her, and that was all she cared for." Still, to drink tea amicably with the wife of her prétendu is too much even for a simple country maid; and when Bonny is formally introduced to "Mrs. Alec Doyle," she feels it time to withdraw from the scene and become a hospital nurse, until a convenient accident in the hunting-field removes the intrusive spouse, and reëstablishes her claim to the husband.
The same well-bred indifference is revealed in a more sensational story called "Elfrida's Wooing," where we have a villainous uncle foiled in his base plots; a father supposed to be drowned, but turning up just at the critical moment; a wicked lover baffled, a virtuous lover rewarded. This sounds promising, but in reality everything is taken with such wonderful calm that not a ripple of excitement breaks over the smooth surface of the tale. There is even an abduction, which surely cannot be an every-day occurrence in English clerical life,—I do not remember anything like it in one of Trollope's novels,—and by mistake the wrong girl, the vicar's daughter, is carried off by the rogues. But no matron of feudal times could have betrayed less annoyance at the incident than does the vicar's wife. "Rupert," she remarks placidly to her son, "it is your place to go and look for your sister." "Where shall I go?" is the brother's languid query. To which his mother retorts, with some fretfulness: "How can I tell you? If I knew, I should be able to send for her myself,"—a very simple and a very sensible way of stating the case; but it sounds as if the pet dog, rather than the only daughter of the family, had been spirited suddenly away.
The most striking instance, however, of that repose of mien which stamps the caste of penny-fiction characters I found in a delightful little romance entitled "Golden Chains," where the heroine marries the villain to oblige a friend, and is rewarded for her amiability by being imprisoned in a ruined castle, situated vaguely "on a lonely hillside looking down upon the blue Mediterranean." Apparently, nothing can be easier than to dispose of superfluous wives in this particular locality of Italy, for no impertinent questions are asked; and Ernestine, proving intractable, is left by her husband, Captain Beamish, an English officer of a type not yet elucidated by Rudyard Kipling, to starve quietly in her dungeon. She is prevented from fulfilling this agreeable destiny by the accidental drowning of the captain, and the accidental arrival of her lover,—the virtuous hero,—who is traveling providentially in the south of Europe, and who has a taste for exploring ruins. This gentlemanly instinct leads to the discovery of his beloved in a comatose condition, "but beautiful still," though "her youthful roundness was gone forever." Surely now, the reader thinks, there will be a scene of transport, of fierce wrath, of mingled agony and rapture. Nothing of the sort. Linden merely "lifts the fair head upon his arm," and administers a dose of brandy. Then, as Ernestine's eyes open, he murmurs, "'Dearest, do you know me?' 'Yes,' she faintly answered. 'All is well, Nessa. You have been cruelly used, but all is well. You are safe with me. Tell me, dear one, you are glad to see me.'"
If she were not glad to see him, under the circumstances, it would indicate an extraordinary indifference, not so much to love as to life; and the modesty which, in such a case, could doubt a hearty welcome seems like an exaggerated emotion. But the hero of penny fiction is the least arrogant of mortals. He worships from afar, and expresses his affection in language which at times is almost obsequious in its timidity. He is never passionate, never exultant, never the least bit foolish, and never for a single moment relapses into humanity. Yet millions of people believe in him, love him, cherish him, and hail his weekly reappearance with sincere and unwearied applause.
The Unknown Public, that huge body of readers who meddle not with Ruskin, nor with Browning, nor with Herbert Spencer, who have no acquaintance with George Eliot, and to whom even Thackeray and Scott are as recondite as George Meredith and Walter Pater, has been an object of interest and curiosity to its neighbor, the Known Public, ever since Wilkie Collins formally introduced it into good society, more than thirty years ago. This interest is mingled with philanthropy, and is apt to be a little didactic in the expression of its regard. Wilkie Collins, indeed, after the easy-going fashion of his generation, was content to take the Unknown Public as he found it, and to wonder vaguely whether the same man wrote all the stories that were so fearfully and wonderfully alike: "a combination of fierce melodrama and meek domestic sentiment; short dialogues and paragraphs on the French pattern, with English moral reflections of the sort that occur on the top lines of children's copybooks; descriptions and conversations for the beginning of the number, and a 'strong situation' dragged in by the neck and shoulders for the end." It was in the Answers to Correspondents, however, that the distinguished novelist confesses he took the keenest delight,—in the punctilious reader, who is anxious to know the correct hour at which to visit a newly married couple; in the practical reader, who asks how to make crumpets and liquid blacking; in the sentimental reader, who has received presents from a gentleman to whom she is not engaged, and desires the editor's sanction for the deed; in the timorous reader, who is afraid of a French invasion and of dragonflies. The scraps of editorial wisdom doled out to these benighted beings were, in Wilkie Collins's opinion, well worth the journal's modest price. He was rejoiced to know that "a sensible and honorable man never flirts himself, and ever despises flirts of the other sex." He was still more pleased to be told, "When you have a sad trick of blushing, on being introduced to a young lady, and when you want to correct the habit, summon to your aid a serene and manly confidence."
Members of the Known Public who explore the wilds and deeps of penny fiction to-day are less satisfied with what they see, less flippant in their methods of criticism, and less disposed to permit mankind to be amused after its own dull fashion. "Let us raise the tone of these popular journals," is their cry, "and we shall soon have millions of readers taking rational delight in wholesome literature. Let us publish good stories at a penny apiece,—in fact, it is our plain duty to do so,—and these millions of readers will, with grateful hearts, rise up and call us blessed." To which Mr. Payn responds mirthfully that the Unknown Public is every whit as sure of what it wants as the Known Public that aspires to teach it, and perhaps even a little surer. "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The Wandering Jew," "Ivanhoe," and "White Lies" were all offered in turn at a penny apiece, and were in turn rejected. That it does occasionally accept better fiction, if it can get it cheap, we have the word of Mr. Wright, who claims to have been for years a member of this mysterious body, and to have an inner knowledge of what it likes and dislikes. "The Woman in White," "Lady Audley's Secret," and "It is Never Too Late to Mend" are, he asserts, familiar names with a certain stratum of the Unknown Public; "Midshipman Easy" is an old friend, and "The Pathfinder" and "The Last of the Mohicans" enjoy a fitful popularity. But its real favorite, its admitted pride and delight, is Ouida. The "genteel young ladies of the counter," and their hard-working sisterhood of dressmakers and milliners and lodging-house keepers, all accept Ouida as a literary oracle. "They quite agree with herself that she is a woman of genius. They recognize in her the embodiment of their own inexpressible imaginings of aristocratic people and things. They believe in her Byronic characters, and their Arabian-Nights-like wealth and power; in her titanic and delightfully wicked guardsmen; in her erratic or ferocious, but always gorgeous princes, her surpassingly lovely, but more or less immoral grand dames, and her wonderful Bohemians of both sexes. They believe, too, in her sheer 'fine writing.' Its jingle is pleasant to their senses, even though they fail to catch its meaning. Ouida's work is essentially the acme of penny-serial style. The novelists of the penny prints toil after her in vain, but they do toil after her. They aim at the same gorgeousness of effect, though they lack her powers to produce it, to impress it vividly upon readers."
It has not been my experience to find in these weeklies—and I have read many of them—even a dim reflection of Ouida's meretricious glitter. A gentle and unobtrusive dullness; a smooth fluency of style, suggestive of the author's having written several hundreds of such stories before, and turning them out with no more intellectual effort than an organ-grinder uses in turning the crank of his organ; an air of absolute unreality about the characters, not so much from overdrawing as from their deadly sameness; conversations of vapid sprightliness and an atmosphere of oppressive respectability,—these are the characteristics of penny fiction, if I may judge from the varied specimens that have fallen into my hands. The foreign scoundrels and secret poisoners, the sumptuous wealth and lavish bloodshed, that thrilled the boyhood of Mr. Wright have, I greatly fear, been refined out of existence. There is an occasional promise of this sort of thing, but never any adequate fulfillment. I once hoped much from the opening paragraph of a tale describing the virtuous heroine's wicked husband in language which seemed to me full of bright auspices for his future:—
"The speaker was a fair, well-dressed man, in appearance about three-and-thirty. A yellow mustache increased the languid, insouciant expression of his long, well-cut features, which were handsome, but, despite their delicacy, had a singular animal resemblance in them,—God's image in the possession of a cool, unprincipled fiend, which now and then peered out of the pale blue eyes, half veiled by the yellow lashes."
Yet, with all his advantages of physiognomy, the utmost this pale-eyed person achieves is to hang around in his wife's way until she shoots him,—accidentally, of course,—and secures herself from any further annoyance.
In a taste for aristocracy, however, and a splendid contempt for trade, and "the city," and the objectionable middle classes, our penny novelist surpasses even Ouida, and approaches more nearly to that enamored exponent of high life, Lord Beaconsfield. He will dance his puppets, as Tony Lumpkin's boon companion danced his bear, "only to the very genteelest of tunes." Mr. Edward Salmon, who has written with amazing seriousness on "What the Working Classes Read," and who thinks it a pity "more energy is not exerted in bringing home to the people the inherent attractions of Shakespeare, Scott, Marryat, Dickens, Lytton, and George Eliot," makes the distinct assertion that socialism and a hatred of the fashionable world are fostered by the penny serials, and by the pictures they draw of a luxurious and depraved nobility. "The stories," he says gravely, "are utterly contemptible in literary execution. They thrive on the wicked baronet, the faithless but handsome peeress, and find their chief supporters among shop-girls, seamstresses, and domestic servants. It is hardly surprising that there should exist in the impressionable minds of the masses an aversion more or less deep to the upper classes. If one of their own order, man or woman, appears in the pages of these unwholesome prints, it is only as a paragon of virtue, who is probably ruined, or at least wronged, by that incarnation of evil, the sensuous aristocrat, standing six feet, with his dark eyes, heavy mustache, pearl-like teeth, and black hair. Throughout the story the keynote struck is high-born scoundrelism. Every social misdemeanor is called in to assist the progress of the slipshod narrative. Crime and love are the essential ingredients, and the influence exercised over the feminine reader, often unenlightened by any close contact with the classes whom the novelist pretends to portray, crystallizes into an irremovable dislike of the upper strata of society."
It is hard, after reading this extract, to believe that Mr. Salmon ever examined any of these "slipshod narratives" for himself, or he would know that the aristocrat of penny fiction is always fair. The stalwart young farmer, the aspiring artist, the sailor lover, may rival each other in dark clustering curls, but the peer, as befits his rank, is monotonously blonde.
"The dark was dowered with beauty,
The fair was nobly born.
In the face of the one was hatred;
In the face of the other, scorn."
Mr. Hamilton Aïdé probably does not design his graceful verses as illustrations of weekly novelettes, but he understands better than Mr. Salmon the subtle sympathy between birth and coloring.
Neither have I discovered any socialistic tendency in these stories, nor any disposition to exalt the lower orders at the expense of the upper. The Clara Vere de Veres who smiled on me in the course of my researches were all as virtuous as they were beautiful, and their noble lovers were models of chivalry and truth. It was the scheming lawyer, the base-born, self-made man of business, who crept as a serpent into their patrician Eden, and was treated with the contempt and contumely he deserved. In one instance, such an upstart, Mr. John Farlow by name, ventures to urge upon an impoverished landholder his offers of friendship and assistance, and this is the spirit in which his advances are received:—
"The colonel shudders, as he gazes, half wearily, half scornfully, at the shapeless, squat figure of the Caliban-like creature before him. That he, Courtenay St. Leger Walterton, late in command of her Majesty's Lancers, should have to listen respectfully to the hectoring of this low city rascal, while a horsepond awaits without, and a collection of horsewhips hang ready for instant application on the hunting-rack in the hall within! Yet it is so; he is wholly at this man's mercy, and the colonel, like the humblest of mankind, is obliged to succumb to the inevitable."
Now, since I turned the last page of "Ten Thousand a Year," a long, long time ago, I have hardly met with a finer instance of aristocratic feeling than this, or a more crushing disdain for the ignoble creature known as a solicitor. Mr. John Farlow is of course a villain, but Courtenay St. Leger Walterton is not aware of this fact, and neither, in the beginning of the tale, is the reader. What we do know, however, is that, being a "low city rascal," he naturally merits horsewhipping at the hands of a blue-blooded country squire. He would have deserved hanging, had the colonel been a duke, and perhaps that punishment might have been meted triumphantly out to him, for the penny novelist, with all his faults, still "loves his House of Peers."
The task of providing literature for the Unknown Public is not the easy thing it seems to critics like Mr. Wright and Mr. Salmon. The Unknown Public has its literature already,—a literature which enjoys an enormous circulation, and gives absolute satisfaction. One publishing company alone, "for the people," claims that its penny novelettes, issued weekly, reach seven millions of readers, and these seven millions are evidently content with what they receive. Mr. Andrew Lang is responsible for the statement that a story about a mill girl, which was printed in a Glasgow penny journal, so delighted the subscribers that they demanded it should be several times repeated in its columns. "There could not," says Mr. Lang somewhat wistfully, "be a more perfect and gratifying success;" and publishers of ambitious and high-toned periodicals may well be forgiven for envying such a master-stroke. When were they ever asked to reprint a story, however vaunted its perfections, however popular it seemed to be? The heroine of this magic tale is defrauded of her inheritance by villains who possess sumptuous subterranean palaces and torture-chambers in "her own romantic town" of Glasgow, the last place in the world where we should reasonably expect to find them. "The one essential feature," Mr. Lang observes, "in a truly successful tale is that there should be an ingénue, as pure as poor, who is debarred by conspiracies from the enjoyment of a prodigious fortune." This is a favorite device with weekly papers at home, and the serial story, on either side of the Atlantic, is perforce a little more stirring in its character than that presented to us in finished form through the medium of the penny novelette. With the first, the "strong situation" is serviceable as a decoy to lure the reader into purchasing the following number. With the second, no such artifice is needed or employed. The buyer has his pennyworth already in hand; and a very good pennyworth it is, judged by quantity alone. Wilkie Collins tells us how he tried vainly to extract from a shopman an opinion as to which was the best journal to select, and how the shopman persisted, very naturally, in saying that there was no choice,—one was every bit as long as another. "Well, you see some likes one, and some the next. Take 'em all the year around, and there ain't a pin, as I knows of, to choose between them. There 's just about as much in one as there is in its neighbor. All good penn'orths. Bless my soul! Just take 'em up and look for yourself! All good penn'orths, choose where you like."
Exactly as if they were shrimps or periwinkles! Very good measure, if you chance to like the stuff! "Dorothy, a Home Journal for Ladies," in a rather attractive pale green cover, gives you every week a complete story, nearly half the length of an average English novel, and fairly well illustrated with full-page cuts. Each number contains, in addition, Dorothy's Letter-Box, where all reasonable questions are answered, and Dorothy's Drawing-Room, with items of fashionable news,—the whereabouts of the Queen, and the interesting fact that "the Duke and Duchess of Portland have been living quietly and giving no parties at Langwell, the Duke being desirous of affording the Duchess every chance of better regaining her health." Also Hints for Practical Dressmaking, by "Busy Bee;" Our Homes, by "Lady Bird;" an occasional poem; and Notes on Handwriting, where you may learn that you have "ambition, an ardent, tender, affectionate, and sensitive nature, easily impressed, and inclined to jealousy. There is also some sense of beauty, vivid fancy, and sequence of ideas." Now and then a doubting maid sends a scrap of her lover's penmanship to be deciphered, and receives the following gentle encouragement:—
"Love Lies Bleeding.—I hardly like to say whether the writer of the morsel you inclose would make a good husband; but I should imagine him as thoughtful for others, romantic and loving, very orderly in his habits, and fairly well educated; rather hot-tempered, but forgives and forgets quickly."
All this for a penny,—two cents of American money! No wonder "Dorothy" reaches her millions of readers. No wonder the little green books lie in great heaps on the counters of every railway station in England. She is, perhaps, the most high-toned of such weekly issues; but "The Princess," in a bright blue cover, follows closely in her wake, with a complete story, illustrated, and Boudoir Gossip about Prince George of Wales, and Mrs. Mackay, and the Earl and Countess of Jersey. "Bow Bells" and "The Wide World Novelettes" are on a distinctly lower scale: the fiction more sensational, the cuts coarser, and the pink cover of "Bow Bells" flaunting and vulgar. "A Magazine of Short Stories" aims at being lively and vivacious in the style of Rhoda Broughton, and gives a good pennyworth of tales, verses, Answers to Correspondents, and a column of Familiar Quotations Verified that alone is worth the money. But the final triumph of quantity over quality, of matter over mind, is in the "Book for All," published weekly at the price of one penny, and containing five separate departments, for women, girls, men, boys, and children. Each of these departments has a short illustrated story, poetry, anecdotes, puzzles, confidential talks with the editor, advice on every subject, and information of every description. Here you can learn "how to preserve your beauty" and how to make "royal Battenberg" lace, how to run a Texas ranch and how to go into mourning for your mother, how to cure stammering and how to rid a dog of fleas. Here you may acquire knowledge upon the most varied topics, from lung diseases in animals to Catherine of Russia's watch, from the aborigines of Australia to scientific notes on the Lithuanian language. The Unknown Public must indeed be athirst for knowledge, if it can absorb such quantities week after week with unabated zeal; and, from the Answers to Correspondents, we are led to suppose it is ever eager for more. One inquiring mind is comforted by the assurance that "narrative monophone will appear in its turn," and an ambitious but elderly reader is gently warned that "a person aged fifty might learn to play on the guitar, and perhaps be able to sing; but the chances are that, in both instances, the performance will not be likely to captivate those who are compelled to listen to it." On the whole, after an exhaustive study of penny weeklies, I should say that, were I expected to provide a large family with reading matter and encyclopædic information at the modest rate of one dollar and four cents a year, the "Book for All" would be the journal of my choice.
It is not in penny fiction alone, however, that the railway book-stalls do a thriving trade. The shilling novels stand in goodly rows, inviting you to a purchase you are sure afterwards to regret. The average shilling novel in England differs from the average penny novel in size only; and, judged by measurement, the sole standard it is possible to apply, it should, to warrant its price, be about six times the length. "Lord Elwyn's Daughter" and "The Nun's Curse," at a shilling each, bear such a strong family resemblance to their penny cousins, "Golden Chains" and "Her Bitter Burden," that it needs their outward dress to distinguish them; and "Haunted" and "The Man who Vanished" carry their finest thrills in their title. Quite early in my search, I noticed at the Waterloo station three shilling novels,—"Weaker than Woman," "Lady Button's Ward," and "Diana's Discipline," all advertised conspicuously as being by the author of "Dora Thorne." Feeling that my ignorance of Dora Thorne herself was a matter for regret and enlightenment, I asked for her at once, to be told she was not in stock, but I might, if I liked, have "Lady Gwendolen's Dream," by the same writer. I declined "Lady Gwendolen," and at the next station once more demanded "Dora Thorne." In vain! The young man in attendance glanced over his volumes, shook his head, and offered me "Diana's Discipline," and a fresh book "The Fatal Lilies," also by the author of "Dora Thorne." Another stall at another station had all five of these novels, and a sixth one in addition, "A Golden Heart," by the author of "Dora Thorne," but still no "Dora." Elsewhere I encountered "Her Martyrdom" and "Which Loved Him Best," both stamped with the cabalistic words "By the Author of 'Dora Thorne';" and so it continued to the end. New stories without number, all from the same pen, and all countersigned "By the Author of 'Dora Thorne,'" but never "Dora." From first to last, she remained elusive, invisible, unattainable,—a Mrs. Harris among books, a name and nothing more.
Comedy is very popular at railway bookstalls: "My Churchwardens," by a Vicar, and "My Rectors," by a Quondam Curate; a weekly pennyworth of mild jokes called "Pick-Me-Up," and a still cheaper and still milder collection for a half-penny called "Funny Cuts;" an occasional shabby copy of "Innocents Abroad," which stands as the representative of American humor, and that most mysterious of journals, "Ally Sloper's Half Holiday," which always conveys the impression of being exceedingly amusing if one could only understand the fun. Everybody—I mean, of course, everybody who rides in third-class carriages—buys this paper, and studies it soberly, industriously, almost sadly; but I have never yet seen anybody laugh over it. Mrs. Pennell, indeed, with a most heroic devotion to the cause of humor, and a catholic appreciation of its highways and byways, has analyzed Ally Sloper for the benefit of the Known Public which reads the "Contemporary Review," and claims that he is a modern brother of old-time jesters,—of Pierrot, and Pulcinello, and Pantaleone; reflecting national vices and follies with caustic but good-natured fidelity. "While the cultured of the present generation have been busy proving their powers of imitation," says Mrs. Pennell, "this unconscious evolution of a popular type has established the pretensions of the people to originality." But, alas! it is not given to the moderately cultivated to understand such types without a good deal of interpretation; and merely buying and reading the paper are of very little service. Here are the pictures, which I am told are clever; here is the text, which is probably clever, too; but their combined brilliancy conveys no light to my mind. Ally Sloper leading "a local German band" at Tenby, Ally Sloper interviewing distinguished people, may, like Mr. F.'s aunt, be "ingenious and even subtle," but the key to his subtlety is lacking. As for Tootsie, and The Dook Snook, and Lord Bob, and The Hon. Billy, and all the other members of this interesting family who play their weekly part in the recurring comedy, they would be quite as amusing to the uninitiated reader if they followed the example of the erudite Oxonian, and conversed in "the Ostiak dialect of Tungusian."
By way of contrast, I suppose, the other comic weeklies preserve a simplicity of character which is equaled only by their placid and soothing dullness. It is easy to understand the amount of humor conveyed in such jests as these, both of which are deemed worthy of half-page illustrations.
"Aunt Kate (in the park). Tell me, Ethel, when any of the men look at me.
"Little Ethel. It's me they look at, aunty. You 're too old."
"Dear friends again. Madge (rather elderly). What do you think of my new hat, Lily?
"Lily. It's rather old-fashioned, dear, but it suits you."
This is the very meekest of funning, and feminine tartness and juvenile precocity must be at a low ebb with the Unknown Public when it can relish such shadowy thrusts, even at increasing years, which, from the days of the prophet to the days of Mr. Gladstone, have ever been esteemed a fitting subject for mirth. The distance between the penny dreadful and "Lorna Doone" is not vaster than the distance between these hopeless jests and the fine cynicism, the arrowy humor, of Du Maurier. Mrs. Pennell says very truely that Cimabue Brown and Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkyns would have no meaning whatever for the British workman,—would probably be as great a mystery to him as The Dook Snook and The Hon. Billy are to me. But Punch's dear little lad who, on a holiday afternoon, has caught only one fish, "and that was so young it did n't know how to hold on," and the charitable but near-sighted old lady who drops a penny into the hat of a meditative peer, come within the scope of everybody's comprehension. If more energy is to be exerted "in bringing home to the people the inherent attractions of Shakespeare, Scott, Marryat, Dickens, Lytton, and George Eliot," according to the comprehensive programme laid out by Mr. Salmon, why not, as a first step, bring home to them the attractions of a bright, clean, merry jest? It might enable them, perhaps, to recognize the gap between the humor of George Eliot and the humor of Captain Marryat, and would serve to prick their dormant critical faculties into life.
The one sad sight at an English railway book-stall is the little array of solid writers who stand neglected, shabby, and apart, pleading dumbly out of their dusty shame for recognition and release. I have seen Baxter's "Saint's Rest" jostled contemptuously into a corner. I have seen "The Apostolic Fathers" hanging their hoary heads with dignified humility, and "The Popes of Rome" lingering in inglorious bondage. I have seen our own Emerson broken-backed and spiritless; and, harder still, "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" shorn of his gay supremacy, frayed, and worn, and exiled from his friends. I have seen "Sartor Resartus" skulking on a dark shelf with a yellow-covered neighbor more gaudy than respectable, and I have seen Buckle's boasted "Civilization" in a condition that would have disgraced a savage. These Titans, discrowned and discredited, these captives, honorable in their rags, stirred my heart with sympathy and compassion. I wanted to gather them up and carry them away to respectability, and the long-forgotten shelter of library walls. But light-weight luggage precluded philanthropy, and, steeling my reluctant soul, I left them to their fate. Still they stand, I know, unsought, neglected, scorned, while thousands of "Dorothys" and "Ally Slopers" are daily sold around them. "How had the star of this daughter of Gomer waxed, while the star of these Cymry, his sons, had waned!" How shall genius be revered and honored, when buried without decent rites in the bleak graveyard of a railway book-stall?
- The Nineteenth Century.