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LORD BEACONSFIELD'S NOVELS
It can hardly be said that Lord Beaconsfield's position as a novelist is a vexed question, for it is not a question at all-he has no position as a novelist. “Nobody reads me,' he himself lamented to Matthew Arnold. Is this neglect deserved ?
In the year 1883 Mr. Anthony Trollope published the most damaging of all published judgments on Lord Beaconsfield's novels, not excepting Sir Edward Hamley's. Sir Edward's review was witty and graceful, as was all his literary work, but it is hardly less of a parody on Lothair than Mr. Bret Harte's Lothaw. Mr. Trollope's attack will serve, therefore, as the most convenient starting-point for an examination of Lord Beaconsfield's work. We shall see whether there be any good in it or no.
After a highly appreciative notice of the novelists, his contemporaries and predecessors, he continues :
Mr. Disraeli has written so many novels, and has been so popular as a novelist, that, whether for good or ill, I feel myself compelled to speak of him. He began his career as an author early in life, publishing Vivian Grey when he was twentythree years old. He was very young for such work, though hardly young enough to justify the excuse that he makes in his own preface, that it is a book written by a boy. Dickens was, I think, younger when he wrote his Sketches by Box, and as young when he was writing the Pickwick Papers.
The facts are, that Vivian Grey was written in the years 1825–26, when the author was between the ages of twenty and twenty-one, and that Pickwick was written in 1836, when the author was twentyfour. It is not a very material point, and from the serene point of view of middle age we may even concede that it is entirely immaterial; but it is as well to get even immaterial points right, if we mention them at all.
It was hardly longer ago than the other day when Mr. Disraeli brought out Lothair, and between the two there were eight or ten others. To me they have all had the same flavour of paint and unreality. In whatever he has written he has effected something which has been intended to strike his readers as uncommon, and therefore grand.
This last indictment lacks the precision that should characterise an indictment. There is much that is uncommon that is not grand; there are a few things that are grand that are not uncommon.
But in truth the whole statement is beside the mark. Mr. Disraeli, as he was then, wrote about railroads and dinner-parties, dances and elections, the routine of public offices, and the vexed questions of the day, such as strikes, hours of labour, the conditions of the life of the poor, the diversions of the wealthy; in short, he wrote of everyday life, of everything that was neither uncommon nor grand. Only he wrote of it all as a man of genius, and not as the scribes ; if that is what Mr. Trollope implies, there is no fault to be found with his statement. The supernatural comes into several novels, and in regard to that part of his work it may be fairly conceded that it is both uncommon and grand.
* Because he has been bright and a man of genius, he has carried his object as regards the young. There is nothing to be done with this statement except to challenge it directly. It is precisely young people that continue to take no interest in his work.
• He has struck them with astonishment and aroused in their imagination ideas of a world more glorious, more rich, more witty, more enterprising than their own.' This would be no bad thing to effect, if Lord Beaconsfield had effected it: but if he had done so, a reference to his novels would be understood, and perhaps appreciated : which it is not.
But the glory has been the glory of pasteboard, and the wealth has been the wealth of tinsel, the wit has been the wit of hairdressers, and the enterprise has been the enterprise of mountebanks. An audacious conjuror has generally been his hero-some youth who, by wonderful cleverness, can obtain success by every intrigue that comes to his hand. Through it all there is a feeling of stage-properties, a smell of hair-oil, an aspect of buhl, a remembrance of tailors, and that pricking of the conscience which must be the general accompaniment of paste diamonds. I can understand that Mr. Disraeli should by his novels have instigated many a young man and many a young woman on their way through life, but I cannot understand that he should have instigated anyone to good. Vivian Grey has had probably as many followers as Jack Sheppard, and has led his followers in the same direction.
There is much here that is negligible, and something that is not. We may pass by the buhl, the paste diamonds, and the hair-oil, without missing much that is stimulating. But when we come to Jack Sheppard and the mountebank we are face to face with a serious charge, which must be met.
The charge must be met because it is made by Mr. Trollope, but it is almost a waste of time to refute it. The three principal heroes of Mr. Disraeli's novels are Coningsby, Tancred, and Lothair. Coningsby is a penniless young man, educated at Eton and Trinity by the kindness of a wealthy grandfather, and destined for the Church on account of his emotional nature. But under those too facile tears there was concealed a force of character that his grandfather had not suspected. He changed his mind, and destined Coningsby for politics. After which Coningsby changed sides; and, refusing to do his grandfather's bidding, sacrificed his inheritance to his political principles.
If to do this, or anything like this, is to be a mountebank, Heaven send us many such mountebanks.
Tancred is the opposite of Coningsby. He is a young man born to a great position, but terribly perplexed over the inequality of human destiny and the various teachings of the Churches. He determines to seek comfort in prayer to the Most High on the sacred ground of Mount Sinai. He does so, nearly losing his life in the
, attempt. There is hardly a word in the dictionary less applicable to such a character than 'mountebank.'
Lothair is a young man who spends a quarter of a million sterling in the cause of Italian independence, and is nearly slain at Mentana fighting under Garibaldi. Mr. Trollope would have us call him either 'an audacious conjuror' or a mountebank.' Whatever Lothair may have been, he was neither of these.
Mr. Trollope's remarks on Vivian Grey make one suspect that he has criticised the book without reading it. He says that it is of pernicious example to the young : whereas it must be perfectly obvious to anyone who has read beyond the first dozen pages that it is absolutely unreadable by the young. Even those dozen pages, which are about school life, are so grotesquely impossible that few young persons would have patience to get through them. The rest of the book is chiefly about English politics, the mediatised Princes of Germany, and the condition of the Continent after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. It is hard to say why the study of these grave matters should be expected to seduce the young from the paths of virtue. It is true that through all these scenes there moves the figure of Vivian Grey: but the moral of his career is precisely the opposite to that which Mr. Trollope implies. For the story shows what a sad thing a young man will make of life who ventures to act without principle; and it lands the hero at last in such embarrassing position that the author has no course open to him except to stop telling the story. No moral tale ending up Thus we see' was ever more laboriously didactic.
This criticism of Lord Beaconsfield's work is examined at some length here because it sums up magisterially, and in literary form, the views which are currently held on the subject. When so accomplished a writer as Mr. Trollope can only make out an adverse case by talking about hair-oil and buhl and Jack Sheppard, the time may be said to have come when we may reasonably attempt a saner estimate.
Let us try to forget for the moment that Lord Beaconsfield was an Earl and a Knight of the Garter. Let us try to forget that he was of the House of David. Let us apply to his work the tests that we
should apply to the work of an ordinary aspirant to literary fame, and simply inquire: What does he write about ? and how does he write?
As to matter, two subjects occupy all his novels-the government of this world, and the hope of the world to come. Two subjects also occupy Mr. Trollope's novels—the hesitation of a young lady in her choice among two or more young men, and the hesitation of a young gentleman in his choice among two or more young ladies. By skilfully developing the situation arising from these gentle embarrassments Mr. Trollope produced many charming books and earned 70,0001. In any six representative novelists of this century he has a high place, perhaps the first place. But it will be admitted that we breathe a larger air in Lord Beaconsfield's work. We shall do so, that is, if he has adequately treated his subject. And here, of course, we come to the grand difficulty of estimating Lord Beaconsfield's work. When Lothair, for instance, is under discussion, too often does one hear the comment, 'Nobody ever talked like that.' The scenes and characters of Lothair are varied that the magisterial 'nobody' implies an unusually wide experience of life. But this charge of unreality is a serious one.
It embodies in one word the essence of Mr. Trollope's diatribe, and is probably derived from Mr. Trollope's own stated conviction that he had inferiors, but no superiors. This is the basis of the angry contempt with which Lord Beaconsfield's work is treated by novelreaders; obviously it is not a conviction that can be reasoned with.
But it may be noted that it subsists side by side with a habit of mind which accepts any work of fiction provided that the style is uncouth and that the incidents are sufficiently gross. The readers who accept this kind of book as 'so true to Nature' have probably (to their credit be it said) no first-hand knowledge of the life that it pretends to describe. They have also, in all probability, no firsthand knowledge of the working of the Cabinet, or the entanglements of high policy. But they will accept accounts of one kind of life by a presumed expert, at the same time that they reject as unreal' accounts of another kind of life (equally strange to them) by an undoubted expert.
This inconsistency materially diminishes the respect with which one receives the rejection of Lord Beaconsfield's work on the ground of defective manner.
His style is reasonably good, but it suffers, naturally, from the fact that he was not exclusively, or even primarily, a man of letters. If he had cared to perfect his style he would never have passed a passage like this from Lothair:
Royalty, followed by the imperial presence of ambassadors, and escorted by a group of dazzling duchesses and paladins of high degree, was ushered with courteous pomp by the host and hostess into a choice saloon, hung with rose-coloured tapestry and illuminated by chandeliers of crystal, where they were served from gold plate.
This is very bad : and here is another passage that, in a different way, is equally trying. It is from Coningsby, and describes a meeting of the Grumpy Club, where Lucian Gay is telling the story of the very respectable county family who had been established in the shire for several generations, but who it was a fact had been ever distinguished by the strange and humiliating peculiarity of being born with sheep's tails.' The head of the family is called Sir Mowbray Cholmondeley Featherstonehaugh, and the story is about as amusing as one might expect. Or take these lines from Endymion:
Their equipages were distinguished, and when Mrs. Rodney entered the park, driving her matchless ponies and attended by outriders, and herself bright as Diana, the world leaning over its palings witnessed her appearance with equal delight and admiration. These are faults : and there are many of them.
But many a man whose reputation stands high commits faults of style that are equally exasperating. For example, Mr. Thackeray's habit of dubbing everybody and everything 'honest,' from General Webb down to Esmond's mare, frets one more than occasional passages in questionable taste. And there is much to compensate one for these lapses.
There are slovenly passages, it is true, and passages obviously written when he was fatigued, and which he would not be at the pains to recast. We must conclude that he had not a good narrative style. But in compensation he could rise to heights that are hopelessly inaccessible to the mere story-teller. The famous passage describing the accession of the Queen is the best example of these :
In a palace in a garden, not in a haughty keep, proud with the fame but dark with the violence of ages; not in a regal pile, bright with the splendour but soiled with the intrigues of Courts and factions; in a palace in a garden, meet scene for youth and innocence and beauty, came a voice that told the maiden that she must ascend her throne.
A passage of surpassing grace, like this, calls for no pleading.
There are others : the prayer in Tancred, for instance; where the noble exaltation of the language is made additionally striking by contrast with the business-like courier who tells the pilgrim to 'go out by the gate of Sion, pass through the Turkish cemetery, cross the Kedron .... first path to the right leads to Bethany.'
After the meeting with the angel
A sound as of thunder roused Tancred from his trance. He looked round and above. There rose the mountains sharp and black in the clear purple air; there shone, with undimmed lustre, the Arabian stars; but the voice of the angel still lingered in his ear. He descended the mountain ; at its base, near the convent, were his slumbering guards, some steeds and crouching camels.