ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

Home
Biography
Bibliography

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

Essays
Reviews
Letters

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

Links
Site Diary
Site Search

Essays - ‘Immorality in Authorship’

 

From The Fortnightly Review - 15 September, 1866 - Vol. VI, pp. 289-300.

(Revised and reprinted as ‘Literary Morality’ in David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on poetry
(London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1868). Available below.)

 

IMMORALITY IN AUTHORSHIP.

 

IF by morality in literature I imply merely the moral atmosphere to be inhaled from certain written thoughts of men and women, I would not be understood as publicly pinning my faith on any particular code of society, although such and such a code may form part of the standard of my private conduct:—as believing, for example, that a high moral tone is consistent only with the wearing of pantaloons, or that a fine moral halo may not surround a Hottentot Venus, full dressed in a yard of calico: as confounding the cardinal virtues with the maxims of a cardiphonia—“omnia dicta factaque,” as Petronius says, “quasi papavere et sesamo sparsa.” The conduct of life is to a great extent a private affair, about which people will never quite agree. But books are public property, and their effect is a public question. It seems at first sight very difficult to decide what books may be justly styled “immoral”—in other words, what books have a pernicious effect on readers fairly qualified to read them. Starting, however, agreed upon certain finalities—as is essential in every and any discussion—readers may come to a common understanding as to certain works. Two points of agreement with the reader are necessary to my present purpose; and these are, briefly stated:—(1) That no book is to be judged immoral by any other rule than its effects upon the moral mind, and (2) that the moral mind, temporarily defined, is one consistent with a certain standard accepted or established by itself, and situated at a decent height above prejudice. Bigotry is not morality.
     Morality in literature is, I think, far more intimately connected with the principle of sincerity of Vision, expounded by the editor of this Review, than any writer has yet had the courage to point out. Courage, indeed, is necessary, since there is no subject on which a writer is so liable to be misconceived. The subject, however, is not a difficult one, if we take sincerity of vision into consideration. Wherever there is insincerity in a book there can be no morality; and wherever there is morality, but without art, there is no literature.
     Nothing, we all know, is more common than clever writing; very clever writing, in fact, is the vice of contemporary literature. Everywhere is brilliance not generally known to be Brummagem; pasteboard marvels that glimmer like jewels down Mr. Mudie’s list. Genuine works of Art, however, are very rare; or if I write works of Heart, instead of Art, I shall express their general character as well, and lead more directly to the point on which I wish to dwell. It is so easy to get up a kaleidoscope: a few bits of stained glass, bright 290 enough to catch the eye, and well contrasted, are the chief ingredients. It is so difficult to find a truth to utter; and then, when the truth is found, how hard it is to utter it beautifully! That is only a portion of the labour besetting an earnest writer. Directly he has caught his truth, and feels competent to undertake the noble task of beautifying it, he has to ask his conscience if there be not in society some deeper truth against which the new utterance may offend; and hence arise the personal demands—“Have I a right to say these things? Do I believe in them with all my faculties of belief? Is my heart in them, and am I sure that I understand them clearly?” The moral mind must answer. If that replies in the affirmative, the minor question, of whether the truth will be palatable to society, is of no consequence. Let the words be uttered at all hazards, at all losses, and the gods will take care of the  rest. It may be remarked, that what the writer believed to be a truth is in all possibility a falsehood, immoral and dangerous. The reply is, that Nature in her wondrous wisdom for little things, regulates the immorality and the danger by a plan of her own, so delicate, so beautiful, as to have become part of the spirit of Art itself. A writer, for example, may believe with all his might that the legalisation of prostitution would be productive of good. He will do no harm by uttering his belief, founded as it is in his finest faculties, if he has weighed the matter thoroughly; and his book, though it may offend scores of respectable people, will be a moral book. If, on the other hand, the writer be hasty, insincere, writing under inadequate motives, he will be certain to betray himself, and every page of his book will offend against morality. For the conditions of expression are so occult, that no man can write immorally without being detected and exposed by the wise. His insincerity of vision in matters of conduct will betray itself in a hundred ways; for whatever be his mental calibre, we are in no danger of misconceiving the temper of his understanding. This fact, which connects the author’s morality with the sincerity of his vision, is at once the cultivated reader’s salvation against immoral effects from immoral books. What does not affect us as literature cannot affect our moral sensitiveness, and can therefore do no harm. So distinctly does Nature work, indeed, that what is one writer’s immorality, is the morality of another writer; so delicately does she work, that what shocks us in one book, plays lightly through the meaning of another, and gives us pleasure. An immoral subject, treated insincerely, leaves an immoral effect on those natures weak enough to be influenced by it at all. The same subject, treated with the power of genius and the delicacy of art, delights and exalts us; in the pure white light of the author’s sincerity, and the delicate tints of literary loveliness, the immoral point just shows distinctly enough to impress purely, without paining. All deep lovers of art must 291 have felt this in the “Cenci.” A moral idea, on the other hand—that is to say, an idea generally recognised as connected with morality—disgusts us, if it be treated insincerely. Every nerve of the reader is jarred; there is no pleasure, no exaltation of the spirit or intellect; and the moral sense feels numbed and blunted proportionally.
     The mere physical passion of man for woman is a case in point. The description of this passion in coarse hands is abominable; yet how many poems are alive with it, and with it alone! The early poems of Alfred de Musset are immoral and unreal, and consequently displeasing; some of the songs of Beranger are flooded with sensuality, yet, just because they are sincere, they do not impress us sensually. In Burns and Beranger, even in some of their coarsest moments, the physical passion is so real, that it brings at once before us the presence of the Man, and looking on him, we feel a thrill of finer human sympathy, in which the passion he is expressing cannot offend us. In the insincere writer, the passion is a gross thing; in the sincere writer, it becomes part of the life and colour of a human being. Thus finely does Nature prevent mere immorality from affecting the moral mind at all; while in dealing with men of real genius, she makes the immoral sentiment, saturated with poetry, breathe a fine aroma which stirs the heart not unpleasantly, and rapidly purifies itself as it mounts up to the brain.
     Certain books of great worth are of course highly injurious to minds unqualified to read them. Out of Boccaccio, whom our Chaucer loved, and from whose writings our Keats drew a comb of purest honey, many young men get nothing but evil. He who has gained no standard of his own, or whose ideas of life are base and brutal, had better content himself with Messrs. Chambers’ expurgated Shakspeare, and the good books let out of the local library. But a true lover of books, though he be not a mere student, may pass with clean feet through any path of literature, as safe in the gloomy region of Roman satire, as in the bright land of Una and the milk-white Lamb; he knows well that what is really shocking will not attract him, because it is sure to be shockingly, i.e. inartistically, uttered. He feels that what is not abominable, but somewhat removed from his own ideas of decency, will affect him merely in proportion to the sincerity and delicacy of the revelation, and cannot hurt him, because it is subdued or kept at a distance by the mental emotion which the sincerity and delicacy have imparted. It will not disconcert him, but make him love his own standard all the better. It is, in fact, only on account of sensualists and fools that one now and then wishes to throw some of his best books in the fire. If poor Boccaccio could only hear what Smith and Brown say about him! If La Fontaine only knew the moral indignation of Gigadibs!
     The list of so-called immoral books is very numerous. No writer, 292 perhaps, is less spoken about, and yet has more attraction for students, than Petronius Arbiter. What is the effect of Petronius on the moral mind? Not, I fervently believe, an immoral effect,—if we set aside certain passages which a reader “scunners” at, passes over, and obliterates from his memory. Yet the subject is impure in the highest degree; from Gito to Trimalchio every character in the satire is wicked. The satire is saved from worthlessness by the sincerity of its object. It does not carry us away, as Juvenal does; but it impresses us with a picture of the times, painful, no doubt, but no more likely to shock us than the history of the reign of Charles II.; then come the purer passages, irradiating and cheering us; and under all flows the deep delicious stream of the Latinity. Were the book not a satire, but a purposeless work of imagination, it would influence us otherwise, if we studied it at all. As it is, history steps up and makes Petronius moral. We end it with a strange image of the times when it was written; but the passages which we do not forget, or try to forget, are the pure ones, such as the delicious introductory speech on eloquence, and the description of the wonderful feast of Trimalchio. Juvenal is as gross, but he influences us far more splendidly. He carries us away, as I said above. When, as in the second satire, he launches his fierce blows at the Roman philosophers, who thinks of the coarser details? who is not full of the fiery energy which calls Vice by her name, and drags her naked through the Roman mire? When, in the sixth satire,1 he vents his thunderous spleen on women, who is not hurried along to the end? and who does not feel that the cry, coming when it did, was a sincere and salutary one?
     When I pass from the region of satire and come to Catullus, my feeling changes. It may sound very shocking to some of the hero-worshippers, but the “lepidum novum libellum” seems to me really an immoral work, and I wish that the dry pumice-stone had rubbed out at least half of the poems. For there is sufficient evidence in the purer portions to show that Catullus was wholly insincere when he wrote the fouler portions; that he was a man with splendid instincts, and a moral sense which even repeated indulgence in base things failed to obliterate. Read the poems to Lesbia,—

                             “— Lesbia illa,
Illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
Plus quam se, atque suos amavit omnes!”

Lesbia whom Cicero himself called “quadrantaria,” and who is yet immortal as Laura and Beatrice. This one passion, expressed in marvellous numbers, is enough to show what a heart was beating in the poet’s bosom. He who could make infamy look so beautiful

     (1) Which Dryden, a grand specimen of literary immorality, only translated under protest.

 

293 in the bright intensity of his love, was false and unreal when he stooped to hurl filth at his contemporaries, from Cæsar down to the Vibenii. His grossness is all purposeless, insincere, adopted in imitation of a society to which he was made immeasurably superior by the strength of that one passion. His love poems to Lesbia, coarse as they are in parts, leave on the reader an impression too pathetic, too beautiful, to be impure. Whether he bewails in half-plaintive irony the death of the sparrow, or sings in rapturous ecstasy, as in the fifth poem, or cries with agony to the gods, as in the lines beginning,—

“Si qua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas,
Est homini, quum se cogitat esse pium,”

he is in earnest, exhibiting all the depths of a misguided but noble nature. Only intense emotion, only grand sincerity, could have made a prostitute immortal; for immortality must mean beauty. Thus, with Catullus, as with others, Nature herself delicately beautifies for the reader subjects which would otherwise offend; and dignifies classical passion by the intensity of the emotion which she causes it to produce.


     It is an easy step from Catullus to La Fontaine. Catullus was an immoral man, lived an immoral life:—

“Quisquis versibus exprimit Catullum
Raro moribus exprimit Catonem!”

But what shall we say of the charming Frenchman, the child of nature, if ever child of nature existed? If we want to understand him at all, we must set English notions and modern prejudice to some extent aside. Look at the man, a man, as M. Taine calls him, “peu moral, médiocrement digne, exempt de grands passions et enclin au plaisir;”—“a trifler,” as he is contemptuously styled by Macaulay. He sought to amuse himself, and nothing more; loved good living, gambled, flirted, made verses, delighted in “bons vins et gentilles Gauloises.” He did not even hide his infidelities from his wife. If she was indignant, he treated her remarks jocosely. He wrote to Madame de la Fontaine that immediately on entering a place, when travelling, he inquired for the beautiful women; told of an amorous adventure in an alley; and said, speaking of the ladies of a certain town, “Si je trouve quelqu’un de ces chaperons qui couvre une jolie tête, je pourrai bien m’y assurer en passant et par curiosité seulement!” Like all gay men, he had his moments of despondency, but he was without depth. In spite of all this, he was capable of taking an independent attitude; and his devotion to his friends was as great as his infidelity to his wife. So he left behind him his “Fables” and “Tales”—pride and glory of the French nation. They are sincere, they are charming; they are full of flashes of true poetry; they are, 294 in fact, the agreeable written patter of La Fontaine himself. Is their effect immoral? I think not. We are so occupied with the manner of the teller, we are so amused with his piquancy and outspokenness, that we do not brood too long over the impure. The flashes of poetry and wit play around the “gaudriole,” and purify it unconsciously. La Fontaine sits before us in his easy chair. We see the twinkling of his merry eye, and we hear his wit tinkling against his subject—like ice tapping on the side of a beaker of champagne. We are brought up with much purer notions, but we cannot help enjoying the poet’s society—he is so straightforward, so genuine. We would not like to waste precious time in his company very often, but he is harmless. We must have a very poor opinion of ourselves if we think our moral tone can be hurt by such a shallow fellow.
     It would prove no more to prolong examples of this sort. As for modern French writers of the “immoral” school, they are an imitative and inferior set—only competent to hurt school-boys. George Sand, because she is not always sincere, has written immorally—in such trash as “Leone Levi,” for example; but where she has conferred literary splendour on illicit passion, where her words burn with the reality of a fiery nature, she has not shocked us—we have been so absorbed with the intensity of the more splendid emotion growing out of and playing over a subject deeply felt. The pleasure we have derived from her finer efforts in that direction has not been immoral in any true sense of that word; for the sincerity of the writer has caused the revelation of the agony, and made us feel glad that our own standards are happier. Inferior writers may grovel as much as they please, but we don’t heed them. We know their books are immoral, but we know also that they are not literature.
     A well-meaning and conscientious man will not unfrequently disseminate immoral ideas through deficiency of insight. The late Count de Vigny did so. In his translations of Shakspeare he softened all the coarse passages, and in many cases only rendered the indelicacy more insidious. But he sinned most outrageously in his boldest original effort, the play of Chatterton—“an austere work,” he says, “written in the silence of a labour of seventeen nights.” The hero, of course, is the young English poet. The play is a plea for genius against society. The plea sounds more effective in the high-flown preface than in the text which follows:—“When a man dies in this way,” says De Vigny, “is he then a suicide? No; it is society that flings him into the fire! . . . There are some things which kill the ideas first and the man afterwards: hunger, for example. . . . I ask society to do no more than she is capable of doing. I do not ask her to cure the pains of the heart, and drive away unhappy ideals—to prevent Werther and Saint Preux from loving Charlotte and Julie d’Etanges. There are, I know, a thousand miserable ideas over which 295 society has no control. The more reason, it seems to me, to think of those which she can cure. . . . One should not suffer those whose infirmity is inspiration to perish. They are never numerous, and I cannot help thinking they possess some value, since humanity is unanimous on the subject of their grandeur, and declares their verse immortal—when they are dead. . . . Let us cease to say to them, Despair and die. It is for legislation to answer this plea, one of the most vital and profound that can agitate society.” Unfortunately, poets starve still, and apologists like De Vigny have not made society one whit the kinder. As might have been expected, the play is full of puerilities. The Chatterton of De Vigny is a mere abstraction, cleverly conceived, no doubt, but no more like the real person than the real person was like a monk of the fifteenth century, or the French “Child of the Age.” He has been educated with the young nobility at Oxford, has taken to literature, and has fallen in love with “Kitty Bell”— who has several children by a brute of a husband. The only way he can devise to show his attachment is to give Kitty a Bible, and the first act ends with her soliloquy after receiving the same. “Why,” exclaims Mrs. Bell, “why, when I touched my husband’s hand, did I reproach myself for keeping this book? Conscience cannot be in the wrong. [She stands dreaming.] I will return it!” In the opinion of the French dramatist, it is exceedingly pathetic to find a married woman and London landlady falling in love with her lodger, and vastly probable to make certain lords go hunting, in Chatterton’s time, on Primrose Hill. Aggravated to frenzy by mingled hunger and love, the poet determines to kill himself; but is interrupted by the entrance of “Le Quaker,” a highly moral and sagacious person, who makes a great figure in the play. The two discourse on suicide. “What!” cries the Quaker at last, “Kitty Bell loves you! Non, will you kill yourself?” Whereas, in real life, any sensible fellow, even a Frenchman, would have said, “Far better kill yourself, my boy, than continue in this infatuation for a married woman.” Chatterton relents for the time being. He is afterwards rendered desperate, however, by Lord Mayor Bedford, a personage of whose authority De Vigny had the most exaggerated notions, and who offers the poor poet a situation as footman. “O my soul, I have sold thee!” cried Chatterton, when left to himself; “I purchase thee back with this.” And he thereupon drinks the opium. He then throws his manuscripts on the fire. “Go, noble thoughts, written for the ungrateful!” he exclaims; “be purified in the flame, and mount to heaven with   me!” At this point Kitty Bell enters the chamber, and much sweet sentiment is spoken. “Listen to me,” says the marvellous boy. “You have a charming family: do you love your children?” “Assuredly—more than life.” “Love your life, then, for the sake of those to whom you have given it.” “Alas! 296 ’tis not for their sakes that I love it.” “What is there more beautiful in the world, Kitty Bell?” asks Chatterton; “with those angels on your knees, you resemble Divine   Charity.” He at last tells her that he is a doomed man; whereupon she falls upon her knees, exclaiming, “Powers of Heaven, spare him!” He falls dead. Then again the Quaker makes his appearance, like the Moral incarnated; and at his back is John Bell, the brute of a husband. Kitty dies by the side of Chatterton; and the curtain falls as the Quaker cries, “In thine own kingdom, in thine own, O Lord, receive these two MARTYRS!”
     It would be tedious to point out the sickliness of the story, or to show further how utterly the simplicity of truth is destroyed by the false elements introduced to add to its pathos. So utterly unreal are the circumstances, that they impress Frenchmen as ludicrously as Englishmen; they are immoral, but harmless through very silliness. The play from beginning to end, in its feebleness and falsehood, is a fair specimen of what an incompetent man may do when dealing with a subject which he does not understand. He does not feel the truth, and therefore introduces elements to make it more attractive to his sympathies. He thinks he is saying a fine thing when he is uttering what merely awakens ridicule. He pronounces Pan superior to Apollo, and gets the asses’ ears for his pains; and the crown is so palpable to the eyes of all men, that nobody listens to his solemn judgments afterwards.
     Wherever great sin has found truly literary expression, that expression has contained the thrill of pain which touches and teaches. Wherever a gay sincere heart has chosen immoral subjects, and succeeded in making them not only tolerable but pleasant, Nature has stepped in with the magic of genius to spiritualise the impure. Where there is sin in literature and no suffering, the description is false, because in life the moral implication of sin is suffering; and whether a writer expresses the truth through actual experience, or mere insight, the effect is the same. Where immoral subjects have been treated gaily, in levity, without the purifying literary spirituality, the result has been worthless—it has ministered neither to knowledge nor to pleasure. And to what does all this, if admitted, lead? To the further admission that immoral writing proceeds primarily from insincerity of vision, and that nothing is worthy the name of literature which is decided on fair grounds to be immoral.
     It is easy to apply the broad test to some of our older authors, who have certainly used language pretty freely. We shall not go very far wrong if we pronounce many of the Elizabethan dramatists, and all the dramatists of the Restoration, to be immoral. Yet Shakspeare is occasionally as gross as any of his contemporaries; while Jonson, an inferior writer, though a straightforward and splendid nature, is singularly pure. I do not fancy, for my own part, that 297 we should lose much if Congreve and Wycherly were thrown on the fire. It is fortunate that few females read Mrs. Behn; filth on a woman’s lips shocks us infinitely more than filth on the lips of a man. No woman can utter a “gaudriole” and keep her soul feminine: she becomes a raving and sexless Atys. When we come to Swift we find a heap of coarse stuff, both in prose and verse; but is it immoral? As the bitter outpouring of a strangely little spirit, it is disagreeable, but it is real—if we except some of the worthless pieces and the worst portions of Gulliver. The descriptions in the latter part of Gulliver are immoral, because they are obviously insincere, and are therefore loathsome and injurious.
     For critics should insist upon the fact that literature is meant to minister to our finer mental needs through the medium of pleasurable sensation. I do not think it possible to over-rate the moral benefit to be gained by the frequent contemplation of beautiful and ennobling literature. But La Fontaine, as has been suggested, can awaken the sentiment of beauty—in his own way, in his own degree. On the other hand, the moral injury we receive, from the contemplation of things degrading and not beautiful, is also inestimable. In reading books it is easy to notice broad unrealities and indecencies, but very difficult indeed to recognise the poison coated with clean white diction. Mr. Tennyson might write a poem to-morrow which would be essentially immoral, and yet very hard to detect. In point of fact, being a man of genius, he would not do so, but if the thing were done, not many would be awake to it. It requires an occult judgment nowadays to find out immoral books.
     If an Englishman of to-day were to write like Catullus or Herrick, or to tell such tales as “La Berceau” of La Fontaine, or the Carpenter’s Wife of Chaucer, we should hound him from our libraries; and justly; because no Englishman, in the presence of our civilisation, with the advantage of our decisive finalities as to the decencies of language, could say to his conscience, “I have a right to say these things; I believe in them with all my faculties of belief; my heart is in them, and I am sure that I understand them clearly.” Our danger just now does not lie in that direction. There is no danger of our writers indulging in indecencies. Whatever our private life may be, our literature is singularly alive to the proprieties. As our culture has grown, as our ideas of decorum have narrowed, the immorality of books has been more and more disguised,—indeed, so well is it disguised at this time, that the writers themselves often fancy they are mixing up  aperients, not doses of wormwood. It is difficult to distinguish between harmless ether and Scheele’s preparation. A shower of immoral books pours out yearly; many of them are read by religious societies and praised by Bishops, and by far the larger number of them find favour with Mr. Mudie. 298 A new public has arisen, created by new schools of writers; and nowadays one must be careful how he throws out a hard truth, lest he hit the fretful head of the British matron. The immorality is of a different kind, but it works quite as perniciously in its own sphere as the immorality of modern French writers of the avowedly immoral school.
     The immorality I complain of in modern books is their untruth in matters affecting private conduct, their false estimates of character, the false impressions they convey concerning modern life in general, and especially with regard to the relations between the sexes. This immorality, of course, shows itself mainly in our fiction; though from our fiction it has spread into our religious writing and our philosophy. The main purpose of fiction is to please; and so widely is this felt, that a novel with an avowedly didactic purpose is very wisely avoided by the subscribers to the circulating libraries. Scott, the greatest novelist that ever lived, never stooped to so-called didactic writing at all, directly or indirectly; for he knew that to do so would have been to deny the value of fiction altogether, because true pictures need no dry tag to make them impress and teach. Thackeray was not quite so wise, being a so much smaller writer and inferior artist; he worked in his own peculiar fashion; yet he never pretended to be a didactic teacher. Didactic writing in novels, at the best, is like a moral printed underneath a picture, describing the things which, it is supposed, the reader ought to infer from the picture; or, like the commentaries bound in with some of the French translations of Goethe’s “Faust” and Dante’s “Inferno.” When, therefore, we see the announcement as “A Novel with a purpose,” we may pretty safely infer that it will serve no wise man’s purpose to read that novel.
     Setting purely didactic writers aside, we come to a class of writers who are directly under French influence, yet manage dexterously enough to deceive many of our Catos. A notable example is Miss Braddon. This lady has undoubted ability—ability destined for better things, we trust, in the future; she has seen a good deal of “life,” and she has a readable style—as grammatical, perhaps, as that of Thackeray! It would not be difficult to show in what respects “Aurora Floyd” and “Lady Audley’s Secret” are immoral; but, in point of fact, it is not necessary to examine that subject, because it is settled by simple literary criticism. Yet Miss Braddon, partly because she is not sufficiently sincere, and partly for other reasons, has not done any harm. The other reasons are simple. When Miss Braddon published the public was surfeited with watery works of fiction of the most decorously abominable kind. It gasped for a breath from Bohemia. Anything, anything but the eternal inhalation of platitudes, but the pitiless phlebotomising of literary doctors. The “moral” school of writing was a little indigestible. 299 It looked very crisp and enticing at first, but it turned out that it was made with lard instead of pure well-churned butter. Whereas real Morality is wholesome.
     Life is very hard and difficult, our personal relations with each other are complicated enough without the intrusion of puzzles and untruths from the circulating library. If novelists would only paint what they are convinced they thoroughly understand, and critics would only convict offenders more severely, we should soon be more comfortable. Does it ever strike some writers that the immoral effect of a false picture on a half-formed mind may be fatal to a body and a soul? Yet that is by no means too strong a way to put the case. Erroneous notions of men, drawn from books, ruin many women yearly, paralyse the understanding, numb the faculty of insight just as it is going to accumulate its own wisdom, confuse the whole prospect of life at the very outset. Vulgar Virtue turns out a brute daily, and chills the etherial temper of Sentimental Suffering, who, in an hour of adoration, has allied herself to him. Silent Endurance bears so much that we are suspicious; so we run a pin into his heart, and the heart bleeds—vinegar. As men and women advance in life they ascertain that happiness and beauty are not to be produced by a single faculty, but by the happy harmonious blending of all the faculties; that the hero in battle may make an atrocious husband, that vulgar virtue becomes tiresome when separated from spirituality, and that there are some things which fine natures cannot endure silently. This is not saying that a single faculty may not be remarkable and pleasing, that a hero is not a hero, that virtue is contemptible, that control over the emotions is not desirable, and even enviable. It means merely that the writers in question describe faculties and not characters; abstractions, not realities; not men and women, but peculiarities of men and women. The whole is lost in the part, and the effect is immoral in a high degree.
     A well-known instance in point may be given, and then illustrations may cease. Some years ago it was the custom for every novelist to make his hero and heroine personally handsome. The appearance of “Jane Eyre” was welcomed as a salutary protest, and a revolution was the consequence. For a considerable time afterwards ugly heroes and heroines were the rage; and the bookshop poured forth immoral books—immoral because they lied against a natural truth, that mere beauty is finer than mere ugliness, did not prove that nobility of nature is finer than mere beauty, did not tell that nobility of nature with beauty of form and feature is finer than nobility of nature without such beauty. At present the plan of many novelists is very funny. They adopt a medium. Ugly heroes and heroines, as well as handsome ones, have gone out of fashion. A hero now is “not what would strictly be termed beautiful; his features were faulty; 300 but there was—” any novel-reader will complete the sentence. In the same manner, a heroine, “although at ordinary times she attracted little attention, became, under the influence of emotion, so lovely that all the faults of feature were forgotten.” I fear I hardly do the novel-writers justice in these matters of description, but their own lively paintings are so well-known that my inability can cause them no injury.
     Against immoral books of all kinds there is but one remedy—severe and competent criticism. If, as I have endeavoured to point out, morality in literature is dependent on sincerity of vision, and if all immoral writing betrays itself by its insincerity, feebleness, and want of verisimilitude, the work of criticism is pretty simple. To prove a work immoral in any way but one, it would be necessary to have endless discussions as to what is, and what is not morality. The one way is to apply the purely literary test, and convince the public that the question of immorality need not be discussed at all, since it is settled by the decision that the work under review is not literature.

                                                                                                                                 ROBERT BUCHANAN.

_____

 

From David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on poetry - pp. 239-268.

 

LITERARY MORALITY.

 

IF by morality in literature, I imply merely the moral atmosphere to be inhaled from certain written thoughts of men and women, I would not be understood as publicly pinning my faith on any particular code of society, although such and such a code may form part of the standard of my private conduct; as confounding the cardinal virtues with the maxims of a cardiphonia—“omnia dicta factaque,” as Petronius says, “quasi papavere et sesamo sparsa.” The conduct of life is to a great extent a private affair, about which people will never quite agree. But books are public property, and their effect is a public question. It seems, at first sight, very difficult to decide what books may be justly styled 240 “immoral;” in other words, what books have a pernicious effect on readers fairly qualified to read them. Starting, however, agreed upon certain finalities—as is essential in every and any discussion—readers may come to a common understanding as to certain works. Two points of agreement with the reader are necessary to my present purpose; and these are, briefly stated:—(1) That no book is to be judged immoral by any other rule than its effects upon the moral mind, and (2) that the moral mind, temporarily defined, is one consistent with a certain standard accepted or established by itself, and situated at a decent height above prejudice. Bigotry is not morality.
     Morality in literature is, I think, far more intimately connected with the principle of sincerity of sight than any writer has yet had the courage to point out. Courage, indeed, is necessary, since there is no subject on which a writer is so liable to be misconceived. The subject, however, is not a difficult one, if we take sincerity of sight into consideration. Wherever there is insincerity in a book there can be no morality; 241 and wherever there is morality, but without art, there is no literature.
     Nothing, we all know, is more common than clever writing; very clever writing, in fact, is the vice of contemporary literature. Everywhere is brilliance not generally known to be Brummagem,—pasteboard marvels that glimmer like jewels down Mr. Mudie’s list. It is so easy to get up a kaleidoscope; a few bits of stained glass, bright enough to catch the eye, and well contrasted, are the chief ingredients. It is so difficult to find a truth to utter; and then, when the truth is found, how hard it is to utter it beautifully! That is only a portion of the labour besetting an earnest writer. Directly he has caught his truth, and feels competent to undertake the noble task of beautifying it, he has to ask his conscience if there be not in society some deeper truth against which the new utterance may offend; and hence arise the personal demands,—“Have I a right to say these things? Do I believe in them with all my faculties of belief? Is my heart in them, and am I sure that I understand them clearly?” The moral 242 mind must answer. If that replies in the affirmative, the minor question, of whether the truth will be palatable to society, is of no consequence. Let the words be uttered at all hazards, at all losses, and the gods will take care of the rest. It may be remarked, that what the writer believes to be a truth is in all possibility a falsehood, immoral and dangerous. The reply is, that Nature, in her wondrous wisdom for little things, regulates the immorality and the danger by a plan of her own, so delicate, so beautiful, as to have become part of the spirit of Art itself. A writer, for example, may believe with all his might that the legalisation of prostitution would be productive of good. He will do no harm by uttering his belief, founded as it is in his finest faculties, if he has weighed the matter thoroughly; and his book, though it may offend scores of respectable people, will be a moral book. If, on the other hand, the writer be hasty, insincere, writing under inadequate motives, he will be certain to betray himself, and every page of his book will offend against morality. For the conditions of expression are so 243 occult, that no man can write immorally without being detected and exposed by the wise. His insincerity of sight in matters of conduct will betray itself in a hundred ways; for whatever be his mental calibre, we are in no danger of misconceiving the temper of his understanding. This fact, which connects the author’s morality with the sincerity of his sight, is at once the cultivated reader’s salvation against immoral effects from immoral books. What does not affect us as literature cannot affect our moral sensitiveness, and can therefore do no harm. So distinctly does nature work, indeed, that what is one writer’s immorality, is the morality of another writer; so delicately does she work, that what shocks us in one book, plays lightly through the meaning of another, and gives us pleasure. An immoral subject, treated insincerely, leaves an immoral effect on those natures weak enough to be influenced by it at all. The same subject, treated with the power of genius and the delicacy of art, delights and exalts us; in the pure white light of the author’s sincerity, and the delicate tints of literary loveliness, the immoral point 244 just shows distinctly enough to impress purely, without paining. All deep lovers of art must have felt this in the “Cenci.” A moral idea, on the other hand,—that is to say, an idea generally recognized as connected with morality,—disgusts us, if it be treated insincerely. Every nerve of the reader is jarred; there is no pleasure, no exaltation of the spirit or intellect; and the moral sense feels numbed and blunted proportionally.
     The mere physical passion of man for woman is a case in point. The description of this passion in coarse hands is abominable; yet how many poems are alive with it, and with it alone! The early poems of Alfred de Musset are immoral and unreal, and consequently displeasing; some of the songs of Beranger are flooded with sensuality; yet, just because they are sincere, they do not impress us sensually.* In Burns

     * “I find a highly remarkable contrast to this Chinese novel in the ‘Chansons de Beranger,’ which have almost every one some immoral, licentious subject for their foundation, which would be extremely odious to me if managed by a genius inferior to Beranger; he, however, has succeeded in making them not only tolerable, but pleasing.”—GOETHE’S  Conversations, i. p. 350.

 

245 and Beranger, even in some of their coarsest moments, the physical passion is so real, that it brings before us at once the presence of the Man; and, looking on him, we feel a thrill of finer human sympathy, in which the passion he is expressing cannot offend us. In the insincere writer, the passion is a gross thing; in the sincere writer, it becomes part of the life and colour of a human being. Thus finely does Nature prevent mere immorality from affecting the moral mind at all; while, in dealing with men of real genius, she makes the immoral sentiment, saturated with poetry, breathe a fine aroma, which stirs the heart not unpleasantly, and rapidly purifies itself as it mounts up to the brain.
     Certain books of great worth are of course highly injurious to minds unqualified to read them. Out of Boccaccio, whom our Chaucer loved, and from whose writings our Keats drew a comb of purest honey, many young men get nothing but evil. He who has gained no standard of his own, or whose ideas of life are base and brutal, had better content himself with Messrs. Chambers’s expurgated Shakespeare, 246 and the good books lent out of the local library. But a true lover of books, though he be not a mere student, may pass with clean feet through any path of literature, as safe in the gloomy region of Roman satire as in the bright land of Una and the Milk-white Lamb: he knows well that what is really shocking will not attract him, because it is sure to be shockingly—i.e., inartistically—uttered. He feels that what is not abominable, but somewhat removed from his own ideas of decency, will affect him merely in proportion to the sincerity and delicacy of the revelation, and cannot hurt him, because it is subdued or kept at a distance by the mental emotion which the sincerity and delicacy have imparted. It will not disconcert him, but make him love his own standard all the better. It is, in fact, only on account of sensualists and fools that one now and then wishes to throw some of his best books in the fire. If poor Boccaccio could only hear what Smith and Brown say about him! If La Fontaine only knew the moral indignation of Gigadibs!
     The list of so-called immoral books is very 247 numerous. No writer, perhaps, is less spoken about, and yet has more attraction for students, than Petronius Arbiter. What is the effect of Petronius on the moral mind? Not, I fervently believe, an immoral effect—if we set aside certain passages which a reader “scunners” at, passes over, and obliterates from his memory. Yet the subject is impure in the highest degree: from Gito to Trimalchio, every character in the satire is wicked. The satire is saved from worthlessness by the sincerity of its object. It does not carry us away as Juvenal does; but it impresses us with a picture of the times—painful, no doubt, but no more likely to shock us than the history of the reign of Charles II: then come the purer passages, irradiating and cheering us; and under all flows the deep delicious stream of the Latinity. Were the book not a satire, but a purposeless work of imagination, it might influence us otherwise, if we studied it at all. As it is, History steps up, and makes Petronius moral. We end it with a strange image of the times when it was written; but the passages which we do not forget, or try to forget, are the pure ones, such 248 as the delicious introductory speech on eloquence, and the description of the wonderful feast of Trimalchio.
     Juvenal is as gross, but he influences us far more splendidly. He carries us away, as I said above. When, as in the second satire, he launches his fierce blows at the Roman philosophers, who thinks of the coarser details? who is not full of the fiery energy which calls Vice by her name, and drags her naked through the Roman mire? When, in the sixth   satire,* he vents his thunderous spleen on women, who is not hurried along to the end? and who does not feel that the cry, coming when it did, was a sincere and salutary one?
     When I pass from the region of satire and come to Catullus, my feeling changes. It may
sound very shocking to some of the hero-worshippers, but the “lepidum novum libellum,” seems to me really an immoral work, and I wish that the dry pumice-stone had rubbed out at

     * Which Dryden, a grand specimen of literary immorality, only translated under protest.

 

249 least half of the poems. For there is sufficient evidence in the purer portions to show that Catullus was wholly insincere when he wrote the fouler portions—that he was a man with splendid instincts, and a moral sense which even repeated indulgence in base things failed to obliterate. Read the poems to Lesbia:

                       Lesbia illa,
Illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
Plus quam se, atque suos amavit omnes!

Lesbia, whom (if we identify her with Clodia) Cicero himself called “quadrantaria,” and who is yet immortal as Laura and Beatrice. This one passion, expressed in marvellous numbers, is enough to show what a heart was beating in the poet’s bosom. He who could make infamy look so beautiful in the bright intensity of his love was false and unreal when he stooped to hurl filth at his contemporaries, from Cæsar down to the Vibenii. His grossness is all purposeless, weak, insincere, adopted in imitation of a society to which he was made immeasurably superior by the strength of that one passion. His love-poems to Lesbia, coarse as they are in 250 parts, leave on the reader an impression very different, —too pathetic, too beautiful, to be impure. Whether he bewails in half-plaintive irony the death of the sparrow, or sings in rapturous ecstasy, as in the fifth poem, or cries in agony to the gods, as in the lines beginning,—

Si qua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas,
Est homini, quum se cogitat esse pium,

he is in earnest, exhibiting all the depths of a misguided but noble nature. Only intense emotion, only grand sincerity, could have made a prostitute immortal: for immortality must mean beauty. Thus with Catullus, as with others, Nature herself delicately beautifies for the reader subjects which would otherwise offend; and dignifies classical passion by the intensity of the emotion which she causes it to produce.
     It is an easy step from Catullus to La Fontaine. Catullus was an immoral man—lived an immoral life:—

Quisquis versibus exprimit Catullum
Raro moribus exprimit Catonem!

But what shall we say of the charming Frenchman, 251 the child of Nature, if ever child of Nature existed? If we want to understand him at all, we must set English notions and modern prejudice to some extent aside. Look at the man—a man, as M. Taine calls him, “peu moral, médiocrement digne, exempt de grands passions et enclin au plaisir:” “a trifler,” as he is contemptuously styled by Macaulay. He sought to amuse himself, and nothing more; loved good-living, gambled,  flirted, made verses, delighted in “bons vins et gentilles Gauloises.” He did not even hide his infidelities from his wife. If she was indignant, he treated her remarks jocosely. He wrote to Madame de la Fontaine, that immediately on entering a place, when travelling, he inquired for the beautiful women; told of an amorous adventure in an alley; and said, speaking of the ladies of a certain town, “Si je trouve quelqu’un de ces chaperons qui couvre une jolie tête, je pourrai bien m’y assurer en passant et par curiosité seulement!” Like all gay men, he had his moments of despondency, but he was without depth. In spite of all this, he was capable of taking an independent attitude; 252 and his devotion to his friends was as great as his infidelity to his wife. So he left behind him his “Fables” and “Tales,”—pride and glory of the French nation. They are sincere—they are charming; they are full of flashes of true poetry; they are, in fact, the agreeable written patter of La Fontaine himself. Is their effect immoral? I think not. We are so occupied with the manner of the teller—we are so amused with his piquancy and outspokenness, that we do not brood too long over the impure. The flashes of poetry and wit play around the “gaudriole,” and purify it unconscientiously. La Fontaine sits before us in his easy chair. We see the twinkling of his merry eye, and we hear his wit tinkling against his subject—like ice tapping on the side of a beaker of champagne. We are brought up with much purer notions, but we cannot help enjoying the poet’s society—he is so straightforward, so genuine. We would not like to waste precious time in his company very often; but he is harmless. We must have a very poor opinion of ourselves if we think our moral tone can be hurt by such a shallow fellow.
253     It would prove no more to prolong examples of this sort. As for modern French writers of the “immoral” school, they are an imitative and inferior set—only competent to hurt schoolboys. George Sand, because she is not always sincere, has written immorally—in such trash as “Leone Levi,” for example; but where she has conferred literary splendour on illicit passion, where her words burn with the reality of a fiery nature—she has not shocked us—we have been so absorbed with the intensity of the more splendid emotion growing out of and playing over a subject deeply felt. The pleasure we have derived from her finer efforts in that direction has not been immoral in any true sense of the word; for the sincerity of the writer has caused the revelation of the agony, and made us feel glad that our own standards are happier. Inferior writers may grovel as much as they please, but we don’t heed them. We know their books are immoral, but we know also that they are not literature.
     A well-meaning and conscientious man will not unfrequently disseminate immoral ideas through deficiency of insight. The late Count de Vigny 254 did so. In his translations of Shakespeare he softened all the coarse passages, and in many cases only rendered the indelicacy more insidious. But he sinned most outrageously in his boldest original effort, the play of “Chatterton”—“An austere work,” he says, “written in the silence of a labour of seventeen nights.” The hero, of course, is the young English poet. The play is a plea for genius against society. The plea sounds more affective in the highflown preface than in the text which follows:—“When a man dies in this way,” says De Vigny, “is he then a suicide? No; it is society that flings him into the fire! . . . There are some things which kill the ideas first and the man afterwards: hunger, for example. . . . I ask society to do no more than she is capable of doing. I do not ask her to cure the pains of the heart, and drive away unhappy ideals—to prevent Werther and Saint Preux from loving Charlotte and Julie d’Etanges. There are, I know, a thousand miserable ideas over which society has no control. The more reason, it seems to me, to think of those which she can cure. . . . One should not suffer those 255 whose infirmity is inspiration to perish. They are never numerous, and I cannot help thinking they possess some value, since humanity is unanimous on the subject of their grandeur, and declares their verse immortal—when they are dead. . . . Let us cease to say to them, Despair and die. It is for legislation to answer this plea, one of the most vital and profound that can agitate society.” Unfortunately, poets starve still, and apologists like De Vigny have not made society one whit the kinder. As might have been expected, the play is full of puerilities. The “Chatterton” of De Vigny is a mere abstraction, cleverly conceived, no doubt, but no more like the real person than the real person was like a monk of the fifteenth century, or the French “Child of the Age.” He has been educated with the young nobility at Oxford, has taken to literature, and has fallen in love with “Kitty Bell,” who has several children by a brute of a husband. The only way he can devise to show his attachment is to give Kitty a Bible, and the first act ends with her soliloquy after receiving the same. “Why,” exclaims Mrs. Bell, “why, when I 256 touched my husband’s hand, did I reproach myself for keeping this book? Conscience cannot be in the wrong. (She stands dreaming.) I will return it.” In the opinion of the French dramatists, it is exceedingly pathetic to find a married woman and London landlady falling in love with her lodger, and vastly probable to make certain lords go hunting, in Chatterton’s time, on Primrose Hill. Aggravated to frenzy by mingled hunger and love, the poet determines to kill himself; but is interrupted by the entrance of “Le Quaker,” a highly moral and sagacious person, who makes a great figure in the play. The two discourse on suicide. “What!” cries the Quaker at last, “Kitty Bell loves you! Now, will you kill yourself?” Whereas, in real life, any sensible fellow, even a Frenchman, would have said, “Far better kill yourself, my boy, than continue in this infatuation for an elderly married woman.” Chatterton relents for the time being. He is afterwards made desperate, however, by Lord Mayor Beckford, a personage of whose authority De Vigny had the most exaggerated notions, and who offers the poor poet 257 a situation as footman. “O my soul, I have sold thee!” cried Chatterton, when left to himself; “I purchase thee back with this.” And he thereupon drinks the opium. He then throws his manuscripts on the fire. “Go, noble thoughts, written for the ungrateful!” he exclaims; “be purified in the flame, and mount to heaven with me!” At this point Kitty Bell enters the chamber, and much sweet sentiment is spoken. “Listen to me,” says the marvellous boy. “You have a charming family: do you love your children?” “Assuredly—more than life.” “Love your life, then, for the sake of those to whom you have given it.” “Alas! ’tis not for their sakes that I love it.” “What is there more beautiful in the world, Kitty Bell?” asks Chatterton; “with those angels on your knees, you resemble divine Charity.” He at last tells her that he is a doomed man; whereupon she falls upon her knees, exclaiming, “Powers of heaven, spare him!” He falls dead. Then again the Quaker makes his appearance, like the moral incarnated; and at his back is John Bell, the brute of a husband. Kitty dies by the side of Chatterton; 258 and the curtain falls as the Quaker cries, “In thine own kingdom, in thine own, O Lord, receive these two MARTYRS!”
     It would be tedious to point out the sickliness of the story, or to show further how utterly the simplicity of truth is destroyed by the false elements introduced to add to its pathos. So utterly unreal are the circumstances, that they impress Frenchmen as ludicrously as Englishmen; they are immoral, but harmless through very silliness. The play from beginning to end, in its feebleness and falsehood, is a fair specimen of what an incompetent man may do when dealing with a subject which he does not understand. He does not feel the truth, and therefore introduces elements to make it more attractive to his sympathies. He thinks he is saying a fine thing when he is uttering what merely awakens ridicule. He pronounces Pan superior to Apollo, and gets the asses’ ears for his pains; and the crown is so palpable to the eyes of all men, that nobody listens to his solemn judgments afterwards.
     Wherever great sin has found truly literary expression, that expression has contained the 259 thrill of pain which touches and teaches. Wherever a gay sincere heart has chosen immoral subjects, and succeeded in making them (as Goethe expressed it) not only tolerable but pleasant, Nature has stepped in with the magic of genius to spiritualise the impure. Where there is sin in literature and no suffering, the description is false, because in life the moral implication of sin is suffering; and whether a writer expresses the truth through actual experience, or mere insight, the effect is the same. Where immoral subjects have been treated gaily, in levity, without the purifying literary spirituality, the result has been worthless,—it has ministered neither to knowledge nor to pleasure. And to what does all this, if admitted, lead? To the further admission that immoral writing proceeds primarily from insincerity of sight, and that nothing is worthy the name of literature which is decided on fair grounds to be immoral.
     It is easy to apply the broad test to some of our older authors, who have certainly used language pretty freely. We shall not go very far 260 wrong if we pronounce many of the Elizabethan dramatists, and all the dramatists of the Restoration, to be immoral. Yet Shakespeare is occasionally as gross as any of his contemporaries; while Jonson, an inferior writer, though a straightforward and splendid nature, is singularly pure. I do not fancy, for my own part, that we should lose much if Congreve and Wycherly were thrown on the fire. It is fortunate that few females read Mrs. Behn. When we come to Swift we find a heap of coarse stuff, both in prose and verse; but is it immoral? As the bitter outpouring of a strangely little spirit, it is disagreeable, but it is real—if we except some of the worthless pieces and the worst portions of Gulliver. The descriptions in the latter part of Gulliver are immoral, because they are obviously  insincere, and are therefore loathsome and injurious.
     For critics should insist upon the fact that literature is meant to minister to our finer mental needs through the medium of spiritualized sensation. I do not think it possible to over-rate the moral benefit to be gained by the frequent contemplation of beautiful and ennobling literature. 261 But La Fontaine, as has been suggested, can awaken the sentiment of beauty—in his own little way, in his own degree. On the other hand, the moral injury we receive, from the contemplation of writings degrading and not beautiful, is also inestimable. In reading books it is easy to notice broad unrealities and indecencies, but very difficult indeed to recognise the poison coated with clean white diction. Mr. Tennyson might write a poem to-morrow which would be essentially immoral, and yet very hard to detect. In point of fact, being a man of genius, he would not do so; but if the thing were done, not many would be awake to it. It requires an occult judgment now-a-days to find out immoral books.
     If an Englishman of to-day were to write like Catullus or Herrick, or to tell such tales as “La Berceau” of La Fontaine, or the “Carpenter’s Wife” of Chaucer, we should hound him from our libraries; and justly, because no Englishman, in the presence of our civilization, with the advantage of our decisive finalities as to the decencies of language, could say to his conscience, “I have a right to say these things; I believe in them 262 with all my faculties of belief; my heart is in them, and I am sure that I understand them clearly.” Our danger just now does not lie in that direction. There is no danger of our writers indulging in indecencies. Whatever our private life may be, our literature is singularly alive to the proprieties. As our culture has grown, as our ideas of decorum have narrowed, the immorality of books has been more and more disguised, indeed, so well is it disguised at this time, that the writers themselves often fancy they are mixing up aperients, not doses of wormwood. A shower of immoral books pours out yearly; many of them are read by religious societies and praised by bishops, and by far the larger number of them find favour with Mr. Mudie. A new public has arisen, created by new schools of writers; and now-a-days one must be careful how he throws out a hard truth, lest he hit the fretful head of the British matron. The immorality is of a different kind, but it works quite as perniciously in its own sphere as the immorality of modern French writers of the avowedly immoral school.
     The immorality I complain of in modern books 263 is their untruth in matters affecting private conduct, their false estimates of character, the false impressions they convey concerning modern life in general, and especially with regard to the relations between the sexes. This immorality, of course, shows itself mainly in our fiction; though from our fiction it has spread into our religious writing and our philosophy. The main purpose of fiction is to please; and so widely is this felt, that a novel with an avowedly didactic purpose is very wisely avoided by the subscribers to the circulating libraries. Scott, the greatest novelist that ever lived, never stooped to so-called didactic writing at all, directly or indirectly; for he knew that to do so would have been to deny the value of fiction altogether, because true pictures need no dry tag to make them impress and teach. Thackeray was not quite so wise, being a so much smaller writer and inferior artist; he worked in his own peculiar fashion; yet he never pretended to be a didactic teacher. Didactic writing in novels, at the best, is like a moral printed underneath a picture, describing the things which, it is supposed, the reader ought to infer from the 264 picture; or, like the commentaries bound in with some of the French translations of Goethe’s “Faust” and Dante’s “Inferno.” When, therefore, we see the announcement as “A Novel with a Purpose,” we may pretty safely infer that it will serve no wise man’s purpose to read that novel.
     Life is very hard and difficult, our personal relations with each other are complicated enough without the intrusion of puzzles and untruths from the circulating library. If novelists would only paint what they are convinced they thoroughly understand, and critics would only convict offenders more severely, we should soon be more comfortable. Erroneous notions of men, drawn from books, ruin many women yearly, paralyse the understanding, numb the faculty of insight just as it is going to accumulate its own wisdom, confuse the whole prospect of life at the very outset. Vulgar Virtue (hero  No. 1) turns out a brute daily, and chills the ethereal temper of Sentimental Suffering (heroine No. 1), who, in an hour of adoration, has allied herself to him. Silent Endurance (hero No. 2) bears 265 so much that we are suspicious; so we run a pin into his heart, and the heart bleeds—vinegar. As men and women advance in life they ascertain that happiness and beauty are not to be produced by a single faculty, but by the happy harmonious blending of all the faculties; that the hero in battle may make an atrocious husband, that vulgar virtue becomes tiresome when separated from spirituality, and that there are some things which fine natures cannot endure silently. This is not saying that a single faculty may not be remarkable and pleasing, that a hero is not a hero, that virtue is contemptible, that control over the emotions is not desirable, and even enviable. It means merely that the writers in question describe faculties and not characters; abstractions, not realities; not men and women, but peculiarities of men and women. The whole is lost in the part, and the effect is immoral in a high degree.
     A well-known instance in point may be given, and then illustrations may cease. Some years ago it was the custom for every novelist to make his hero and heroine personally handsome. The 266 appearance of “Jane Eyre” was welcomed as a salutary protest, and a revolution was the consequence. For a considerable time afterwards ugly heroes and heroines were the rage; and the bookshop poured forth immoral books—immoral because they lived against a natural truth, that mere beauty is finer than mere ugliness, did not prove that nobility of nature is finer than mere beauty, did not tell that nobility of nature without such beauty. At present the plan of many novelists is very funny. They adopt a medium. Ugly heroes and heroines, as well as handsome ones, have gone out of fashion. A hero now is “not what would strictly be termed beautiful; his features were faulty; but there was—” any novel-reader will complete the sentence. In the same manner, a heroine, “although at ordinary times she attracted little attention, because, under the influence of emotion, so lovely that all the faults of feature were forgotten.” I fear I hardly do the novel-writers justice in these matters of description, but their own lively paintings are so well known that my inability can cause them no injury.
267     Against immoral books of all kinds there is but one remedy—severe and competent criticism. If, as I have endeavoured to point out, morality in literature is dependent on sincerity of sight, and if all immoral writing betrays itself by its insincerity, feebleness, and want of verisimilitude, the work of criticism is pretty simple. To prove a work immoral in any way but one, it would be necessary to have endless discussion as to what is, and what is not morality. The one way is to apply the purely literary test, and convince the public that the question of immorality need not be discussed at all, since it is settled by the decision that the work under review is not literature.

 

NOTE.

     The bulk of the preceding paper appeared some time since in the Fortnightly Review, and attracted considerable criticism. There are only a few words to be said in further defence of a “theory” which never pretended to be exhaustive. Of the kindly critic (Spectator) who, citing Goethe and others, alleged that sincere work is often more insidious in its immorality than inferior and insincere work, it may be asked—is he not setting up the 268 final and arbitrary system of ethics which I disclaim at the outset,—by which Goethe’s “self-love” and the like is to be adjudged “immoral?” How is a man’s work to be proven immoral because it honestly clothes his natural instincts in artistic language? To another ingenious writer (Contemporary Review) who, in rebuking what he called my “love for the gaudriole” defined morality as faithfulness to the tendencies of one’s time, I have nothing to reply save that a further examination of the preceding may show him that we do not disagree so thoroughly as his habit of dissecting cobwebs leads him to imagine. Other and hastier critics have merely gone over objections which had previously occurred to myself, and which are far too numerous to be mentioned here.

_____

 

The Saturday Review (29 September, 1866 - Vol. XXII, pp. 386-387)

SINCERITY IN LITERATURE.

AN essay on “Immorality in Authorship,” by Mr. Robert Buchanan, in the last number of the Fortnightly Review, would be worth examining if only for its quaint illustration of that passion for symmetry which exercises such resistless influence over certain minds. There are people whose appreciation of a truth seems to depend upon its capability of being neatly rounded off and closely packed in a convenient formula. To subject it to any conditions or limitations is, in their estimation, to spoil its portability and shape. It must be, like Aristotle’s wise man, a “blameless cube,” smooth and polished on all sides, offering no irregular angularities awkward for the pocket or unpleasant to the eye. And as, unluckily for these passionate lovers of symmetry, truth is not always thus conveniently compressible, they are occasionally driven to treat it after a somewhat tyrannical Procrustean fashion, and get rid of angularities by a rough-and-ready process of rubbing them off. How far the truth is improved by the process depends upon what standard of perfection you take. From one point of view, no doubt, a few touches of the scissors would vastly improve a daddy-longlegs; from being straggling and incompressible it would become at once neat and rotund. Not that these followers of Procrustes are, like him, conscious of their tyranny. They would probably say that they are not clipping truth but condensing it—reducing it to its very marrow and essence until it attains that simplicity which has been declared to be the soul of philosophy, and which makes it as easily and universally applicable as a patent pill, or the skilfully-prepared beef-lozenge which enables the traveller to carry an ox in his waistcoat pocket.
     All who admire dexterous manipulation of this kind will be charmed with the essay of Mr. Buchanan; and even those who are not gifted with his “philosophical hankering after unity,” and who consider symmetry on the whole less important than accuracy, will owe him gratitude for the courage and clearness with which he has put forward a theory of criticism that peculiarly needs to be impressed upon this generation. The theory, if not altogether new, is at any rate so out of keeping with current traditions that it has for the present age all the value of novelty; and it is moreover so calculated to startle and scandalize many worthy people, even in its mildest form, that Mr. Buchanan deserves great credit for the intrepidity with which he has carried it out to what he considers its legitimate lengths. In its milder and, as we consider, its only tenable form, the theory briefly is that “sincerity” is the true test of literary morality; that, however sound and salutary in itself may be the view which an author undertakes to enforce, his book, so far from possessing in virtue of this fact any claim to be considered moral, is not only not moral, but is positively immoral, if his treatment is “insincere.” If there are any to whom Mr. Buchanan’s doctrine thus nakedly put looks somewhat like a truism, let them reflect upon the multitude of books which in these days are unhesitatingly classed under the head of “moral,” but which this doctrine at once condemns; and whether they agree with it or not, they will at least appreciate the importance and novelty of the conclusions to which it leads. There is scarcely one of the so-called religious novels of the present day which it does not condemn, since, in nearly all, the author, instead of taking facts as he finds them, deliberately shapes them to suit a preconceived end. He starts with the intention of inculcating some particular creed, and he naturally makes this creed the touchstone by which to choose, reject, or modify the facts which come in his way. We instance the religious novel, partly because its author is under peculiar temptations to be thus “insincere,” and partly because it brings out into strongest relief the contrast between Mr. Buchanan’s standard of literary morality and the conventional standard of the day. There are few pious people who would not readily pardon an author for deliberately taking an exaggerated or distorted view of life—for being, that is, guilty of “insincerity”—provided this view subserved a religious end. Most of our readers must have somewhere met a very popular and would-be pious little tract about a good naval lieutenant, who, when his wife is frightened at a storm, recalls her to a sense of her impious distrust in Providence by suddenly dragging her on deck and brandishing a naked sword at her breast. She displays no alarm at this melodramatic proceeding, and explains her fearlessness by saying that she knows her husband loves her far too well to hurt her; whereupon the good lieutenant lowers the sword, and asks if her husband’s love for her is equal to that of God. Nothing could well be more untrue to life, and therefore more insincere—especially as it is usually related as a “fact ”—than this good little story; and yet many worthy people have been greatly edified by it, and have never for a moment thought of questioning, far less condemning, its glaring neglect of conformity to truth, simply because they heartily approve of the doctrine it was invented to enforce. We admit that we have taken a case exceptional in its extreme absurdity, but the vicious and “immoral” treatment which it serves to illustrate pervades in greater or less degree the whole class of religious novels. Even in such novels as the best of Miss Yonge’s—novels in many respects so admirable—it is impossible not to feel that the author’s treatment is, from Mr. Buchanan's point of view, too frequently insincere. The actual aspects of real life are painfully discoloured, in order to bring out in the strongest light some pet moral. The welfare of nations is made to depend mainly on the due observance of, let us say, the fifth commandment and a young lady who conceals a love affair from her parents is held up to as much abhorrence, and visited with as much misery, as if she were a parricide. It thunders whenever a Jew eats pork, and raging lions devour the naughty boy who tears his little sister’s pinafore. The intention of these so-called moral writers may be thoroughly honest and good; the theory they wish to convey may be in the highest degree salutary; but nevertheless they are guilty of immorality whenever, in works the proper and professed object of which is to represent life, they represent life, not as it is, but as they think it ought to be, and as they would like it to be.
     But though the religious novel supplies perhaps the most frequent and most conspicuous violation of Mr. Buchanan’s theory, offenders are to be found in all professions and ranks. “A shower of immoral books pours out yearly; many of them are read by religious societies, and praised by bishops, and by far the larger number of them find favour with Mr. Mudie.” “The immorality I complain of in modern books is their untruth in matters affecting private conduct, their false estimates of character, the false impressions they convey concerning modern life in general, and especially with regard to the relations between the sexes.” The illustration which Mr. Buchanan gives of this “immorality” is at once humorous and apt. He cites the rage for ugly heroes and heroines which the popularity of Jane Eyre introduced. To make your hero systematically ugly merely because preceding novelists have systematically made him handsome, is not only untrue to nature, but it further substitutes, deliberately and immorally, for life itself a purely conventional mode of viewing life. Charlotte Brontë set the example in precisely the same spirit as that which prompts a. sectarian writer to improve upon whatever in life seems dangerous, and give undue prominence to whatever seems safe and good to be taught. She thought it “wicked” to make the heroes and heroines of a novel necessarily handsome, and thus originated the still more indefensible theory that they ought to be ugly—a theory which no less violates probability, and further, as Mr. Buchanan points out, implicitly “lies against a natural truth that mere beauty is finer than mere ugliness, that nobility of nature with beauty of form and feature is finer than nobility of nature without such beauty.” Charlotte Brontë’s intention was harmless enough, but, inasmuch as she was consciously untrue to nature, it does not matter, so far as the charge of insincerity is concerned, whether her intention was good or bad. Insincerity is, under all circumstances, in itself sufficient proof of literary immorality.
     So far we are heartily agreed with Mr. Buchanan, and we welcome this unfamiliar and elevated standard of literary morality as an immense improvement upon the standard by which books are nowadays usually classified into moral or immoral. But when, not content with showing that nothing is moral that is insincere, Mr. Buchanan argues that nothing is immoral that is sincere, we must confess that we find ourselves utterly at a loss even to comprehend him. No doubt this symmetrical antithesis rounds off his theory to a perfection of polish and neatness, making sincerity as easy and applicable a test in all cases of literary immorality as a patent pill in all cases of disease. But these advantages seem to us to be purchased rather dearly. We should be very sorry to do Mr. Buchanan any injustice, and we therefore honestly confess that, if he has wrought out in his own mind a clear and consistent conception of what he means when he maintains that sincerity protects a book from being immoral, from exercising an injurious effect upon the moral mind, we have completely failed to grasp it. Nearly all his illustrations only serve to bewilder us, and to make us suspect that he uses the word “sincerity” in a sense which involves him, not merely in the strangest confusion of thought, but even in downright self-contradiction. He places Petronius Arbiter and Juvenal, for instance, side by side—apparently because they were both satirists—and declares that they have not an immoral effect upon the moral mind, because they were both sincere; as if there were any sort of comparison, on moral grounds, between the sincerity of a writer who enjoys and shares the immorality which he satirizes, and the sincerity of a writer who stands aloof from and abhors it. The former is the sincerity, if Mr. Buchanan likes so to term it, of the artist who, in conscientious devotion to his art, produces a picture in harmony with truth; and, even where the subject treated is impure, the treatment may be so artistic as to awaken, in the highly cultivated mind, a sense of beauty that puts all impure associations to flight. A scholar may possibly derive so much pure intellectual pleasure from the grace and sparkle of Petronius as to lose sight altogether of his indecency. This is, in fact, the only meaning we can, despite our utmost efforts, extract from all that Mr. Buchanan says about sincere writing producing no immoral effect upon the moral mind. But, in the first place, it seems to us a strange abuse of language, amounting almost to cant, to attribute this effect upon the mind to the artist’s sincerity, which, so far from being its essential cause, may exist in full force without producing it. An artist may be thoroughly sincere, and yet may fail from sheer want of power, from an infirmity that is strictly intellectual, not moral, to produce a picture perfect enough to awaken that sense of beauty which purifies an immoral subject. Mr. Buchanan, with curious inconsistency, concedes this point, and thus implicitly contradicts himself, when he says that “a well-meaning and conscientious man will not unfrequently disseminate immoral ideas through deficiency of insight.” If there is any sense in words, a well-meaning and conscientious man is surely sincere; and hence sincerity, by Mr. Buchanan’s own showing, is no safeguard against immorality. In the second place, what conceivable connection is there between this so-called sincerity of the writer who works in the region of art, and the genuine sincerity of him who works in the region of morals? It is an odd confusion of thought to suppose that Juvenal is not immoral because he is sincere in the sense in which an artist, who succeeds in producing a picture faithful to nature, is styled by Mr. Buchanan sincere. Juvenal is moral as a satirist, not as an artist. He must be judged not by what he does, but by what he intends, and his intention might have been equally good though his picture of Roman life had been ever so inartistic and poor. Mr. Buchanan is guilty of a still graver confusion of thought when he declares that, if a man advocates the legalization of prostitution, his work produces no immoral effect on the mind unless he is insincere. We are here in the domain, not of imagination, but of reason. Mr. Buchanan can scarcely mean that even the magical virtue of sincerity can enable a man so to conduct an argument about prostitution as to make it a work of art, awakening ideas of beauty that ennoble and refine the subject which it treats. If it does accomplish this object, then it misses its legitimate object—namely, that of appealing to the reason, not the imagination. If it does not accomplish this object, then there is no more similarity between the sincerity which, according to Mr. Buchanan, saves Petronius Arbiter, La Fontaine, and George Sand from being immoral, and the sincerity of the honest advocate of legalized prostitution, than there is between the sincerity of Petronius and that of Juvenal. In the domain of imagination, sincerity—although it is not, as Mr. Buchanan holds, necessarily an effectual safeguard against immorality—is nevertheless such a safeguard usually, since it is a guarantee that the artist will conscientiously consult the interests of his art; and the more he does this the more likely is he to produce a work that will exercise a purifying influence upon the whole mind. But in the domain of reason, the more sincere a writer is, the more likely he is to carry conviction, whether his doctrines be moral or immoral. We can only account for this incongruous jumble of ideas which cannot, in such an inquiry as this, be kept too distinct, by supposing that Mr. Buchanan has been confused by his abuse of the word sincerity.
     If space permitted, it would be amusing to follow out this fanciful doctrine of Mr. Buchanan’s into some of its natural consequences. They are startling enough to astonish the most strong-minded reader. If, for instance, we understand him rightly, Catullus was an immoral writer because he was a “man of splendid instincts.” “There is sufficient evidence in the purer portions (of what he wrote) to show that he was insincere in the fouler portions.” If so, it would seem to follow, first, that his “splendid instincts” make his writings immoral; and, secondly, that had the “purer portions” by some unlucky accident been lost, Mr. Robert Buchanan, having only the “fouler portions” to judge from, might at this moment in all innocence be extolling the immoral Catullus as a writer no less moral than Petronius Arbiter or George Sand. Elsewhere we are told that Miss Braddon has not done harm, “partly because she is not sufficiently sincere.” We must assuredly have done Mr. Buchanan’s “sincerity” theory gross injustice when we compared it to a patent pill, for no pill that we ever heard of professes to create or cure, according to the taste and fancy of the artist, the same disease. Yet the want of sincerity, it seems, makes one writer safe and another dangerous. However, it is scarcely worth while to follow this Protean theory any further. It is to be regretted that Mr. Buchanan, in the effort to produce a theory at once symmetrical and original, should have marred the effect of the valuable truth which his essay contains by mixing up with it so much which despite the vigorous and pointed language in which it is clothed, bears a most suspicious resemblance to nonsense, and that too of a kind calculated to produce a decidedly immoral effect even upon the moral mind.

_____

 

Back to Essays

 

Home
Biography
Bibliography

 

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

Links
Site Diary
Site Search