Does any shame still haunt the age of bronze—a shame, the lingering blush of a heroic age, at being caught in doing anything merely for amusement? Is there a public still extant which needs to excuse its delinquencies by the one story of a man who liked to lie on the sofa all day and read novels, though he could, at time of need, write the gravest didactics! Live they still, those reverend signiors, the object of secret smiles to our childish years, who were obliged to apologize for midnight oil spent in conning story books, by the “historic bearing” of the novel, or the “correct and admirable descriptions of certain countries, with climate, scenery and manners therein contained,” wheat for which they, industrious students, were willing to winnow bushels of frivolous love-adventures? We know not—but incline to think the world is now given over to frivolity so far as to replace by the novel the minstrel’s ballad, the drama, and worse still, the games of agility and strength in which it once sought pastime, for indeed, mere pass-time is sometimes needed. The nursery legend comprised a primitive truth of the understanding and the wisdom of nations in the lines—
But, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
We having reversed the order of arrangement to suit our present purpose. For we, O useful reader, being ourselves so far of the useful class as to be always wanted somewhere, have also to fight a good fight for our amusements, either with the foils of excuse, like the reverend signiors above mentioned, or with the sharp weapons of argument, or maintenance of a view of our own without argument, which we take to be the sharpest weapon of all.
Thus far do we defer to the claims of the human race, with its myriad of useful errands to be done, that we read most of our novels in the long sunny days, which call all beings to chirp and nestle or fly abroad as the birds do, and permit the very oxen to ruminate gently in the just-mown fields.
On such days it was well, we think, to read “Sybil or the Two Worlds.” We have always felt great interest in D’Israeli. He is one of the many who share the difficulty of our era, which Carlyle says, quoting, we believe, from his master, consists in unlearning the False in order to arrive at the True. We think these men, when they have once taken their degree, can be of far greater use to their brethren than those who have always kept their instincts unperverted.
In ‘Vivian Grey,’ the young D’Israeli, an educated Englishman, but with the blood of sunnier climes glowing and careering in his veins, gave us the very flower and essence of factitious life. That book sparkled and frothed, like champagne; like that, too, it produced no dull and imbecile state by its intoxications, but one witty, genial, spiritual even. A deep soft melancholy thrilled through its gay mockeries; the eyes of Nature glimmered through the painted mask; and a nobler ambition was felt beneath the follies of petty success and petty vengeance. Still the chief merit of the book, as a book, was the light and decided touch with which he took up the follies and the poesies of the day, and brought them all before us. The excellence of the foreign part, with its popular superstitions, its deep passages in the glades of the summer woods, and above all, the capital sketch of the prime minister, with his original whims and secret history of romantic sorrows, were beyond the appreciation of most readers.
Since then, D’Israeli has never written any thing to be compared with this first jet of the fountain of his mind in the sunlight of morning. ‘The Young Duke’ was full of brilliant sketches, and showed a soul struggling, blinded by the gaudy mists of fashion, for realities. ‘The Wondrous Tale of Alroy’ showed great power in conception, though, in execution, it is a failure. ‘Henrietta Temple,’ Mr. Willis with his usual justness of perception, has praised as containing a collection of the best love-letters ever written, and which show that excellence, signal and singular among the literary tribe, of which D’Israeli never fails, of daring to write a thing down exactly as it rises in his mind.
Now he has come to be a leader of Young England and a rooted plant upon her soil. If the performance of his prime do not entirely correspond with the brilliant lights of its dawn, it is yet aspiring, and with a large kernel of healthy nobleness in it.—D’Israeli shows now not only the heart but the soul of a Man. He cares for all Men. He wishes to care wisely for all.
‘Coningsby’ was full of talent, yet its chief interest lay in this aspiration after reality, and the rich materials taken from contemporary life. There is nothing in it good after the original manner of D’Israeli, except the sketches of Eton, and, above all, the noble school-boy’s letter. The picture of the Jew, so elaborately limned, is chiefly valuable as affording keys to so many interesting facts.
“Sybil” is an attempt to do justice to the claims of the laboring classes and investigate the duties of those, in whose hands the money is at present, toward the rest. It comes to no result; it only exhibits some truths in a more striking light than heretofore. D’Israeli shows the taint of old prejudice in the necessity he felt to marry the daughter of the People to one not of the People. Those worthy to be distinguished must still have good blood, or rather old blood, for what is called good needs now to be renovated from a homelier source. But his leaders must have old blood; the fresh Ichor, the direct flow from Heaven, is not enough to animate their lives to the deeds now needed.
D’Israeli is another of those who give testimony in behalf of our favorite idea that a leading feature of the new era will be in new and higher developments of the feminine character. He looks at women as a man does, who is truly in love. He does not paint them well, that is, not with profound fidelity to nature. But, ideally, he sees them well, for they are to him the inspirers and representatives of what is holy, tender, and simply great.
There are good sketches of the manufacturers at home, not the overseers but the real makers.
Sue is a congenial activity with D’Israeli, but with clearer notions of what he wants. His “DeRohan” is a poor book, though it contains excellent morceaux. But it is faulty, even more so than is usual to him, in heavy exaggerations, and less redeemed by brilliant effects, good schemes, and lovely little strains of feeling. The wish to unmask Louis XIV is defeated by the hatred with which the character inspired him, the Liberal of the Nineteenth Century. The Grand Monarque was really brutally selfish and ignorant, as Sue represents him, but then there was a native greatness which justified in some degree the illusion he diffused and which falsifies all Sue’s representation. It is not by an inventory of facts or traits that what is most vital in a character and which makes its due impression on contemporaries can be apprehended or depicted—DeRohan is worth reading for particulars of an interesting period put together with accuracy and with a sense of physiological effects, if not of the spiritual realities that they represented.
“Self, by the author of Cecil,” is one of the worst of a paltry class of novels; those which aim at representing the very dregs in a social life, now at its lowest ebb. If it has produced a sensation, that only shows the poverty of life among those who can be interested in it. I have known more life lived in a day among factory girls, or in a village school than informs these volumes, with all their great pretension and affected vivacity. It is not worth our while to read this class of English novels; they are far worse than the French, morally as well as mentally. This has no merits as to the development of character or exposition of motives; it is a poor, external, lifeless thing.
“Dashes at Life, by N. P. Willis.” The life of Mr. Willis is too European for him to have a general, or permanent fame in America. We need a life of our own and a literature of our own. Those writers who are dearest to us, and really most interesting, are those who are, at least, rooted to the soil. If they are not great enough to be the prophets of the new Era, they at least exhibit the features of their native climate and the complexion given by its native air. But Mr. Willis is a son of Europe, and his writings can interest only the fashionable world of this country, which, by imitating Europe, fails entirely of a genius, grace, and invention of its own. Still, in their way, they are excellent. They are most lively pictures; showing the fine natural organization of the writer, on whom none, the slightest, symptom of what he is looking for is thrown away; sparkling with bold, light wit, succinct, and colored with glow, and for a full light. Some of them were new to us, and we read them through, missing none of the words, and laughed, with a full heart and without one grain of complaisance, which is much, very much to say in these days. We said these sketches would not have a permanent fame, and yet we may be wrong. The new, full, original, radiant American Life may receive them as an heir-loom from this transitive state we are in now, and future generations may stare at the mongrel products of Saratoga, and maidens still laugh till they cry at the “Letter of Ione S. to her Spirit Bridegroom.”
All these story books show even to the languor of the hottest day the solemn signs of revolution. Life has become too factitious; it has no longer a leg left to stand upon, and cannot be carried much farther in this way. England! ah! who can resist visions of Phalansteries in every park, and the treasurers of art turned into public galleries for use of the artificers who will no longer be unwashed, but raised and educated by the refinements of sufficient leisure and the instructions of genius. England must glide, or totter or fall into revolution—there is not room for such selfish Selves, and unique young Dukes in a country so crowded with men and with those who ought to be women, and are turned into worktools. These are very impressive hints on this last topic in Sybil or the Two Worlds (of the Rich and the Poor.) God has time to remember the design with which he made this world also.*
“Story Books for the Hot Weather.” New-York Daily Tribune, 20 June 1845, p. 1.