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THE ERA OF THE EXPANSION OF
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS AND INFLUENCES.
Section I. I. It is difficult to fix the termini of any era or period. Any date is an artificial point in the history of a movement or current. For spiritual influences have no definite birth or death. They have a life unseen long before the event or personality that seems to originate them ; and when they are supposed to be killed they are only scotched. All changes in the spirit or form of the public products of the human faculties are only stages in their development and not revolutions.
2. But dominant influences have their rise, climax, and declension. These mark off clearly enough one period from another. And history has, for the sake of convenience, had to adopt definite limits for them in fixed dates. Yet it is better, after having adopted such boundary lines, to follow the influences or products beyond them wherever completeness of treatment demands it.
3. The more modern section of English literature can have none of the rounded completeness of the age of Chaucer or the Elizabethan era or the Queen Anne period; for its products are so 'varied and extensive, the influences that moulded it so numerous, far-derived, and far-reaching that some of them will seem more naturally to belong to what precedes or what follows.
4. It is this very expansion of English literature in all directions during the last century and a half that demands a period for itself; whilst the latter third of it is still too near us to allow the proper perspective for correct study and classification of its authors and books.
5. In all previous ages the literature of England clustered round some local centre of influence and patronage, which was as a rule the court. Most of the imaginative writers were courtiers or their clients or followers. The chief exception was the seventeenth century, when England was split up into two camps and the books and writers may be arranged without much difficulty into Puritan and Cavalier. But this was followed by a period—that of Queen Anne-which became narrow, if not sectarian, in its centralisation. Though the monarch herself had little to do with this in either force of character or taste, her statesmen emulated the Augustan ages of Rome and France in patronage of writers. It was the great period of political rewards to literary men great and small. And to London all the provincials of ambition or talent found their way sooner or later. A limited standard of taste, a limited clique of critics hedged in both poetry and prose. And though the authors thought they were laying down the ultimate code of literary laws and producing the final forms of literary art, the waters of revolution have swept over the age, and new standards, laws, and forms have antiquated all but the writings of three or four and left these to be read only in fragments or quotations.
6. It was a happy thing for English literature that the first Georges knew little of books and less of English, and that they preferred statesmen that, like Walpole, showed scorn of letters. Without this political repulsion, it might have continued to be for several generations the hanger-on of a court, the hireling of state and politics, and the great decentralisation movement would have been postponed a century or more,
7. Its gradual enfranchisement from patronage during the eighteenth century has been recognised by most as one of the most striking features of its development. Had even a knot of courtiers or of men of state influence in London continued to protect or encourage young and rising writers by giving them money or sinecures or lending them the publicity of their name, then would English imagination have been "tongue-tied by authority” or narrow fashion ; men of letters would have continued to dance to the piping of aristocratic society. A people's literature might have grown up like the ballads or Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress ; but it would have been scorned and neglected by literary fame, a mere pariah, emancipated from London convention and London taste.
8. Through the latter half of last century and the first half of this, the process of enfranchisement went on. For even when the life of the writer and the form he adopted had completely thrown off the trammels of court and fashionable society, the spirit remained to some extent enslaved. Several sections of imaginative literature, and especially fiction, continued for generations to prefer themes from high life, and looked upon the life of the people as unworthy of their attention. The tradition that literature is a satellite of courts has been hard to kill, and still lingers about certain types of journalism and fiction.
Section 2. I. But the most fundamental expansion of English literature during the era has been that of its audience. The new wealth that invention and enterprise and new markets brought created a new leisured or partially leisured class all over Great Britain. The boundary-line of the struggle for existence receded and left a rapidly-increasing middle class which had not yet scope for its idle hours in the sports and land of the country aristocracy or in the politics and fashion of London life. Its liberated energies and time demanded some amusement or occupation suited to its traditional tastes. It became the new audience of English literature, ambitious in culture, yet largely Puritan in its sympathies, morality, and religion, whether within or without the church.
2. There followed, therefore, from this expansion of the audience what is considered by French critics a serious contraction of the scope of the writers. From Fielding to Thackeray there went on, sometimes slowly, in other decades rapidly, the purification of English fiction. The process was almost complete by 1850, and since that date there has been a tendency to reaction under the influence of French examples. Even Thackeray had begun to feel the limitation ; in the preface to Pendennis dated November 26th. 1850,
“Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction amongst us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a man. We must drape him and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the natural in our art.” This is putting as a revolution of last century what was a process through the whole period from 1750 to 1850. Novelists who desired to have the widest possible audience had to purify their pages. But the process of expansion had practically only begun in 1750 and for many decades the best writers were able to ignore the new elements in their audience. Even as late as the third decade of our century Shelley and Byron at times broke down the traditional pales of convention and dealt with forbidden topics. But they were bold with the spirit of revolt and they suffered for the outrage.
3. To English literature, the purification has been an enormous, though not unmitigated, gain. It has opened the pages of the ablest and the greatest books to both sexes and to all ages. It has identified the best imaginative literature with the purest, and made prurient literature an outcast without authoritative ally or friend. It has made the possible audience almost co-extensive with the English-speaking world. Whilst it has opened the door for all the noblest passions and emotions into the higher literature ; for these are the natural allies of purity.
4. On the other side there has to be set down a certain loss and along with it a certain gain that is not a true gain. Novelists and poets, as Thackeray indicates, had the freedom of their art restricted on the side of the passion of love; they could not paint realistically all that men and women were or could be, as the later Elizabethan and the Restoration dramatists painted them. But the amorous could not wholly be ejected from imaginative books, least of all from fiction.
5. For the coarser phases of it was substituted the sentimental with a complete set a
of conventions in phraseology and spiritual attitude. As soon as the audience began to expand in last century, and the expansion began to drive out the unreserved description of lawless love, the artificial substitute appeared, at first mingled in a prudish, condemnatory way with the other, as in Richardson's novels, but afterwards gradually eliminating that which it condemned, as in the ladies' novels at the close of last century. But even as late as the Minerva Press fiction at the beginning of our century, devoted though it was to the romance of love, the pages are not all that the purist would sanction. The artificial substitute for the opener delineation of the passion failed for a time to drive out its antithesis.
6. What aided it most was the inclusion of women in the audience of literature. Expansion in this direction had begun with Addison and Steele and the periodicals they wrote. The Tatler and The Spectator were meant for both sexes, as we can see as well by their topics as by their treatment of them. The coarseness of the Restoration comedy had driven women from the theatre, and Cavalier literature was seldom fit for the eyes of innocence. Addison saw how he could multiply his readers if only he could keep his pages pure.
7. But the expansion in this direction proceeded at a much accelerated rate after the middle of last century. For, where the growth of industrial wealth gave one man leisure, it gave a dozen women most of their time to themselves. Women's education, therefore, became a necessity, and though for almost a century of the Alimsiest kind, it was i enough to give them a passion for novel-reading. This was the element in the new audience that created a demand for the romances of sentiment and for other books expressive of sentimentalism. The spread of wholesomer ideas and sounder methods of education exorcised this new and sickly spirit before the period closed. But these had to come