« AnteriorContinuar »
from women themselves. The abler and more energetic among them had to find more active spheres than the luxury of novel-reading. Some of them took to novelwriting. It became indeed one of the most striking phenomena of our period, the number of authoresses who appeared. And it was women like Jane Austen, Miss Mitford, Miss Edgeworth, and Miss Ferrier who did most to drive the spirit of sentimentalism out of novels and raise their tone not merely by purer morality, but by gentle satire. Fiction under their guidance took new lines of development; it grew more minute in its observation and more elevated in its purpose. That they joined the ranks of both readers and writers and came to have a foremost place is doubtless one of the reasons why the novel absorbs so much of the literary power of our century.
Section 3. I. But almost as important a result of the new wealth and the new leisure was the expansion of the area of English literature, its decentralisation. The new talent formed cultured centres to address outside of London. Hitherto clever young men with a turn for writing had left their native places in Ireland, Scotland, or the country districts of England and settled in the great city. There were the publishers, the critics, the educated audiences, and the patrons.
Even the Elizabethan had been a London literature. But in this new all was changing. Edinburgh became a most important literary rival to the English capital. There were gathered some of the finest philosophical thinkers of the time-Hume, Dugald Stewart, Brown, Lord Kames, Blair, Campbell, Alison, and Ferguson ; there some of the finest litterateurs of the period like Christopher North and Hogg and Moir had their centre of inspiration; thither Burns went when he had his poems to publish and patrons to seek; there Jeffrey and Sydney Smith started the Edinburgh Review and attempted to rule English politics and poetry by smart critical essays; thence Scott dazzled the new reading world with his series of
And this was not the only literary centre in Scotland ; Kilmarnock had its press and its bevy of minor poets and Glasgow had its Adam Smith. And all over Scotland there was a ferment that produced a rich literature of lyric and story and legend.
2. Ireland, too, though less fertile in writers than it had been in the previous hundred years, had much intellectual life centred in Dublin and her university. Moore and Banim, Lover and Lever never denationalised themselves as their predecessors had done by going to London, though Burke and Goldsmith and Sheridan adopted the life of the English capital as their own.
3. In England itself there was a vigorous decentralisation. Lichfield had its literary clique with Erasmus Darwin as its leader last century. Bristol issued the earlier poems of Chatterton and the earlier volumes of Coleridge and Southey. The English lakes drew round Wordsworth and Southey a lake literary circle. Yorkshire had her Ebenezer Elliot and her Brontës, who remained in the locality and drew, the one from his artisan surroundings, the others from the moors, a distinctive colouring for their productions. The South of England, too, nursed in various rural districts talents that could not have lived in London ; Gilbert White and Jane Austen during the earlier part of the period kept to the parishes in which they lived and studied with microscopic care the natural or human history of them. Norwich with her Taylors and Martineaus was one of the first channels for Germanism, and the new philosophical thought and the new revolutionary spirit. Growing industrial centres like Manchester with her Chetham Society, encouraged local literature or research. And the University centres, like Oxford with her religious and philosophical movement of 1840-50, showed signs of imaginative and literary life that had no connection with the capital.
4. There were indications of even more distant revolt against the predominance of London. By the close of last century the New England States of America felt the duty of developing a literature of their own laid upon them by their new independence; and though Washington Irving could not fail to take English writers as his models and sources of inspiration, yet there is strong local colouring in many of his works, as in his History of New York. And the first half of our century sees Canada enter into English literature with a new flavour of her own in the Sam Slick of Judge Haliburton, although the colonies and India do not appear as distinct English literary centres till after 1850.
5. It was the Mediterranean and especially Italy that drew English talent and especially poetic talent away from London. But this was in the latter half of our period. Goldsmith had finished his education by wandering from the Scheldt to the Po; Gibbon had written much of his Decline and Fall at Lausanne and had visited Italy; Mary Wollstonecraft and some other advanced writers had drunk in the revolutionary spirit in France itself. But there was no migration of writers to continental towns till our own century. Byron and Shelley and Landor showed how inspiring residence in Italy could be for poetic genius; and the Brownings and others followed the example and took up their abode in Florence.
habaleshow 6. There can be little doubt that this was the great era of decentralisation of English literature ; and though the movement did not wholly cease after 1850 on account of the great development of the Colonies, of America, and of Anglo-Indian life, it began to receive a distinct check within the United Kingdom itself; London tends to become again the natural centre of English literary life, the exchange and clearing house of English imagination and ideas ; thither have gathered again the great publishing houses and the literary ambition of the kingdom, and thence issue again the chief magazines and critical journals. The facilities for travel, that before 1850 had tended to scatter writers and literary influence, are now acting in the opposite direction and gathering the most critical audience and the most ambitious writers into the vast city, that again draws all leisured circles to it as it did in the Queen Anne age.
Section 4. I. So great an expansion of area over which literary energy was spread and so vigorous a decentralisation of
criticism and literary influence could not but have a wholesome effect upon the writers and books of the century under discussion. Its best effect was to introduce variety into the themes. Swift and Pope, Addison and Steele, had but a narrow space wherein to show their talent, the topics of the coffee-houses and the gossip of town society. When the imagination and criticism of a people are both practically cooped up within the limits of one city, their influence upon each other is narrowing ; they soon prescribe rigid conventions and a confined sphere to move in; the writers get to feel that all they need for success is the approval of a small circle; a clique comes to tyrannise over national taste. But as soon as this thraldom is broken, and there is a possible appeal to other critics and other centres of taste, new kinds of topics have chance of being heard, new talent may choose its own theme, new genius may find a public that does not acknowledge the yoke of professional criticism, new schools of thought and art may arise that reject the authoritative models and rules.
2. It was this that occurred between 1750 and 1850– the gradual expansion of the sphere of English literature. Before this, poetry and the drama and fiction moved only in lofty circles; kings and heroes were preferred; but if they could not be found convenient, lords and ladies, courtiers and their parasites, might suffice. If a lowlier social stratum were touched, they condescended to it, either in a humorous or mock-heroic way or in amazement at the traits of humanity to be found in it. The rise of the middle classes to wealth and power brought them above the level of mere literary condescension and opened up many neglected regions to the serious fiction-writer, if not to the poet too.
Even Addison looks from above when he treats of any theme or character outside of fashionable London life. Now Goldsmith and Blake and Cowper enter with full sympathy into the life of the lowly and obscure. The evangelical tone of the new wealth and leisure brought sympathy with the oppressed into the sphere of imagination; and one of the distinctive features of the later fiction and poetry of the era is the sympathetic and unpatronising description of the life of the peasant, the artisan, and the slave.
3. Provincial life ceased to be neglected. Towards the close of the period, after Miss Austen, Miss Mitford, and Miss Edgeworth, Scott, and Galt had led the way, it became the favourite scene of fiction. Nor did even poetry leave its pathos and tragedy unsung; it came to have its own poets like Crabbe and Bloomfield, Ebenezer Elliot and Burns.
4. But if themes of heroic level were still to be treated, they were oftener sought in other lands and other times. Two vast new worlds were opened to imagination, the contemporary world outside of England and the world of
These had been practically lost to English literature after the Elizabethan era ; they were rediscovered, and the growing insularity of English thought and fancy was broken up. Again imagination ventured out into distant lands and seas and times and reconquered them for the new reading public.
5. Fiction began to search over the whole world for scenes and themes. The new romances of the close of last century found Italy, France, and Spain the best arena for their mystery and sensation. Beckford in his Vathek went as far afield as Persia and Hope in his Anastasius chose modern Greece as his scene; whilst Johnson made Abyssinia the starting point of his Rasselas. But it was the first half
of our own century that expanded the field of the novel most. The women romance-writers especially investigated continental history and contemporary life to find themes. And Scott and Lytton followed. American life, both Indian and Anglo-Saxon, was explored chiefly by American novelists like Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne. And Eastern life gave themes to Morier and Miss Pardoe.
6. But it was history that gave the most striking expansion to the novel. Scott led the way and by his wizardry drew after him Lytton and most of the fiction writers that followed ; even those who had a special genius for other types of novel, like Dickens and Thackeray, made attempts at the historical, the one in Barnaby Rudge and the other in Esmond. And during the first half of our century every age was ransacked for subjects.