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THE EVOLUTION OF LITERARY DECENCY.
"TAKE away your bonny Afra Behn," said the old lady who, about 1810, borrowed, and vainly tried to read, the novels that had been the delight of her youth. Very few persons now peruse "Astræa," who trod the stage so loosely; very few know whether she was more indiscreet than the novelists of the eighteenth century or not. Mrs Behn died in 1689: she had been the wife of a Dutchman, and, in one of her tales, she assures us that it is quite a mistake to suppose that a Hollander cannot love. This remark, and the circumstance that she anticipated Mrs Beecher Stowe in taking a negro for her hero in one novel, are all that my memory retains of the romances of Astræa. They certainly did not leave a distinct and separate stain on my imagination.
The familiar anecdote of the old lady whose age rejected as impossible the romances which had delighted Society in her youth, supplies a text for a curious speculation. Wherefore had taste altered so radically in the space of one lifetime? It is a natural but inadequate reply that taste always does alter in sixty years. Thus Lady Louisa Stuart, who was born about 1760, found, about 1820, that Richardson's novels, when read aloud, provoked inextinguishable laughter. In her youth people had wept or sighed over
Pamela': now people mocked, and she mocked with them. Such changes of taste make the pathetic seem absurd, or make what Molière meant to be comic seem pathetic, at least to refined critics. But we are concerned with a change at once deeper and far more sudden-a change in morality rather than in style or sentiment. English literature had been at least as freespoken as any other, from the time of Chaucer to the death of Smollett. Then, in twenty years at most, English literature became the most "pudibund," the most respectful of the young's person's blush, that the world has ever known. Now, this revolution was something much deeper than the accustomed process which makes the style and the ideas of one generation seem antiquated and uncongenial to the readers of the next. We quite understand why Mr Guy Boothby is preferred, say, to Thackeray, and Mr Henty to Marryat, by the young. Youth detests what it thinks "oldfashioned," and is puzzled by traits of manners with which it is unfamiliar. But custom will presently stale the authors of to-day, and that change of taste will not correspond at all to a change which, in some twenty years, altered the whole tone and character of a national literature. Why, and owing to what combination of causes, did the very plain speech of our
first famous novelists in the "improper," and we all remember Thackeray's own remark that, since Fielding, nobody had dared to draw a man.
eighteenth century become a stumbling-stone to readers of some thirty years later? Why did decency, or prudery if any one pleases, come suddenly into vogue between 1770 and 1800? Why were such poems as Suckling's ballad of a marriage published, about 1810, with lines and half-stanzas omitted? How are we to account for Bowdler? The change of moral taste was really as great as the change of opinion about witchcraft, which arose between 1680 and 1736. Mr Lecky has written at length about that revolution, but nobody, as far as I remember, has discussed the other alterationBowdler's alteration—in the matter of moral taste. In the first place, it did not correspond with a regular sweeping purification of "Society. Nobody will say that the Regency, the age of Bowdler, was much more moral than the early part of the reign of George III., the age of Wilkes. Yet, between 1760 and 1770 we had Smollett and Sterne for living novelists, while in 1800-1815 we had Miss Edgeworth, Godwin, Miss Austen, Mrs Shelley, Galt, and Scott. Writers more delicate in language and in description cannot be, nor could writers be much looser and coarser than those of the previous generation. The change of 1770-1814 lasted till quite recently. Novels were intended to lie "on the drawing-room table," and were meant to be fit for the young person. So stern were parents about 1840-1870 that they managed to find Thackeray
Colonel Newcome must have been born about 1800, and the Colonel revolted naturally against Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. By our time, of course, taste has altered, and lady novelists introduce situations which, I verily believe, would have made Astræa herself blush vermilion. But even now the language of the most advanced writers is far indeed from attaining the simple breadth of Smollett or Fielding, though many modern ideas expressed in fiction would have made Roderick Random exclaim in virtuous indignation. We have had novels fit to accompany Petronius in the library of Lord Strutwell.
A curious point in this evolution is the difference which it exhibits in France and in England. In England, Fielding and others felt it necessary, or desirable, to add coarsenesses to Molière. In France, the translation of Tom Jones' (1749) was at first prohibited in the interests of virtue. The French dramatists of the great age of Louis XIV. are as decent, as "mealy-mouthed," as the dramatists of Greece. The dramatists of the contemporary Restoration in England, and of Queen Anne's reign, were notoriously coarse and lewd. The remonstrances of Addison and the 'Spectator' had no effect on Fielding and Smollett. But, just when the old coarseness of these masters was dying out
novelists had dared. The régime of conscious Virtue and of the philosophes in France rather encouraged than checked such books as Voltaire's unspeakable 'Pucelle.' People thought 'La Pucelle' amusing! A classical example of the change in England is Charles Lamb's anecdote about the young lady who looked over his shoulder as he was reading 'Pamela.' She soon went away, and Lamb says that there was a blush between them. This may have occurred about 1815, and 'Pamela' had been the very manual of Virtue from 1740 to 1780, or thereabouts. It was put into the hands of ingenuous youth, and even of children. Richardson himself was the mere model of the proprieties, and thought Fielding "low." Diderot put
Richardson on the same shelf as Moses. 'Pamela' was written, as Scott says, 'more for edification than for effect." Anticipating the modern clergy who preach on Miss Corelli and Mr Hall Caine, Dr Sherlock praised Pamela' "from the pulpit." The novel was said to "do more good than twenty sermons," though Lady Mary Wortley Montagu thought it more mischievous than the works of Rochester. Scott also reckoned it apt rather to
courage a spirit of rash enterprise among hand - maidens than of "virtuous resistance."
As a matter of fact, a genera
tion or two later, 'Pamela' made Lamb's young friend uncomfortable. She got up and went away. She belonged to the new age of Miss Austen, Miss Edgeworth, and Sir Walter. Nor need we, even in this emancipated time, wonder at Lamb's young lady. I doubt if many even of our daring writers would have the courage (the lack of humour they have) to write several of the scenes which Richardson wrote, and which the clergy applauded from the pulpit.
Lately I saw a contemporary picture of a very scantily draped Pamela, aroused by fancying she heard Mr B. under the bed. It was not to be called a moral work of art, and I fear that 'Pamela' owed much of its success to qualities which doubtless made no conscious part of Richardson's design. Indeed, as we read it we "laugh in a strange and improper manner," like the wife of Mr Arthur Pendennis on one occasion. Quite rapidly, in some sixty years, 'Pamela' lost her reputation, became little better than one of the wicked, frightened away the virgins whom she was meant to edify, and sank into "a deplorably tedious lamentation, as Horace Walpole declares, read only by conscientious students of eighteenthcentury literature. The reason is not merely that the lowly characters are slavish, as Scott observes. The reason is that, to our changed taste, 'Pamela is both prurient and coarse. Even 'Clarissa' is obsessed,
through all its intolerable length, by one dominant idea, and leads up to a catastrophe which we cannot contemplate with patience. Once more I doubt if our youngest and ablest writers would dare to subject a noble lady to the martyrdom of Clarissa, or would be admired by the general public if they did.
It is well known that Dr Johnson, though he read straight through 'Amelia,' told Hannah More that she ought to be ashamed of saying that she had read Tom Jones." One cannot guess what fly had bitten the Doctor. Tom Jones' is a really moral work, if we set aside Fielding's leniency towards one inexcusable adventure of Mr Jones's. I presume that Fielding was reprobated because he was humorous. Even now we find the advanced, and virtuous, and earnest applauding the most squalid horrors of M. Zola and others, while they would fly in horror from Gyp. And why? Obviously because M. Zola is absolutely devoid of wit and humour (which Gyp possesses), and therefore may be as abominable as he pleases. Has he not a lofty moral purpose! So, in fact, had Fielding, but, alas! he was humorous, -all unlike Richardson, Zola, Ibsen, and Tolstoï. Joseph Andrews' not only makes us laugh, but encourages every generous virtue. Still, Joseph was "low," and 'Pamela,' in some incomprehensible way, way, was elevating. Even now, nobody dares to approach the broad and physically coarse
methods of Fielding. We do not think it at all comic that Sophia should fall in an unbecoming manner from her horse, nor can we even imagine why Fielding thought it comic. So far the change is all for the better, indeed I am apt to think that it was generally for the better, except in such extreme instances as when the prudery of James Ballantyne spoiled the whole sense of 'St Ronan's Well'; or when Jeffrey induced Dickens to make clotted nonsense of 'Dombey and Son'-vile damnum in the latter case. It does not appear
to me that our ebullient novelists ought really to be hampered by limitations which do not seem to have been resented by Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Molière, and Racine. But our problem is, not the good or evil results of certain restraints on freedom of language and incident, but the wonderfully sudden rise of these restraints between 1770 and 1790. In 1771 Smollett published 'Humphry Clinker,' distinctly his best book. The brutality of 'Roderick Random,' the infamous ferocity of 'Peregrine Pickle,' are here mollified and mellowed. But, except in the works of M. Zola or of Swift, there are few passages in literature, if any there are, SO physically and so needlessly nauseous as certain of the early letters of Matthew Bramble. Everything disgustful that medical practice could suggest to a brutal fancy is here set forth with elaborate care. There is something of the ape, of the
Yahoo, in these passages attributed to the pen of an honourable and benevolent country gentleman. On the chapter of Smells, "Smelfungus,' as Sterne called Smollett, is as copious as M. Zola or M. Guy de Maupassant. Nobody seems to have objected, as some purists did object to the freakish contemporary lubricities of Sterne. All these great eighteenth-century writers revelled joyously in the necessarily grotesque physical side of human nature. It was primely witty to half-poison somebody with a surreptitious dose of medicine. Homely ar
ticles of everyday life were constantly dragged in to get a laugh-articles that the most emancipated novelist of to-day keeps out of his daring pages. And, in thirty years, all these amusing objects, and scores of sets of comic or sensual situations, had become even more impossible in fiction than they are to-day. Even the author of 'Tom and Jerry' would have given them a wide berth in England, and few authors, except M. Armande Silvestre, venture on them in France. In 1740 Dickens would have had cheap and nasty resources, and would have used them, while the Dickens of 1840 shunned them even more scrupulously than most men.
One cannot imagine a change more rapid and more radical. We had not been a prudish people. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Congreve, Smollett, Burns, Sterne, are at the opposite extreme from the prudish.
Why did we become so dainty between Smollett's death (1771) and the rise of Mrs Radcliffe (1789)? We cannot attribute the revolution to the influence of feminine authors (such as Mrs Radcliffe, Miss Edgeworth, and Miss Austen), for feminine influence, in Mrs Manley, Mrs Heywood, and Afra Behn, had tended in quite an opposite direction. Moreover, it is ladies to-day who throw their caps highest over the windmills, both in licentiousness of idea and physical squalor of theme,—always, of course, for lofty moral purposes. Again, one cannot see that Society was more delicate when Rowlandson drew than when Hogarth boldly designed spades as spades. The Court of the Regency was not purer than the early years of the Regent's worthy father. People were as naughty as when Lady Vane published the 'Memoirs of a Lady of Quality.' Yet everything Smollettian and Rabelaisian was banished clean out of literature, and has never returned. Those persons are very young and ill-informed who think that the change is "Early Victorian." That theory, if correct, would be intelligible; but the revolution was really late Georgian it arose in an age of heavy courtly licence,-an age when popular life was nearly as rough as it had been in 1740. Yet quite a large class of topics was now banished, not only from books, but from conversation between the sexes. Burns, as a peasant, was probably the last poet who