صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني
[ocr errors]

not, like Scott's, to have been the fruit of early and singularly discursive reading, it has a proportional value in his eyes; he cannot afford to part with any of it; in some shape or other it must be laid before his readers; and what cannot be crowded into one part is carefully saved and laid by for another. He is so much enamoured, in short, of his workmanship, that he leaves the scaffolding visible, as well as the building itself; so that not unfrequently the interest of scenes, in themselves extremely striking, is materially impaired by the long antiquarian preparation, or needlessly minute descriptions of scenery or situation by which they are prefaced,

S'il rencontre un palais il m'en décrit la face
Il me promène après de terrasse en terrasse,
Je saute vingt feuillets pour en trouver la fin,

Et je me sauve à peine au travers du jardin.' Let us, however, limit this objection. In the description of manners which have past away, of dresses which are forgotten, of buildings suited to those manners and habits, and unsnited to those by which they have been superseded ;-in the description of everything ephemeral or temporary, a romance writer is apt to err on the side of over-minuteness, and such portions of his work, with whatever skill they may be woven into the narrative, will necessarily be tedious to ordinary readers. It is not so with descriptions of natural scenery, though apparently just as little connected with the furtherance of the plot. If executed with ability, these continue to have the same charm for all ages; because they are unalterable in their main features; because the aspects of nature will continue to the end of time to connect themselves in the same manner with human feelings and emotions—to impart a feeling of cheerfulness or depression to the human heart, and to receive from it a colouring of sunshine or shadow in return. The generations of men,' says Schiller,

o wander under the same azure, over the same green, and the sun that shone on Homer smiles also

us. All can judge of the truth of such delineations; for in the school of nature all are unconsciously educated, and her features impressed more or less on the memories of all. Hence the pleasure derived from descriptive poetry, even while it is but slenderly if at all connected with incident or feeling. Hence the deeper charm which it acquires, when, in the hands of a poetical artist, descriptions of scenery, and the stormy or smiling aspects of nature, are made to influence and to deepen the feelings of the actors in some story of human passions; or when in turn, those feelings are made to communicate their own tinge to the landscape, making a sunshine in the shady place,' or a wilderness of the whole promised land from Dan to

upon

[ocr errors]

Beersheba. How admirably, for instance, as an illustration of the first, are these external and physical influences made to heighten and bring out in strong relief the moral interest of the play of human feeliog in the opening scenes of Hamlet! The gloomy background of the towers of Elsineur, the lonely platform, the bitter cold that makes the sentry sick at heart, the star seen westward of the pole as the bell beats one; all these little circumstances of an extrinsic character are made most effective agents in producing the full effect of the piece, by tuning the mind as it were into that supernatural key to which it must be brought ere it can fully sympathize with that mysterious and wonderful play. We have a line instance again ofthe second—the judicious employment of landscape painting to illustrate the power of human feelings in imparting their own character to all around them, in Crabbe's Tale of the Lover's Journey. To the heart filled ' with hope and calm enjoyment,' the gorse-covered heath, the dusty lanes of burning sand, the barren common, with short | sere herbage withering all around,' the marshy fens fringed with brown rushes and marshmallows, where the straitened flood

rolls through its sloping banks of slimy mud,' appear all emblems of cheerfulness and comfort. Returning by another road, under the influence of disappointment, the majestic river by which the lover passes-winding by lovely meadows which the

waters fed,' the hills, the green hedgerows, the stately mansion with its full-fed steeds, and herbs of grazing deer,' the distant town, the fields rich with cattle--all objects, however beautiful in themselves, have lost their interest for him :

It is the soul that sees, the outward eyes

Present the object, but the mind descries !' Now Mr James is frequently very successful in his landscapepainting, and in connecting his descriptions with the feelings of his personages, so as not to render his sketches a mere excrescence on the story. He manages bis accidents, as they are called by painters, with very considerable address; dropping his clouds or sunshine, so as to present his heroes in the best relief; timing his tempests judiciously, and making his rain and thunder descend in a manner very serviceable to his purposes. His descriptions have another merit, which he shares with Sir Walter Scott. They are not made the mere vehicles of fine writing; his main object seems to be understood; and, provided he sketches the features of the scene so as to present them clearly to the mind's eye, he seems not a little indifferent whether he has turned his periods in the most unexceptionable manner or not. In hitting the charac

6

[ocr errors]

teristic features of a scene, so as to enable the mind to form a picture, he does not often fail; there is no mistiness or confusion about his draught. We have, indeed, frequently admired the success with which he has given in bis pages the features of wide landscape, seen from a mountainous country, or the appearance of some woodland chase or vast forest stretching away over a wide valley to the bases of the hills, or towards some wide watered shore. We have a lively recollection of more than one passage of this kind in De L'Orme and Henry Masterton; and, in particular, of a forest scene, with a thunderstorm, in Mary of Burgundy,--admirably painted, with a broad and firm handthough, not having the work at present beside us, we cannot more particularly refer to the passage we allude to.

lo point of plot, Mr James's Romances are neither conspicuously excellent nor the reverse. His plots frequently hang somewhat loosely together, and, tried by the test of such a work as Tom Jones, it would be difficult to vindicate the suffi• cient cause of some of the incidents, or to show their necessary bearing on the catastrophe. In this, however, Mr James noways differs from most of his brethren of the present day; and, save in the case of Kenilworth and the Bride of Lammermoor, in which, with a few exceptions, all the incidents are made to have direct bearing on the catastrophe, we could not point

of Sir Walter Scott's to which a similar objection might not be plausibly taken. Plot, in fact, is not the strong point either of modern novelists or romancers. If the incidents be separately good, and tend to develope character, it seems all that we are, in these degenerate days, entitled to expect. The highest test we can now venture to propose is, to ask whether the work amuses, whether the interest is sustained throughout,-be the connexion of the incidents what it may. In this respect, Mr James will not be found deficient. We never took up a work of his without being carried forward, pleasingly and agreeably, perhaps, rather than with intense interest, to the close. We could have sometimes wished his march a little more rapid, and that he had conducted us through scenes which did not so often suggest the idea that, somewhere or other, we had seen something like them before; but, after all, his route lies through pleasant places, and some interesting agreeable object always presents itself in time to beguile us on with satisfaction to the end of our journey. He is by no means limited to one class of subjects or incidents; ' his ventures are not to one bottom trusted, nor to one • place;' on the contrary, there is ample variety and contrast of all kinds in his works. We pass lightly from the noise and bustle

to any

[ocr errors]

of courts and camps, battles and banquets, to the stillness of ancestral castles and quiet woodland haunts, 'sleep-soothing groves

and quiet lands between;' • fierce wars and faithful loves,' alternate with court intrigues; scenes of faction, revolt, and popular tumult, with tournaments, and fields of cloth of gold.' The actors in these scenes are as diversified as the situations. Ermined monarchs, adventurers or fainéants,'insceptred pall comesweep

ing by;' nobles, chivalrous or dark-souled, make love, intrigue, and combat; friars and eremites, and cardinals crimson-stoled, plot and counterplot, and turn the weakness of kings and the passions of nobles to their purposes; high-born and gentle dames amble and coquette, breaking promises and hearts with as much indifference as their knightly admirers break lances and heads in their honour; court fools, the chartered libertines of the time, utter their quiddities and quaint jests, insinuating truth in that motley garb in which alone it could find entrance to the palace and the castle; white peasants, robbers, smugglers, serving-men, gipsies, and mountaineers bring up the rear of the procession-exemplifying most of the leading forms in which society arrayed itself during those stirring and troublous times. It is much for

any

one to be able to say that he has painted with even tolerable truth and vivacity so many forms of many-coloured life, and dealt with countries and epochs so different as Mr James has done, and yet succeeded in interesting us in all; and yet this, we think, he is entitled to say. For though his works are not all of equal merit, there is really none, with perhaps the exception of the last, in which we can say there is a lack of interest in the fate and fortunes of the leading actors or sufferers in the scene. In one he leads us back to the days of Richelieu, to the weak reign of Louis XIII., and the conspiracy of Cinq Mars, connecting with these the history of the hero and heroine of his Romance De Blenau and Pauline. lo another, he reverts to the earlier period of Philip Augustus, or to the brilliant court of Henri Quatre. In Darnley, the scene is changed to England and the court of Henry VIII., or the field of Ardres. The kindred spirit of Wolsey replaces Richelieu; and the changing humours of the impetuous, but heartless Henry are given with the same spirit as the weakness and vacillation of Louis XIII. In Mary of Burgundy we have the revolt of Ghent under the Flemish Masaniello, Artevelde. In Henry Masterton and John Marston Hall, we are placed on the oft-trodden ground of the English civil wars; and it is enough to say, that even after Scott's masterly pictures of opposing Cavaliers and Puri, tans, these spirited reproductions of a similar topic may be perused with pleasure. Again, in the Gipsy, we have an English story of comparatively recent dale, without the advantages in point of effect afforded by the pageantry and more elevated character of Mr James's former works; in which, notwithstanding, the interest seems as well sustained as in the most chivalrous of his themes.

We have, therefore, very little to complain of in Mr James's Tales, so far as plot is concerned. They may be loose, but they seldom lag; and this seems to us the main condition of a good plot. Tous les genres sont bons hors le genre ennuyeux. And under this class Mr James's Tales do not fall.

In depicting character his position is more questionable. He is not, like Scott, a creator of character from his independent resources ; apart from the outlines furnished by history, he has not much original invention in this department. In his purely imaginary personages he paints little beyond the outward show of things—the more salient and general points which make up the character; he seems to require for his purpose a canvass already set, outlines already touched in by history--some fixed points round which his imagination may wind its gradual coil. These once given, he is quick-witted and sagacious enough in filling up the interstices of character with traits which, if they do not flash upon us any new light, or clear up the moral problems which antiquity has left doubtful, at least in no way contradict the probable conclusions deducible from the facts already known; or rather, on the whole, furnish a tolerably satisfactory notion of the man, and a plausible rationale of the motives by which he was actuated. His Richelieu, Cinq Mars, Wolsey, and Henry VIII. are all in good keeping with history and with themselves.

In one point in particular we feel greatly indebted to Mr James

we mean for the absence of exaggeration, either in character or incident; the cheerfulness of tone and purity of feeling; the freedom from topics of doubtful morality; or, what is worse, the insinuation of opinions of which the morality is not doubtful—which is a distinguishing and most honourable characteristic of all his Fictions. With the powers of description which

of description which he possesses (for occasional passages show that even in the department of terror his powers are not inconsiderable), it would have been easy for him, we doubt not, had these powers been less regulated by a sound taste, or less controlled by a strong feeling of the high standard of morality which all literature that aspires permanently to please demands—to have attained a louder and more noisy popularity, by dealing in those violent and overstrained pictures of passion—those sudden and inexplicable transitions of character, and that distem pered and mocking spirit in regard to ordinary sentiments, and the

« السابقةمتابعة »