« VorigeDoorgaan »
of guidance or suggestion may be discerned, of value to the highest; honest criticism of living authors is therefore beyond question to be approved. But this task, and whatever of even apparent acerbity it may entail, ceases with the life of the author. As we received from the dying hand the gift to which there will be no addition, however it may be required of us to define its value, we may at least permit to criticism the tone of affection and respect. It is singularly so in the case of Currer Bell. Whatever estimate we may form of the net result of positive instruction - the actual amount of such sound available thought as will pave the highways of the world — to be found in her works, we cannot but think with tender emotion on the darkness which has so soon swallowed the brief and meteoric splendor of her career; while we should deem that reader of perceptions strangely blunted, who has never discerned that, with all her vigor and sternness, it was deep and womanly love which filled the inmost fountains of her heart. It is well, too, to remember, that it were an important mistake to test the value of any work, or series of works, by the mere logical truth they contain. The true, the beautiful, and the good, are inalienably allied. In the immeasurable system of education which nature has constructed around us in this world, their conscious or unconscious influences are perpetually blended. He who came to unfold celestial and unattainable truth, deemed not His teaching complete, until He turned the eyes of His disciples on the loveliness of the lily and the gay carelessness of the birds. Every tone of true pathos, every revealing glance by which a new aspect of nature's loveliness opens on our eyes — all that tends, in what way soever, to make us nobler, gentler, better -— must be reckoned in the account of what an author has conferred upon us.
The name of Currer Bell has constantly been associated with those of her two sisters, Emily and Anne, known in the literary world as Ellis and Acton Bell. The three were the daughters of a clergyman of the Church of England, who, as we learn from the newspapers, still “at Haworth, near Keighley, in Yorkshire,” survives his wife and all his children. Genius, as has not unfrequently happened, was, in the case of the three sisters, associated with the seeds of fatal disease. Perhaps our whole literary annals will show no more touching episode than that on which the leaf has just been turned by the death of Currer Bell. It is our present purpose to treat chiefly of the works of this last, but we shall be pardoned for making allusion to her sisters.
Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, was, we have no hesitation in saying, one of the most extraordinary women that ever lived. We have felt strongly impelled to pronounce her genius more powerful, her promise more rich, than those of her gifted sister, Charlotte. For accepting this avowal, the reader will be somewhat prepared, by perusing the following sentences, from the biographic notice, brief, but of thrilling interest, of her two sisters, given to the world by Currer Bell:-“My sister Emily first declined. The details of her illness are deep-branded in my memory; but to dwell on them, either in thought or narrative, is not in my power. Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but, indeed, I have never seen
her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone. The awful point was, that, while full of ruth for others, on herself she had no pity; the spirit was inexorable to the flesh; from the trembling hand, the unnerved limbs, the faded eyes, the same service was exacted as they had rendered in health."
The picture thus vividly drawn of a frail form standing up undaunted in the scowl of death, should be kept before us as we turn to the work left us by Ellis Bell. It were a strange and surely a distempered criticism which hesitated to pass sentence of condemnation on Wuthering Heights. We have no such hesitation. Canons of art sound and imperative, true tastes and natural instincts, of which these canons are the expression, unite in pronouncing it unquestionably and irremediably monstrous. If there is any truth or indication of truth in all that the most artistic of nations alleged concerning the line of beauty, if it is true that in every work of art, however displayed, we must meet the proofs of moderation, of calmness, of tempered and mastered power; if it is a reasonable demand that the instances of nature's abortion, from which we would turn away in the street, objects and incidents which awake no higher emotion than abhorrent disgust, be honored with no embalming rites, but left to be taken out of our sight, like dead dogs and carrion, by that nature which never perpetuates what is gross or noisome; this work must be condemned. On the dark brow and iron cheek of Heathcliff, there are touches of the Miltonic fiend; but we shrink in mere loathing, in “ unequivocal contempt," from the base wretch who can use his cruelty as the tool of his greed, and whose cruelty itself is so unredeemed by any resistance or stimulant, as to expend itself on a dying son or a girl's poodle. There are things which the pen of history cannot be required to do more than touch on and pass by. We desire not admittance into the recesses of the palace of Sujah Dowlah, we will not penetrate the privacy of the Cæsars. If the historic artist must at times show us the darkest evil, that we may avoid it, or sweep it from the earth, neither his nor any other art can altogether forego the glorious privilege of washing its creations in pure water, and shunning, at least, the foul and offensive. The whole atmosphere, too, of this fiction is distempered, disturbed, and unnatural. Fever and malaria are in the air. The emotions and the crimes are on the scale of madness; and, as if earthly beings, and feelings called terrestrial, were not of potency sufficient to carry on the exciting drama, there are dangerous, very ghostly personages, of the spectral order, introduced, and communings held with the spirit world which would go far to prove Yorkshire the original locality of spirit-rapping. All this is true, and no reader of the book will deem our mode of expressing it severe. Yet we have perfect confidence in pointing to Wuthering Heights, as a work containing evidence of powers it were perhaps impossible to estimate, and mental wealth which we might vainly attempt to compute. A host of Titans would make wild work, if directed by a child to overturn the mountains; a host of dwarfs would do little good or harm in any case; but bring your Titans under due command, set over them a judgment that can discern and command, and hill will rise swiftly over hill, till the pyramid is scaling the sky. The powers manifested in this strange book seem to us comparable to a Titan host; and we know no task beyond their might, had they been ruled by a severe taste and discriminating judgment. The mere ability to conceive and depict, with strength so unwavering and clearness so vivid, that wild group of characters, the unmeasured distance into which recedes all that is conventional, customary, or sentimental, the tremendous strength and maturity of the style, would be enough to justify our words. The very absurdities and exaggerations of the construction lend their testimony here. Not for a moment, with such materials, could the aim of art have been attained, could belief, in some sense and for some space, have been produced, save by commanding powers. It may be the wild and haggard pageantry of a dream at which we gaze, but it is a dream we can never forget. Though the dissent and denial of our reason are, when we pause, explicit, we no sooner resign ourselves to the spell of the magician, than we feel powerless to disbelieve. In the strength of the assertion, we overlook its absurdity. Touching the character of Heathcliff, moreover, and, with less expressness, of that of Cathy Earnshaw, we have a remark to make, which will extend to certain of the characters of Currer Bell, and which might, we think, go far to point out a psychological defence, to be urged with some plausibility, of much that is extravagant and revolting in either case.
The power over the mind of what Mr. Carlyle calls “fixed idea,” is well known; the possession of the whole soul by one belief or aim produces strange and unaccountable effects, commingling strength and weakness, kindness and cruelty, and seeming, at first sight, to compromise the very unity of nature. Ellis Bell, in Wuthering Heights, deals with a kindred, though somewhat different phenomenon. She has not to do with intellect, but emotion. She paints the effects of one overmastering feeling, the maniac actings of him who has quaffed one draught of maddening passion. The passion she has chosen is love. There is still a gleam of nobleness, of natural human affection, in the heart of Heathcliff in the days of his early love