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never could be uttered, and gives it an influence, which the most eloquent essays or orations never could secure. It is so with modern books. Miss Edgeworth's works have, probably, had more real influence on the cause of family education, within the last twenty years, than all others together. It is because they introduce the reader, at once, whether parent or child, to the fireside. Bad government stands out distinctly to view, in all its deformity. We see its measures, we hear its conversation, we witness its melancholy results. On the other hand, we have, painted with equal clearness and truth, a personification of good management and instruction. The mother who follows the history of Frank, cannot but be influenced by it, very strongly and permanently, in the education of her family ; while the same principles expressed in a didactic form, would command only cold assent.
The field of truth is wide enough, and there is variety and interest enough in its details ; but the difficulty is, they are inaccessible. Truth would be far more interesting than fiction, if it could be, when written, equally minute and free. But it cannot be. There are very few writers who are capable of tracing the lineaments of a moral picture, so as to preserve its expression, and gain for it an influence and an ascendancy over human hearts; and of these few, none are likely to be willing to exhibit, in such a way, themselves or their friends. Every person who has much intercourse with society, is acquainted with tragic stories which have thrown a gloom over the circle in which he moves, and which, if minutely and freely related, with the genius with which imaginary sorrows are often described, would excite the deepest interest, and teach, emphatically, the most solemn lessons. But such stories cannot be told. The circle in which they occur, feel, in mournful silence, the deep interest they excite; but no one has a right to invade the sacredness of private suffering and sorrow, to teach the world any lesson which such an exposure might afford.
Faithful posthumous biography, would be the nearest approach to the kind of writing most calculated to interest and influence mankind. But what biography is faithful ? What character was ever thus really brought out to the light ? None; and none can be. Besides, the changes and the actions of a whole life, are to be dispatched in a few hundred pages, and we consequently receive little but general
statements, which make scarcely any impression, and from which very little is to be learned but simple matters of historical fact. If, then, precept is to any great extent to be illustrated and enforced by example, the imagination must assist in the work. But under what restrictions ?
A slight analysis, will enable us to distinguish three degrees of fiction, or rather three respects, in which the character of a work, for truth or fiction, is to be regarded. They relate to the incidents narrated—the pictures of life and manners which are drawn--and the sentiments which the general current of the book inculcates. A book may be fictitious altogether, in the details of its narrative and dialogue, and yet true to nature in its characters and scenes, and true to the principles of virtue and religion in its sentiments. On the other hand, the fiction of a work may be confined to the two last of these particulars, that is, the facts narrated may be true, but they may be so presented by the writer, as to exhibit false views of the scenes in which they occurred; and its pages may be filled with all that is poisonous and corrupting in sentiment, and bewildering in error. Many a military narrative would fall under this condemnation. The battles described were really fought, and the victories really won, but the disgusting and shocking details are concealed, or invested, by means of the language which exhibits them, with an altogether deceptive character. The interest of united and regulated action, by hundreds of thousands, and the sublimity of danger, predominate altogether in the description, while the reality would present nothing but universal confusion, misery and horror.
The Pilgrim's Progress is fictitious in the first and second of the particulars we have enumerated, and true only in the last. It narrates incidents and conversations which never occurred, and the scene which it presents is a picture of human life, which never could have had an original ; but its sentiments are true. In the parables of our Saviour, on the other hand, the scene is generally laid in human life as it is, so that they are fictitious only in the actual incidents described.
Now in considering the question, “whether fiction can safely be employed as a vehicle of truth,” and if so, how far, and with what restrictions, these several points must be carefully distinguished, for the injurious effects which result from this species of writing, spring, perhaps exclusively,
from the second and third kinds of fiction we have alluded to. Imaginary incidents and conversations, if they present no false views of life, and breathe no corrupt or improper sentiments, can certainly do no injury. Evil results, follow only where false or falsely colored pictures are presented to the eye, alluring the reader away from the world of reality, to the romantic and unearthly regions it creates, and unfitting him for the sober duties and enjoyments of his actual station, by the fascination of scenes into which he never can enter ; or where false opinions and corrupt principles are instilled into the mind, through the example or the sentiments of some vicious but fascinating hero.
We may arrange the fictitious works which are professedly designed to enforce moral and religious truth, and now acting, most extensively, on the public mind, under the following heads.
1. Stories for children, the scenes of which are laid in real life. Miss Edgeworth's, and Mrs. Opie's, and Mrs. Sherwood's works may be taken as specimens. The greatness of the influence exerted by such works on childhood, can be conceived only by those who had free access, in early life, to such stories as “ The Barring Out,” “ Forgive and Forget,” and “Black Giles, the Poacher.” Miss Edgeworth has been extensively condemned by Christian parents, for totally excluding religion from her pages. She has chosen for her work, the cultivation of the moral virtues alone, and this work, it is admitted that she has most successfully performed. She takes the ground that an author has a right to choose her subject, and if she treats what she thus chooses, in an effectual and proper manner, she ought not to be condemned for not discussing what she never professed to dis
To this it can only be replied, that there may be cases where two subjects are so indissolubly connected, that silence on the one, is inconsistent with fidelity to the other. Whether this is the case with the cultivation of moral virtue, and the enforcement of religious obligation, is a difficult question to decide. It would seem, however, that any parent who should read “Frank,” and allow his children to read it, would not hesitate in regard to its tendencies, whatever his opinions in the abstract may be.
Some of the writings of this class, are designed, expressly, as illustrations of religious truth, though in many such cases the religious advice and instruction on the one hand, and the
incidents of the narrative on the other, are so distinct, they come together so clumsily, that the little reader goes over the pages, and with a literary ingenuity worthy of a better cause, devours the story and omits the advice-deriving about as much spiritual benefit from the work, as a moth would receive by eating out the paste with which a religious book is bound. This result, however, is the fault of the execution, not of the plan. It would be difficult for a child to read the story of “ The Little Merchants," without learning, in some degree, the lesson of honesty which it teaches. He certainly cannot avoid understanding the lesson.
2. Religious Novels. There is a certain period in human life, when subjects connected with love and marriage are all in all. Into this region, an immense crowd of writers have pressed, sagaciously concluding, that the strength of the appetite on the part of their readers, will make up for any deficiency there may be in the character of the food they can offer. The appetite has not been overrated. These books are read more, perhaps, than all others besides.
Now religious novels enter into this scene, but, as in other cases, by entering into bad company, they find it hard to sustain a good character. Some, as Calebs, are really written for the purpose of throwing the light of religious principle upon these relations, and others are apparently intended to accomplishmerely the same purposes, with other novels ; religious principle being brought in as a new element, to give additional interest to the work, or to sanctify it, in the opinion of the good.
3. The last class we shall mention, consists of works intended to illustrate and enforce general religious truth for mature minds. The World without Souls, Bunyan's Allegories, Hannah More's Tracts, and Law's Serious Call, are of this character.
The writings which come under these heads, cannot be condemned or approved in the mass. They must be judged in detail.
Each must rest on its own foundation, and stand or fall, according to its own individual character. Is its tendency to increase or diminish the reader's interest in his own daily lot? Does it nourish, or does it intoxicate him? That is, is the interest it excites, of such a character, that it simply raises him to renewed efficiency and faithfulness, in the discharge of his own appropriate duties? Or does it awaken such exciting and absorbing emotions as unfit for
these duties while they last, and leave a gloomy depression behind ? Does the truth, which is to be illustrated or enforced, shine out clearly in the very narrative itself, so as to be inseparable from it, and is the incident and the narrative really made subservient to the inculcation of moral and religious sentiments ? Or are these sentiments only introduced, to give greater effect to the story? In a word, does the reader rise from the perusal of the book, impressed with the lessons it has been pretending to teach, and eager to put them into practice in his own daily duties? Or is the impression which is left, mainly a feverish interest in imaginary persons and scenes ? It is by such tests, that these books are to be individually tried.
After all the apparent difference of opinion there is, on the subject of fictitious writing, as expressed in general statements, there is, in fact, but little real disagreement. Every man, however he may speak on this subject in the abstract, does in practice condemn or acquit each individual work, according to its own individual tendencies. If in the general statement of his opinions he condemns this class of writing, he will contrive, when he comes to particulars, to except a great number of fictions which he considers in a different light from the rest. At the head of this list will stand the parables of the Saviour, and next perhaps will come the Pilgrim's Progress. He may say, of these and of similar works, that they are parables, allegories, entirely different in principle from other fictitious writings; but this does not prevent their being fiction. No ingenuity can transform the story of the Good Samaritan, or of the Interpreter's House, into historical records of matters of fact. All that we can say of them is, that the truth shines out so clearly, and predominates so decidedly, that we hardly consider them fiction ; which is no more nor less than saying, that the work is skilfully done ; the object of making fiction the vehicle of truth, is successfully and safely accomplished.