of distinguished men in which the work is described as without parallel; and these phrases are so large that they may be read as mere figures of speech. They are the downright truth. It would be difficult to find in literature a villain more desperate than Lovelace; or anything more tragic than the alternate rage and deluge of feelings with which his crime fills us—dismay and confusion of face at its infamy wrestling with the unutterable pathos of a lovely existence devastated in its prime, its trust betrayed, its affection blasted, and its purity desecrate—till, as pang succeeds pang at the dire revelation of anguish, we cry—Can such pain be, and why, oh why, have I read this book to know of it? But if it would be only difficult to find a parallel to such intensity of crime and of the passion of woe which follows thereupon, it is simply impossible to find anything to compare with the contrasted sublimity of the sequel in which our pain turns to homage of kin to jubilee, and in which the heroine—disgraced, destroyed and derelict-rises in immortal splendour above the wreck of her fair name, her fairer frame, and all her maiden promise; rises above the world where she can no more tarry; rises to the saints a saint. This it is, and not a sleek array of holy saws, that constitutes the moral grandeur of Richardson's chief performance; and this it is that places it

beyond the reach of comparison with any other work of imagination.

It is not easy to speak of the crime, which forms the pivot of the story; for even in the present day, when our tellers of tales are supposed not to shrink from meddling with whatever is foulest in human life, it shocks us to know that any novelist has dared to wreak his genius on a subject so dreadful as the violation of a virgin. That indeed is a theme beset with danger, which none but a master of the heart dare handle, and which, if not so treated as to take us by storm, must excite us to unspeakable disgust. But Richardson is a master of imperial power, and has handled his theme, delicate in its approaches and horrible in its issues, with such commanding and yet such tender art, strangely blending before us all that is finest and most sensitive in human nature with all that is blackest and coarsest, unloosing the fountain of tears and making us feel the purifying influence of mighty sorrow, that not only is our sense of unseemliness in the plot lost in horror of the atrocity which has been committed and in the overwhelming pathos of the tragedy, but also one is tempted to call out to living romancers, Ye who dabble in vice and nibble at filth, seemark-learn how the first of all novelists, with a heart above and a cunning beyond yours can deal with human depravity; for he can search and he can frankly lay bare a lower deep of abomination than you have courage even to hint at in whispers ; and his discovery of this wickedness will wound neither the taste nor the conscience of a reader so much as your finikin fumbling with the skirts of sin.

It is on the character of Lovelace that Richardson has lavished his utmost care and cunning. Its germ he found in the gay Lothario of Rowe; but he has worked up the idea there sketched into a figure of so much importance that Lovelace is the name for an agreeable rake in half the European languages; and he was so troubled at his own success (because of the possible harm which he might have done by too lively a picture of the accomplished blackguard), that immediately afterwards he set himself to show in Sir Charles Grandison the counterbalancing portrait of what he conceived to be a Christian gentleman. That Lovelace is depicted with wonderful subtlety is evident from the fact that, though a being made up of such contradictions could never have existed, we believe in him as a reality, and are made to accept him alternately as fascinating and detestable; a hero and a villain ; a man likely to win the favour of a lady and yet a wretch not fit to live. His personal beauty, his wit, the keenness of his observations, and his rare assurance, rivet

our attention, compel our admiration, and blind us for a time to the cold rancour of his nature and to the ruffian conduct which is in him its fruit. But if we are interested in Lovelace, it is the interest of curiosity, not of sympathy. A man hurried by circumstance and passion into crime may command our sympathy even though his crime may, for its concealment, engender others which are still more terrible. But Lovelace commands no such fellow-feeling. His life is deformed by vice till it darkens into crime; he revels in crime for the glory of it; and few things in fiction are more ghastly than the coldness of the effrontery with which, having accomplished his iniquity, he flaps his wings and crows for victory.

Lovelace is supposed to be a gentleman; but, although well born and highly cultured, his conduct is such as to raise in us a doubt whether Richardson was precluded by his own station in life from the understanding of a gentleman, or whether in the time of Lovelace the men so called were unworthy of the name as determined by our present standard. The question may be raised without our attaching any importance to the complaint of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. "He has no idea of the manners of high life,” she writes; “his old Lord M— talks in the style of a country justice, and his virtuous young ladies romp like the wenches round a Maypole. Such liberties as pass between Mr. Lovelace and his cousin are not to be excused by the relation. I should have been much astonished if Lord Denbigh should have offered to kiss me; and I dare say Lord Trentham never attempted such impertinence to you.” To which Sir Walter Scott fairly replies, that errors like these are, like Livy's patavinity, imperceptible to later readers; that we are not sufficiently acquainted with the manners of George the Second's reign to share in Lady Mary's displeasure; and that knowing salutation to have been for a long time permitted by custom, we are not troubled to ascertain at what particular year of God men of quality were restrained from kissing their cousins, or whether Richardson has made an anachronism in this important matter. It is from quite another point of view that the question is to

* Thus in Caleb Williams there is a highborn gentleman of delicate mould, and rather deficient in physical strength, whose name is Falkland. A country squire, a gigantic lout, insults him in a ballroom, strikes him down, kicks him, tramples on him. Both leave the room, but only one reaches home alive. The squire is found murdered. Falkland is guilty ; but his hitherto spotless character saves him from suspicion, except in the mind of a youth who is his servant, Caleb Williams. The youth has worshipped through his life the unsullied purity of his master, who to preserve this worship intact is urged to persecution of the young man whom he believes to be cognizant of his secret. By force of the writer's genius our sympathies are enlisted on the side of the high bred gentleman, jealous of his unspotted fame, though the seeming malevolence with which through life he pursues his second victim might, in the narrative of a less skilful novelist, give the preponderance of interest to the meddling youth whom Godwin makes us desire to clamp in the iron chest.


« VorigeDoorgaan »