Sunday, 17 March 2013
ENGLISH FICTION AND "MRS. GRUNDY."
Three novelists discuss in the New Review of January the limits to English fiction fixed by the opinion of the day. Mrs. Lynn Linton deplores the restrictions imposed by the " British Matron," otherwise Mrs. Grundy. " She permits certain crimes to be not only described, but dilated on and gloated over. Murder, forgery, lies and all forms of hate and malevolence she does not object to; but no one must touch the very fringes of uncertificated love under pain of the greater and lesser excommunication. Hence the subjects lying to the hand of the British novelist are wofully limited." Any offender against this unwritten code is "boycotted" by libraries and booksellers. If it had existed in the last Century we should have lost Fielding, Swift, Smollett, and Richardson, and we should have to Bowdlerise all our editions of Shakspeare. The novelist is cut off from "one of the largest and most important areas" of human life and is compelled to depict crimes that are very uncommon. For, asks Mrs. Linton, "how many respectable men in England have committed a murder for which they have allowed another man to suffer ? How many women have set fire to houses in the hope of burning to death an inconvenient witness of their past folly ? In whose house is that mad woman kept out of sight of the world ?" These things are very rare in real life. " But what is not rare is the treacherous inclination which either discounts or overleaps the authorisation of society, or which bravely beats down the rebellious instinct and suffers heart- break rather than social shame." And the writer finally protests against " the emasculation of all fictitious literature down to the level of boys and girls." Mr. Thomas Hardy follows to much the same effect, but he differs from the lady as to the remedy. She recommends that novels dealing with questions of relations between the sexes truthfully and frankly should be kept in a locked bookcase inaccessible to the " young person ;" he suggests that they should run through a magazine for " adults only," or be printed in books not borrowed but bought, Mr. Walter Besant differs from his comrades. He defends public opinion on this point. Society is based on the family, and that on the sacredness of marriage. Therefore it does not like " the literature of free and adulterous love."
The novelist, however, is permitted to treat of it if he "recognises the fact that such love is outside the social pale, and is destructive of the very basis of society." As for the alleged laxity of English life itself, Mr. Besant denies it. "Certainly there is a chapter in the lives of many men which they would not willingly publish. But in almost every such case the chapter is closed, and is never reopened after the man has contracted the responsibilities of marriage. And as for the women —those above a certain level—there is never any closed chapter at all in their lives. The cultured class of Englishwomen —a vast and continually increasing class— are entirely to be trusted. Rare indeed is it that an Englishman of this class is jealous of his wife ; never does he suspect his bride."
In truth, the question is one not so much of matter as of manner. The supposed restriction applies not to certain subjects, but to the style in which they are discussed. Some of the most powerful and popular novels in English literature deal with those so-called "forbidden" topics. Scott's "Heart of Midlothian" has its interest circling around a story of seduction. The same may be said in the main as to "Adam Bede" and the "Vicar of Wakefield." "Jane Eyre" tells of the love of a married man for his daughter's governess. The heroine of "East Lynne" is a runaway wife. Charles Reade's "Griffith Gaunt" deals in a very outspoken way with the fierce jealousy of a husband. "The Scarlet Letter" is a story of adultery. Any of those books can be borrowed by anybody, young or old, girl or boy, at any library. We therefore do not see how English novelists are prohibited from dealing with lawless love and making it the central theme of a thrilling story. But then the English way of treating such topics is very different from the French. Our neighbours sin against true art by their persistent description of detail which a decent English novelist leaves to the imagination. We see the final result of Gallic lubricity in the masses of filthy stuff with which Zola loads his otherwise powerful pictures of the coarse realities of life. His apologists say that he is true and that he is real. Yes, but truth and reality are not literature or art. Human life is full occasionally of terrible temptations and of grim facts, and the true artist —literary, dramatic, or pictorial—can pass them through the furnace of his imagination and present or suggest them in forms that purge the soul with compassion, terror, or awe. Man, however, has also unfortunately a kinship with the lower animals, and in some individual cases comes near the brute. Must the novel of modern life depict him at his worst, as he is in the depths of African forests or degraded by inherited vices in the slums of great cities ? Must we in this matter imitate English reticence or French indecency? It is implied that we lose a great deal by not more widely representing the influence of love on the lives of men and women, especially the love that cannot or does not end in marriage. We are not so sure of the loss. What is the great characteristic of French fiction and of the lighter Parisian journalism ? To judge by their stories one might almost be inclined to believe that there was no commandment but the seventh. The sinful wife who indulges an illicit attachment for her husband's dearest friend is the heroine of ninety out of a hundred tales. Women betray each other, inspired by animal passion ; men carry on treacherous intrigues for years, accepting the hospitality and enjoying the friendship of the man whose happiness they are seeking to destroy. And this sin of treacherous incontinence is represented as something inevitable ; as the fate of nearly all the characters, young or old ; as something that the most honourable men and women must sooner or later commit. We believe that this is to a great extent an exaggeration of what is really the condition of even Parisian society. Apart, however, from its truth or falsehood, we regard the result—and that is the staleness and monotony of French fiction, due to this one dominant note running through it all. The writers are wonderfully clever ; their plots are neatly constructed, their characters well drawn, their dialogues always lively and sometimes witty ; but the trail of the serpent is over nearly all. They can no more keep illicit love out of their pages than Mr. Dick could exclude King Charles I. from his memorial. They are free to range over all the passions of men and all the sins of the world, but they keep to the scented boudoir of the courtesan, or depict faithless wives, treacherous friends, and confiding or complaisant husbands. The comic journalism of Paris plays upon the same string. Nine-tenths of the jokes and illustrations hover around a single vice.
We believe that this prevalence of one topic is not a gain but an injury to the best fiction of France. Public opinion there allows the novelist a license denied here, and he makes up by ingenious indelicacy for the poverty of his imagination and the monotony of his theme. English literature gains, not loses, by the restriction. Our writers are not forbidden to discuss unlicensed love, but they must treat it according to the canons of true art. They must not try to make it interesting by revelling in too glowing pictures, nor must they gloat over its realities ; but they are allowed to show the piteous and tragic results of a love beautiful in itself betrayed by passion into rebellion against law. "The Scarlet Letter" is one of the purest fictions ever penned, though it deals with a deadly sin. Fancy such a subject in the hands of a Zola, or even a Guy de Maupassant, and we see the wide range that separates true art from unbridled lubricity. We observe the same results arising from the limitations of our drama. Our playgoers do not desire to see adultery night after night presented to their sons and daughters, but the restriction has put our modern dramatists on their mettle, and we have as result the productions of Buchanan, Wills, Pinero, Burnand, Gilbert, Sims, and many others, all of which have in them variety of interest, pure literature, and harmless wit. At one period the English drama obtained a French freedom of treatment ; that was the epoch of the Restoration. The plays of that time, however, are dead, killed by their own indecency, while the dramas of Shakspeare, treating with necessary reserves the greatest problems, still survive on our stage. We see, therefore, no need at all for any change of custom or opinion as regards our novels or our plays. Our finest novelists of the past have fearlessly, but with pure purpose and clean hands, sounded the depths of human passion. It is only minor writers who in their manner of dealing with the same themes have violated natural delicacy and sinned against fine art.
The Brisbane Courier 24 February 1890,