Tuesday, 12 March 2013


(From the Daily News.)

The American novelist is in rather a tight place. When he is in a tight place—or, indeed, whether he is or not—he usually takes the world into his confidence. His grievance at present is the censorship of the "Bud," or Young Girl, of his native land. " Beware of weak sisters" is a maxim constantly before his eyes and bound about his brows. By reason of the Bud the American novelist cannot say what he wants to say and write about the subjects which he would like to write about if he might. This complaint is not peculiar to him. English novelists of very different orders grumble over this censorship. But the case of the American is the worst. As Mr Howells proves, in a sensible article in Harper's Magazine, it is immorality, not morality—dishonesty, not decency—which really terrors the American. He has no Mr Mudie to tell him what he shall read and what he shall not be allowed to have, because the citizen of the United States buys his books. In some cases he even gets them as a bonus or premium on soap or cheese. If he purchases so much groceries he gets so many copies of a popular English novel thrown in. Thus he dreads not Mr Mudie; but on the other hand he does not buy American books. The American author can say what he chooses in a book, but he derives faint profit from this, because his countrymen do not buy his book. They buy English books, which pay nothing to the English author, and which are thus so cheap that they can even be given away as a bonus on soap. The American author who would be paid for his toil is thus driven back upon the magazines. But the magazines of his country are "Family Magazines." Therefore they are inevitably dominated by the Young Girl. They must not contain a word, we do not say which the Young Girl may not read, but which her mother does not think that she should read. The standard of the mother is inscrutable ; no man knows why she forbids this, and tolerates that. She has been known to forbid Thackeray, and present her maiden offspring with a volume which might bring a blush to the cheek of a colonel of dragoons. However, editors know, by practice and rule of thumb, what the matron will stand and what she will make a stand at. They therefore exclude a great part of human experience and the passions which were treated by Fielding, Richardson, Shakespeare, and, to the horror of subscribers, by Thackeray. The broad rule is that the lawless loves are "barred" and married people are invariably devoted to each other, and indifferent to the rest of the world. In a magazine for Sunday reading we have met with love affairs in church. That is not supposed to harm the Young Girl, oddly enough, but other ill-regulated passions, with all the situations and sufferings that arise from them, are tapu, or taboo. The Young Girl may read Scott's "Eve of St John " it is a ballad; but the " Eve of St. John " told in prose would not be endured. That is the law of the game and the American novelist complains that he is cribbed, cabined, and confined.

Sir Howells points out to him that the origin of the evil is the absence of a copyright law with England.   " If you did not belong to a nation which would rather steal its reading than buy it, you would be protected by our international copyright law, and then you might defy the magazines, and appeal to the public in a book with a fair hope of getting some return for your labour on it. But you do belong to a nation which would rather steal its reading than buy it, and so you must meet the convictions of the only literary form with which stolen literature cannot compete." That is to say, you must write for the Young Girl if you want to live by your labour. Mr Howells's argument, unluckily, will be laid hold of by the opponents of international copyright. Look here, they will cry, our only chance of being a moral people is to go on stealing our reading. As long as we steal it authors cannot afford to do any thing but write for Buds. If once Mr Howells and his friends can afford to be naughty (and they could afford it if we did not steal our reading), we shall have "Madame Bovary," or imitations of her, all over the place. In a family magazine Mr Howells is always maintaining that " Madame Bovary " is a cry of impassioned morality. We do not want to have this lady and Madame Karenini crying aloud in the streets. So we must continue to steal our reading, or cease to be virtuous. This is a very powerful argument in favour of larceny. So long as we are larcenous our authors are starved into propriety and the magazines. The moment we become honest who knows what excesses our authors may commit, and how "impassioned" their "morality" may become? The place is very tight, and we do not pretend to see any way out of it. Mr Howells does not glance at one hideous but possible alternative. It may be that even if Americans did not get our books as a bonus on soap, it may be that even if they had to pay for English novels, they would still prefer them to American novels. In that case the American author would still be starved into virtue, and a follower, in the magazines, of the Rev. E. P. Roe.  Meanwhile it can hardly he doubted in England or America, that the magazines really must contain nothing that the strictest matron can reprove. Their position is not the position of books ; there are books for all ages ; and books unfit for maidenhood, though not detrimental to maturity, may be kept out of the way of girls. The magazine which is kept out of the way is lost in all senses of the word. 

It is all a question of convention, as Sir Howells says and convention for convention, he prefers the Anglo-Saxon rule to the French. It is impossible to suppose that the breach of one commandment is as prevalent in French life as in French literature. Nobody can believe such an indictment on a whole people. Literature has acquired the convention of magnifying one set of passions and events in France ; of ignoring them in England and in America. Both practices are untrue to life; but, on the whole, our practice is probably the less untrue. The forbidden situations are not nearly so prominent in actual experience as they are in French novels. They are in French fiction what the supernatural is in our fiction. Once let in the head or horns of the supernatural and it has a tendency to come in, tail and all, and to occupy the whole of the stage. Once admit lawless love, and it is apt to behave in the same lawless and disproportionate fashion. Sir Howells asks when, or why, or how the Young Girl arose in her might. Defoe dreaded her not ; Richardson was actually "put into her hands " by her dear mamma as a teacher, a guide, a philosopher, and friend. "Nosse hæc omnia salus est puellis "—girls must learn all about life, was the maxim of Richardson's age. How and when did all this alter ? Mr Howells, in an optimistic spirit declares that "the manners of the novel have been improving with those of its readers—that is all."   Can he contemplate with pleasure the development of morality till all novels become as demure as "The Daisy Chain" ? It has been cheerfully suggested that the modern Young Girl and her standard came in when sedan chairs went out. As long as sedan chairs were common vehicles, Lovelace had only to bribe the chairmen, and Clarissa or Miss Byron could be carried off to his fastnesses. Therefore " Clarissa" was given to girls as an instructive and exemplary work. With the decay of sedan chairs, Richardson became improper and impossible. It is a theory, like another. Perhaps there is more truth in Mr Howells's contention that (except in magazines) a novelist may treat of most matters, if he preserves "a certain scientific decorum." Alas ! readers are not exactly fond of romances presided over by scientific decorum. Fiction is not exactly physiology.

 The Sydney Morning Herald 20 July 1889,

No comments: