Wednesday, 27 March 2013


 A wit recently described modern fiction as being "erotic, neurotic, and Tommyrotic," and a clever writer in Blackwood, Mr. STUTFIELD, makes this last expressive term the text for an almost tearful discourse upon the general decay of modern literature. Most recent novels, he says, are a mere exercise in Tommyrotics. We have fallen upon an age of decadent essayists and "yellow" lady novelists ; and a generation that nourished its early youth on SHAKESPEARE and SCOTT, solaces its declining years with IBSEN and SARAH GRAND The whole realm of literature, it seems, runs imminent risk of being submerged beneath a torrent of offensive and crazy drivel. Humanity, poor Mr. STUTFIELD thinks, is "kicking over the traces all round." This is an era of nervous over-fuss, and the upper stratum of society in large towns is a mere hospital of actual or potential epileptics. Literature, in brief, has been captured by neuropaths, who, when they are not talking an inane psychology, are discussing a diseased physiology. Their delight consists in putting their "primary impulses"— especially the sexual ones—under a microscope. The "subtle aroma" of that particular instinct "pervades all literature," according to Mr. GRANT ALLEN ; and Mr. STUTFIELD protests, not without reason, that this is a very unpleasant aroma indeed. Mr. STUTFIELD, it must be confessed, is a very muscular Philistine. The "good, grey WALT WHITMAN " of Mr GRANT ALLEN he rudely labels " an obscene old American twaddler," and he adopts with joy the unflattering definition of the New Woman as "a desexualised half man ;" whilst against Mr. GRANT ALLEN himself he flings a Scriptual metaphor. The author of The Woman Who Did, he says, " resembles EPHRAIM by 'abiding a wild ass alone by himself' in the arid desert of New Hedonism."
But, according to Mr. STRUTFIELD, it is not merely our fiction that grows "gamey ; " the whole of society is mottled with the greenness of coming decomposition. The wave of foulness which submerges literature threatens to land us all, not merely in the hospital or the lunatic asylum, but in the gaol. If the doctrines of the new novelists—especially of the new lady novelists— take possession of our social institutions and our politics, what will follow? An era not merely of free land and free love, but of "free spoons and forks." We shall have what may be called "group marriages," or a lady will " take her husband as she does a sewing-machine, on approval, or on the three years' hire system." " No Mrs. Robinson will be the wife of a single Mr. Robinson." According to Mr. STUTFIELD, the √¶sthetic sensualist and the communist are first cousins to each other. "The one works with the quill and the other with the bomb, and the quill is the more dangerous weapon of the two."  Mr. C. S. Loch, a well-known expert in scientific charity work, reports that "the wave of sentiment " that has swept over society during the last few years "marks its line of advance by an increasing pauperism."   Philanthropy that grows maudlin and parts company with robust common-sense is in a word, a fruitful source of social mischiefs. But the morbid egotism, contemptuous of morality and greedy of fleshly joys, which takes the appetites as signposts and the passions as guides, would, if let loose, sweep all social landmarks out of sight, and this, the agitated Mr. STUTFIELD assures us, is our immediate prospect ! For himself, Mr. Stutfield sees no hope of escape except in the policeman or in a new avatar of Mrs. Grundy. Pending the arrival of the policeman, Mr. STUTFIELD says all the poor Philistine can do is to "stop his ears and hold his nose." Mrs. Grundy, perhaps, would be more effective as a saviour of society than even Policeman X.  Women, Mr. STUTFIELD argues, are chiefly responsible for the "boom" of "yellow" books and "gamey " fiction, flavoured with the "sacred impulses of sex." Women, too, have a natural primacy in matters of decency and good taste, and the New Woman might be most effectively suppressed by a committee of her own sex. Meanwhile we are assured we have fallen on a "sterile" time, an age of mental an√¶mia. The world grows drowsy, and by the alarmed ear may be heard almost to snore! "The great Titan, finding his back bending under the too vast orb of his fate," has lain down to sleep awhile, and the "new fiction," like the New Hedonism, the New Woman, etc., is but a nightmare that afflicts the dreaming brain of the Titan.
Mr. STUTFIELD, we venture to think, is himself a trifle hysterical, and has caught the infection of the "Tommyrotics" he denounces. Things are, after all, not quite so bad as, in his alarm, he imagines. The new fiction is but the craze of a group, the accident of a moment ; it is not the permanent mood of a nation. Literature as a whole, in spite of OSCAR WILDE and the decadents, keeps its dignity and scale and wholesomeness. The number of writers who are eager to "paint the moral shame of Nature with the living hues of art " is, after all, few. If this is the age which has produced Oscar Wilde it is also the age which has dismissed that too "advanced " gentleman to the treadmill. It is absurd to say that this is a generation which has "exchanged SHAKESPEARE and SCOTT for SARAH GRAND and IBSEN." The great and noble classics of English literature keep their audience; they are multiplied, indeed, by millions through ever cheaper editions, and the famous raconteurs of our race tell the stories day by day to ever vaster audiences. SCOTT yet reigns in the kingdom of romance and keeps all his magic. MARRYAT still delights our lads with his "yarns," wholesome with the salt of the sea. DICKENS'S humour is to-day the delight of crowds as vast as when Sam Weller  was still young ; and the crystalline English of THACKERAY probably finds a wider circle of readers now than when Becky Sharp and Colonel Newcome first stepped on to the stage. Current literature, too, is by no means wholly surrendered to neuropaths and  "yellow" lady novelists. Is BESANT  "gamey," or PAYN morbid, or RUDYARD KIPLING sexless? Are such writers as CONAN DOYLE and STANLEY WEYMAN the signs of a literature given up to "Tommyrotics"? On its graver side—in the field of science and of historical research—the literature of to-day will compare with that of any other age; and if we take the lighter forms of literature—fiction and poetry, that is—it would be easy to recite names which will be counted classic when the whole obscene tribe of "new novelists" has been cast into Time's wallet as mere alms for oblivion. And life-like literature is to-day not quite as corrupt as critics like MAX NORDAU and Mr. STUTFIELD imagine. The great varied drama of existence does not grow meaner or lose its music and romance and become a saturnalia of "sots, harlots, and crazy neuropaths." Maidens are still sweet and youths brave and love pure, in spite of all the "sex maniacs." History, like a landscape, has to be seen in perspective, and no one with the faintest sense of what may be called historical perspective can doubt the general scent of social morality. In particular the whole standard of household life and wedded fidelity, instead of sinking, rises. It is poor art that judges a face by the warts upon it ; and, after all, the "erotic, neurotic, and Tommyrotic " school is only a wart on the countenance of the age.
Specialists may be confidently pronounced bad critics. A dentist sees only bad teeth, and has an exaggerated view of the spread of caries. An expert in lung diseases naturally thinks that tuberculosis is a general characteristic of the age, a mad doctor is tempted to regard the majority of the human race as fit candidates for the lunatic asylum. These highly uncomfortable views are fortunately highly inaccurate. The world is better than the experts quite imagine, and this is true of literature as well as life. Modern books are not wholly given up to "Tommyrotics," and there are wide, free, healthy spaces of life where the New woman and the Ibsenite man are quite unknown.

The Argus 3 August 1895, 

No comments: