Tuesday, 16 December 2014

DISREPUTABLE LITERATURE

IN estimating the character of most men, and women, too, we shall find our task lightened if we take into consideration the class of literature that finds favour with them, for from it they imbibe many ideas, strengthen many prejudices, and form many dislikes. It is not uninteresting, then, to consider the class of novel that proves most remunerative, and attains the largest circulation in this nineteenth century, for authors must write that which will recompense them, however vitiated the public taste may appear to then to have become.
 Charles Dickens when he had thoroughly established his reputation, directed his works to the reform of social abuses, but his position was a peculiarly strong one, and no one has ventured upon the role that he so successfully assumed. The public craving is now for what are termed society novels : a romance on the lines of Sir Walter Scott would be a financial failure, and an essay of the the Raseclas order would fall flat indeed. No, the people hunger and thirst, for sensation : they delight in reading of the scented vice of the Marchioness Vavasour and Vaux ; of the ruthless deception of poor little Bébée, whose child-love induced her to take that long, long journey in her little wooden shoes only to find her lover faithless; they sympathise with the erring, repentant Lady Isabel Carlyle, or bursting Kate Chester, who "loved not wisely, but too well;" they revel in the history of naughty Lady Dolly; they crave for a peep into the fashionable clubs where bachelors speak scandal, and indifferent husbands speak lightly of their wives ; or into the boudoir where ladies joke over men's failings and follies, as they sip their afternoon tea. This is the description of novel that finds the most ready sale, and obtains the greatest circulation amongst the middle and lower classes of society. The work to be popular must narrate the polished vice and fashionable sins of the upper ten, and in doing so the author may travel to the very verge of impropriety ; and provided that decency is not altogether disregarded, it matters not how weak and faulty the plot may be, how insipid the dialogue, or how unintellectual the characters represented may appear, if there is only a spice of the naughty element displayed. It must tell of the aristocracy, and is more welcome if the scene is laid on the Continent where manners are lax and social wickedness is winked at. It may reveal duchesses smoking cigarettes, making books on races, gambling, and Heaven knows what ; of the scion of a noble house hesitating as to whether he shall act honourably or not to the little angel who has crossed his path—whether he shall class her with a host of others, or adorn her with the orthodox orange-blossom.
 All this, though evidencing a depraved taste, is comparatively harmless amongst those who wear the purple, and doubtless laugh at the pictures that are supposed to represent them; but it is when those books reach the lower orders and the uneducated section of the people that the real evil is wrought. These people find vice daintily dressed, faring sumptuously every day, extravagance fraught with no other consequence than temporary inconvenience, and the most sacred moral obligations lightly treated. As a well known author wrote—"The British workman may well open his eyes when he finds the little triangular arrangement in virtue of which the cavaliere servente, on condition of paying the milliners' bills, shares with her lawful husband the love of the wife." The unsophisticated reader takes as gospel the contents of his yellow-backed novel ; he credits its story (generally untrue, and always exaggerated), and so feels contempt for a noble class because he has read of the faults of its black sheep, and he joins the masses at war with society, and blindly enters upon a crusade against its upper classes. With women the effect of these society fictions is to be viewed with still greater alarm. They see sin surrounded with an almost irresistible charm; they are ready to admit that the customs depicted are very, very naughty, but still they are attractive.
 Such works as these cannot fail to do harm, and yet we see no prospect of reform, for men must write and printers must publish that which will bring grist to the mill, and so long as the public taste appreciates this class of writing so long will it be provided for them. There is, however, another section of the literature affection which is even more dangerous, especially in communities which have to lament the existence of the social evil known as larrikinism. We allude to those tales narrating murder, suicide, piracy, and other crimes committed by men of wealth and social position in which the criminal poses either as hero or a martyr— a scoundrel truly, but one whose noble qualities make one find something in him that gives rise to feelings of admiration and pity. The effect of the literary trash we have alluded to is made painfully appparent in connection with the tragedies of real life, such as the Lamson case, the Lefroy murder, or coming nearer home, the history of the Kelly Gang. The incidents are eagerly sought for, the particulars of the lives of the offenders and the history of their sisters, their cousins, and their aunts is read with hungry eagerness by those who represent the lower classes of society. Of some disreputable literature—immoral in tone and disgusting in its suggestiveness, which notwithstanding the existence of stringent acts of parliament manages to evade the law and poisons the youthful mind—we do not speak, but we think that enough has been said to demonstrate the fact that the novel reading taste of the age is retrogressing, and that the author panders to the weaknesses of society instead of endeavouring to reform its errors. Let us hope that the time will come when such literary productions will share the fate of Don Quixote's library—be piled into a heap and burned.

 Launceston Examiner 12 July 1882,

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