Classic History Books


Great Britain and Her Queen - by Anne E. Keeling

names.

We have several women-poets who are only less beloved and less well known than Mrs. Browning; but
so far the greatest literary distinction gained by the women of our age and country, notwithstanding the

far wider and higher educational advantages enjoyed by them to-day, has been won, as of yore, in the

field of prose fiction. More than a hundred years ago a veteran novelist, whose humour and observation,

something redeeming his coarseness, have ranked him among classic English authors, referred

mischievously to the engrossing of "that branch of business" by female writers, whose "ease, and spirit,

and delicacy, and knowledge of the human heart," have not, however, availed to redeem their names

from oblivion. For some of their nineteenth-century successors at least we may expect a more enduring

memory.

Numerous as are our poets, they are far outnumbered by the novelists, whose works are poured forth
every season with bewildering profusion; but as story-tellers have always commanded a larger audience

than grave philosophers or historians, and as our singers deal as much in philosophy as in narrative,

perhaps in seeking for the cause of this overrunning flood of fiction we need go no further than the

immensely increased number of readers - a view in which the records of some English public libraries

will bear us out. We may therefore be thankful that, on the whole, such literature has been of a vastly

purer and healthier character than of yore, reflecting that higher and better tone of public feeling which

we may attribute, in part at least, to the influence of the "pure court and serene life" of the Sovereign.

This nobler tone is not least perceptible in the eldest of the great masters of fiction whom we can claim
for our period - Dickens, who in 1837 first won by his "Pickwick Papers" that astonishing popularity

which continued widening until his death; Thackeray, who in that year was working more obscurely,

having not yet found a congenial field in the humorous chronicle that reflects for us so much of the

Victorian age, for Punch was not started till 1841, and Thackeray's first great masterpiece of

pathos and satire, "Vanity Fair," did not begin to appear till five years later. Each of these writers in his

own way held "the mirror up" to English human nature, and showed "the very age and body of the time

his form and pressure," with manly boldness indeed, but with due artistic reticence also; each knew how

to be vivid without being vicious, to be realistic without being revolting; and despite the sometimes

offensive caricature in which the one indulged, despite the seeming cynicism of the other their influence

must be pronounced healthy. Thackeray did not, like Dickens, use his pen against particular glaring

abuses of the time, nor insist on the special virtues that bloom amid the poor and lowly; but he attacked

valiantly the crying sins of society in all time - the mammon-worship and the mercilessness, the false

pretences and the fraud - and never failed to uphold for admiration and imitation "whatsoever things are

true, whatsoever things are honourable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever thing are pure,

whatsoever things are lovely." And though both writers were sometimes hard on the professors of

religion, neither failed in reverence of tone when religion itself was concerned.

The sudden death of both these men, in the very prime of life and in the fulness of power, was keenly felt
at the time: each had a world-wide fame, and each awakened a blank, distressful sense of personal loss in

his many admirers as he was suddenly called away from incomplete work and faithful friendship.

Contemporary literature has not benefited by the removal of these two men and the gradual diminishing

of the influence they so strongly exerted while yet they "stood up and spoke." The work of Charlotte

Bronte - produced under a fervent admiration for "the satirist of Vanity Fair," whom she deemed "the

first social regenerator of his day" - is, with all its occasional morbidness of sensitive feeling, far more

bracing in moral tone, more inspiring in its scorn of baseness and glorifying of goodness, than is the

 

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