Samuel Egerton Brydges explains the nature of his historical fiction, and the reason why it includes the dedicatory sonnets from the Faerie Queene: "The Dedicatory Sonnets of Spenser are here introduced, not for the purpose, as some will suppose, of filling up the pages, but of bringing them into more general notice; and to do fresh honour to those, whom they commemorate. They are marked by a singular fidelity of features, which perhaps is their principal merit. They bring to life persons, whom the testimony of Spenser alone is sufficient to prove worthy of lasting fame. If it be pleaded that a Tale of Fiction is not the best channel, by which to recall their memories, it may be answered, that it affords opportunities which may justify and embody probable conjecture, when sufficient evidence is wanting to make it a part of positive biography" pp. 12-14.
The preface is dated "Florence," whence Brydges had removed to avoid his creditors after he lost his seat in Parliament. The author of Pursuits of Literature is Thomas James Mathias; the author of Guy Mannering is Walter Scott.
The readers of the English publications, which for the last forty or fifty years have gone under the name of NOVELS, will here find nothing to their taste. This Tale is intended for those, whose minds have been formed in a different school. A vehicle has been sought for the conveyance of those sentiments of the heart; with which every age and every country can sympathise: which come home to us in those moments of reflection, when sorrow and disappointment teach us to be serious and wise: which, when the wild exuberance and blind vanity of youthful hope have subsided, are hailed by all those, whose bosoms are capable of being taught by experience.
The subject chosen on the present occasion is partly Historical: but the Hero is imaginary. An ideal person has been placed amid real scenes; and real characters.
The advantages of Fiction over History in elucidating general truths have been too often explained to permit the repetition of them. He, who is confined to the relation of what has actually happened, in telling what is true in particular instances, may be confined to tell, what is not generally true: the author, who invents with probability, freed from such trammels, can better exemplify what is of universal import. In a portrait the merit is in particularity; in a fiction, the reverse.
The author, whose ambition is to adapt his writings to a wide circulation, would perhaps do ill to choose the present plan. If the common Novel-readers will little relish it from its not affording any mirror of modern manners; nor any love-intrigue; nor any surprizing adventures of Beings, who never could have existed; and forms and fashions of society, that never could have taken place, in any age, in any country, the more sober reader will refuse to take it up, because he sees it in the shape of a Tale; and therefore deems it too light for his graver and more sober studies!
The interest of Narrative is either in the truth of the facts, (to which history is confined); or in their character, their combination and development; and the picturesque force with which they are presented; or lastly the just and touching reflections naturally springing from them, by which they are accompanied.
To this last interest only the present production aspires.
By the second sort of interest it will be said that the greatest genius is shewn; and the most powerful impressions are made. But as there are endless diversities in the duties and purposes of the human mind, so use and excellence ought not to be limited to one species of intellectual display. It is the task of some to exhibit the appearances and symptoms of moral movements; of others, to reason upon the causes and effects.
We live in an age of literary charlatanism: what is simple and natural has little chance of making its way: we are all for glare, and novelty, and wonder: we like the extremes of the most laboured and distorted artifice, and of the most childish or most barbarous nakedness: we wish to persuade ourselves, that we have for the first time found out the paths of excellence; and arrived at the due fruits of Genius. Charlatans in every age are successful for a little while. There was a time, when Marino had thrown into obscurity and neglect the works and names of Dante and of Petrarch! Till authority supersedes taste, the Mob will always be wrong! A dull appetite requires to be excited by the strongest mixtures.
The Dedicatory Sonnets of Spenser are here introduced, not for the purpose, as some will suppose, of filling up the pages, but of bringing them into more general notice; and to do fresh honour to those, whom they commemorate. They are marked by a singular fidelity of features, which perhaps is their principal merit. They bring to life persons, whom the testimony of Spenser alone is sufficient to prove worthy of lasting fame.
If it be pleaded that a Tale of Fiction is not the best channel, by which to recall their memories, it may be answered, that it affords opportunities which may justify and embody probable conjecture, when sufficient evidence is wanting to make it a part of positive biography.
If the spirit of the Times, in which the scenes are laid, is misrepresented; if Truth in its general character at this period is perverted, the use of Fiction is badly chosen, and badly applied: but if the result of the whole is a picture appropriate as well as animated, then some advantage is derived from this mode of conveying instruction. The freedom, the selection, the force of sentiment, the vigour of expression, which it allows, give it a superiority over the narrower boundaries of recorded facts.
In choosing the sober characters of History to form the personages of a Romance, the author incurs a hazard of dullness, above which the airy Beings of Imagination would easily raise him. But there is a time for all things: we cannot always travel in the clouds: we must sometimes be content with more tranquil and humble excursions: our flagging wings require a repeated return to repose upon the firm earth. The author has not been unfamiliar with such excursions; but he thinks it as undesirable, as it is impossible, always to indulge in them.
As to busy, crowded, and intricate plot; well contrived and fortunate rencontres, which by violent excitement and striking contrasts keep up the reader's strong interest in alternations of painful suspence and delighted discovery, — merits of this kind can only be reached by an high species of magical genius; and deserve all the praise, which a reader of enlightened taste can bestow upon them! But this ought not to exclude the value, or the desert, or the praise of other sorts of intellectual production! Nor are more simple stories, and more simple modes of combining incidents, without some advantages over them! They do not in the same degree lose their interest by a repeated perusal: the knowledge of the story does not decrease the force of the sentiments or the images: as nothing depends on novelty and surprize, so a frequent recurrence but proves their stirling value, and solidity of basis. They rest on the essential ore of the ingredients: not on the ingenuity of the form given by the workman.
It was said that the author of the Pursuits of Literature wrote the Text of his poem as a peg to hang his Notes upon. He who has filled his mind by years of incessant reflection, operating on a moral and acute sensibility, may be justified in seeking various modes of embodying and communicating part of those stores, with which his intellect overflows. There are thousands of nice distinctions; of forcible and convincing remarks; of pathetic or amiable and instructive sentiments; which may thus be brought forward and preserved, and be expressed with a clearness, a felicity, or a glow of language, that would otherwise have never risen, or have vanished with the rapidity of the clouds.
Let the reader, who can sympathise with a virtuous and generous emotion, or a noble resolve of heart, or a sublime conclusion of thought, answer, if he does not feel ameliorated and elated, when he meets with these pictured records of ideal excellence! The knowledge of the Story will not much diminish whatever interest there may be in these passages. Yet the Narrative is the best mode by which they could have been introduced; and often the only mode by which they would have been suggested!
Are these then the idle occupations of an Understanding, which Age ought to have matured? or are they not rather the mellow fruits, which the experience of Time will justify?
It is not in youth, that our moral opinions take that depth of colouring, those prevailing marks of sincerity, which the long sufferings of humanity, which disappointment, and the vanity of possession, inflict on us.
If the productions of a common NOVEL seems among the easiest achievements of literature, because it is daily manufactured by the most illiterate and stupid of those who hold a pen, it must not be supposed, that to execute this sort of composition well, requires slight talents!
The author of Guy Mannering, etc. has shewn of late years, to what an height of genius, and of inexhaustible invention, prose romances may be carried!
This work, as it has been said, aspires to no such creative richness: it is intended as a vehicle of moral and historical remarks; which notwithstanding the volume may be confounded by the ignorant with common Novels, will not on that account, if they are intrinsically just, lose their interest with the judicious.
S. E. B.
Florence 17 April 1820.