« PreviousContinue »
When usurers tell their gold i' the field;
That going shall be used with feet.
Nor is it surprising that this universallove of romantic fiction should show itself in the lives of men and women. Some of the pleasantest associations with the names of historical personages, which we have inherited from the past, belong to the hours that they spent in the realms of the imagination. The name of Catharine de Médicis has a sinister sound. But we may momentarily forget St. Bartholomew's Day in the picture of her life among her children at St. Germains or at Amboise, where she surrounded them with an enchanted land of which she was the benevolent Fairy. Romances of chivalry were read aloud to them, and the surrounding forests were the Broceliandes, in which they played as errant knights, captive princes, or lovelorn princesses. So again the name of Madame Roland suggests the Reign of Terror. Far more attractive is the recollection of her childhood, when, as Marion Philpon at six years old, she stood before an old friend of her father, with her elbows on his knees, ready to repeat the Athanasian Creed for the reward of a fairy story
There are but few writers who have not loved fiction. Ronsard read and re-read the old romances, and especially the Roman de la Rose,' from childhood to old age. Without the romantic treasures which were stored in the Chambre de librarye of her father at Cognac, the world would probably have lost the • Heptameron' of Marguerite of Angoulême. Clement Marot in his youth was a student of romance.
J'ay leu de sainctz la légende dorée,
Bref, en mon temps, j'ay leu des liures maints.' What a revolution in the world of fashion, literature, and action, was effected by the • Astrea' of d'Urfé! Henry IV. caused it to be read aloud to him during a fit of the gout. It was a favourite book of St. François de Sales, and of his spiritual Boswell, Pierre Camus. It gained men of letters admission to society; it formed the school of Calprenède, Gomberville, and Vol. 171.-No. 342.
Scudéry. It did much to create the Hôtel de Rambouillet. Papers were set in it at the table of the Cardinal de Retz, and those who failed to pass in it paid a forfeit. La Fontaine delighted in the book.
* Et tant petit garçon je lisois son roman,
Et je le lis encore ayant la barbe grise.' Racine, studying at Port Royal, lighted upon a copy of • Theagenes and Chariclea. The copy was taken from him by his preceptors. But in riper years, he recurred to the forbidden studies of youth, and never lost the extraordinary passion, which his son tells us he had conceived for the old Greek novel. What would have been the result on his poetic talents if he had been allowed to follow sooner his natural tastes ? Without Madlle, de Scudéry, would Madlle. de Sevigné have found the scope of her genius, or was she merely paying a compliment when she wrote to the authoress in 1684, that she would love and reverence her all her life? The love of heroic romances of the 17th century declined in France more rapidly than in England. Boileau and Molière ridiculed the taste. So quickly did the fashion change, that Madlle. de Scudéry herself outlived it. She kept by her a finished, but unpublished, romance, saying 'personne ne voudroit l'acheter ni le lire. In the provinces the taste lingered longer; there were many men of the type of Cathos and Madelon,
Deux nobles campagnards, grands lecteurs de romans,
Qui disent tout Cyrus dans leurs longs compliments.' It survived into the 18th century. Though Voltaire characterized the heroic romances as boutiques de verbiage,' the mother of Chateaubriand is said to have known le Grand Cyrus' by heart, and D'Urfé's · Astrea' was a favourite book of Rousseau's. The subsequent life of that sentimentalist was mean and contemptible enough. We prefer to think of him as a boy of six, sitting up to read novels with his father till the swallows were twittering among the eaves ; or, as a follower of Mucius Scævola, holding his hand over a chafing-dish of live coals to the admiration of his father, the Genevan clock-maker; or as approaching Lyons, and asking so eagerly for the road to Forez, that his landlady believed him to be a locksmith's apprentice in search of work, instead of an enthusiastic boy who longed to see the country of D'Urfé's Sylvanders and Dianas.
But though this digression is the more excusable because it was from France that England derived her taste for heroic
romances, it still is a digression, We must return to our own country. The books that fed the imaginations of a Chaucer, a Spencer, or a Shakspeare, were works of romantic fiction. The prayer that Charles I. gave on the scaffold to Juxon was taken from Sidney's · Arcadia.' The youth of Milton was nurtured among those lofty fables and romances, which recount in sublime cantos the deeds of knighthood.' How indelible was the impression they created is proved by numerous passages in his poetry, such as that in which he speaks of
•Knights of Logres, or of Lyones,
Lancelot, or Pelleas, or Pellenore.' or that where he insists
The fairest of her sex, Angelica.' Jeremy Taylor solaced his troubled life with romantic fiction, and thought it not inconsistent with holy living to quote Scudéry with approval. John Bunyan in his youth valued •Sir Bevis of Southampton' next to the Bible. Nor was it the only work of fiction which has coloured his immortal Dream. In one of his sermons, he has represented Dives as replying to Abraham when the latter said, “They have Moses and the Prophets ; let them hear them :
• My brethren are unbelievers, and do not regard the word of God. I knew it by myself, for when I was in the world it was so with me. The Scriptures, thought I then, what are they? A dead letter, a little ink and paper, of three or four shillings price. Alack! What is Scripture? Give me a ballad, or newsbook, “George on horseback,” or “Bevis of Southampton.”. Give me some book that teaches curious Arts, that tells old Fables.'
When the greatest of Puritan poets, a royal martyr,' an Anglican divine, and an inspired Nonconformist tinker, all read romances, it was natural that ladies should follow the same example. They would have been basely ungrateful if they had not, for M. Jusserand believes that the modern novel was introduced by Lyly for their special delectation. Mrs. Pepys, Lucy Hutchinson, Dorothy Osborne, The Spectator's ' Leonora, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Mrs. Chapone, were all devourers of novels. Mrs. Pepys sat up till twelve o'clock at night reading 'Le Grand Cyrus,' and, much to her husband's
's annoyance, was prone to tell long stories out of her favourite romance “though nothing to the purpose nor in
good manner.' Lucy Apsley, afterwards the wife of Colonel Hutchinson, was not an attractive child. She absolutely hated her needle ; she only practised her lute and her harpischord when her masters were by; she abhorred music and dancing ; she picked to pieces the dolls of other children, and drove them from her by her grave and sober instruction. But there was another side to her character. The romantic element redeemed her from being a female prig. Though she exhorted her mother's maids on the Lord's Day, yet on six days out of the seven she learned, or heard, amorous sonnets, or poems, and was the confidante of all the waiting-women in their love secrets. Leonora, in the Spectator,' had a library which contained, among other works, Cassandra, Cleopatra,' • Astrea,' • The Grand Cyrus' with a pin stuck in one of the middle leaves, Pembroke's Arcadia,' a book of novels, Clelia,' which opened of itself at the passage describing two lovers in a bower, the • New Atlantis' with a key to it, Taylor's Holy Living and Dying,' and a few other books. The effect of her course of reading showed itself in the embellishment of her garden, her artificial grottoes, and her shady walks. Yet, as the Spectator' observes, it was at least something that she had read at all. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was ‘miserable in her little parlour at Thoresby. Her romances were her chief resource. She possessed, and bequeathed to her grand-daughter, the whole library of Mrs. Lennox's · Female Quixote,' the Cleopatras,'
Cassandras, Clelias,' Pharamonds,' Ibrahims,'—all, like the Lady Arabella's collection, English'd by persons of quality. In the pages of one of these great folios, Lady Mary wrote in her fairest youthful hand' the characteristics of the principal characters; the beautiful Diana,' the volatile Climene,' the melancholy Doris,' “Celadon the faithful,' • Adamas the wise,' and so on. These were the studies, with which she mingled her housekeeping or her lessons in carving, Greek, Latin, and French. Miss Mulso, afterwards Mrs. Chapone, was the mother of religious education, the first of that series of excellent women, like Hannah More, Mrs. Barbauld, or Mrs. Trimmer, who effected a revolution in the moral training of youth. Yet she was brought up upon romantic fiction. In a letter to Elizabeth Carter, she says, I have (and I am yet alive) drudged through le Grand Cyrus' in twelve huge volumes, Cleopatra ' in eight or ten, 'Polyxander,' • Ibrahim,
Clelia,' and some others, whose names, as well as all the rest of them, I have forgotten. But this was in the days when I did not choose my own books.' Tedious these old romances may have been. But they
trained fascinating specimens of the English gentlewoman. No more delightful ideal of English girlhood ever existed than Dorothy Osborne. In her charming letters, she tells us of her life, and reading. She might have been the wife of Henry Cromwell, and her lovers wrote verses to her, of which she only remembers the tag
• A stately and majestic brow
Or she might have married an elderly widower with four daughters, old enough to be her sisters. But she preferred William Temple, whose heart she had won by taking upon herself the blame of her brother's malignancy in writing on the windows of an inn in the Isle of Wight his Royalist opinions upon the ruling powers. She waited long for her lover. Meanwhile she solaced a life, so quiet that it might have turned her into one of the Seven Sleepers, with reading. She was keenly interested in politics, and a sturdy Royalist. She loved battledore and shuttlecock. She was fond of theatricals. But when her mind was harassed by her servants, or her father's sickness, she found refuge in her dogs and in her reading, and especially in romance. She forgot her troubles in her tears at the story of Mademoiselle de Tournon in Reine Marguerite'; she cried an hour for Almanzor, or threw herself into a rage with Alcidiana ; she sat in the shade with the shepherdesses on the common at Chicksands, and listened to their ballads, one of which she sends her lover. She was a devote' of Jeremy Taylor ; she delighted in the travels of Fernando Mendez Pinto; she read Herodotus and Ovid, probably in Pierre Saliar's French translation, Cowley's · Davideis,' and the Poems of the thrice noble, chaste and virtuous Margaret Newcastle, which made her feel satisfied that there were many soberer people in Bedlam'than their fantastical authoress. And she read her novels critically. She knew
Prazimene,' and · Polexandre,' and • l'Illustre Bassa,' before they were disguised in English.' She compared their easy grace with the handsome language' of Lord Broghill's • Parthenissa. Perhaps it was the perusal of these works which forbade her altogether to disbelieve the prognostications of Lilly. For our own part, we like her all the better for the playful superstition. She went with a merry cousin to consult this notorious professor of the black art. Yet foolish though she thought him, she was not able to‘forbear laying a peas-cod with nine peas in it under my door, and was informed by it that my husband's name should be Thomas.' How like you that?' she asks William Temple.