Page images
PDF
EPUB

character, and may, with more propriety, be denominated a piece of “ fictitious biography;" but resembles that celebrated work in wit, humour, and knowledge of the world. Soon after the publication of Gil Blas, the Marianne of MARIVAUX, on the same general plan, appeared. This work has a place assigned to it among the best novels in the French language. It discovers much acquaintance with human nature, and, under the veil of wit and incident, conveys much useful moral. Several other novels were written by the same author, but none of them are equal to this. They were succeeded by the fictitious writings of VolTAIRE and DIDEROT, which were of different kinds, and possessed different degrees of literary merit; but chiefly designed, like most of the other writings of those far-famed infidels, to discredit Religion, both natural and revealed, and to destroy the infúence of those institutions which have proved so conducive to human happiness. The novels of Diderot, in particular, abound with

every species of licentiousness, and have a most pernicious tendency.

M. CREBILLON, the younger, distinguished himself by several works of fiction, executed in a new taste, which, though rendered highly interesting to many readers by their levity, humour, and whimsical digressions, are yet dangerous in their tendency, from a continual display of libertine sentiment. Madame RICCOBONI is another distinguished novelist of France, belonging to the period under review. Her Fanny Butler, and several other works, have been much read and admired; but have been also severely criticized, as containing much indelicacy, and even obscenity, in their narratives. M. MARMONTÈL, of the same country, also presented the public, during the period under consideration, with a new species of fiction, in

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

his Moral Tales, which, being less prolix than the common novel, combine instruction and amusement in a very pleasing degree. Many of them, however, it must be owned, are indelicate, and corrupting in their tendency, and ought to be con sidered as especially unfit to be put, as they frequently are, into the hands of children and young persons.

But, among all the French novelists, J. J. Rousseau unquestionably holds the first place as a man of genius. His Nouvelle Heloise is one of the most remarkable productions of the age. Eloquent, tender, and interesting in the highest degree; yet full of inconsistency, of extravagance, of licentious principle, and of voluptuous, seducing description. Poison lurks in every page; but concealed from the view of many readers by the wonderful fascination which is thrown around every object. Of the dangerous tendency of his work, indeed, the author was himself fully sensible, and speaks freely. A circumstance which forms one among the many grounds of imputation against the morality of that singular man."

The writings of the distinguished novelists above mentioned produced, in every part of Europe, an host of imitators and adventurers in the regions of fiction. To give even a general sketch of the numerous classes of those who have written under the

v The character of Rousseau perhaps exhibits the most singular and humiliating contrasts that were ever displayed in a human being. Exalted genius and grovelling folly alternately characterized his mind.

At some periods he appeared to be under the influence of the most pure and sublime moral feelings; while, at others, the lowest propensities, and most detestable passions, possessed and governed him. Oftentimes, when speaking of morality and religion, one would imagine that sentiments of the most elevated benevolence and piety were habitual to him; but the tenor of his life, and, indeed, his own Confessions demonstrate, that an unnatural compound of vanity, meanness, and contemptible self-love, a suspicious, restless temper, bordering on insanity, and a prostration of every principle and duty, to his own aggrandisement and gratification, were the real predominant characteristics of this strange phenonienon in human nature.

titles of Memoirs, Lives, Histories, Adventures, &c. would fill a volume. Since the time of FIELDING the Epic form of novels has been more in vogue than before. Plot has become more fashionable, and is considered more essential to the excellence of their structure. During the last thirty years of the century under consideration, the countries most productive of respectable works in this species of composition were Great-Britain, France, and Germany.

Among the later British novelists, Dr. GOLDSMITH, Miss BURNEY (now Madame D'ARBLAY), Mrs. RADCLIFFE, Mr. MACKENZIE, Miss C. Smith, and Dr. MOORE, undoubtedly rank highest. The Vicar of Wakefield will ever be read with new pleasure, as one of the finest, most natural, and most happily imagined moral pictures that was ever drawn. The author of Evelina, Cecilia, and Camilla, has marked out for herself a manner of writing in some respects new. If the reader do not find in her pages those bold and daring strokes which indicate the hand of a great and original genius; yet, in giving pictures of characters and manners, simple, natural, just, lively, and perfectly moral in their tendency, she has no equal among her cotemporaries. The performances of Mrs.' RadCLIFFE will be presently mentioned as belonging to a new and singular class of fictitious writings. The publications of Mr. MACKENZIE, which belong to this department of literature, have been much read, and have received high praise. Miss CHARLOTTE SMITH holds an honourable place among the ingenious and moral novelists of the age. Dr. Moore, in describing English manners, has acquitted himself with high credit. But the works of the three last will probably never be mentioned as forming an era in the history of Bri

tish novels, like those of FIELDING, RICHARDSON, SMOLLET, BURNEY, and Radcliffe.

To the class of novels, rather than to any other, belongs that remarkable production, the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by the Reverend LAURENCE STERNE. Notwithstanding the often repeated, and well supported charges, brought against this writer, of borrowing without acknowledgment, many of his best thoughts from preceding British and French authors, yet his work is an unique in the history of literature. When it first appeared his readers were astonished at the singular farrago of obscurity, whim, indecency, and extravagance which it exhibited. The majority appeared to be at a loss, for a time, what judgment to form of its merits. But some of the friends of the writer, professing to comprehend his meaning, and disposed to place him high in the ranks of wit and humour, gave the signal to admire. The signal was obeyed; and multitudes, to the present day, have continued to mistake his capricious and exceptionable singularities for efforts of a great and original genius. But his genius and writings have certainly been overrated. That he possessed considerable powers, of a certain description, is readily admitted; that the Episodes of Le Fevre and Maria are almost unrivalled, as specimens of the tender and pathetic, must also be granted; but those parts of his works which deserve this character bear so small a proportion to the rest, and the great mass of what he has written is either so shamefully obscene, so quaintly obscure, or so foolishly unmeaning, that there are

[ocr errors]

u It seems to be now well ascertained that STERNE carried to a very great length, the practice of filling his pages with plunder from other writers. His freedoms of this kind with the works of RABELAIS, Burton (author of the Anatomy of Melancholy) and CREBILLON, junior, have been par. şicularly detected.

very few works more calculated to corrupt both the taste and the morals. That a man who bore the sacred office should employ his talents in recommending a system of libertinism; that he who could so well delineate the pleasures of benevolence and purity, should so grossly offend against both; and that volumes which abound with such professions of exalted philanthropy, should contain so many pages on which a virtuous mind can not look but with disgust and indignation, are facts more atrociously and disgracefully criminal than the ordinary language of reprobation is able to reach.w

The last age is also distinguished by some productions of a singular kind, partaking of the extravagance of the ancient Romance, with some of the attributes of the modern Novel. The Castle of Otranto, by Lord ORFORD, better known by the name of HORACE WALPOLE, was one of the earliest and most remarkable productions of this kind. To the same class, though in many respects different, belong the works of Mrs. RADCLIFFE. This lady has formed for herself a department of fiction which

may

be called new. She has been justly styled “ the SHAKSPEARE of romance writers, and displays a skill altogether unrivalled “ in communicating terrific impressions from imaginary causes.” But it is a remarkable peculiarity of her narratives, and greatly augments her title to praise, that, while the scenes which she exhibits abound with wildness and terror, yet they are so softened

" What is called sentimental writing,” says HORAÇE WALPOLE, “ though it be understood to appeal solely to the heart, may be the product of a very bad one. One would imagine that Sterne had been a man of a very tender heart; yet I know, from indubitable authority, that his mother, who kept a school, having run in debt, on account of an extravagant daughter, would have rotted in jail if the parents of her scholars had not raised a subscription for her. Her son had too much sentiment to have any feeling. A dead ass was more important to him than a living motber.Walpoliana, vol. i.

« PreviousContinue »