British Fiction, 18001829

BULWER LYTTON, Edward George. Falkland (1827)

Contemporary Reviews

Monthly Review, n.s. 5 (June 1827): 261–71.

[Review is of the following works: Falkland; The Guards (EN2 1827: 4); English Fashionables Abroad (EN2 1827: 20); Historiettes; or, Tales of Continental Life (EN2 1827: 28); and Richmond (EN2 1827: 68)].

The English ‘reading public’ has, within the last two or three years, discovered symptoms of a taste for personalities, and a voracious appetite for gossip, seasoned by private scandal, unequalled even by the Athenians in the days of Aristophanes. There might have been some excuse in the times of the old Greek comedy, for subjecting ‘oculis fidelibus’ the persons, and exhibiting in action, and embodying in words the doings and sayings of rulers, rebels, sophists, poets, and philosophers; because in those days the dramatic poet was at once the periodical critic and public satirist —the newspaper editor, and the painter of manners. It was his business to submit all that was passing around him, through the eyes and ears, to the judgment of a hearing and seeing public; for as yet that grand impersonation, a ‘reading public,’ was not: and he was in some measure compelled to make every thing broad and [261/262] palpable, in order to enable those to distinguish and seize upon his meanings, who could never have comprehended a subtle allusion or caught a fine and glittering trait of satire. Like the comic masks worn by his actors, every characteristic feature was to be extravagantly protruded or extended, in order that those who were at a distance, both from the theatre of passing events, and the stage on which those events were caricatured, might be able to recognise a sort of distorted resemblance to the persons, with whose names, at least, and the rumour of whose deeds, they were familiar.

The tendency of this was obvious: the liberty of the poet grew into license; and from being at first a whimsical and ludicrous composition, to which, however, consistency of character, of truth, and language, were essential, the Aristophanic comedy degenerated into outrageous personality and insane scandal; its dialogue lost all its grace, and became a violent and vulgar diatribe against all that was pure and lofty, as well as all that was powerful in the land—a vehicle for impiety to the gods, and ill will to men.

A similar revolution in taste seems now to be in course of fulfilment in our own country, while we have no such apology as the Greek poets to plead. The pretended fashionable novels, that have lately been manufactured—the auto-biographies of unheard-of persons—the memoirs of recently deceased, and even of living individuals—the private letters that have been printed—the conversations that have so improperly been ‘set in a note-book,’ and sold to a publisher—are all symptoms of the odious love of private scandal which characterises the reading public of the present day. Let us turn to the publications of the last six months, and we shall find that the evil of which we complain, calls loudly for correction.

To begin with Biography. What are the books in this class that attract the ‘reading public?’ The lives of actors, written by themselves—of men who, from their profession, must mingle extensively with all classes of society, with those that are both above and below them; and possessing, as they generally do, the talent to amuse, they have found means to extract many private anecdotes, to catch many unobvious traits of character, and to see much of the natural disposition developed, in moments of conviviality and carelessness, when the feelings are permitted to flow unrestrained, and the undisguised heart laid open. It is the knowledge of this that has given popularity to the auto-biographies of so many players and playwrights; and but for the anecdotes of others, which they are thus enabled to tell, their lives would have been allowed to slumber, with the forgotten heroes they once enacted, or the abortive farces which they scribbled.

If we turn to the late Novels, we shall find that the mass of them rely for their attractions upon their personalities. It is impossible to take up a newspaper, without finding some paragraph which asserts that the story of this or that ingenious production is founded upon [262/263] real events; that all the characters are real, and moving in high life; and that the author belongs to the peculiar set he describes. Even proper names are hardly disguised; or, if they are, there is always something about them which fixes the character on the person intended; and ‘keys’ are invented for meaner capacities, or the more vulgar lovers of scandal. Another very general practice, among the fashionable novel-writers of the present day, is to choose the name of some côterie, of which both the members and the enemies are sure to patronise the book which bears its name; the one party in the hope of being praised, the other in the persuasion that the set will be ridiculed or abused. The more private and exclusive the côterie, the more certain is the work of a sale: the vast monasteries called clubs, and the female cabals, called ball committees, are, in point of fact, merely severe inquisitions into family circumstances, and personal history; and people are naturally led to expect from such titles as ‘The Guards,’ ‘The Club Houses,’ ‘The Lancers,’ &c., an abundance of scandal, even if there should be a plentiful lack of sense and wit.

We have rarely seen three volumes of more dismal and vulgar trash, than those entitled ‘The Guards.’ As a novel, the work is exceedingly low, stupid, and common-place; and its author, while he has not even the talent for being abusive, evidently knows nothing of the distinguished corps which he has insulted, by giving its name to his publication. There is but one remedy to the evil of such impositions—we mean, the wise determination not to buy them: but this remedy the ‘reading public’ seem to be resolved not to apply, till a few more such precious compositions as this shall compel them to adopt it. ‘The Guards’ is, indeed, powerfully calculated to hasten so desirable a consummation: and we could almost forgive the author the many risks we have run of dislocating our jaws by constant oscitation, during our forced perusal of his eight hundred mortal pages, if we were sure that the audacity and ignorance displayed in them, would put ‘fashionable’ novels, and novel-writers, for ever out of fashion.

We next come to ‘English Fashionables Abroad,’ which appears to be another of the many unsuccessful attempts that have been made in this country, to describe Italian society and manners. It is styled a novel; but the plot is such a secondary object, so unconnected, and so little interesting, that we must consider the description of Italian life and society, including some well drawn English characters, brought in contact with these natives, to be the real object of the work. The scene is in Italy, from beginning to end; it shifts from Naples to Florence, and from Rome to Bologna, and in three volumes it would be wonderful if the writer could not have enlivened his readers with some amusing sketches of native manners. A few such sketches there are, but the choice in general, is not felicitous, and the impressions they leave on the mind of the reader, is apt to mislead him. [263/264]

The following is meant as a humorous caricature sketch of what appears to English people as an irregularity in Italian life.

‘At last Emily arrived at the Palazzo Altenise. There are no hall-doors to the palaces at Rome, and she was obliged to wait till her servant went to the top of the house and back again, to ascertain whether Lady Mary was “at home.” Meantime she amused herself with noticing some of the peculiarities that distinguish the Basse Cour, [1] of which foreigner are so proud, as being particularly appropriated to the residence of their nobility. In the centre of the yard was a mutilated fountain, which was evidently intended for use, not ornament, as from it as from a common centre, were suspended ropes that were fastened to as many different windows as there were different families lodging in this magnificent palace, whether in the second story or the sixth. Each of these ropes was provided with a traveller, on which were slung various cans and other vessels, that, moved by hand-ropes and pullies, speedily supplied their various owners with water. Nor were these the only ærial traversers which this populous yard exhibited. The Palazzo Altenise is one of the many which, at Rome, affords no conveniences for domestic cookery; and in such cases there is but one remedy, namely, that trial of patience, a trattoria. One of then necessary evils was established at the Palazzo Altenise, and Emily recognised a basket of wild boar and ortolans, passing rapidly in its ascent to a window in the Mezzopiano (or intermediate floor), where her mantua-maker lived in a room about forty feet long, and scarcely high enough for a man to stand in.’—vol. i., p. 222.

Now all this appears very droll, and may prove amusing to the reader; but does it give him a correct idea of Italian life? We think not; for were we unacquainted with Italy, we should certainly have been led to suppose, that Italian princes and dukes have no such things as kitchens in their palaces, have not their dinner dressed at home, but get it hoisted to them from the trattoria, by means of one of those ropes and baskets; and that the lady duchess may be seen every day, at one o’clock, pulling up, or at least watching her servant maid hoisting, the basket containing the victuals for herself and her caro sposo. This, however, is a mere caricature. We confess we never heard of the Palazzo Altenise; but this we know, that many large houses are called palazzi in Italy, in which, however, no nobleman resides, and which even do not belong to any nobleman. Of those palaces which actually belong to, and are the residence of, some noble family, there is, at times, a part which is let, especially the entresols and upper floors; the piano nobile, or best floor, being reserved for the use of the family; but in these we have never seen the display of ropes and [264/265] cans and baskets, which our author describes. The practice of a nobleman letting part of his own palace, was, we believe, unknown at Rome before the late French invasions; and even now, the higher order of the resident nobility are above it, and keep their palaces and their courts for their own use, and that of their attendants and dependants. Many of the Roman nobility have suffered during the late wars and political vicissitudes, others have forsaken their mansions, and gone to reside at Florence, Naples, Genoa, or Milan; some families, like the Colonna, have become extinct; yet the order is not fallen so low as a stranger might suppose, from the above and similar other sketches. Another thing must be observed by the English reader, and that is, that the size and the distribution of an Italian palace, are such as to do away with many of the inconveniences which accompany the letting of part of a house in England. The two cannot be compared together. The apartments of a family, in Italy, are disposed horizontally, instead of being vertically; and one floor there is equivalent to a whole house here.

The author intends the following as a moral sketch of Italy: ––

‘If the familiarity of foreign manners appears at first the most attractive, one advantage results from the reserve of English customs, which these can never attain; for whenever the dignity which may have repelled us is thrown aside, our self-love ascribes the change to our own individual merits, and our gratitude and vanity are alike excited by a better degree of courtesy than that which, offered indiscriminately to all, is received with as wide indifference. It is the peculiar characteristic of English ladies of rank so to maintain their state, that it is never held in abeyance even in the equalising intercourse of intimacy; it throws a glory round the head of her who wears it, that brightens every action, and gives an added value to the slightest condescension of one who is herself thus honoured. This is, or at least was, the privilege of British aristocracy; but on the Continent it is far otherwise. There titles are so multiplied, the line of nobility is stretched to such a length, that it has lost its strength and poise; and when you are amused with the vivacity, or attracted by the suavity of the pretty girl in the red shawl, who has made herself agreeable for the last half hour, to all those who have happened to sit on the same bench with her, you forget she is a duchessina in the involuntary comparisons she has led you into, between her address and that of the last good comedian or mantua-maker that has similarly entertained you.’ —vol. iii., p. 24.

Now it is just possible that a foreigner may not find any difference between the language or manners of an Italian duchess, and of a mantua-maker; but he ought not to argue from this, that such a difference does not exist, because the former does not entrench herself within that fence of distant reserve that an English lady of rank is accustomed, by education and example, to keep round her person. Manners vary according to latitudes, and the quiet dignity of English manners, which is consonant to the present state of society, and the received ideas of this country, would be at variance with the greater vivacity and warmth of Italian intercourse, and would [265/266] be there considered affectation or dulness. Why then this continual striving to prove that English manners are the best possible? They may be so for England, but it does not follow that they should be so every where else. But we will appeal to ‘Philip himself, better informed.’ In vol. ii., p. 89, we find the following remark:

‘The proper medium for the calculation of etiquette, like that of the longitude, has never been adapted to every country, nor is there any subject upon which caprice holds such a paramount sway. In Naples, for instance, it is considered highly indecorous for a lady to appear alone in her carriage: she may have her lover and her friend beside her with impunity, but to appear alone is inadmissible. Nor would an Italian coquette, who attended in the least to appearance, be seen to enter a shop unescorted, or to walk across a room unprotected, though she would run from one end to the other with conspicuous bashfulness.’

Such are the whims of fashion and ton, they vary in shades from Lisbon to Pekin, and from Petersburgh to Palermo; little or no serious inference, as to real character, can be drawn from them. In Italy itself, a well bred Roman lady accuses Neapolitan society of vulgarity; the Florentines consider the Milanese as being coarse in their manners, and nuances are to be found from one end of the Peninsula to the other.

With regard to the morals of the country, although no general sweping [sic] censure is passed upon them in this work, yet the characters selected and brought forward, such as La Terracina, and other ladies of a similar turn, and the frequent recurrence to the old tale of cicisbeism and serventism, afford by no means a fair criterion for judging of Italian females. It is well known, that serventism is on the decline; that this highly improper custom has been mostly confined to the upper ranks, and to the idle and the effeminate in the middling ones, that the industrious classes never suffered it, that the Italian villagers and peasantry abhor the very name of it, and consider it as a stigma on the inhabitants of the cities. The country people, who constitute of course the majority of the population, have been little noticed by travellers; but we will say, that among the Italian peasantry, there is as much virtue as among the peasantry of any country. We will make no invidious comparison, but let our author himself speak on the subject. At Castel Gandolfo, he says,

‘They met the throng of villagers, who had just finished their early matins, and were now cheerfully preparing to fulfil the different avocations of the day. This is an Italian custom: the church door is always open; and there are few hours in which some one priest does not attend to invite his fellow mortals to prayers; nor are there many who enter on their daily business, be the time of its commencement late or early, who do not first accept his warning, and invoke a blessing on their task.’—vol. ii., p. 9.

And such, in fact, are the Italian peasantry, from the Alps to the furthest point of Calabria; such their habits, such their humble, cheerful, contented existence; very different; in every respect, from [266/267] the dregs of the idle populace that swarm in the cities, and besiege foreigners with their dishonest or vicious importunities. Such is the peasantry whom the French republicans decimated, whom foreigners stigmatise as superstitious and blood-thirsty, and which some kind speculative patriot would regenerate, coute qui coute, even by fire and sword. And let it be observed, that the peasantry above described is that of the Roman states, which is hastily supposed to be the worst in Italy; but the same simplicity and contentedness is found in the extensive provinces of the kingdom of Naples, in those bordering on the Adriatic, in the Riviera of Genoa, in the vallies of Piedmont, in most districts, in short, excepting always the Maremma, which cannot be said to be inhabited by a resident population.

We will extract our author’s remarks on some whimsicalities of the English abroad:

‘To be French, German, Russian, is an undeniable title to respect amongst the individuals of other nations; but, strange to say of the “proud English,” it is not so with them abroad. “That must be an Englishman; I know it by his lounge.” “Look at that Englishwoman’s poke bonnet and tight little spencer! Where would you see a Parisian so vulgarly tidy?” “There was a row last night at the opera: of course it must have been kicked up by the English.” These, and a hundred such remarks, which an Italian would not have the arrogance to make, nor the courage to repeat, are the common observations of the English upon each other abroad; they seem anxious to evade personal criticism, by sacrificing a holocaust to the fury of censure, and wish to purchase the suffrage of the Italians in their own favour, at the expense of the reputation of the best of their nation: but the base bribe is seldom accepted; and the fable of old is daily verified in the fate of those who are finally rejected by all classes, with still greater scorn than that with which they originally affected to treat their own.’—vol. i., pp. 142.

This fear of contamination, which many English exhibit towards one another, puzzles foreigners, who think that a man, far from his own land, ought to rejoice at meeting a countryman.

Open as this work is to severe criticism, it is by no means devoid of interest, as a description of Italian scenery and manners. The few strictures we have made upon it, and which we might vastly multiply, are applicable to most of the works which treat of that country. We are happy, however, to observe, that a more liberal spirit begins to prevail on this subject. We are confident that many tours and travels, which were read with curiosity some years ago, would be scouted now. It is high time it should be so. Providence has dispensed good all over the earth; every where there are compensations; Christianity produces beneficial effects on its votaries, of every denomination; and civil, if not political society, is brought every day, by the increase of instruction and the spread of intercourse, more upon a level, in the various countries of Europe. Let us not overlook present advantages, [267/268] in the race after speculative ones: let us turn our eyes to the past, and we must gratefully acknowledge, that almost every nation in the civilised world has made greater progress towards wisdom and happiness, in the course of the last few years, than it had done before in as many centuries.

Several of the remarks which we have made on ‘English Fashionables Abroad,’ apply with still more force to the third work on our list, ‘Historiettes.’

These volumes may be considered as a counterpart to ‘The English in Italy,’ under an altered title; a work upon whose merits we have taken occasion to express our opinion [2]. The difference between the two productions, such as it is, appears to us to be in favour of the junior publication; for we perceive, in the pages of the ‘Historiettes,’ that the decorations of foreign idioms, and of those other little peculiarities, which merit only the name of conceits and pedantries, have completely lost their hold on the imagination of this author. Neither does he any longer see the policy, so far as respects himself, nor the justice, as far as others are concerned, of ostentatiously telling the world, that his acquaintance with English travellers is limited to a profligate class of our countrymen, and confounding with them, absurdly enough, the high-minded and virtuous families, whom taste and intellectual curiosity have prompted to migrate to the Continent. The attempt at a resemblance to the popular work, entitled ‘Highways and Byeways,’ which struck us as having been characteristic of the ‘English in Italy,’ is likewise very visible in the ‘Historiettes;’ and the approximation to the merits of Mr. Grattan’s production, is in both instances pretty nearly the same.

The scenes of the two principal stories are laid in Switzerland, with the localities of which the author appears to be tolerably conversant, and the interest of the narratives is connected with some of those domestic revolutions which were effected, to an infinite extent, on the Continent, by one or other of the violent political convulsions of the last century. There is scarcely a tale, in the three volumes, which does not embrace elements of the strongest interest. The remark applies particularly to the ‘Regicide’s Family,’ and the ‘Fall of Berne.’ If they fail, in a great measure, to produce a decisive and powerful impression, we must impute the failure to the circumstance, that the author brings too many characters on the scene; and that he gives them all an equal claim to the sympathy of his reader, who feels no more concern about any one individual than another of the personages before him.

The obvious course to success, in compositions like the present, is to introduce some particular object of attention, of such controlling eminence in the story, as that every thing else shall tend to, and [268/269] be ultimately engrossed by it. The neglect of this unity of design constitutes the leading defects of the volumes before us. Incidents and characters are so multiplied upon each other, that it is sometimes difficult to say which facts and personages are principal or subsidiary.

The story of the ‘Regicide’ is a remarkable instance of this want of skill and arrangement. Driven from his native country, France, upon the restoration of the Bourbons, and condemned to pass a life of exile on the Swiss border with his family; there shunned by society, compelled likewise to make his children sharers of his seclusion; he himself, his possible fortunes, his singular habits, his griefs, and not improbable consolations; all these sources of interest might have been rendered highly available instruments in fixing the sympathies of a reader. But his attention is drawn off to other persons; he loses sight of the Regicide, and, taken away from the natural current of the story, his mind is employed upon a succession of common-place accidents and events, the agents or sufferers in which, possess not the slightest claim to his consideration.

The ‘Fall of Berne’ is more closely interwoven than the tale we have just been considering, with the events of the French revolution. The story itself is apparently of no more importance to the author, than so far as it is a vehicle for some details respecting a few of the most celebrated incidents in the early stages of that extraordinary crisis, and an account of some partial struggles to which it gave rise, in one of the cantons of Switzerland immediately adjoining the French territory. The substantial matter of this tale would have received ample justice, if it had been abridged to about half the compass to which it is at present protracted. A considerable portion of what is related, has been either long familiar to the public, or is inherently undeserving of the minuteness and labour bestowed upon it.

The ‘Historiettes,’ however, convince us, that this author is not destitute of imagination, and that he possesses a considerable ease and fluency of expression, occasionally rising into true spirit. Generally too, but we regret to say, not always, he manifests a desire to treat with candour and liberality, opinions not his own, and peculiarities, both national amid individual, of which he cannot approve.

Of the tale of ‘Falkland,’ it is scarely [sic] possible for us to speak in measured terms. We cannot acquit the author of the consciousness, that he has purposely and wickedly enlarged the materials from which good men may reasonably apprehend great danger to the purity of manners.

The theme he has selected, necessarily leads him into the frequent description of scenes, in which a more or less degree of guilt is uniformly encountered. The best powers of fancy are taxed—the glowing language of passion is exhausted, in order to set off these passages. Our understandings and our consciences are sought to [269/270] be soothed into neutrality—and the interest which we are called upon to feel, in behalf of guilt, is but too apt to modify to our sense the deformity of the crime that constitutes it.

Lady Emily Mandeville, the wife of one whom she did not marry for love, but in whose society and that of her children she might have spent a useful and contented life, suddenly conceives a passion for a casual visitor, accidentally sojourning in her neighbourhood. She cherishes the unhallowed flame—and surrenders herself headlong to be consumed by it. Who is the female, that follows the gradations of unlawful affection, and traces it from its origin to its final triumph over sacred vows, and honour and reason—will not feel herself solicited by such a tale as this, to prefer one rapturous hour (as it is painted), of clandestine indulgence, to a whole age of steady paced tranquil virtue?

But what shall be said of the ethics, by which Falkland is enabled to second the successful appeals of passion to his mistress? May we not dread, that that philosophy shall appear not merely specious, but irrefutable to many, which, when resolved into its essential qualities, becomes only falsehood and ingenuity? When the sophistical suitor assures Lady Emily, that disgrace changes its nature when encountered for a beloved object—that the love which is nursed through shame and sorrow is of a deeper and holier nature than that which is reared in pride, and fostered in joy—that the adultery of the heart is no less criminal than that of the deed—and that there is something of pride and triumph to dare all things, even crime itself, for the one to whom all things are as nought —where, we ask, is the fact, the inference or suggestion, which belies or tends to disparage such abominable tenets? Or rather, is not the whole book an elaborate gloss on a code of inverted morality, where virtue is seen to compound with passion, and passion itself finds impunity in its inordinate excess?

But, if the summer-tide of indulgence were followed by a season of suffering and repentance—if the history of Falkland added another to the thousand recorded instances, which serve to shew how indissoluble is the connection which subsists between error and chastisement; then, indeed, the portraiture of the criminal pleasure might be endured for the sake of the moral. But the story before us is framed on a different model. No symptoms of remorse —no ‘compunctious visitings,’ distract the heart of Lady Emily Mandeville, from the communion which she maintains to the latest moment with her paramour. Her case is calculated to raise the impression, that happiness may still be enjoyed by the violator of every sacred and social obligation, and every decent form which she was wont to respect; and any disaster, any untoward incident, by which the lovers are afflicted or discommoded, is altogether distinct in its origin, from a sense of the guilt which they have incurred.

A few more productions like Falkland, and works of imagina-[270/271]tion will contract an evil repute, which may seal them from the eyes of thousands, by whom they are at present read with profit and delight. Genius, fancy, energy of sentiment and diction, are the undoubted characteristics of the author: the possession of them only aggravates his offences of bad taste, and mischievous argument. He disclaims an evil purpose—every page contradicts him. He affects to be not the open partisan of corruption of manners; but he puts on this hypocritical mantle, for the base and infamous purpose of stealing into the citadel, in order that he may the more effectually betray it.

We know not how ‘Richmond’ came to be classed with the tales we have just been reviewing. It is almost beneath contempt. It is a most lethargic and lifeless affair, differing from the common admixtures of milk and water only in the undue proportion of the latter commodity. Although the matter is very long and very various, it possesses as little of what is interesting, for its extent, as any surviving emanation of moderate talent with which we are acquainted. Indeed, there is not a passage in the three volumes, which might not have been, with the greatest facility, produced by any, the most careless amateur visitor of our police offices. Details of visits to race-courses—of inroads upon gipsy haunts—of the vicissitudes of a thief-hunt—of shop-lifting—of larcenies, great and small, all those little schemes, and ingenious as well as straight forward exercises, in which juvenile depredators are known to be brought up—these form the staple of ‘Richmond.’ Each little sorry violation of a statute, such an incident of every day occurrence as even the newspapers have long forborne to reiterate —is diluted into an ample narrative, until three swollen volumes, at length, rise from under the hand of our garrulous annalist. It would have been much more pleasant to us, to have been enabled to record a different opinion upon a work of this extent; but we very much doubt the capacity of the subject itself to be made attractive in any shape.

[1] This is a most unlucky adaptation of a French appellation to an Italian object. Why not use the appropriate word Cortile, or the English ‘court,’ instead of basse cour, which means poultry yard! Italian palaces, and indeed all large houses, have a court in the centre, enclosed by the four sides of the building.
[2] Monthly Review, former series, vol. cviii., p. 184.

Notes: Format: 1 vol. 8vo. pp. 264; price 10s. 6d. Publisher: Colburn. Review is entitled ‘Recent Novels and Tales’.

Print | Close


© 2004 Project Director: Professor Peter Garside;
Research Associates: Dr Jacqueline Belanger, Dr Sharon Ragaz;
Database/Website Developer: Dr Anthony Mandal