British Fiction, 18001829

WEST, Jane. Ringrove (1827)

Contemporary Reviews

Monthly Review, n.s. 9 (Oct 1828): 232–47.

[Review is of the following works: Ringrove; The Kuzzilbash (EN2 1828: 43); Sayings and Doings, 3rd series (EN2 1828: 52); and Yes and No (EN2 1828: 62)].

In conformity with the intention we expressed in our last, of making up our account with the novelists of the past season, we have headed this article with some of the works which are the most likely to attract popular attention.

There are as many distinct kinds of novels as there are of poems, and these, if we believe poetical theorists, are almost infinite in number. There is one bad consequence in this, as it regards works of fiction, and it is, that the good become confounded with the bad—the true, genuine productions of inventive genius, and knowledge of human nature, with the weak, puerile, and noxious imitations of feeble and uncultivated minds. The bold and hardy descriptions of manners and character by Fielding and Smollet, have been followed by details confined to one small and narrow province of human life. The character and habits of mankind, the darkly-shadowed picture of society, are pretendedly set forth in a set of weakly-drawn sketches, representing the summer fashions of lords and ladies. The rich and splendidly-illustrated romances of Sir Walter Scott—the very magic mirror of the magician—the record that best enables us to hold intercourse with the generations that are gone; these have been mingled in their character of historical [232/233] romances, with others as little fit to be their companions, as those we have before mentioned are fit to be named with the productions of Fielding and Smollet. Richardson, again, has had his imitators; but instead of the pure and determined morality which his pages exhibit, his followers have attempted to inculcate virtue by the whinings of a false sentimentality, or an indecorous mixture of religion with the separate province of fiction. Novels of all these kinds, therefore, are in continual danger of being unfairly judged, and of being condemned without a hearing, by readers of a particular class. A most plentiful, and frequently very pure, source of amusement is thus frequently cut off from the young and the unemployed of both sexes; and the name of a romance or novel is made a bugbear to all prudent fathers and mothers, who imagine their daughters are sure to elope, and their sons to marry without a fortune, if they become addicted to this kind of reading. But this confusion with respect to novels of the same class, is not, perhaps, so fruitful in error, as confusion in regard to the different kinds of fictitious composition. We are very doubtful whether any class or portion of society, depicted very closely, and in all its variety of manners, pleasures, and occupations, could afford what may properly be considered a direct and obvious moral. If, also, on the other hand, amusement be the chief object in a work of fiction, it is very certain that a novel of manners must be vastly inferior to one which depends upon its plot and characters for interest. The class of novels, therefore, which come under the title of fashionable, we have always regarded as occupying the lowest place in the list of fictitious works. Their morality, with a very few exceptions, is more than doubtful, not perhaps from any indifference or design on the part of the writers, but from the very subjects which form the foundation of their plots; and as tales they very seldom exceed in interest a common Magazine story. Turning, then, from these to the historical romance, we enter upon a new and more promising field of fiction. It is worthy of remark, that in this class of novels, description of manners, which in those of a fashionable character, is generally a mere vehicle for caricaturing, or a rapid detail of common-place occurrences, is a most interesting and highly valuable feature in the composition. In the quick and stirring narrative they give of by-gone events, nothing can be more entertaining than to see the living picture in all its vividness and freshness of colour. It is like obtaining for the time an exemption from the common lot of our race, which forbids our seeing more than the objects of the present moment; and the knowledge we thus obtain of old customs and habits, gives us an additional clue to that labyrinth of past ages, in which the olden history of mankind is treasured up. Historical romances have, in this respect, a considerable claim upon attention; and even supposing their story to be unimportant, or even trifling, as some rigid critics may frequently decide it to be, they can seldom be read [233/234] without leaving many agreeable impressions and glowing images in the mind. But their near affinity to the highest species of poetical composition, was acknowledged long before they attained that popularity in the reading world which they now enjoy. They succeeded the works which shone with the full and noontide brightness of ancient and yet unweakened imagination. They supplied the place of those half-heavenly offsprings of earthly natures, which had, as it were, grasped hold of the human mind with a force that was never to decay; and they were sent into the world as evidences that the spirit of poetry was yet awake, under the ruins of the gorgeous temple which had been raised to its divinities.

It is, in fact, a curious point in literary history, and well worthy of consideration—this transition from poetry to romance—or rather this change which took place in the form and style of early imaginative composition. The old Grecian romances partook very essentially of the spirit of poetry. They presented many errors, and were imperfect throughout in the plan of their fable; but these were defects attributable to the newness of the experiment; and they were formed rather on the models of poems, than on a plan similar to that which guides the modern romancer in his labour. As, however, this kind of works became more and more popular, as first the old classical style of poetry was forsaken, and then the legendary ballad became enlarged into the prose romance, they assumed a different form, were less confined to one particular kind of subjects, and became such as we see them in our own day.

The historical romance, consequently, traces its descent from a source which gives it a legitimate rank above the other species of prose fictitious works; but it has an additional merit besides those already noticed, and it is, the superior opportunities it affords a writer of talent for the delineation of the most powerful and the most complicated passions of our nature. The author of an historical romance, in choosing his subject from the great book of the world’s history, not only finds the outline of his plot, but the characters which he is to delineate in life and action. He has not to make guesses as to the manner in which they would act under certain circumstances; but to judge relatively by the knowledge he already possesses. He has data for his imagination to act upon, and while he keeps them in view there is no danger of his offending against the laws and measure of probability. The characters, therefore, which he presents, the situations in which they are found, and all the collateral circumstances which make up the picture, may be relied on; and what is fictitious in the detail is to be regarded but as the filling up of some part which accident has left deficient. A similar observation may be made with regard to the interest of the story. In an historical romance, if the subject be at all well chosen, there is a verisimilitude throughout which gives an air of consistency and probability to the story, which [234/235] cannot be possessed by a work, the foundation of which is entirely fictitious. This results from two causes. In the first place, the very knowledge which a reader has of one part, or the ground-work of the plot being founded in truth, is a sufficient aid to the imagination to give, during the perusal, an implicit credence to the whole. In the next place, as it is with respect to the characters, the key-stone of the work being truth, the parts which are the result of pure invention, will wear an appearance of consistency, all events generally possible being connected together by some principal circumstance in the series, which, if true in the details of a romance, makes the writer follow throughout the guidance of nature, or fail altogether. From these causes it results, that an historical romance, when written with talent and according to the just rules of such a species of composition, is a work of no ordinary merit, and deserves a much higher place even among the solid productions of literary genius, than it is always allowed to claim. To be well written, however, it requires the union of no common talents in an author. It is harder to fill up the dim outlines of an historical picture, drawn by an artist of eminence, and to give the impression which we may suppose he would desire to the different figures in the piece, than it is to paint a picture after fancy, where any character may be given to the party and to the whole, which the taste of the artist may be able to exhibit with the most effect. Another difficulty, again, in the composition of a work of this sort, and one which only a writer of real ability can overcome, is the formation first of his counterplot, or rather the purely romantic part of his work, and then of the fictitious characters which must necessarily be introduced to carry on the action. To any author of genius, the having truth for the foundation of the plot is of incalculable advantage, but to one of inferior ability it is sure to prove his most dangerous stumbling-block. It is only a powerful mind that can so penetrate into the secret heart of nature and humanity, as to make truth its possession and subject, so as to be able to exhibit her whenever and under whatever forms it pleases. But this the writer of the historical romance must be able to do. If he be confined to the page of history, his work will be but a sort of disarranged record. If he have imagination only for his guide, there will be only a mixture of shadows with the substance, which will fail of giving the impression desired. It is only a strong and intuitive perception, therefore, of truth in all its different modes, that can enable him to form that one full, flowing, and compact fable, which every historical romance should present—the failure in which, consequently, renders so many imitations of the best works we possess of the kind miserably abortive.

Of the historical romance there are many off-sets. Of these the numberless novels ‘founded on fact’ form one; but that which [235/236] comes the nearest to it in respectability and value, and which requires an almost equal degree of literary ability, is the kind of novel which takes the form of personal memoirs; and which, under that shape, describes men and things, and relates adventures and events in a free and picturesque style. There are several works in our language of this character, and the first on our present list [The Kuzzilbash], and of which we are about to give our readers an opportunity of judging, belongs to this species of romance.

‘The Kuzzilbash’ is the history of a Persian of high rank a most adventurous fortunes. The narrative is prefaced with an introduction, specifying that the author discovered the manuscript from which it is translated among a heap of old oriental writings, which he had collected during a long residence in the upper provinces of India. Ismael Khan, the hero of the tale, was born in the year 1740, and was the son of a celebrated chief of the Turkish tribe of Affshar. While he was yet almost an infant, the whole tribe fell a prey to a horde of Toorkomans, and Ismael was carried away an orphan, into captivity. Fortunately, however, for him, the chief into whose hands he fell, was pleased with his appearance, and had him carefully carried to his tent, to be a companion to his son, a little older than the young captive. Ismael soon became a favourite both with his master and with all the members of the household; and as he grew up, was allowed to accompany the Toorkomans in their predatory excursions into the territories of the neighbouring people. In these he distinguished himself by an unusual degree of courage; and he was fast rising in the good opinion of Omer Khan, his master, when an untoward event made him feel more heavily than he had before done, the misery of his condition as a captive and a slave. Omer Khan had a daughter, the very paragon of Toorkoman beauties; and withal, so mild and gentle in her beauty, that the heart of the young Ismael became more deeply enamoured of this daughter of the chief than became his forlorn condition. His passion, however, was returned; and as it appears these children of the desert have their fondness for moon-light glens and secret bowers as strongly as lovers in more peopled districts, Ismael and the beautiful Shireen soon found means for carrying on a close and secret intimacy. The consequences of this soon became apparent, and Ismael, in order to escape the vengeance of Omer Khan, was obliged to take a precipitate flight, leaving Shireen to the protection of her brother Selim. The narrative of the escape, and of the terrors of a journey over the desert, is given with wonderful and terrible distinctness. But Ismael had been from his birth the subject of a mysterious destiny, and one of the most holy and celebrated of the wandering dervishes had both darkly hinted at his future career, and taken some share in his protection. It was this strange being who, just as the fugitive was about to perish in the fiery billows of the [236/237] sandy desert, suddenly appeared for his relief, and afforded him the aid thus described:

‘He led the way rapidly and silently along the hollow which I had entered, and which became deeper as we proceeded, with bold and more lofty sides: it seemed strange to me, notwithstanding the cloud of sand, that inequalities so considerable could have escaped my observation. Our progress, however, was short;—the Dervish turned to a rocky part of the bank, which somewhat overhung a heap of fragments that had fallen from its summit—several of these of no small size, he displaced with ease, and discovered a hollow which appeared to extend to a great depth. After he had worked in this way for some moments, he turned to me—“Here, my son,” said he, “lend the aid of thy youthful strength to enlarge this opening. The beneficent Allah extends his protection to the brutes of his creation, as well as to sinful man, and commands him to exercise towards other creatures that mercy which he himself receives:— the horse, which hath served thee faithfully, must not be left to perish—the noble animal must likewise enter here.” I lent my assistance readily, it is true; but, exhausted with my sufferings, I could effect but little. The Dervish, however, was satisfied; indeed he seemed to require but little help. In a short time the opening was sufficiently enlarged, and my guide, entering, ordered me to follow with my horse. The sagacious animal, instead of starting at the dark abyss, quietly and cautiously followed my steps, as if aware that succour and protection were to be found within.

‘We proceeded for a few paces in utter darkness, when a feeble yellow ray struck upon the sight, proceeding from a small iron lamp, which was suspended from the roof by a chain of the same metal. As the eye became accustomed to the dusky light, we found ourselves in a cavern, hollowed either by nature or art out of the solid rock; but the dimensions of which it was impossible to discover.

‘To one who had suffered as I had done from the suffocating blasts of the Desert, the first and most gratifying sensation in this retreat, was the delicious coolness which pervaded it. The deathlike pressure on my heart was instantly removed, and the burning heat of my eyes and the throbbing of my temples were allayed. A moment after we entered, the Dervish brought a large gourd, containing pure cool water; “Here, youth,” said he, “drink and refresh thyself; here thou art in perfect security—I will myself attend to the wants of thy steed.” So saying, while I drank deep of the cool delicious beverage, and poured a portion over my still burning brows and breast, he took my horse a little on one side, and loosening the saddle and accoutrements, wrung the perspiration from its reeking sides, rubbed it with a woollen cloth, kneaded all its limbs, stretched and cracked its joints, and performed, in short, all that the most experienced groom could have done for a favourite horse: then throwing a numud over it, he washed from its mouth and face the sand that covered them, and permitted it to drink sparingly from a vessel which he held to its mouth. He then carefully washed its feet, picking out the sand and fragments of stone that had got fixed about the hoofs, fomenting them, to cool the burning heat which a long and painful march had occasioned.

‘All this time I looked on in amazement; I was bewildered with all [237/238] that had passed, and confounded at seeing a man whose appearance proclaimed him to be devoted to meditation and prayer, acquitting himself so ably, in those offices which our warriors pride themselves on performing well. Before he had concluded, however, I rose to assist him, but he gently repelled my offers. “Rest thee, youth,” he said, “thou needest repose; leave to me this portion of thy duty: there will be a sufficient cause for exertion on thy part ere long.” I soon had the satisfaction of seeing my favourite comfortably disposed of in a corner of the cavern, with soft dry sand for his bed, and eating from his tobrah, with an avidity that proved him not likely to suffer from his severe exertions.

‘The Dervish now turned his attention to me. “Youth,” said he, “the cravings of nature must be satisfied. Hunger and thirst, like pain and sickness, were entailed on man through the sin of Sultan Adam, our first parent; but God is merciful, and has provided remedies for our ills, which we may lawfully use: eat, drink, in moderation, and relieve thy weariness by sleep; but never forget that these are all the gifts of Allah, and provoke not his wrath by disobedience to his eternal laws.” With these words, he placed before me coarse barley bread, dried fruit, and some crumbs of cheese, with pure water which he brought from a dark recess in the cave, He then invited me to eat, by uttering a solemn Bismillah! followed by a few words which might have been of prayer, although I understood them not. He did not taste the food himself, but sat beside me in silence while I ate; and when I had finished, fervently ejaculating “Alhumdulillah!” he prostrated himself, with his forehead touching the sand. He then rose, and leading me to another corner of the cave, where a black felt carpet lay spread on the sand, he bade me “rest in peace,” and left me to repose.’—pp. 181–185.

It will be too well worth our reader’s while to follow the adventures of our friend Ismael, to make us think of abridging the pleasure they will derive from it, by attempting an abstract of the work. We should find it, perhaps, a sort of impossible task if we did make the attempt; for though an intrigue may be developed in a few lines, and a catastrophe related in still fewer, the spirit of a book, which depends for success on the vigour and force of each chapter and particular description, as the Kuzzilbash does, is not to be made into the compact essence of an analysis. We shall only, therefore, give the few lines of the story, which are necessary to link together and render intelligible the extracts we are making from this highly entertaining book. Ismael, after leaving the cave of the dervise in the desert, made his way over the sterile waste with which he saw himself surrounded, in the best manner he was able. Still exposed to the dangers of the wilderness, and still solitary, he had lost none of his fears of being again made a captive by some of the tribes whom he expected to meet on his path. After travelling for some distance, he arrived at a watering place, where, attracted both by a fresh stream, and the verdure of the spot, he determined upon making his lodging for the night. Neither friend nor enemy was to be seen or heard in the vast solitude, and Ismael sunk into a profound sleep, from which he was [238/239] not awakened till just as the day was breaking in the east, and his horse gave the signal of a stranger’s approach by its loud neighing. Ismael in an instant was on his feet, the arrow drawn to its head, and his brow bent in resolute defiance of the enemy, whoever it might be. But there was no necessity for hostile preparation. The stranger was a most noble and courteous cavalier; and what was Ismael’s surprise and pleasure when he discovered him to be of the tribe of the Affshar, and no less a personage than Ibrahim Khan, the brother of the great conqueror, Nader Khan himself. Thus brought back to the Kuzzilbashes, our hero began his career anew. He speedily distinguished himself in the army of Nader, was made one of his gholaums, or body guards, and soon after obtained the title of Beg. The city of Mushed, which it had been the great design of Nader to recover, was obtained and entered, and Ismael than [sic] gave himself up entirely to the enjoyment of his new honours, and the facilities the place afforded him for pleasure. A dangerous adventure, however, in which he engaged was near costing him his life, and occasion is given the author for entering into a full detail of some lively Zenana scenes; but we prefer giving the description of Mushed.

‘Since the period when I quitted my Desert life, although it had been my fate to witness much that was dazzling and exciting, nothing resembling a town had yet fallen in my way; for the Koordish villages were mere collections of wretched mud huts, scarcely more imposing in appearance than our fair and well-made tents. Now for the first time I entered a city, and that city one of the first in the empire, the capital of Khorasan, and above all, the seat of that holy shrine to which every pious Sheah turns with reverence, as to a second Kibleh. [1]

‘Many a day, while we lay encamped at the Khawjah Rubbee, within a short fursung of the walls, I gazed with intense interest on the lofty gilded dome of the shrine, the tall slender minarets, and the magnificent assemblage of buildings that surround it, composing a group in the centre of this great city, which never fails to attract every eye, even when it gazes from the greatest distance. How I longed for the anticipated moment, when the road would be free to enter and devour all its wonders! What fanciful pictures did my imagination form of every thing it contained; and all how unlike the truth!

‘On the morning we entered the city, we were all too much occupied with our duty, too busy in pursuing the enemy, and securing his abandoned positions, to pay much attention to other objects; but on the succeeding days, when all was comparatively quiet, and when the completion of our General’s arrangements permitted his servants to enjoy some leisure, I wandered about with some of my companions, determined to satisfy my curiosity to the full.

‘We first made for the Saha, or great square. What a splendid scene! Its high arcaded buildings, covered with porcelain of the richest [239/240] colours disposed in the most tasteful devices, all glittering in the sun; the two lofty gates at either end, and noble archways in the sides, all similarly adorned, and one of which gives entrance to the holy mausoleum!—the gilded Succah khaneh, with its numerous conduits filled with streams of water perpetually supplied,—the ample gilded dome, and slender minaret covered with blue and gold, rising like a mighty sceptre to the skies!—these were the first objects that fixed me gazing to the spot, and filled me with wonder and delight.

‘Nor was the living picture that occupied this splendid scene curious or less attractive; the crowds of moollahs, priests, pilgrims, soldiers, merchants, and every variety of trade and denomination among the faithful, that passed and repassed through each avenue to the Sahn; the rich goods displayed under the arcades of the lower story, which, like those of a caravanserai, are let out as shops: the groups of people bargaining at these shops, or praying upon the grave-stones with which the place is paved, formed a scene of very varied interest;—and the buzz of business and religion which rose on the ear; the hum of prayer; the cries of saints and pilgrims on the blessed names of Allee, Hoossain, and Imaum Reza; the gabble and the quarrels of those who were driving their hard bargains, mingled in a roar of sounds as incongruous and confused as the groups that uttered them.

‘We entered the Mausoleum; what a striking contrast from the scene that led to it! Its lofty and dimly-lighted chambers seemed boundless in their obscurity, and the awe which overwhelmed my faculties was heightened by the deep silence, the mysterious character of the long-gowned figures that flitted about with soundless step, and the low, measured voice of prayer that issued from the chamber of the shrine.

‘ “Seek you to perform your devotions?” demanded one of the Khadums, in a low whisper, “behold me ready to conduct you.” Even the gay thoughtless youths my companions, who came but to gratify their curiosity, were infected with the awe which I sincerely felt; and we all followed our conductor in silence.

‘Prostrating ourselves, with our foreheads touching the sacred threshold, we prayed a blessing upon the departed Imaum, and all the tribe of Allee, his predecessors; and then entered the vault of death, which no infidel may approach and live. Here repose the bones of the departed Imaum (blessings be on his name!) and here also is deposited the dust of him whom all Sheahs abhor for his persecution of the blessed race of Allee, while they respect his great name, his liberality, and justice to the world besides.—the mighty Haroon-ul-Rasheed.

‘The shrine, with its rich screens, its brocaded canopies, and numerous glittering ornaments, presented a striking contrast to the groups of grave turbaned priests and humble devotees, all prostrated in prayer around it; and the impression made upon me by this solemn pomp was so strong, that I no longer wondered at the endless crowds of pilgrims that resort to this celebrated shrine from every part of Persia.

‘After reciting the customary prayers, and walking three times round the tomb, we made a trifling present to the Khadum, and quitted the Durgah, by the entrance which leads to the mosque and square of Gauher Shahud [2], so called from their founder. Even after gazing on the [240/241] splendour of the Sahn, we were struck with delight at the beauty of this most elegant of mosques, with its slender, porcelain-covered minarets, and single majestic dome. But it would be endless to describe the various mosques, medressahs, and caravanserais, of this great city, the pride of Khorasan, and whose fame is over all the East.

‘The extensive and well-filled bazaars were objects of a different but not inferior interest. With what delight did I traverse that long street, which, with a canal of running water in its centre, stretches from one end the city to the other. I gazed at the well-filled shops of the long bazaars that border this canal; the rich silks, shawls, and furs, the gay cloths of India and Frangestan; the tempting booths of the fruitsellers, the cooks, and confectioners; the neat arrangements of the apothecaries’ many-coloured drugs and liquids. But the shops of the armourers and harness-makers had the greatest attractions for me. The gold and silver-mounted horse-furniture with sharp bright stirrups, and gay martingales with breast ornaments; the brilliant suits of armour, both chain and plate, bright, damasked, and clouded; the well-tempered Khorasanee blades, darkly brilliant, and dangerous as a woman’s eye; the curious matchlocks and pistols from Istambol, and the endless variety of knives, khunjurs, and daggers. These were the things I coveted; I would willingly have made myself master of the whole, and, indeed, it was not long before my purse began to feel the effects of my visits to the bazaars of Mushed: it would require to have been better filled to keep pace with my thoughtless extravagance.

‘Another species of luxury to which I had hitherto been comparatively a stranger, was that of the baths, which were the constant resort of our idle youth, and which I now very regularly attended, for the sake of pleasant society as well as for personal enjoyment.’—vol. ii. pp. 2–7.

The troubles which Ismael suffered through the temptations offered by this gay place, were many and dangerous, but having been delivered from them by the almost miraculous interposition of the mysterious dervise, he again found himself in a situation for seeking the favour of his master; and the desperate acts of valour which he performed, soon raised him still higher in his esteem than ever. The principal part of the narrative, however, is taken up with the detail of the war, and we hear considerably more of the Khan’s character and conduct than we do of Ismael. But events soon occurred which brings the story to its conclusion, and afford us more of the feelings belonging to romance reading, than any other part of the work. As we have not yet given a specimen of the author’s powers in this respect, the following passage will suit the purpose:—

‘Nothing worth relating had occurred for some time after my arrival in Mushed, when, strolling idly one afternoon by the Oosbeck caravanserai, and amusing myself with watching the crowds of people who frequented this great depôt, my attention was arrested by an exclamation of distress at no great distance, accompanied by some words in a female voice, and the Tekeh language. They were uttered by a young woman in the Toorkoman dress, who, it appeared, in turning down a narrow lane close by, with a small tray of provisions in her hands, had been jostled by a surly [241/242] porter, so rudely as to cause her to drop her burthen. An emotion of compassion for her distress, together with a certain kindly feeling which always stirred within me at the sight of the Toorkoman garb, led me to go and enquire what ailed her. I had no sooner begun to speak, than the girl started back, and stood gazing at me with a countenance full of doubt and amazement.—“Holy Prophet!” said she at last, regardless of my questions,—“is it possible?—am I mad or dreaming?—or is it the spirit of Ismael that stands before me?” I was startled in my turn, not less by the sound of her voice than by her exclamations, and replied, with a surprise little inferior to her own, “Yes, child! you are not mistaken; my name, no doubt, is Ismael, and though I cannot recollect your’s, the sound of your voice as well as your language is familiar to me; for I also have lived in the Desert, and have not forgotten the language of its tribes.”

‘ “Our language too!” exclaimed the girl, with increased eagerness,—“there can be no mistake,—it must be himself,—and yet alive! and in Mushed too! Oh! holy Fatimah, what a blessing is this! Dearest mistress, you will live now,—all will be well again! Ah, my lord! you must come with me immediately, if you would hear of one who once was very dear to you; if you would see her alive, lose not a moment but follow me.”—“Stay! hold! what mean you?” exclaimed I with equal earnestness: “of whom do you speak, and who are you that thus recall, in language and in look, the memory of my youthful days?”—“Oh! for the sake of all you best love, delay no longer!” interrupted the girt, losing sight of my impatient curiosity in her own eager anticipations: “we shall be late; I can stay no longer from my mistress; come, I intreat you come!”—“Your mistress! and who then is your mistress?” cried I, trembling with inexplicable forbodings.—“My mistress!” repeated the girl; “and know you not Sitarah, the little captive whom you gave to Shireen?—who should be my mistress but her?”

‘Although from the first moment of this interview I had felt a wild and thrilling fancy, which, like the presentiment of something strange and awful, flitted over my mind, and made me tremble while I almost anticipated the import of her tidings—still, when at last she uttered them so plainly, they stunned me like the bursting of a thunderbolt. Shireen! my long lost, ever loved Shireen, in Mushed! and in danger!—dying perhaps!”—my head grew dizzy, and I could scarce articulate a word. “Lead on, lead on!” cried I, in a voice scarcely intelligible: “lose not another moment!” and I followed her with hasty steps, as she glided swiftly before me to a cluster of miserable huts at no great distance.

‘She entered a small mud-walled court, and running forward through a mean apartment, into an inner chamber of still more wretched description, she pushed aside the ragged curtain which hung before a door, addressing herself to a figure which lay extended upon a pallet in corner of the room, exclaimed, “Good news, my dear mistress—I bring you tidings of joy! He is come! he is here! your misery is at an end; your own Ismael is here—he will protect us, you will recover, and shall all be happy again!”

‘A piercing shriek from the couch was all the reply; but it froze my blood and fixed every faculty with painful intensity upon the scene before me. I did not gaze thus long; my heart would have spoken had my [242/243] straining eyes even failed to discover the truth. On a squalid couch, surrounded with misery and poverty in all its forms, pale, emaciated, and dying, as it seemed, lay the wasted form of my once blooming, lovely, and still fondly-loved Shireen! Heedless of every other object, in a tumult of remorse, apprehension, and joy, I threw myself upon the couch, and clasped her in my arms—but, alas! she was unconscious of my caresses—cold and motionless, she lay as one already dead—I thought she was indeed no more, and overcome with grief and horror, fell insensible upon her her body.’—vol. iii. pp. 184–187.

Shireen had been brought into this situation by the captivity of her whole tribe, and her brother was then in chains in Mushed. The tale closes with his release, through the hazardous, but almost fatal, interference of Ismael, and of the marriage of the latter with Shireen.

Of a widely different character are the other works at the head of the article. The merit they possess in whatever proportion, is a common-place merit; for they belong to a school which has sprung up and exhausted its powers during the few seasons it has flourished. We are not of those who would quarrel with an author, who having strong feelings bent in one direction, gives something like the same tone to every favourite character he draws. It is, in the case of many men of genius, almost impossible that it should not be so. But the lighter class of novelists of the present day, are not tiresome through a uniformity of this kind, but from one which springs from the conventional slavery of the whole tribe to the delineation of the outward expression of character only; to its representation almost uniformly in the same circumstances of social life, and to modes of detail and description which give the same varnish to every scene that is drawn. The author of ‘Sayings and Doings’ has undoubtedly a quick perception of character, but it is of character only so far as it is formed under the influence of fashions, or casual occurrences. The ridiculous, the outré, the perverted and extravagant, he sees and describes very acutely, but, with all the merit which a work written by such an author may possess, and without taking into account the errors into which his peculiar taste may lead him, it can at best be only a case of well drawn caricatures, or of portraits like the originals, merely because some slight deformity is strikingly represented. The following will serve as an illustration of both the faults and merits of such a style. It is only necessary to observe, to make the extract intelligible, that of the characters mentioned, Mr. and Mrs. Crosby are a worthy couple, determined on killing themselves with physic, Caroline their niece, and Sir Mark, a rustic full-grown baronet of forty, who has come to dine with the Crosby’s for the first time, and make his declaration of love to Caroline.

‘Every body has observed that whenever particular pains and trouble are expended to make up an agreeable party, the scheme universally fails; [243/244] and upon the present occasion the endeavour to put Sir Mark perfectly at his ease, by inviting nobody to meet him, was equally unsuccessful. Any of the ordinary visitors of Crosby Hall, the rector, the attorney even,—any body to have broken the solemn uniformity of the partie quarre—would have been a most charming relief: as it was, the silence and gravity were unmitigated; while the interest created amongst the servants, to examine with proper scrupulousness the avowed lover of their young lady, (for so he had been confidentially announced by Mrs. Davis to be) prompted them to rivet four pair of unmeaning eyes upon the worthy baronet; the consciousness of which inspection, added to his habitual bashfulness, placed him in the most uncomfortable possible condition; while Caroline, anxious for his coup d’essai, waited with exemplary patience for some sign, if not of rationality, at least of animation.

‘The worthy baronet accepted the proffered soup from the servant.

‘ “Are you really going to take soup, Sir Mark?” said Mrs. Crosby.

‘ “Yes, if you please,” said Sir Mark Terrington.

‘ “Take the pulverized ginger to Sir Mark,” said the lady of the house to the butler.

‘Instantly, a huge bottle, labelled accordingly, was presented to Sir Mark.

‘ “None, I thank you,” said the baronet.

‘ “Sir Mark,” said Mrs. Crosby, “there is a great proportion of vegetable matter in that soup, and it is absolute poison without a corrective.—permit me to do it for you.”

‘Saying which, she kindly dipped a large thickly perforated spoon into the bottle, and in a trice scattered at least two ounces of its contents on the surface of Sir Mark’s soup.

‘ “Now stir it up, Sir Mark, and I’ll venture to say you’ll suffer nothing.”

‘Now Sir Mark having, thanks to Providence, an excellent constitution, never anticipated any great suffering from eating a plate of soup, and would rather have dispensed with the bane than have mixed with it the antidote; however, the intention of Mrs. Crosby was everything, and the worthy baronet began the operation of demolishing the meditated mess which her assiduity had arranged for him.

‘But he was not prepared for all his misery; none of the family ate soup, nor would they be persuaded to commence eating fish until Sir Mark had finished his jorum. The caloric of the soup superadded to the heat of the ginger, rendered this operation somewhat lengthy, as the Americans say; and at least seven minutes were occupied in its consumption—the perfect silence of the party rendered more than usually audible the noise which the worthy baronet somewhat gothically made in sipping it.

‘ “Have you taken your Barclay, my love?” said Mrs. Crosby to her husband.

‘ “No, I quite forgot it,” said Crosby.

‘ “Robert,” said Mrs. Crosby, and turning to a very thin, very pale footman, who was her great favourite, and took physic three times every week, whispered some directions in his ear, to obey which he speedily vanished. [244/245]

‘During all this ceremony, Caroline could not avoid observing that Sir Mark, in addition to the ardour of the pursuit in which he was engaged, was enduring the full blaze of the sun directly in his eyes, nor could she avoid asking him, whether he did not find the glare excessive.

‘ “Not in the least, I thank you,” said Sir Mark most amiably, his face absolutely crimsoned with the heat, and his purple veins starting at his temples.

‘The sickly footman returned with the Barclay, which the Baronet had concluded to be nourishing brown stout for the invalid, but which turned out to be neither more nor less than a box of pills, one of which Mr. Crosby was in the habit of swallowing before be began to eat, as an artillery man fires a blind shell to ascertain the correctness of his range before he begins in earnest.

‘ “Hutchins,” said Mrs. Crosby, in the act of helping the fish—“has there been a spoon boiled with these trout?”

‘ “Yes, Madam,” said the butler.

‘ “We are very particular, Sir Mark,” said the lady; “and I never suffer a morsel of fish to be tasted which has not undergone the test of seasonableness: when the fish is likely to be injurious to the stomach, the spoon boiled in the water with it, becomes tarnished.”

‘ “Indeed, Ma’am!” said Sir Mark.’—vol. i. pp. 109–113.

This is a fair and average specimen of the author’s power in this his favourite style; but inclined as we are to laugh with him, we believe no reader of judgment can fail seeing that this scene, as well as all others of a similar kind, are mere farcical representations; and that the laugh which they provoke is very different from the expression of pleasure, at the nicer and more refined efforts of wit in the delineation of manners and character.

In ‘Yes and No,’ we have yet another variety in the description of life and society; but it palls and sickens us throughout to find almost every human being of which it speaks, decorated with a title, and uttering not a sentence but what is trimmed into the well-known form of the cant of high life. To such a ridiculous length, in fact, is this carried, that even the parson who comes to speak about a funeral, is called ‘the honourable and reverend.’ There is, indeed, in this novel, and others of the same class, an attempt made at delineating other scenes occasionally than those of ball-rooms, and other characters than those of peers and peeresses. But there can be nothing more amusing than the air of hauteur with which these portions are hastened over, or else made to prove to the reader on what an eminence of discernment, delicate taste, and politeness, the accomplished author reposes. As a proof of the pretensions of these fashionable novels to fine description, and of their general failure in the attempt, the following will well answer our purpose.

‘Helen had been but four-and-twenty hours returned, when her mother expired in her arms; and as she slowly recovered from the immediate stupor of despair, the first sound that jarred discordantly upon her [245/246] returning senses, was the merry chime of the village bells summoning the rural congregation to morning-service, for it was Sunday.

‘The powers of sound upon the brain in awakening dormant associations, have been felt by many, independent of time or space. And even in declining life, an accidental imitation of the well-known tone of the bell that used to disturb the slumbers of the school-boy, has recalled for a moment the remembrance of the long-forgotten hopes and fears of childhood. But the summons, which, with its unwelcome jingle, and ill-timed cheerfulness, now grated upon Helen’s ear, was one, which had never hitherto been unpleasing, either to her or her mother. And the last time she had heard it—it seemed but yesterday—how different had been her feelings! In the sameness of their tranquil life, the return of the Sunday had always furnished the principal event, and the consequent periodical return of Mrs. Mordaunt’s walk to the parish-church, had for some time been the extent of her rambles beyond her own garden. Upon these occasions, the severe simplicity, though studied neatness of Mrs. Mordaunt’s attire, had added to the impression created by her striking, though no longer blooming figure. And now Helen recalled, with an astonishing accuracy, the whole of her appearance, dress, and deportment, the last time that they had together started to obey that summons to church. She recollected too, and it was consolatory to her in her present state, the increased cheerfulness with which her mother always returned from thence; but it occurred to her, with some slight sensation of reproach, that she had not then been warned by the first symptom of bodily weakness shown by her mother, in requiring the assistance of her arm, on their walk homewards, the day before she had last left her on her visit to Lady Latimer.

‘Still that distractingly cheerful sound continued; and with the desperation with which one sometimes turns one’s attention to that which is painful, Helen half opened the window-shutters. It was a bright autumnal morning. At the distance of the garden she could see, on one side, small parties of the peasantry, all in their gayest clothing, and hearts as gay, hastening towards their morning duty; but opposite her own little gate, there was a still, and apparently increasing group; and all, as they passed, paused a minute, as it were, listening on the skirts of this group; and then, as they resumed their way, it was easy to observe in the awkward gait of all, and in the unfolded handkerchief of many of the women, that they had just heard heavy news. For Mrs. Mordaunt had been the best of neighbours to the poor; her charity had been, not only of the hand, but of the heart; and there are few so ignorant, as not to appreciate the distinction.’—vol. ii. pp. 35–39.

We hardly know where a worse piece of thoroughly affected writing could be found than this, and yet of such stuff is the major part of these works composed, when a moment’s reprieve is obtained from the detail of intrigues, or the repetition of insipid dialogues. We are only astonished how the most simple, idle, and uncultivated mind, can endure two or three volumes of such wretched and tasteless productions.

The last work we have to notice [Ringrove] requires but a few words. It is written with a good design, and by a writer always zealous in the [246/247] desire of promoting the cause of virtue. There is a great deal of matter in it which can hardly fail of being useful, and some of the characters are described in a manner calculated to render the incidents of the tale interesting as well as moral in their effect. The writer has disclaimed the idea of seeking the fame of a fashionable novelist, and if she has failed in composing a bold and exciting narrative, or in very striking pictures of life, she has succeeded in making a book which will be read by many with peculiar approbation, and can produce disgust in none. But of all the novels we have thus brought before our readers, the one which best deserves their attention, is the Tale of Khorasan. It is interesting for its description of oriental character and customs, and in some parts is as vivid and exciting as the best and more decidedly romantic narratives. Its faults are an occasional forgetfulness of the true state of society and feeling in the countries which form the scene of the history, and a mixture of refined European sentiment with the wild expression of unlicensed thought, which is hardly natural. Another fault is in the construction of the tale, it being only the first and last hundred pages of the work which can he regarded as devoted especially to the story, the intermediate parts being almost entirely taken up with descriptions of battles, political changes, and executions; but it is on the whole a work of great merit, and as such we recommend it to our readers.

[1] The point where Mecca and its holy temple lie, and to which every Mussulman, wherever he may be situated, turns his face when he prays.
[2] ‘She was the wife of Shah Rokh, the celebrated grandson of the still more celebrated Timoor, the conqueror and destroyer of the East.’

Notes: Review is entitled ‘Novels of the Day’. Format: 2 vols; no price. Publisher: Longman & Co.

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