Some Private Views
by James Payn
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Author of 'High Spirits,' 'A Confidential Agent,' Etc.

























'The hidden but the common thought of all.'

The thoughts I am about to set down are not my thoughts, for, as my friends say, I have given up the practice of thinking, or it may be, as my enemies say, I never had it. They are the thoughts of an acquaintance who thinks for me. I call him an acquaintance, though I pass as much of my time with him as with my nearest and dearest; perhaps at the club, perhaps at the office, perhaps in metaphysical discussion, perhaps at billiards—what does it matter? Thousands of men in town have such acquaintances, in whose company they spend, by necessity or custom, half the sum of their lives. It is not rational, doubtless; but then 'Consider, sir,' said the great talking philosopher, 'should we become purely rational, how our friendships would be cut off. We form many such with bad men because they have agreeable qualities, or may be useful to us. We form many such by mistake, imagining people to be different from what they really are.' And he goes on complacently to observe that we shall either have the satisfaction of meeting these gentlemen in a future state, or be satisfied without meeting them.

For my part, I do not feel that the scheme of future happiness, which ought by rights to be in preparation for me, will be at all interfered with by my not meeting again the man I have in my. mind. To have seen him in the flesh is sufficient for me. In the spirit I cannot imagine him; the consideration is too subtle; for, unlike the little man who had (for certain) a little soul,' I don't believe he has a soul at all.

He is middle-aged, rich, lethargic, sententious, dogmatic, and, in short, the quintessence of the commonplace. I need not say, therefore, that he is credited by the world with unlimited common-sense. And for once the world is right. He has nothing-original about him, save so much of sin as he may have inherited from our first parents; there is no more at the back of him than at the back of a looking-glass—indeed less, for he has not a grain of quicksilver; but, like the looking-glass, he reflects. Having nothing else to do, he hangs, as it were, on the wall of the world, and mirrors it for me as it unconsciously passes by him—not, however, as in a glass darkly, but with singular clearness. His vision is never disturbed by passion or prejudice; he has no enthusiasm and no illusions. Nor do I believe he has ever had any. If the noblest study of mankind is man, my friend has devoted himself to a high calling; the living page of human life has been his favourite and indeed, for these many years, his only reading. And for this he has had exceptional opportunities. Always a man of wealth and leisure, he has never wasted himself in that superficial observation which is often the only harvest of foreign travel. He despises it, and in relation to travellers, is wont to quote the famous parallel of the copper wire, 'which grows the narrower by going further.' A confirmed stay-at-home, he has mingled much in society of all sorts, and exercised a keen but quite unsympathetic observation. His very reserve in company (though, when he catches you alone, he is a button-holder of great tenacity) encourages free speech in others; they have no more reticence in his presence than if he were the butler. He has belonged to no cliques, and thereby escaped the greatest peril which can beset the student of human nature. A man of genius, indeed, in these days is almost certain, sooner or later, to become the centre of a mutual admiration society; but the person I have in my mind is no genius, nor anything like one, and he thanks Heaven for it. To an opinion of his own he does not pretend, but his views upon the opinions of other people he believes to be infallible. I have called him dogmatic, but that does not at all express the absolute certainty with which he delivers judgment. 'I know no more,' he says, 'about the problems of human life than you do' (taking me as an illustration of the lowest prevailing ignorance), 'but I know what everybody is thinking about them.' He is didactic, and therefore often dull, and will eventually, no doubt, become one of the greatest bores in Great Britain. At present, however, he is worth knowing; and I propose to myself to be his Boswell, and to introduce him—or, at least, his views—to other people. I have entitled them the Midway Inn, partly from my own inveterate habit of story-telling, but chiefly from an image of his own, by which he once described to me, in his fine egotistic rolling style, the position he seemed to himself to occupy in the world.

When I was a boy, he said (which I don't believe he ever was), I had a long journey to take between home and school. Exactly midway there was a hill with an Inn upon it, at which we changed horses. It was a point to which I looked forward with very different feelings when going and returning. In the one case—for I hated school—it seemed to frown darkly on me, and from that spot the remainder of the way was dull and gloomy; in the other case, the sun seemed always glinting on it, and the rest of the road was as a fair avenue that leads to Paradise. The innkeeper received us with equal hospitality on both occasions, and it was quite evident did not care one farthing in which direction we were tending. He would stand in front of his house, jingling his money—our money—in his pockets, and watch us depart with the greatest serenity, whether we went east or west. I thought him at one time the most genial of Bonifaces (for it was his profession to wear a smile), and at another a mere mocker of human woe. When I grew up, I perceived that he was a philosopher.

And now I keep the Midway Inn myself, and watch from the hill-top the passengers come and go—some loth, some willing, like myself of old—and listen to their talk in the coffee-room; or sometimes in a private parlour, where, though they speak low and gravely, their converse is still unrestrained, because, you see, I am the landlord.

Sometimes they speak of Death and the Hereafter, of which the child they buried yesterday knows more than the wisest of them, and more than Shakespeare knew. The being totally ignorant of the subject does not indeed (as you may perhaps have observed in other matters) deter some of them from speaking of it with great confidence; but the views of a minority would quite surprise you, and this minority is growing—coming to a majority. Every day I see an increase of the doubters. It is not a question of the Orthodox and the Infidel, you must understand, at all, though that is assuming great proportions; but there is every day more uncertainty among them, and, what is much more noteworthy, more dissatisfaction.

Years ago, when a hardy Cambridge scholar dared to publish his doubts of an eternal punishment overtaking the wicked, an orthodox professor of the same college took him (theologically) by the throat. 'You are destroying,' he cried, 'the hope of the Christian.' But this is not the hope I speak of, as loosing, and losing, its hold upon men's minds; I mean the real hope, the hope of heaven.

When I used to go to church—for my inn is too far removed from it to admit of my attendance there nowadays—matters were very different. Heaven and Hell were, in the eyes not only of our congregation, but of those who hung about the doors in the summer sun, or even played leap-frog over the grave-stones, as distinct alternatives as the east and west highways on each side of my inn. If you did not go one way, you must go the other; and not only so, but an immense desire was felt by very many to go in the right direction. Now I perceive it is not so. A considerable number of highway passengers, though even they are less numerous than of old, are still studious—that is in their aspirations—to avoid taking (shall I say delicately) the lower road; but only a few, comparatively, are solicitous to reach the goal of the upper.

Let me once more observe that I am speaking of the ordinary passengers—those who travel by the mail. Of the persons who are convinced that there never was an Architect of the Universe, and that Man sprang from the Mollusc, I know little or nothing: they mostly travel two and two, in gigs, and have quarrelled so dreadfully on the way, that, at the Inn, they don't speak to one another. The commonalty, I repeat, are losing their hopes of heaven, just as the grown-up schoolboy finds his paradise no more in home. I can remember when divines were never tired of painting the lily, of indulging in the most glowing descriptions of the Elysian Fields. A popular artist once drew a picture of them: 'The Plains of Heaven' it was called, and the painter's name was Martin. If he was to do so now, the public (who are vulgar) would exclaim 'Betty Martin.' Not that they disbelieve in it, but that the attractions of the place are dying out, like those of Bath and Cheltenham.

Of course some blame attaches to the divines themselves that things have come to such a pass. 'I protest,' says a great philosopher, 'that I never enter a church, but the man in the pulpit talks so unlike a man, as though he had never known what human joys or sorrows are—so carefully avoids every subject of interest save one, and paints that in colours at once so misty and so meretricious—that I say to myself, I will never sit under him again.' This may, of course, be only an ingenious excuse of his for not going to church; but there is really something in it. The angels, with their harps, on clouds, are now presented to the eyes, even of faith, in vain; they are still appreciated on canvas by an old master, but to become one of them is no longer the common aspiration. There is a suspicion, partly owing, doubtless, to the modern talk about the dignity and even the divinity of Labour, that they ought to be doing something else than (as the American poet puts it with characteristic ii reverence) 'loafing about the throne;' that we ourselves, with no ear perhaps for music, and with little voice (alas!) for praise, should take no pleasure in such avocations. It is not the sceptics—though their influence is getting to be considerable—who have wrought this change, but the conditions of modern life. Notwithstanding the cheerful 'returns' as to pauperism, and the glowing speeches of our Chancellors of the Exchequer, these conditions are far harder, among the thinking classes, than they were. The question 'Is Life worth Living?' is one that concerns philosophers and metaphysicians, and not the persons I have in my mind at all; but the question, 'Do I wish to be out of it?' is one that is getting answered very widely—and in the affirmative. This was certainly not the case in the days of our grand-sires. Which of them ever read those lines—

'For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey, This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned, Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day, Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?'—

without a sympathetic complacency? This may not have been the best of all possible worlds to them, but none of them wished to exchange it, save at the proper time, and for the proper place. Thanks to overwork, and still more to over-worry, it is not so now. There are many prosperous persons in rude health, of course, who will ask (with a virtuous resolution that is sometimes to be deplored), 'Do you suppose then that I wish to cut my throat?' I certainly do not. Do not let us talk of cutting throats; though, mind you, the average of suicides, so admirably preserved by the Registrar-General and other painstaking persons, is not entirely to be depended upon. You should hear the doctors at my Inn (in the intervals of their abuse of their professional brethren) discourse upon this topic—on that overdose of chloral which poor B. took, and on that injudicious self-application of chloroform which carried off poor C. With the law in such a barbarous state in relation to self-destruction, and taking into account the feelings of relatives, there was, of course, only one way of wording the certificate, but—and then they shake their heads as only doctors can, and help themselves to port, though they know it is poison to them.

It is an old joke that annuitants live for ever, but no annuity ever had the effect of prolonging life which the present assurance companies have. How many a time, I wonder, in these later years, has a hand been stayed, with a pistol or 'a cup of cold poison' in it, by the thought, 'If I do this, my family will lose the money I am insured for, besides the premiums.' This feeling is altogether different from that which causes Jeannette and Jeannot in their Paris attic to light their charcoal fire, stop up the chinks with their love-letters, and die (very disreputably) 'clasped in one another's arms, and silent in a last embrace.' There is not one halfpenny's worth of sentiment about it in the Englishman's case, nor are any such thoughts bred in his brain while youth is in him. It is in our midway days, with old age touching us here and there, as autumn 'lays its fiery finger on the leaves' and withers them, that we first think of it. When the weight of anxiety and care is growing on us, while the shoulders are becoming bowed (not in resignation, but in weakness) which have to bear it; when our pains are more and more constant, our pleasures few and fading, and when whatever happens, we know, must needs be for the worse—then it is that the praise of the silver hair and length of days becomes a mockery indeed.

Was it the prescience of such a state of thought, I wonder (for it certainly did not exist in their time), that caused good men of old to extol old age; as though anything could reconcile the mind of man to the time when the very sun is darkened to him, and 'the clouds return after the rain?' There is a noble passage in 'Hyperion' which has always seemed to me to repeat that sentiment in Ecclesiastes; it speaks of an expression in a man's face:

'As though the vanward clouds of evil days Had spent their malice, and the sullen rear Was with its storied thunder labouring up.'

This is why poor Paterfamilias, sitting in the family pew, is not so enamoured of that idea of accomplishing those threescore years and ten which the young parson, fresh from Cambridge, is describing as such a lucky number in life's lottery. The attempt to paint it so is well-meaning, no doubt, 'the vacant chaff well meant for grain;' and it is touching to see how men generally (knowing that they themselves have to go through with it) are wont to portray it in cheerful colours.

A modern philosopher even goes so far as to say that our memories in old age are always grateful to us. Our pleasures are remembered, but our pains are forgotten; 'if we try to recall a physical pain,' she writes (for it is a female), 'we find it to be impossible,' From which I gather only this for certain, that that woman never had the gout.

The folks who come my way, indeed, seem to remember their physical ailments very distinctly, to judge by the way they talk of them; and are exceedingly apprehensive of their recurrence. Nay, it is curious to see how some old men will resent the compliments of their juniors on their state of health or appearance. 'Stuff and nonsense!' cried old Sam Rogers, grimly; 'I tell you there is no such thing as a fine old man.' In a humbler walk of life I remember to have heard a similar but more touching reply. It was upon the great centenarian question raised by Mr. Thorns. An old woman in a workhouse, said to be a hundred years of age, was sent for by the Board of Guardians, to decide the point by her personal testimony. One can imagine the half-dozen portly prosperous figures, and the contrast their appearance offered to that of the bent and withered crone. 'Now, Betty,' said the chairman with unctuous patronage, 'you look hale and hearty enough, yet they tell me that you are a hundred years old; is this really true?' 'God Almighty knows, sir,' was her reply, 'but I feel a thousand.'

And there are so many people nowadays who 'feel a thousand.'

It is for this reason that the gift of old age is unwished for, and the prospect of future life without encouragement. It is the modern conviction that there will be some kind of work in it; and even though what we shall be set to do may be 'wrought with tumult of acclaim,' we have had enough of work. What follows, almost as a matter of course, is that the thought of possible extinction has lost its terrors. Heaven and its glories may have still their charms for those who are not wearied out with toil in this life; but the slave draws for himself a far other picture of home. His is no passionate cry to be admitted into the eternal city; he murmurs sullenly, 'Let me rest.'

It was a favourite taunt with the sceptics of old—those Early Fathers of infidelity, who used to occupy themselves so laboriously with scraping at the rind of the Christian Faith—that until the Cross arose men were not afraid of Death. But that arrow has lost its barb. The Fear of Death, even among professing Christians, is now comparatively rare; I do not mean merely among dying men—in whom those who have had acquaintance with deathbeds tell us they see it scarcely ever—but with the quick and hale. Even with very ignorant persons, the idea that things may be a great deal worse for us hereafter than even at present is not generally entertained as respects themselves. A clergyman who was attending a sick man in his parish expressed a hope to the wife that she took occasion to remind her husband of his spiritual condition. 'Oh yes, sir,' she replied, 'many and many a time have I woke him up o' nights, and cried, "John, John, you little know the torments as is preparing for you."' But the good woman, it seems, was not disturbed by any such dire imaginings upon her own account.

Higher in the social scale, the apprehension of a Gehenna, or at all events of such a one as our forefathers almost universally believed in, is rapidly dying out. The mathematician tells us that even as a question of numbers, 'about one in ten, my good sir, by the most favourable computations,' the thing is incredible; the philanthropist inquires indignantly, 'Is the city Arab then, who grows to be thief and felon as naturally as a tree puts forth its leaves, to be damned in both worlds?' and I notice that even the clergy who come my way, and take their weak glass of negus while the coach changes horses, no longer insist upon the point, but, at the worst, 'faintly trust the larger hope.'

Notwithstanding these comparatively cheerful views upon a subject so important to all passengers on life's highway, the general feeling is, as I have said, one of profound dissatisfaction; the good old notion that whatever is is right, is fast disappearing; and in its place there is a doubt—rarely expressed except among the philosophers, with whom, as I have said, I have nothing to do—a secret, harassing, and unwelcome doubt respecting the divine government of the world. It is a question which the very philosophers are not likely to settle even among themselves, but it has become very obtrusive and important. Men raise their eyebrows and shrug their shoulders when it is alluded to, instead, as of old, of pulverising the audacious questioner on the spot, or even (as would have happened at a later date) putting him into Coventry; they have no opinion to offer upon the subject, or at all events do not wish to talk about it. But it is no longer, be it observed, 'bad form' in a general way to do so; it is only that the topic is personally distasteful.

The once famous advocate of analogy threw a bitter seed among mankind when he suggested, in all innocence, and merely for the sake of his own argument, that as the innocent suffered for the guilty in this world, so it might be in the world to come; and it is bearing bitter fruit. To feel aweary at the Midway Inn is bad enough; but to be journeying to no home, and perhaps even to some harsher school than we yet wot of, is indeed a depressing reflection.

Hence it comes, I think, or partly hence, that there is now no fun in the world. Wit we have, and an abundance of grim humour, which evokes anything but mirth. Nothing would astonish us in the Midway Inn so much as a peal of laughter. A great writer (though it must be confessed scarcely an amusing one), who has recently reached his journey's end, used to describe his animal spirits depreciatingly, as being at the best but vegetable spirits. And that is now the way with us all. When Charles Dickens died, it was confidently stated in a great literary journal that his loss, so far from affecting 'the gaiety of nations,' would scarcely be felt at all; the power of rousing tears and laughter being (I suppose the writer thought) so very common. That prophecy has been by no means fulfilled. But, what is far worse than there being no humorous writers amongst us, the faculty of appreciating even the old ones is dying out. There is no such thing as high spirits anywhere. It is observable, too, how very much public entertainments have increased of late—a tacit acknowledgment of dulness at home—while, instead of the lively, if somewhat boisterous, talk of our fathers, we have drawing-room dissertations on art, and dandy drivel about blue china.

There is one pleasure only that takes more and more root amongst us, and never seems to fail, and that is making money. To hear the passengers at the Midway Inn discourse upon this topic, you would think they were all commercial travellers. It is most curious how the desire for pecuniary gain has infected even the idlest, who of course take the shortest cut to it by way of the race-course. I see young gentlemen, blond and beardless, telling the darkest secrets to one another, affecting, one would think, the fate of Europe, but which in reality relate to the state of the fetlock of the brother to Boanerges. Their earnestness (which is reserved for this enthralling topic) is quite appalling. In their elders one has long been accustomed to it, but these young people should really know better. The interest excited in society by 'scratchings' has never been equalled since the time of the Cock Lane ghost. If men would only 'lose their money and look pleasant' without talking about it, I shouldn't mind; but they will make it a subject of conversation, as though everyone who liked his glass of wine should converse upon 'the vintages.' One looks for it in business people and forgives it; but everyone is now for business.

The reverence that used to belong to Death is now only paid to it in the case of immensely rich persons, whose wealth is spoken of with bated breath. 'He died, sir, worth two millions; a very warm man.' If you happen to say, though with all reasonable probability and even with Holy Writ to back you, 'He is probably warmer by this time,' you are looked upon as a Communist. What the man was is nothing, what he made is everything. It is the gold alone that we now value: the temple that might have sanctified the gold is of no account. This worship of mere wealth has, it is true, this advantage over the old adoration of birth, that something may possibly be got out of it; to cringe and fawn upon the people that have blue blood is manifestly futile, since the peculiarity is not communicable, but it is hoped that, by being shaken up in the same social bag with millionaires, something may be attained by what is technically called the 'sweating' process. So far as I have observed, however, the results are small, while the operation is to the last degree disagreeable.

What is very significant of this new sort of golden age is that a literature of its own has arisen, though of an anomalous kind. It is presided over by a sort of male Miss Kilmansegge, who is also a model of propriety. It is as though the dragon that guarded the apples of Hesperides should be a dragon of virtue. Under the pretence of extolling prudence and perseverance, he paints money-making as the highest good, and calls it thrift; and the popularity of this class of book is enormous. The heroes are all 'self-made' men who come to town with that proverbial half-crown which has the faculty of accumulation that used to be confined to snowballs. Like the daughters of the horse-leech, their cry is 'Give, give,' only instead of blood they want money; and I need hardly say they get it from other people's pockets. Love and friendship are names that have lost their meaning, if they ever had any, with these gentry. They remind one of the miser of old who could not hear a large sum of money mentioned without an acceleration of the action of the heart; and perhaps that is the use of their hearts, which, otherwise, like that of the spleen in other people, must be only a subject of vague conjecture. They live abhorred and die respected; leaving all their heaped-up wealth to some charitable institution, the secretary of which levants with it eventually to the United States.

This last catastrophe, however, is not mentioned in these biographies, the subjects of which are held up as patterns of wisdom and prudence for the rising generation. I shall have left the Midway Inn, thank Heaven, for a residence of smaller dimensions, before it has grown up. Conceive an England inhabited by self-made men!

Has it ever struck you how gloomy is the poetry of the present day? This is not perhaps of very much consequence, since everybody has a great deal too much to do to permit them to read it; but how full of sighs, and groans, and passionate bewailings it is! And also how deuced difficult! It is almost as inarticulate as an AEolian harp, and quite as melancholy. There are one or two exceptions, of course, as in the case of Mr. Calverley and Mr. Locker; but even the latter is careful to insist upon the fact that, like those who have gone before us, we must all quit Piccadilly. 'At present,' as dear Charles Lamb writes, 'we have the advantage of them;' but there is no one to remind us of that now, nor is it, as I have said, the general opinion that it is an advantage.

It is this prevailing gloom, I think, which accounts for the enormous and increasing popularity of fiction. Observe how story-telling creeps into the very newspapers (along with their professional fibbing); and, even in the magazines, how it lies down side by side with 'burning questions,' like the weaned child putting its hand into the cockatrice's den. For your sake, my good fellow, who write stories [here my friend glowered at me compassionately], I am glad of it; but the fact is of melancholy significance. It means that people are glad to find themselves 'anywhere, anywhere, out of the world,' and (I must be allowed to add) they are generally gratified, for anything less like real life than what some novelists portray it is difficult to imagine.

[Here he stared at me so exceedingly hard, that anyone with a less heavenly temper, or who had no material reasons for putting up with it, would have taken his remark as personal, and gone away.]

Another cause of the absence of good fellowship amongst us (he went on) is the growth of education. It sticks like a fungus to everybody, and though, it is fair to say, mostly outside, does a great deal of mischief. The scholastic interest has become so powerful that nobody dares speak a word against it; but the fact is, men are educated far beyond their wits. You can't fill any cup beyond what it will hold, and the little cups are exceedingly numerous. Boys are now crammed (with information) like turkeys (but unfortunately not killed at Christmas), and when they grow up there is absolutely no room in them for a joke. The prigs that frequent my Midway Inn are as the sands in its hour-glass, only with no chance, alas! of their running out. The wisdom of our ancestors limited education, and very wisely, to the three R's; that is all that is necessary for the great mass of mankind: whereas the pick of them, with those clamping irons well stuck to their heels, will win their way to the topmost peaks of knowledge.

At the very best—that is to say when it produces anything—what does the most costly education in this country produce in ordinary minds but the deplorable habit of classical quotation? If it could teach them to think—but that is a subject, my dear friend, into which you will scarcly follow me.

[I could have knocked his head off if he had not been so exceptionally stout and strong, and as it was, I took up my hat to go, when a thought struck me.]

'Among your valuable remarks upon the ideas entertained by society at present, you have said nothing, my dear sir, about the ladies.'

'I never speak of anything,' he replied with dignity, 'which I do not thoroughly understand. Man I do know—down to his boots; but woman'—here he sighed and hesitated—'no; I don't know nearly so much of her.'


It has often struck me that the relation of two important members of the social body to one another has never been sufficiently considered, or treated of, so far as I know, either by the philosopher or the poet. I allude to that which exists between the omnibus driver and his conductor. Cultivating literature as I do upon a little oatmeal, and driving, when in a position to be driven at all, in that humble vehicle, the 'bus, I have had, perhaps, exceptional opportunities for observing their mutual position and behaviour; and it is very peculiar. When the 'bus is empty, these persons are sympathetic and friendly to one another, almost to tenderness; but when there is much traffic, a tone of severity is observable upon the side of the conductor. 'What are yer a-driving on for just as a party's getting in? Will nothing suit but to break a party's neck?' 'Wake up, will yer? or do yer want that ere Bayswater to pass us?' are inquiries he will make in the most peremptory manner. Or he will concentrate contempt in the laconic but withering observation: 'Now then, stoopid!'

When we consider that the driver is after all the driver—that the 'bus is under his guidance and management, and may be said pro tem, to be his own—indeed, in case of collision or other serious extremity, he calls it so: 'What the infernal regions are yer banging into my 'bus for?' etc., etc.,—I say, this being his exalted position, the injurious language of the man on the step is, to say the least of it, disrespectful.

On the other hand, it is the conductor who fills the 'bus, and even entices into it, by lures and wiles, persons who are not voluntarily going his way at all. It is he who advertises its presence to the passers-by, and spares neither lung nor limb in attracting passengers. If the driver is lord and king, yet the conductor has a good deal to do with the administration: just as the Mikado of Japan, who sits above the thunder and is almost divine, is understood to be assisted and even 'conducted' by the Tycoon. The connection between those potentates is perhaps the most exact reproduction of that between the 'bus driver and his cad; but even in England there is a pretty close parallel to it in the mutual relation of the author and the professional critic.

While the former is in his spring-time, the analogy is indeed almost complete. For example, however much he may have plagiarised, the book does belong to the author: he calls it, with pardonable pride (and especially if anyone runs it down), 'my book.' He has written it, and probably paid pretty handsomely for getting it published. Even the right of translation, if you will look at the bottom of the title-page, is somewhat superfluously reserved to him. Yet nothing can exceed the patronage which he suffers at the hands of the critic, and is compelled to submit to in sullen silence. When the book-trade is slack—that is, in the summer season—the pair get on together pretty amicably. 'This book,' says the critic, 'may be taken down to the seaside, and lounged over not unprofitably;' or, 'Readers may do worse than peruse this unpretending little volume of fugitive verse;' or even, 'We hail this new aspirant to the laurels of Apollo.' But in the thick of the publishing season, and when books pour into the reviewer by the cartful, nothing can exceed the violence, and indeed sometimes the virulence, of his language. That 'Now then, stoopid!' of the 'bus conductor pales beside the lightnings of his scorn.

'Among the lovers of sensation, it is possible that some persons may be found with tastes so utterly vitiated as to derive pleasure from this monstrous production.' I cull these flowers of speech from a wreath placed by a critic of the Slasher on my own early brow. Ye gods, how I hated him! How I pursued him with more than Corsican vengeance; traduced him in public and private; and only when I had thrust my knife (metaphorically) into his detested carcase, discovered I had been attacking the wrong man. It is a lesson I have never forgotten; and I pray you, my younger brothers of the pen, to lay it to heart. Believe rather that your unfriendly critic, like the bee who is fabled to sting and die, has perished after his attempt on your reputation; and let the tomb be his asylum. For even supposing you get the right sow by the ear—or rather, the wild boar with the 'raging tooth'—what can it profit you? It is not like that difference of opinion between yourself and twelve of your fellow-countrymen which may have such fatal results. You are not an Adonis (except in outward form, perhaps), that you can be ripped up with his tusk. His hard words do not break your bones. If they are uncalled for, their cruelty, believe me, can hurt only your vanity. While it is just possible—though indeed in your case in the very highest degree improbable—that the gentleman may have been right.

In the good old times we are told that a buffet from the hand of an Edinburgh or Quarterly Reviewer would lay a young author dead at his feet. If it was so, he must have been naturally very deficient in vitality. It certainly did not kill Byron, though it was a knock-down blow; he rose from that combat from earth, like Antaeus, all the stronger for it. The story of its having killed Keats, though embalmed in verse, is apocryphal; and if such blows were not fatal in those times, still less so are they nowadays. On the other hand, if authors are difficult to slay, it is infinitely harder work to give them life by what the doctors term 'artificial respiration'—puffing. The amount of breath expended in the days of 'the Quarterlies' in this hopeless task would have moved windmills. Not a single favourite of those critics—selected, that is, from favouritism, and apart from merit—now survives. They failed even to obtain immortality for the writers in whom there was really something of genius, but whom they extolled beyond their deserts. Their pet idol, for example, was Samuel Rogers. And who reads Rogers's poems now? We remember something about them, and that is all; they are very literally 'Pleasures of Memory.'

And if these things are true of the past, how much more so are they of the present! I venture to think, in spite of some voices to the contrary, that criticism is much more honest than it used to be: certainly less influenced by political feeling, and by the interests of publishing houses; more temperate, if not more judicious, and—in the higher literary organs, at least—unswayed by personal prejudice. But the result of even the most favourable notices upon a book is now but small. I can remember when a review in the Times was calculated by the 'Row' to sell an entire edition. Those halcyon days—if halcyon days they were—are over. People read books for themselves now; judge for themselves; and buy only when they are absolutely compelled, and cannot get them from the libraries. In the case of an author who has already secured a public, it is indeed extraordinary what little effect reviews, either good or bad, have upon his circulation. Those who like his works continue to read them, no matter what evil is written of them; and those who don't like them are not to be persuaded (alas!) to change their minds, though his latest effort should be described as though it had dropped from the heavens. I could give some statistics upon this point not a little surprising, but statistics involve comparisons—which are odious. As for fiction, its success depends more upon what Mrs. Brown says to Mrs. Jones as to the necessity of getting that charming book from the library while there is yet time, than on all the reviews in Christendom.

O Fame! if I e'er took delight in thy praises, 'Twas less for the sake of thy high-sounding phrases Than to see the bright eyes of those dear ones discover They thought that I was not unworthy—

of a special messenger to Mr. Mudie's.

Heaven bless them! for, when we get old and stupid, they still stick by one, and are not to be seduced from their allegiance by any blaring of trumpets, or clashing of cymbals, that heralds a new arrival among the story-tellers.

On the other hand, as respects his first venture, the author is very dependent upon what the critics say of him. It is the conductor, you know (I wouldn't call him a 'cad,' even in fun, for ten thousand pounds), on whom, to return to our metaphor, the driver is dependent for the patronage of his vehicle, and even for the announcement of its existence. A good review is still the very best of advertisements to a new author; and even a bad one is better than no review at all. Indeed, I have heard it whispered that a review which speaks unfavourably of a work of fiction, upon moral grounds, is of very great use to it. This, however, the same gossips say, is mainly confined to works of fiction written by female authors for readers of their own sex—'by ladies for ladies,' as a feminine Pall Mall Gazette might describe itself.

Nor would I be understood to say that even a well-established author is not affected by what the critics may say of him; I only state that his circulation is not—albeit they may make his very blood curdle. I have a popular writer in my mind, who never looks at a newspaper unless it comes to him by a hand he can trust, for fear his eyes should light upon an unpleasant review. His argument is this: 'I have been at this work for the last twelve months, thinking of little else and putting my best intelligence (which is considerable) at its service. Is it humanly probable that a reviewer who has given his mind to it for a less number of hours, can suggest anything in the way of improvement worthy of my consideration? I am supposing him to be endowed with ability and actuated by good faith; that he has not failed in my own profession and is not jealous of my popularity; yet even thus, how is it possible that his opinion can be of material advantage to me? If favourable, it gives me pleasure, because it flatters my amour propre, and I am even not quite sure that it does not afford a stimulating encouragement; but if unfavourable, I own it gives me considerable annoyance. [This is his euphemistic phrase to express the feeling of being in a hornets' nest without his clothes on.] On the other hand, if the critic is a mere hireling, or a young gentleman from the university who is trying his 'prentice hand at a lowish rate of remuneration upon a veteran like myself, how still more idle would it be to regard his views!'

And it appears to me that there is really something in these arguments. As regards the latter part of them, by-the-bye, I had the pleasure of seeing my own last immortal story spoken of in an American magazine—the Atlantic Monthly—as the work of 'a bright and prosperous young author.' The critic (Heaven bless his young heart, and give him a happy Whitsuntide) evidently imagined it to be my first production. In another Transatlantic organ, a critic, speaking of the last work of that literary veteran, the late Mr. Le Fanu, observes: 'If this young writer would only model himself upon the works of Mr. William Black in his best days, we foresee a great future before him.'

There is one thing that I think should be set down to the credit of the literary profession—that for the most part they take their 'slatings' (which is the professional term for them) with at least outward equanimity. I have read things of late, written of an old and popular writer, ten times more virulent than anything Mr. Ruskin wrote of Mr. Whistler: yet neither he, nor any other man of letters, thinks of flying to his mother's apron-string, or of setting in motion old Father Antic, the Law. Perhaps it is that we have no money, or perhaps, like the judicious author of whom I have spoken, we abstain from reading unpleasant things. I wish to goodness we could abstain from hearing of them; but the 'd——d good-natured friend' is an eternal creation. He has altered, however, since Sheridan's time in his method of proceeding. He does not say, 'There is a very unpleasant notice of you in the Scorpion, my dear fellow, which I deplore.' The scoundrel now affects a more light-hearted style. 'There is a review of your last book in the Scorpion', he says, 'which will amuse you. It is very malicious, and evidently the offspring of personal spite, but it is very clever.' Then you go down to your club, and take the thing up with the tongs, when nobody is looking, and make yourself very miserable; or you buy it, going home in the cab, and, having spoilt your appetite for dinner with it, tear it up very small, throw it out of window, and swear you have never seen it.

One forgives the critic—perhaps—but never the good-natured friend. It is always possible—to the wise man—to refrain from reading the lucubration of the former, but he cannot avoid the latter: which brings me to the main subject of this paper—the Critic on the Hearth. One can be deaf to the voice of the public hireling, but it is impossible to shut one's ears to the private communications of one's friends and family—all meant for our good, no doubt, but which are nevertheless insufferable.

In Miss Martineau's Autobiography there is a passage expressing her surprise that whereas in all other cases there is a certain modest reticence in respect to other people's business when it is of a special kind, the profession of literature is made an exception. As there is no one but imagines that he can poke a fire and drive a gig, so everyone believes he can write a book, or at all events (like that blasphemous person in connection with the Creation) that he can give a wrinkle or two to the author.

I wonder what a parson would say, if a man who never goes to church save when his babies are christened, or by accident to get out of a shower, should volunteer his advice about sermon-making? or an artist, to whom the man without arms, who is wheeled about in the streets for coppers, should recommend a greater delicacy of touch? Indeed, metaphor fails me, and I gasp for mere breath when I think of the astounding impudence of some people. If I possessed a tithe of it, I should surely have made my fortune by this time, and be in the enjoyment of the greatest prosperity. It must be remembered, too, that the opinion of the Critics on the Hearth is always volunteered (indeed, one would as soon think of asking for it as for a loan from the Sultan of Turkey), and in nine cases out of ten it is unfavourable. One has no objection to their praise, nor to any amount of it; what is so abhorrent is their advice, and still more their disapproval. It is like throwing 'half a brick' at you, which, utterly valueless in itself, still hurts you when it hits you. And the worst of it is that, apart from their rubbishy opinions, one likes these people; they are one's friends and relatives, and to cut one's moorings from them altogether would be to sail over the sea of life without a port to touch at.

The early life of the author is especially embittered by the utterances of these good folks. As a prophet is of no honour in his own country, so it is with the young aspirant for literary fame with his folks at home. They not only disbelieve in him, but—generally, however, with one or two exceptions, who are invaluable to him in the way of encouragement—'make hay' of him and his pretensions in the most heartless style. If he produces a poem, it achieves immortality in the sense of his 'never hearing the last of it;' it is the jest of the family till they have all grown up. But this he can bear, because his noble mind recognises its own greatness; he regards his jeering brethren in the same light as the philosophic writer beholds 'the vapid and irreflective reader.' When they tell him they 'can't make head or tail of his blessed poetry,' he comforts himself with the reflection of the great German (which he has read in a translation) that the clearest handwriting cannot be read by twilight. It is when his literary talents have received more or less recognition from the public at large, that home criticism becomes so painful to him. His brethren are then boys no longer, but parsons, lawyers, and doctors; and though they don't venture to interfere with one-another as regards their individual professions, they make no sort of scruple about interfering with him. They write to him their unsolicited advice and strictures. This is the parson's letter:


'I like your last book much better than the rest of them; but I don't like your heroine. She strikes both Julia and myself [Julia is his wife, who is acquainted with no literature but the cookery-book] as rather namby-pamby. The descriptions, however, are charming; we both recognised dear old Ramsgate at once. [The original of the locality in the novel being Dieppe.] The plot is also excellent, though we think we have some recollection of it elsewhere; but it must be so difficult to hit upon anything original in these days. Thanks for your kind remembrance of us at Christmas: the oysters were excellent. We were sorry to see that ill-natured little notice in the Scourge.

'Yours affectionately,


Jack the lawyer writes:


'You are really becoming ["Becoming?" he thinks that becoming] quite a great man: we could hardly get your last book from Mudie's, though I suppose he takes very small quantities of copies, except from really popular authors. Marion was charmed with your heroine [Dick rather likes Marion; and doesn't think Jack treats her with the consideration she deserves], and I have no doubt women in general will admire her, but your hero—you know I always speak my mind—is rather a duffer. You should go into the world more, and sketch from life. The Vice-Chancellor gave me great pleasure by speaking of your early poems very highly the other day, and I assure you it was quite a drop down for me, to find that he was referring to some other writer of the same name. Of course I did not undeceive him. I wish, my dear fellow, you would write stories in one volume instead of three. You write a short story capitally.

'Yours ever,


Tom the surgeon belongs to that very objectionable class of humanity, called, by ancient writers, wags:


'I cannot help writing to thank you for the relief afforded to me by the perusal of your last volume. I had been suffering from neuralgia, and every prescription in the Pharmacopaeia for producing sleep had failed until I tried that. Dear Maggie [an odious woman, who calls novels "light literature," and affects to be blue] read it to me herself, so it was given every chance; but I think you must acknowledge that it was a little spun out. Maggie assures me—I have not read them myself, for you know what little time I have for such things—that the first two volumes, with the exception of the characters of the hero and heroine, which she pronounces to be rather feeble, are first-rate. Why don't you write two-volume novels? There is always something in analogy: reflect how seldom Nature herself produces three at a birth: when she does, it is only two, at most, which survive. We shall look forward to your next effort with much interest, but we hope you will give more time and pains to it. Remember what Horace says upon this subject (He has no more knowledge of Horace than he has of Sanscrit, but he has read the quotation in that vile review in the Scourge.) Maggie thinks you live too luxuriously: if your expenses were less you would not be compelled to write so much, and you would do it better. Excuse this well-meant advice from an elder brother.

'Yours always,


'One's sisters, and one's cousins, and one's aunts' also write in more or less the same style, though, to do their sex justice, less offensively. 'If you were to go abroad, my dear Dick,' says one, 'it would expand your mind. There is nothing to blame in your last production, which strikes me (what I could understand of it at least, for some of it is a little Bohemian) as very pleasing; but the fact is, that English subjects are quite used up.' Others discover for themselves the originals of Dick's characters in persons he has never dreamt of describing, and otherwise exhibit a most marvellous familiarity with his materials. 'Hennie, who has just been here, is immensely delighted with your satirical sketch of her husband. He, however, as you may suppose, is wild, and says you had better withdraw your name from the candidates' book at his club. I don't know how many black balls exclude, but he has a good many friends there.' Another writes: 'Of course we all recognised Uncle George in your Mr. Flibbertigibbet; but we try not to laugh; indeed our sense of loss is too recent. Seriously, I think you might have waited till the poor old man—who was always kind to you, Dick—was cold in his grave.'

Some of these excellent creatures send incidents of real life which they are sure will be useful to 'dear Dick' for his next book—narratives of accidents in a hansom cab, of missing the train by the Underground, and of Mr. Jones being late for his own wedding, 'which, though nothing in themselves, actually did happen, you know, and which, properly dressed up, as you so well know how to do,' will, they are sure, obtain for him a marked success. 'There is nothing like reality,' they say, he may depend upon it, 'for coming home to people.'

After all, one need not read these abominable letters. One's relatives (thank Heaven!) usually live in the country. The real Critics on the Hearth are one's personal acquaintances in town, whom one cannot escape.

'My dear friend,' said one to me the other day—a most cordial and excellent fellow, by-the-bye (only too frank)—'I like you, as you know, beyond everything, personally, but I cannot read your books.'

'My dear Jones,' replied I, 'I regret that exceedingly; for it is you, and men like you, whose suffrages I am most anxious to win. Of the approbation of all intelligent and educated persons I am certain; but if I could only obtain that of the million, I should be a happy man.'

But even when I have thus demolished Jones, I still feel that I owe him a grudge. 'What the Deuce is it to me whether Jones likes my books or not? and why does he tell me he doesn't like them?'

Of the surpassing ignorance of these good people, I have just heard an admirable anecdote. A friend of a justly popular author meets him in the club and congratulates him upon his last story in the Slasher [in which he has never written a line]. It is so full of farce and fun [the author is a grave writer]. 'Only I don't see why it is not advertised under the same title in the other newspapers.' The fact being that the story in the Slasher is a parody—and not a very good-natured one—upon the author's last work, and resembles it only as a picture in Vanity Fair resembles its original.

Some Critics on the Hearth are not only good-natured, but have rather too high, or, if that is impossible, let us say too pronounced, an opinion of the abilities of their literary friends. They wonder why they do not employ their gigantic talents in some enduring monument, such as a life of 'Alexander the Great' or a popular history of the Visigoths. To them literature is literature, and they do not concern themselves with little niceties of style or differences of subject. Others again, though extremely civil, are apt to affect more enthusiasm than they feel. They admire one's works without exception—'they are all absolutely charming'—but they would be placed in a position of great embarrassment if they were asked to name their favourite: for, as a matter of fact, they are ignorant of the very names of them. A novelist of my acquaintance lent his last work to a lady cousin because she 'really could not wait till she got it from the library;' besides, 'she was ill, and wanted some amusing literature.' After a month or so he got his three volumes back, with a most gushing letter. It 'had been the comfort of many a weary hour of sleeplessness,' etc. The thought of having 'smoothed the pillow and soothed the pain' would, she felt sure, be gratifying to him. Perhaps it would have been, only she had omitted to cut the pages even of the first volume.

But, as a general rule, these volunteer censors plume themselves on discovering defects and not beauties. When any author is particularly popular and has been long before the public, they have two methods of discoursing upon him in relation to their literary friend. In the first, they represent him as a model of excellence, and recommend their friend to study him, though without holding out much hope of his ever becoming his rival; in the second, they describe him as 'worked out,' and darkly hint that sooner or later [they mean sooner] their friend will be in the same unhappy condition. These, I need not say, are among the most detestable specimens of their class, and only to be equalled by those excellent literary judges who are always appealing to posterity, which, even if a little temporary success has crowned you to-day, will relegate you to your proper position to-morrow. If one were weak enough to argue with these gentry, it would be easy to show that popular authors are not 'worked out,' but only have the appearance of being so from their taking their work too easily. Those whose calling it is to depict human nature in fiction are especially subject to this weakness; they do not give themselves the trouble to study new characters, or at first hand, as of old; they sit at home and receive the congratulations of Society without paying due attention to that somewhat changeful lady, and they draw upon their memory, or their imagination, instead of studying from the life. Otherwise, when they do not give way to that temptation of indolence which arises from competence and success, there is no reason why their reputation should suffer, since, though they may lack the vigour or high spirits of those who would push them from their stools, their experience and knowledge of the world are always on the increase.

As to the argument with regard to posterity which is so popular with the Critic on the Hearth, I am afraid he has no greater respect for the opinion of posterity himself than for that of his possible great-great-granddaughter. Indeed, he only uses it as being a weapon the blow of which it is impossible to parry, and with the object of being personally offensive. It is, moreover, noteworthy that his position, which is sometimes taken up by persons of far greater intelligence, is inconsistent with itself. The praisers of posterity are also always the praisers of the past; it is only the present which is in their eyes contemptible. Yet to the next generation this present will be their past, and, however valueless may be the verdict of today, how much more so, by the most obvious analogy, will be that of to-morrow. It is probable, indeed, though it is difficult to believe it, that the Critics on the Hearth of the generation to come will make themselves even more ridiculous than their immediate predecessors.


In all highly civilised communities Pretence is prominent, and sooner or later invades the regions of Literature. In the beginning, this is not altogether to be reprobated; it is the rude homage which Ignorance, conscious of its disgrace, offers to Learning; but after awhile, Pretence becomes systematised, gathers strength from numbers and impunity, and rears its head in such a manner as to suggest it has some body and substance belonging to it. In England, literary pretence is more universal than elsewhere from our method of education. When young gentlemen from ten to sixteen are set to study poetry (a subject for which not one in a hundred has the least taste or capability even when he reads it in his own language) in Greek and Latin authors, it is only a natural consequence that their views upon it should be slightly artificial. The youth who objected to the alphabet that it seemed hardly worth while to have gone through so much to have acquired so little, was exceptionally sagacious; the more ordinary lad conceives that what has cost him so much time and trouble, and entailed so many pains and penalties, must needs have something in it, though it has never met his eye. Hence arises our public opinion upon the ancient classics, which I am afraid is somewhat different from (what painters term) the private view. If you take the ordinary admirer of AEschylus, for example—not the scholar, but the man who has had what he believes to be 'a liberal education'—and appeal to his opinion upon some passage in a British dramatist, say Shakespeare, it is ten to one that he shows not only ignorance of the author (the odds are twenty to one about that), but utter inability to grasp the point in question; it is too deep for him, and, especially, too subtle. If you are cruel enough to press him, he will unconsciously betray the fact that he has never felt a line of poetry in his life. He honestly believes that the 'Seven against Thebes' is one of the greatest works that ever were written, just as a child believes the same of the 'Seven Champions of Christendom.' A great wit once observed, when bored by the praises of a man who spoke six languages, that he had known a man to speak a dozen, and yet not say a word worth hearing in any one of them. The humour of the remark, as sometimes happens, has caused its wisdom to be underrated; for the fact is that, in very many cases, all the intelligence of which a mind is capable is expended upon the mere acquisition of a foreign tongue. As to getting anything out of it in the way of ideas, and especially of poetical ones, that is almost never attained. There are, indeed, many who have a special facility for languages, but in their case (with a few exceptions) one may say without uncharity that the acquisition of ideas is not their object, though if they did acquire them they would probably be new ones. The majority of us, however, have much difficulty in surmounting the obstacle of an alien tongue; and when we have done so we are naturally inclined to overrate the advantages thus attained. Everyone knows the poor creature who quotes French on all occasions with a certain stress on the accent, designed to arouse a doubt in his hearers as to whether he was not actually born in Paris. He, of course, is a low specimen of the class in question, but almost all of us derive a certain intellectual gratification from the mastery of another language, and as we gradually attain to it, whenever we find a meaning we are apt to mistake it for a beauty.[1] Nay, I am convinced that many admire this or that (even) British poet from the fact that here and there his meaning has gleamed upon them with all the charm that accompanies unexpectedness.

[1] Since the above was written, my attention has been called to the following remark of De Quincey: 'As must ever be the case with readers not sufficiently masters of a language to bring the true pretensions of a work to any test of feeling, they are for ever mistaking for some pleasure conferred by the writer, what is, in fact, the pleasure naturally attached to the sense of a difficulty overcome.'

Since classical learning is compulsory with us, this bastard admiration is much more often excited with respect to the Greek and Latin poets. Men may not only go through the whole curriculum of a university education, but take high honours in it, without the least intellectual advantage beyond the acquisition of a few quotations. This is not, of course (good heavens!), because the classics have nothing to teach us in the way of poetical ideas, but simply because to the ordinary mind the acquisition of a poetical idea is very difficult, and when conveyed in a foreign language is impossible. If the same student had given the same time—a monstrous thought, of course, but not impracticable—to the cultivation of Shakespeare and the old dramatists, or even to the more modern English poets and thinkers, he would certainly have got more out of them, though he would have missed the delicate suggestiveness of the Greek aorist, and the exquisite subtleties of the particle de. Having acquired these last, however, and not for nothing, it is not surprising that he should esteem them very highly, and, being unable to popularise them at dinner-parties and the like, he falls back upon praise of the classics generally.

Such are the circumstances which, more particularly in this country, have led to a well-nigh universal habit of literary lying—of a pretence of admiration for certain works of which in reality we know very little, and for which, if we knew more, we should perhaps care even less.

There are certain books which are standard, and as it were planted in the British soil, before which the great majority of us bow the knee and doff the cap with a reverence that, in its ignorance, reminds one of fetish worship, and, in its affectation, of the passion for High Art. The works without which, we are told at book auctions, 'no gentleman's library can be considered complete,' are especially the objects of this adoration. The 'Rambler,' for example, is one of them. I was once shut up for a week of snowstorms in a mountain inn, with the 'Rambler' and one other publication. The latter was a Shepherd's Guide, with illustrations of the way in which sheep are marked by their various owners for the purpose of identification: 'Cropped near ear, upper key bitted far, a pop on the head and another at the tail head, ritted, and with two red strokes down both shoulders,' etc. It was monotonous, but I confess that there were times when I felt it some comfort in having that picture-book to fall back upon, to alternate with the 'Rambler.'

The essay, like port wine, I have noticed, requires age for its due appreciation. Leigh Hunt's 'Indicator' comprises some admirable essays, but the general public have not a word to say for them; it may be urged that that is because they had not read the 'Indicator' But why then do they praise the 'Rambler' and Montaigne? That comforting word, 'Mesopotamia,' which has been so often alluded to in religious matters, has many a parallel in profane literature.

A good deal of this mock worship is of course due to abject cowardice. A man who says he doesn't like the 'Rambler,' runs, with some folks, the risk of being thought a fool; but he is sure to be thought that, for something or another, under any circumstances; and, at all events, why should he not content himself, when the 'Rambler' is belauded, with holding his tongue and smiling acquiescence? It must be conceded that there are a few persons who really have read the 'Rambler,' a work, of course, I am merely using as a type of its class. In their young days it was used as a schoolbook, and thought necessary as a part of polite education; and as they have read little or nothing since, it is only reasonable that they should stick to their colours. Indeed, the French satirist's boast that he could predicate the views of any man with regard to both worlds, if he were only supplied with the simple data of his age and his income, is quite true in the general with regard to literary taste. Given the age of the ordinary individual—that is to say of the gentleman 'fond of books, but who has really no time for reading'—and it is easy enough to guess his literary idols. They are the gods of his youth, and, whether he has been 'suckled in a creed outworn' or not, he knows no other. These persons, however, rarely give their opinion about literary matters, except on compulsion; they are harmless and truthful. The tendency of society in general, on the other hand, is not only to praise the 'Rambler' which they have not read, but to express a noble scorn for those who have read it and don't like it.

I remember, as a young man, being greatly struck by the independence of character exhibited by Miss Bronte in a certain confession she made in respect to Miss Austen's novels. It was at a period when everybody professed to adore them, and especially the great-guns of literature. Walter Scott thought more highly of the genius of the author of 'Mansfield Park' even than of that of his favourite, Miss Edgeworth. Macaulay speaks of her as though she were the Eclipse of novelists—'first, and the rest nowhere'—though his opinion, it is true, lost something of its force from the contempt he expressed for 'the rest,' among whom were some much better ones. Dr. Whewell, a very different type of mind, had 'Mansfield Park,' I believe, read to him on his death-bed. And, indeed, up to the present date, some highly-cultured persons of my acquaintance take the same view. They may be very possibly right, but that is no reason why the people who have never read Miss Austen's novels—and very few have—should ape the fashion. Now, the authoress of 'Jane Eyre' did not derive much pleasure from the perusal of the works of the other Jane. 'I know it's very wrong,' she modestly said, 'but the fact is I can't read them. They have not got story enough in them to engage my attention. I don't want my blood curdled, but I like it stirred. Miss Austen strikes me as milk-and-watery, and, to say truth, as dull.'

This opinion she has, in effect, repeated in her published writings, but I had only heard her verbal expression of it; and I admired her courage. If she had been a man, struggling, as she then was, for a position in literature, she would not have dared to say half as much. For, what is very curious, the advocates of the classic authors—those I mean whom antiquity has more or less hallowed—instead of pitying those unhappy wights who confess their want of appreciation of them, fly at them with bludgeons, and dance upon their prostrate bodies with clogs.

'For who would rush on a benighted man, And give him two black eyes for being blind?'

inquires the poet. I answer, 'lots of people,' and especially those who worship the pagan divinities of literature. The same thing happens—but their fury is more excusable, because they have less natural intelligence—with the lovers of music. Instead of being sorry for the poor folks who have 'no ear,' and whom 'a little music in the evening' bores to extremity, they overwhelm them with reproaches for what is in fact a natural infirmity. 'You Goth! you Vandal!' they exclaim, 'how contemptible is the creature who has no music in his soul!' Which is really very rude. Even persons who are not musical have their feelings. 'Hath not a Jew ears?'—that is to say, though they have 'no ear,' they understand what is abusive language and resent it.

I am not saying one word against established reputations in literature. The very fact of their being established (even the 'Rambler,' for example, has its merits) is in their favour; and, indeed, some of the works I shall refer to are masterpieces. My objection is to the sham admiration of them, which does their authors no good (for their circulation is now of no consequence to them), and is injurious not only to modern writers (who are generally made the subject of base comparison), but especially to the utterers of this false coin themselves. One cannot tell falsehoods, even about one's views in literature, without injury to one's morals, yet to 'tell the truth and shame the devil' is easy, as it would seem, compared with telling the truth and defying the critics.

I have alluded to the intrepidity of Miss Bronte in this matter; and, curiously enough, it is women who have the most courage in the expression of their literary opinions. It may be said, of course, that this is due to the audacity of ignorance, and a well-known line may be quoted (for some people, as I have said, are rude) in which certain angels (who are not women) are represented as being afraid to tread in certain places. But I am speaking of women who are great readers. Miss Martineau once confessed to me that she could see no beauties in 'Tom Jones.' 'Of course,' she said, 'the coarseness disgusts me, but apart from that, I see no sort of merit in it.' 'What?' I replied, 'no humour, no knowledge of human life?' 'No; to me it is a wearisome book.'

I disagreed with her very much upon that point, and do so still; yet, apart from the coarseness (which does not disgust everybody, let me tell you), there is a good deal of tedious reading in 'Tom Jones.' At all events that expression of opinion from such lips strikes me as noteworthy.

It may here be said that there are many English authors of old date, some of whose beauties are unintelligible except to those who are acquainted with the classics; and 'Tom Jones' is one of them. Many of the introductions to the chapters, not to mention a certain travestie of an Homeric battle, must needs be as wearisome to those who are not scholars, as the spectacle of a burlesque is to those who have not seen the original play. This is still more the case with our old poets, especially Milton. I very much doubt, in spite of the universal chorus to the contrary, whether 'Lycidas' is much admired by readers who are only acquainted with English literature; I am quite sure it never touched their hearts as, for example, 'In Memoriam' does.

I once beheld a young lady of great literary taste, and of exquisite sensibility, torn to pieces (figuratively) and trampled upon by a great scholar for venturing to make a comparison between those two poems. Its invocation to the Muses, and the general classical air which pervades it, had destroyed for her the pathos of 'Lycidas,' whereas to her antagonist those very imperfections appeared to enhance its beauty. I did not interfere, because the wretch was her husband, and it would have been worse for her if I had, but my sympathies were entirely with her. Her sad fate—for the massacre took place in public—would, I was well aware, have the effect of making people lie worse than ever about Milton. On that same evening, while some folks were talking about Mr. Morris's 'Earthly Paradise,' I heard a scornful voice exclaim, 'Oh! give ME "Paradise Lost,"' and with that gentleman I did have it out. I promptly subjected him to cross-examination, and drove him to that extremity that he was compelled to admit he had never read a word of Milton for forty years, and even then only in extracts from 'Enfield's Speaker.'

With Shakespeare—though there is a good deal of lying about him—the case is different, and especially with elderly people; for 'in their day,' as they pathetically term it, Shakespeare was played everywhere, and everyone went to the play. They do not read him, but they recollect him; they are well acquainted with his beauties—that is, with the better known of them—and can quote him with manifest appreciation. They are, intellectually, in a position much superior to that of a fashionable lady of my acquaintance who informed me that her daughters were going to the theatre that night to see Shakespeare's 'Turning of the Screw.'

The writer who has done most, without I suppose intending it, to promote hypocrisy in literature is Macaulay. His 'every schoolboy knows' has frightened thousands into pretending to know authors with whom they have not even a bowing acquaintance. It is amazing that a man who had read so much should have written so contemptuously of those who have read but little; one would have thought that the consciousness of superiority would have forbidden such insolence, or that his reading would have been extensive enough to teach him at least how little he had read of what there was to read; since he read some things—works of imagination and humour, for example—to such very little purpose, he might really have bragged a little less. One feels quite grateful to Macaulay, however, for avowing his belief that he was the only man who had read through the 'Faery Queen;' since that exonerates everybody—I do not say from reading it, because the supposition is preposterous—but from the necessity of pretending to have read it. The pleasure derived from that poem to most minds is, I am convinced, analogous to that already spoken of as being imparted by a foreign author: namely, the satisfaction at finding it—in places—intelligible. For the few who possess the poetic faculty it has great beauties, but I observe, from the extracts that appear in Poetic Selections and the like, that the most tedious and even the most monstrous passages are those which are generally offered for admiration. The case of Spenser in this respect—which does not stand alone in ancient English literature—has a curious parallel in art, where people are positively found to go into ecstasies over a distorted limb or a ludicrous inversion of perspective, simply because it is the work of an old master, who knew no better, or followed the fashion of his time.

Leigh Hunt read the 'Faery Queen,' by-the-bye, as almost everything else that has been written in the English tongue, and even Macaulay alludes with rare commendation to his 'catholic taste.' Of all authors indeed, and probably of all readers, Leigh Hunt had the keenest eye for merit and the warmest appreciation of it wherever found. He was actively engaged in politics, yet was never blind to the genius of an adversary; blameless himself in morals, he could admire the wit of Wycherley; and a freethinker in religion, he could see both wisdom and beauty in the divines. Moreover, it is immensely to his credit that this universal knowledge, instead of puffing him up, only moved him to impart it, and that next to the pleasure he took in books was that he derived from teaching others to take pleasure in them. Witness his 'Wit and Humour' and his 'Imagination and Fancy,' to my mind the greatest treasures in the way of handbooks that have ever been offered to students of English literature, and the completest antidotes to pretence in it. How many a time, as a boy, have I pondered over this or that passage in the originals, from Shakespeare to Suckling, and then compared it with the italicised lines in his two volumes, to see whether I had hit upon the beauties; and how often, alas! I hit upon the blots![2]

[2] I remember (when 'I was but a little tiny boy') I thought that 'the fringed curtains of thine eye advance,' addressed by Prospero to Miranda, must needs be a very fine line; imagine then my confusion, on referring for corroboration to my 'guide, philosopher, and friend,' as he truly was, to find this passage: 'Why Shakespeare should have condescended to the elaborate nothingness, not to say nonsense, of this metaphor (for what is meant by "advancing curtains"?) I cannot conceive. That is to say, if he did condescend: for it looks very like the interpolation of some pompous declamatory player. Pope has put it into his Treatise on the Bathos.'

It is curious that Leigh Hunt, whose style has been so severely handled (and, it must be owned, not without some justice) for its affectations, should have been so genuine (although always generous) in his criticisms. It was nothing to him whether an author was old or new; nor did he shrink from any literary comparison between two writers when he thought it appropriate (and he was generally right), notwithstanding all the age and authority that might be at the back of one of them. Thackeray, by the way, a very different writer and thinker, had this same outspoken honesty in the expression of his literary taste. In speaking of the hero of Cooper's five good novels—Leather-Stocking, Hawkeye, etc.—he remarks with quite a noble simplicity: 'I think he is better than any of Scott's lot.'

It is a 'far cry' from the 'Faery Queen' to 'Childe Harold,' which, reckoning by years, is still a modern poem; yet I wonder how many persons under thirty—even of those who term it 'magnificent'—have ever read 'Childe Harold.' At one time it was only people under thirty who had read it; for poetry to the ordinary reader is the poetry that was popular in his youth—'no other is genuine.'

'A dreary, weary poem called the Excursion, Written in a manner which is my aversion,'

is a couplet the frankness of which has always recommended itself to me (though I like the 'Excursion'); but, except for the rhyme, it has a fatal facility of application to other long poems. Heaven forbid that I should 'with shadowed hint confuse' the faith in a British classic; but, ye gods, how men have gaped (in private) over 'Childe Harold!'

'Gil Blas,' though not a native classic, is included in the articles of the British literary faith; not as a matter of pious opinion, but de fide; a necessity of intellectual salvation. I remember an interview I once had with a boy of letters concerning this immortal work; he is a well-known writer now, but at the time I speak of he was only budding and sprouting in the magazines—a lad of promise, no doubt, but given, if not to kick against authority, to question it, and, what was worse, to question me about it, in an embarrassing manner. The natural affability of my disposition had caused him, I suppose, to treat me as his Father Confessor in literature; and one of the sins of omission he confided to me was in connection with the divine Le Sage.

'I say—about "Gil Blas," you know—Bias [a great critic of that day] was saying last night that if he were to be imprisoned for life with only one book to read he would choose the Bible or "Gil Blas."'

'It is very gratifying to me,' said I, wishing to evade my young friend, and also because I had no love for Bias, 'that he should have selected the Bible, even as an alternative; and all the more so, since I should never have expected it of him.'

'Yes, papa' (that was what the young dog was wont to call me, though he was no son of mine—far from it); 'but about "Gil Blas"? Is it really the next best book? And after he had read it—say ten times—would he not have been rather sorry that he had not chosen—well, Shakespeare, for instance?'

The picture of Bias with a long white beard, the growth of twenty years, reading that tattered copy of 'Gil Blas' in his cell, almost affected me to tears; but I made shift to answer gravely: 'Bias is a professional critic; and persons of that class are apt to be a little dogmatic and given to exaggeration. But "Gil Blas" is a great work. As a picture of the seamy side of human life—of its vices and its weaknesses at least—it is unrivalled. The archbishop——'

'Oh! I know that archbishop—well,' interrupted my young tormentor. 'I sometimes think, if it hadn't been for that archbishop, we should never perhaps have heard of "Gil Blas."'

'Tchut, tchut!' said I; 'you talk like a child.'

'But to read it all through, papa—three times, ten times, for all one's life? Poor Mr. Bias!'

'It is a matter of opinion, my dear boy,' I said. 'Bias has this great advantage over you in literary matters, that he knows what he is talking about; and if he was quite sure——'

'Oh! but he was not quite sure: he was rather doubtful, he said, about one of the books.'

'Not the Bible, I do hope?' said I fervently.

'No, about the other. He was not quite sure but that, instead of "Gil Blas," he ought to have selected "Don Quixote." Now really that seems to me worse than "Gil Blas."

'You mean less excellent,' I rejoined; 'you are too young to appreciate the full signification of "Don Quixote."'

The scoundrel murmured, 'Do you mean to tell me people read it when they are old?' But I pretended not to hear him. 'We do not all of us,' I went on, 'know what is good for us. Sancho Panza's physician——'

'Oh! I know that physician—well, papa. I sometimes think, if it had not been for that physician, perhaps——'

'Hush!' I exclaimed authoritatively; 'let us have no flippancy, I beg.' And so, with a dead lift as it were, I got rid of him. He left the room muttering, 'But to read it through—three times, ten times, for all one's life?' And I was obliged to confess to myself that such a prolonged course of study, even of 'Don Quixote,' would have been wearisome.

Rabelais is another article of our literary faith, that is certainly subscribed to much more often than believed in. In a certain poem of Mr. Browning's (I call it the Burial of the Book, since the Latin name he has given it is unpronounceable, even if it were possible to recollect it), charmingly humorous, and which is also remarkable for impersonating an inanimate object in verse as Dickens does in prose, there occur these lines:

'Then I went indoors, brought out a loaf, Half a cheese and a bottle of Chablis, Lay on the grass, and forgot the oaf Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.'

Yet I have known some wonder to be expressed (confidentially) as to where he found the 'jolly chapter,' and the looking for the beauties of Rabelais to be likened to searching in a huge dung-heap for a few heads of asparagus.

I have no quarrel with Bias and Company (though they stick at nothing, and will presently say that I don't care for these books myself), but I venture to think that they are wrong in making dogmas of what are, after all, but matters of literary taste; it is their vehemence and exaggeration which drive the weak to take refuge in falsehood.

A good woman in the country once complained of her stepson, 'He will not love his learning, though I beats him with a jack-chain;' and from the application of similar aids to instruction, the same result takes place in London. Only here we dissemble and pretend to love it. It is partly in consequence of this that works, not only of acknowledged but genuine excellence, such as those I have been careful to select, are, though so universally praised, so little read. The poor student attempts them, but failing—from many causes no doubt, but also sometimes from the fact of their not being there—to find those unrivalled beauties which he has been led to expect in every sentence, he stops short, where he would otherwise have gone on. He says to himself, 'I have been deceived,' or 'I must be a born fool;' whereas he is wrong in both suppositions. I am convinced that the want of popularity of Walter Scott among the rising generation is partly due to this extravagant laudation; and I am much mistaken if another great author, more recently deceased, will not in a few years be added to the ranks of those who are more praised than read from the same cause.

The habit of mere adhesion to received opinion in any matter is most mischievous, for it strikes at the root of independence of thought; and in literature it tends to make the public taste mechanical. It is very seldom that what is called the verdict of posterity (absurdly enough, for are not we posterity?) is ever reversed; but it has chanced to happen in a certain case quite lately. The production of 'The Iron Chest' upon the stage has once more brought into fashion 'Caleb Williams.' Now that is a work, though by no means belonging to the same rank as those to which I have referred, which has a fine old crusted reputation. Time has hallowed it. The great world of readers (who have never read it) used to echo the remark of Bias and Company, that this and that modern work of fiction reminded them—though at an immense distance, of course—of Godwin's masterpiece. I remember Le Fanu's 'Uncle Silas,' for example (from some similarity, more fanciful perhaps than real, in the isolation of its hero), being thus compared with it. Now 'Caleb Williams' is founded on a very fine conception—one that could only have occurred, perhaps, to a man of genius; the first part of it is well worked out, but towards the middle it grows feeble, and it ends in tediousness and drivel; whereas 'Uncle Silas' is good and strong from first to last. Le Fanu has never been so popular as, in my humble judgment, he deserves to be, but of course modern readers were better acquainted with him than with Godwin. Yet nine out of ten were always heard repeating this cuckoo cry about the latter's superiority, until the 'Iron Chest' came out, and Fashion induced them to read Godwin for themselves; which has very properly changed their opinion.

I remember, in my own case, that, from that reverence for authority which I hope I share with my neighbours, I used to speak of 'Headlong Hall' and 'Crotchet Castle'—both great favourites of our fore-fathers—with much respect, until one wet day in the country I found myself shut up with them. I won't say what I suffered; better judges of literature than myself admire them still, I know. I will only remark that I don't admire them. I don't say they are the dullest novels ever printed, because that would be invidious, and might do wrong to works of even greater pretensions; but to my mind they are dull.

When Dr. Johnson is free to confess that he does not admire Gray's 'Elegy,' and Macaulay to avow that he sees little to praise in Dickens and Wordsworth, why should not humbler folks have the courage of their own opinions? They cannot possibly be more wrong than Johnson and Macaulay were, and it is surely better to be honest, though it may expose one to some ridicule, than to lie. The more we agree with the verdict of the generations before us on these matters, the more, it is quite true, we are likely to be right; but the agreement should be an honest one. At present very extensive domains in literature are, as it were, enclosed and denied to the public in respect to any free expression of their opinion. 'They are splendid, they are faultless,' cries the general voice, but the general eye has not beheld them. Nothing, of course, could be more futile than that, with every new generation, our old authors who have won their fame should be arraigned anew at the bar of public criticism; but, on the other hand, there is no reason why the mouths of us poor moderns should be muzzled, and still less that we 'should praise with alien lips.'

'Until Caldecott's charming illustrations of it made me laugh so much,' said a young lady to me the other day, 'I confess—though I know it's very stupid of me—I never saw much fun in "John Gilpin."' She evidently expected a reproof, and when I whispered in her ear, 'Nor I,' her lovely features assumed a look of positive enfranchisement.

'But am I right?' she inquired.

'You are certainly right, my dear young lady,' said I, 'not to pretend admiration where you don't feel it; as to liking "John Gilpin," that is a matter of taste. It has, of course, simplicity to recommend it; but in my own case, though I'm fond of fun, it has never evoked a smile. It has always seemed to me like one of Mr. Joe Miller's stories put into tedious verse.'

I really almost thought (and hoped) that that young lady would have kissed me.

'Papa always says it is a free country,' she exclaimed, 'but I never felt it to be the case before this moment.'

For years this beautiful and accomplished creature had locked this awful secret in her innocent breast—that she didn't see much fun in 'John Gilpin.' 'You have given me courage,' she said, 'to confess something else. Mr. Caldecott has just been illustrating in the same charming manner Goldsmith's "Elegy on a Mad Dog," and—I'm very sorry—but I never laughed at that before, either. I have pretended to laugh, you know,' she added, hastily and apologetically, 'hundreds of times.'

'I don't doubt it,' I replied; 'this is not such a free country as your father supposes.'

'But am I right?'

'I say nothing about "right,"' I answered, 'except that everybody has a right to his own opinion. For my part, however, I think the 'Mad Dog' better than 'John Gilpin' only because it is shorter.'

Whether I was wrong or right in the matter is of no consequence even to myself; the affection and gratitude of that young creature would more than repay me for a much greater mistake, if mistake it is. She protests that I have emancipated her from slavery. She has since talked to me about all sorts of authors, from Sir Philip Sidney to Washington Irving, in a way that would make some people's blood run cold; but it has no such effect upon me—quite the reverse. Of Irving she naively remarks that his strokes of humour seem to her to owe much of their success to the rarity of their occurrence; the flashes of fun are spread over pages of dulness, which enhance them, just as a dark night is propitious to fireworks, or the atmosphere of the House cf Commons, or of a Court of Law, to a joke. She is often in error, no doubt, but how bright and wholesome such talk is as compared with the platitudes and commonplaces which one hears on all sides in connection with literature!

As a rule, I suppose, even people in society ('the drawing-rooms and the clubs') are not absolutely base and yet one would really think so, to judge by the fear that is entertained by them of being natural. 'I vow to heaven,' says the prince of letter-writers, 'that I think the Parrots of Society are more intolerable and mischievous than its Birds of Prey. If ever I destroy myself, it will be in the bitterness of having those infernal and damnable "good old times" extolled.' One is almost tempted to say the same—when one hears their praises come from certain mouths—of the good old books. It is not everyone, of course, who has an opinion of his own upon any subject, far less on that of literature, but everyone can abstain from expressing an opinion that is not his own. If one has no voice, what possible compensation can there be in becoming an echo? No one, I conclude, would wish to see literature discoursed about in the same pinchbeck and affected style as are painting and music;[3] yet that is what will happen if this prolific weed of sham admiration is permitted to attain its full growth.

[3] The slang of art-talk has reached the 'young men' in the furniture warehouses. A friend of mine was recommended a sideboard the other day as not being a Chippendale, but as 'having a Chippendale feeling in it.'


In these days of reduction of rents, or of total abstinence from rent-paying, it is, I am told, the correct thing to be 'a little pressed for money.' It is a sign of connection with the landed interest (like the banker's ejaculation in 'Middlemarch') and suggests family acres, and entails, and a position in the county. (In which case I know a good many people who are landlords on a very extensive scale, and have made allowances for their tenants the generosity of which may be described as Quixotic.) But as a general rule, and in times less exceptionally hard, though Shakespeare tells us 'How apt the poor are to be proud,' they are not proud of being poor.

'Poverty,' says the greatest of English divines, 'is indeed despised and makes men contemptible; it exposes a man to the influences of evil persons, and leaves a man defenceless; it is always suspected; its stories are accounted lies, and all its counsels follies; it puts a man from all employment; it makes a man's discourses tedious and his society troublesome. This is the worst of it.' Even so poverty seems pretty bad, but, begging Dr. Jeremy Taylor's pardon, what he has stated is by no means 'the worst of it.' To be in want of food at any time, and of firing in winter time, is ever so much worse than the inconveniences he enumerates; and to see those we love—delicate women and children perhaps—in want, is worse still. The fact is, the excellent bishop probably never knew what it was to go without his meals, but took them 'reg'lar' (as Mrs. Gamp took her Brighton ale) as bishops generally do. Moreover, since his day, Luxury has so universally increased, and the value of Intelligence has become so well recognised (by the publishers) that even philosophers, who profess to despise such things, have plenty to eat, and good of its kind too. Hence it happens that, from all we hear to the contrary from the greatest thinkers, the deprivation of food is a small thing: indeed, as compared with the great spiritual struggles of noble minds, and the doubts that beset them as to the supreme government of the universe, it seems hardly worth mentioning.

In old times, when folks were not so 'cultured,' starvation was thought more of. It is quite curious, indeed, to contrast the high-flying morality of the present day (when no one is permitted, either by Evolutionist or Ritualist, however dire may be his necessity, so much as to jar his conscience) with the shocking laxity of the Holy Scriptures. 'Men do not despise a thief if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry,' says Solomon, after which stretch of charity, strange to say, he goes on to speak of marital infidelity in terms that, considering the number of wives he had himself, strike one as severe.

It is certain, indeed, that the sacred writers were apt to make great allowances for people with empty stomachs, and though I am well aware that the present profane ones think this very reprehensible, I venture to agree with the sacred writers. The sharpest tooth of poverty is felt, after all, in the bite of hunger. A very amusing and graphic writer once described his experience of a whole night passed in the streets; the exhaustion, the pain, the intolerable weariness of it, were set forth in a very striking manner; the sketch was called 'The Key of the Street,' and was thought by many, as Browning puts it, to be 'the true Dickens.' But what are even the pangs of sleeplessness and fatigue compared with those of want? Of course there have been fanatics who have fasted many days; but they have been supported by the prospect of spiritual reward. I confess I reserve my pity for those who have no such golden dreams, and who fast perforce. It is exceedingly difficult for mere worldlings—such as most of us are—not to eat, if it is possible, when we are hungry. I have known a great social philosopher who flattered himself that he was giving his sons an experience of High Thinking and Low Living by restricting their pocket-money to two shillings a day, out of which it was understood they were to find their own meals. I don't know whether the spirit in their case was willing, but the flesh was decidedly weak, for one of them, on this very moderate allowance, used to contrive to always have a pint of dry champagne with his luncheon. The fact is, that of the iron grip of poverty, people in general, by no means excepting those who have written about it, have had very little experience; whereas of the pinch of it a good many people know something. It is the object of this paper—and the question should be an interesting one, considering how much it is talked about—to inquire briefly where it lies.

It is quite extraordinary how very various are the opinions entertained on this point, and, before sifting them, one must be careful in the first place to eliminate from our inquiry the cases of that considerable class of persons who pinch themselves. For, however severely they do it, they may stop when they like and the pain is cured. There is all the difference in the world between pulling one's own tooth out, and even the best and kindest of dentists doing it for one. How gingerly one goes to work, and how often it strikes one that the tooth is a good tooth, that it has been a fast friend to us for ever so many years and never 'fallen out' before, and that after all it had better stop where it is!

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