On Charlotte Brontë

The man who has learnt to do all conventional things perfectly has at the same time learnt to do them prosaically. It is the awkward man, whose evening dress does not fit him, whose gloves will not go on, whose compliments will not come off, who is really full of the ancient ecstasies of youth. He is frightened enough of society actually to enjoy his triumphs. He has that element of fear which is one of the eternal ingredients of joy. This spirit is the central spirit of the Brontë novel. It is the epic of the exhilaration of the shy man. As such it is of incalculable value in our time, of which the curse is that it does not take joy reverently because it does not take it fearfully. The shabby and inconspicuous governess of Charlotte Brontë, with the small outlook and the small creed, had more commerce with the awful and elemental forces which drive the world than a legion of lawless minor poets. She approached the universe with real simplicity, and, consequently, with real fear and delight. She was, so to speak, shy before the multitude of the stars, and in this she had possessed herself of the only force which can prevent enjoyment being as black and barren as routine. The faculty of being shy is the first and the most delicate of the powers of enjoyment. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of pleasure.

— Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on January 28, 2015 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“Jar to all ordered speech”

A very good way of testing sharply a certain cold, wild, un-human quality in many contemporary theories, is to note the fact that they do not even fit into human language; that they give a sort of jar to all ordered speech. They contradict the dictionary more than they do the Bible. The very ideas of them are ungrammatical. For instance, the intelligent objection to Communism and such extreme forms of Collectivism as diminish property to a vanishing point, is one that can be put in many ways. I say the intelligent objection to Communism and Collectivism; the stupid and wicked objection to them is simply that they imply compassion and a twisted sort of Christianity: this is the only objection that is offered in modern politics and literature. But the intelligent objection, the objection that possession should be an individual enjoyment even if it is a universal one, this can be put in many argumentative shapes, from the most delicate emotions about heirlooms, landscapes, sites, and memories to the harshest and plainest statistics of peasant wealth and efficiency.

But perhaps the shortest and most lucid way of putting it is to say that one must be pretty far gone when one abolishes one of the parts of speech; and that Communism abolishes the possessive pronoun. If there is really no such word as “my” or “yours” or “his,” it is apparent that we have come to a pretty queer place, as Nicholas Nickleby said.

— The Illustrated London News, 1 June 1912.

Published in: on January 21, 2015 at 3:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Cats would not have five legs”

I can faintly resist when a man says that if the earth were a globe cats would not have four legs; but when he says that if the earth were a globe cats would not have five legs I am crushed.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on January 14, 2015 at 11:50 am  Leave a Comment  

“He was the brotherhood of men”

[Dickens] had broad or universal sympathies in a sense totally unknown to the social reformers who wallow in such phrases. Dickens (unlike the social reformers) really did sympathise with every sort of victim of every sort of tyrant. He did truly pray for all who are desolate and oppressed. If you try to tie him to any cause narrower than that Prayer Book definition, you will find you have shut out half his best work. If, in your sympathy for Mrs. Quilp, you call Dickens the champion of downtrodden woman, you will suddenly remember Mr. Wilfer, and find yourself unable to deny the existence of downtrodden man. If in your sympathy for Mr. Rouncewell you call Dickens the champion of a manly middle-class Liberalism against Chesney Wold, you will suddenly remember Stephen Blackpool—and find yourself unable to deny that Mr. Rouncewell might be a pretty insupportable cock on his own dung-hill. If in your sympathy for Stephen Blackpool you call Dickens a Socialist (as does Mr. Pugh), and think of him as merely heralding the great Collectivist revolt against Victorian Individualism and Capitalism, which seemed so clearly to be the crisis at the end of this epoch—you will suddenly remember the agreeable young Barnacle at the Circumlocution Office: and you will be unable, for very shame, to assert that Dickens would have trusted the poor to a State Department.

Dickens did not merely believe in the brotherhood of men in the weak modern way; he was the brotherhood of men, and knew it was a brotherhood in sin as well as in aspiration. And he was not only larger than the old factions he satirised; he was larger than any of our great social schools that have gone forward since he died.

— The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on January 7, 2015 at 9:08 am  Leave a Comment