19th Century Literature

In E. M. Forster’s Room With a View there is a scene in which the reverend Mr. Beebe is looking over the book collection of the eccentric Mr. Emerson.  He runs across A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and remarks ‘Never heard of it,’ then Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh and snorts ‘Never heard of it!’  While I have heard of them, I’ve never read them.  I’ve not read a lot of 19th century stuff.  But I thought it would be interesting to see what sort of thing Mr. Emerson reads, so I took a look.

A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, and did not become popular until the Second Boer War and World War I.  The poems are short and simple, not to say naïve, and are mostly filled with formerly rose-lipt lasses and light-footed lads who now lie under the ground.  It’s easy to see why Forster would have referenced this volume to underline the sort of carpe diem, gather ye rosebuds theme of Room With a View.

The Way of all Flesh also makes sense.  It is a protest against most of the societal, personal, and religious conventions that the Victorians lived by.  Butler felt that it was such scandalous stuff that upon completion (ca. 1884) he stuffed it away in a drawer.  It was published posthumously, in 1903.  Specialists in the 19th century would take me to task for using it an example of writing during that time because it is really a reaction against prevailing ideas, and eschews, as does A Shropshire Lad, the overwrought emotion and repressed sexuality that you find in Romanticism.  One critic calls Butler a ‘20th century man born in 1835,’ but I would say that although his ideas may have been advanced, the way he expresses them still exemplifies why it is that I revel in 18th and 20th century writing but do not enjoy much written in between.

The book begins three generations before the events that make up the main story.  The narrator tells us, and tells us, and tells us all about various characters.  He quotes a few letters, but does not show us a significant scrap of conversation until page 62, and even that snippet is buried amid authorial comment.  The poor characters are smothered.  Although bardolatry was in full swing during Romanticism, nobody seems to have paid much attention to the lessons Shakespeare gives us on revealing character by letting the blighters talk.

Instead, 19th century authors, not trusting their readers to figure anything out by themselves, preach at us.  Not even metaphors are allowed to stand on their own.  The narrator quotes, for example, an old testament stone-him-for-gathering-sticks-on-the-Sabbath passage that Theobald inflicts on his family and servants one afternoon.  His mind wandering during the recitation, he recalls a time that he sat and watched a bee, in the same drawing room, buzzing slowly up and down, up and down the wall, fooled by images of roses on the wallpaper.  Okay, so far so good.  There is nectar in neither the roses on the wallpaper nor in the passage Theobald has chosen.  We get it.  But then the author, having given us something to think about, goes on to tell us precisely what to think.

And another thing, and I know that this is terribly unhistorical of me, is that it takes 19th century authors far, far, far, far, far too many words to get anything done.  I won’t quote you an example, as you can pick up any work from the period (Wuthering Heights or anything at all by Thomas Hardy would serve) and you will see what I mean.  Even Charles Dickens, who was refreshingly down-to-earth and thus generally considered rather ‘common’ by the literary snobs of his own time, could have benefited from a few lessons in ‘less is more.’

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