Hugh Blair

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'On Fictitious History'

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Lectures on Rhetoric and Poetry

Hugh Blair (1718-1800), whose sermons were published 1777-1801 and became very widely known, had published his Lectures on Rhetoric and Poetry in 1762, and both for their intrinsic merits, and for the fame derived from Blair’s sermons, they became a standard point of reference in literary and moral debate for the next fifty sixty years. In this essay Blair offers a survey of the novels which have been published since Robinson Crusoe (1719), and some rather standard views of Richardson and Fielding. His attention to French novels which are being read in England is relatively unusual. Blair recognises the beneficial but powerful effect of reading on the minds of the young, and shows an extensive awareness of the genre, but, whilst he concludes with respectful remarks about Richardson and Fielding, he closes his consideration with a reductive moral disdain for the genre as a whole which “oftener tend[s] to dissipation and idleness, than to any good purpose”.

(Robert Clark)

There remains to be treated of another species of composition in prose which comprehends a very numerous, though in general a very insignificant class of writings, known by the name of Romances and Novels. These may, at first view, seem too insignificant to deserve that any particular notice should be taken of them. But I cannot be of this opinion. Mr. Fletcher of Salton, in one of his Tracts, quotes it as the saying of a wise man that, give him the making of all the ballads of a nation, he would allow anyone that pleased to make their laws. The saying was founded on reflection and good sense, and is applicable to the subject now before us. For any kind of writing, how trifling soever in appearance, that obtains a general currency, and especially that early pre-occupies the imagination of the youth of both sexes, must demand particular attention. Its influence is likely to be considerable, both on the morals and taste of a nation.

In fact, fictitious histories might be employed for very useful purposes. They furnish one of the best channels for conveying instruction, for painting human life and manners, for showing the errors into which we are betrayed by our passions, for rendering virtue amiable and vice odious. The effect of well-contrived stories towards accomplishing these purposes is stronger than any effect that can be produced by simple and naked instruction; and hence we find that the wisest men in all ages have more or less employed fables and fictions as the vehicles of knowledge. These have ever been the basis of both epic and dramatic poetry. It is not, therefore, the nature of this sort of writing, considered in itself, but the faulty manner of its execution, that can expose it to any contempt. Lord Bacon takes notice of our taste for fictitious history as a proof of the greatness and dignity of the human mind. He observes, very ingeniously, that the objects of this world, and the common train of affairs which we behold going on in it, do not fill the mind, nor give it entire satisfaction. We seek for something that shall expand the mind in a greater degree: we seek for more heroic and illustrious deeds, for more diversified and surprising events, for a more splendid order of things, a more regular and just distribution of rewards and punishments than what we find here: because we meet not with these in true history, we have recourse to fictitious. We create worlds according to our fancy, in order to gratify our capacious desires. “Accomodando,” says that great philosopher, “rerum simulachra ad animi desideria, non submittendo animum rebus, quod ratio facet, et historia.” [“Accomodating the appearances of things to the desires of the mind, not bringing down the mind, as history and philosophy do, to the course of events.” [Francis Bacon, De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientarum … (1623), II, 13.] Let us then, since the subject wants neither dignity nor use, make a few observations on the rise and progress of fictitious history, and the different forms it has assumed in different countries.

In all countries we find its origin very ancient. The genius of the eastern nations, in particular, was from the earliest times much turned towards invention and the love of fiction. Their divinity, their philosophy, and their politics, were clothed in fables and parables. The Indians, the Persians, and Arabians, were all famous for their tales. The Arabian Nights” Entertainments are the production of a romantic invention, but of a rich and amusing imagination; exhibiting a singular and curious display of manners and characters, and beautified with a very humane morality. Among the ancient Greeks, we hear of the Ionian and Milesian Tales; but they have now perished, and, from any account that we have of them, appear to have been of the loose and wanton kind. Some fictitious histories yet remain, that were composed during the decline of the Roman Empire by Apuleius, Achilles Tatius, and Heliodorus, bishop of Trica, in the 4th century; but none of them are considerable enough to merit particular criticisms.

During the dark ages, this sort of writing assumed a new and very singular form, and for a long while made a great figure in the world. The martial spirit of those nations, among whom the feudal government prevailed; the establishment of single combat, as an allowed method of deciding causes both of justice and honour; the appointment of champions in the cause of women who could not maintain their own rights by the sword; together with the institution of military tournaments in which different kingdoms vied with one another, gave rise, in those times, to that marvellous system of chivalry, which is one of the most singular appearances in the history of mankind. Upon this were founded those romances of knight-errantry which carried an ideal chivalry to a still more extravagant height than it had risen in fact. There was displayed in them a new and very wonderful sort of world, hardly bearing any resemblance to the world in which we dwell. Not only knights setting forth to redress all manner of wrongs, but in every page, magicians, dragons, and giants, invulnerable men, winged horses, enchanted armour, and enchanted castles; adventures absolutely incredible, yet suited to the gross ignorance of these ages, and to the legends, and superstitious notions concerning magic and necromancy which then prevailed. This merit they had, of being writings of the high moral and heroic kind. Their knights were patterns, not of courage merely, but of religion, generosity, courtesy, and fidelity; and the heroines were no less distinguished for modesty, delicacy, and the utmost dignity of manners.

These were the first compositions that received the name of Romances. The origin of this name is traced by Mr. Huet, the learned bishop of Avranche, to the Provencal Troubadors, a sort of storytellers and bards in the county of Provence, where there subsisted some remains of literature and poetry. The language which prevailed in that country was a mixture of Latin and Gallic, called the Roman or Romance language; and, as the stories of these Troubadors were written in that language, hence it is said the name of Romance, which we now apply to all fictitious composition.

The earliest of these romances, is that which goes under the name of Turpin, the archbishop of Rheims, written in the 11th century. The subject is the achievements of Charlemagne and his Peers, or Paladins, in driving the Saracens out of France and part of Spain; the same subject which Ariosto has taken for his celebrated poem of Orlando Furioso, which is truly a Chivalry Romance, as extravagant as any of the rest, but partly heroic, and partly comic, embellished with the highest graces of poetry. The Romance of Turpin was followed by Amadis de Gaul, and many more of the same stamp. The crusades both furnished new matter, and increased the spirit for such writings; the Christians against the Saracens made the common ground-work of them; and from the 11th to the 16th century, they continued to bewitch all Europe. In Spain, where the taste for this sort of writing had been most greedily caught, the ingenious Cervantes, in the beginning of the last century, contributed greatly to explode it; and the abolition of tournaments, the prohibition of single combat, the disbelief of magic and enchantments, and the change in general of manners throughout Europe, began to give a new turn to fictitious composition.

Then appeared the Astrea of D”Urfé, the grand Cyrus, the Clèlia and Cleopatra of Madame de Scudéry, the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney, and other grave and stately compositions in the same style. These may be considered as forming the second stage of romance writing. The heroism and the gallantry, the moral and virtuous turn of the chivalry romance, were still preserved; but the dragons, the necromancers, and the enchanted castles, were banished, and some small resemblance to human nature was introduced. Still, however, there was too much of the marvellous in them to please an age which now aspired to refinement. The characters were discerned to be strained; the style to be swollen; the adventures incredible; the books themselves were voluminous and tedious.

Hence, this sort of composition soon assumed a third form, and from magnificent heroic romance, dwindled down to the familiar novel. These novels, both in France and England, during the age of Louis XIV and King Charles II, were in general of a trifling nature, without the appearance of moral tendency, or useful instruction. Since that time, however, somewhat better has been attempted, and a degree of reformation introduced into the spirit of novel-writing. Imitations of life and character have been made their principal object. Relations have been professed to be given of the behaviour of persons in particular interesting situations, such as may actually occur in life; by means of which, what is laudable or defective in character and conduct may be pointed out, and placed in an useful light. Upon this Plan, the French have produced some compositions of considerable merit. Gil Blas, by Le Sage, is a book full of good sense, and instructive knowledge of the world. The works of Marivaux, especially his Marianne, discover great refinement of thought, great penetration into human nature, and paint with a very delicate pencil some of the nicest shades and features in the distinction of characters. The Nouvelle Héloïse of Rousseau is a production of a very singular kind; in many of the events which are related, improbable and unnatural; in some of the details tedious, and for some of the scenes which are described, justly blameable; but withal, for the power of eloquence, for tenderness of sentiment, for ardour of passion, entitled to rank among the highest productions of fictitious history.

In this kind of writing we are, it must be confessed, in Great Britain, inferior to the French. We neither relate so agreeably, nor draw characters with so much delicacy; yet we are not without some performances which discover the strength of the British genius. No fiction, in any language, was ever better supported than the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. While it is carried on with that appearance of truth and simplicity, which takes a strong hold of the imagination of all readers, it suggests at the same time very useful instruction; by showing how much the native powers of man may be exerted for surmounting the difficulties of any external situation. Mr. Fielding’s Novels are highly distinguished for their humour; a humour which, if not of the most refined and delicate kind, is original and peculiar to himself. The characters which he draws are lively and natural, and marked with the strokes of a bold pencil. The general scope of his stories is favourable to humanity and goodness of heart; and in Tom Jones, his greatest work, the artful conduct of the fable, and the subserviency of all the incidents to the winding up of the whole, deserve much praise. The most moral of all our novel writers is Richardson, the author of Clarissa, a writer of excellent intentions, and of very considerable capacity and genius; did he not possess the unfortunate talent of spinning out pieces of amusement into an immeasurable length. The trivial performances which daily appear in public under the title of lives, adventures, and histories, by anonymous authors, if they be often innocent, yet are most commonly insipid; and though in the general it ought to be admitted that characteristical novels, formed upon nature and upon life, without extravagance and without licentiousness, might furnish an agreeable and useful entertainment to the mind; yet considering the manner in which these writings, have been, for the most part, conducted, it must also be confessed, that they oftener tend to dissipation and idleness, than to any good purpose. Let us now, therefore, make our retreat from these regions of fiction.

First published 1762.

Contributed by Robert Clark.