Read THE CRITIC ON THE HEARTH of Some Private Views, free online book, by James Payn, on ReadCentral.com.

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:

’MY DEAR DICK,

’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,

‘BOB.’

Jack the lawyer writes:

’DEAR DICK,

’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,

‘JACK.’

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

’MY DEAR DICK,

’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,

‘Tom.’

‘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.