Page images


"HE art of fictitious narrative appears to have its origin

arts in general are created and perfected. Among the vast variety of trees and shrubs which are presented to his view, a savage finds, in his wanderings, some which peculiarly attract his notice by their beauty and fragrance, and these he at length selects, and plants them round his dwelling. In like manner, among the mixed events of human life, he experiences some which are peculiarly grateful, and of which the narrative at once pleases himself, and excites in the minds of his hearers a kindred emotion. Of this kind are unlooked-for occurrences, successful enterprise, or great and unexpected deliverance from signal danger and distress. As he collected round his habitation those objects with which he had been pleased, in order that they might afford him a frequent gratification, so he rests his fancy on those incidents which had formerly awaked the most powerful emotions; and the remembrance of which most strongly excites his tenderness, or pride, or gratitude.

Thus, in process of time, a mass of curious narrative is collected, which is communicated from one individual to another. In almost every occurrence of human life, however, as in almost every scene of nature, something intervenes of a mixed, or indifferent description, tending to weaken the agreeable emotion, which, without it, would be more pure and forcible. For example,-in the process of forming the garden, the savage finds that it is not enough merely to collect a variety of agreeable trees or plants; he discovers that more than this is necessary, and that it is also essential that he should grub up from around his dwelling the shrubs which are useless or noxious, and which weaken or impair the pure delight which he derives from others. He is careful, accordingly, that the rose should no longer be placed beside the thistle, as in the wild, but that it should flourish in a clear, and sheltered, and romantic situation, where its sweets may be undiminished, and where its form can be contemplated without any attending circumstances of uneasiness or disgust. The collector of agreeable facts finds, in like manner, that the sympathy they excite can be heightened by removing from their detail every thing that is not interesting, or that tends to weaken

the principal emotion, which it is his intention to raise. He renders, in this way, the occurrences more unexpected, the enterprises more successful, the deliverance from danger and distress more wonderful. “As the active world,” says Lord Bacon, “ is inferior to the rational soul, so Fiction gives to mankind what history denies, and, in some measure, satisfies the mind with shadows when it cannot enjoy the substance: For, upon a narrow inspection, Fiction strongly shows that a greater variety of things, a more perfect order, a more beautiful variety, than can any where be found in nature, is pleasing to the mind. And as real history gives us not the success of things according to the deserts of vice and virtue, Fiction corrects it, and presents us with the fates and fortunes of persons rewarded or punished according to merit. And as real history disgusts us with a familiar and constant similitude of things, Fiction relieves us by unexpected turns and changes, and thus not only delights, but inculcates morality and nobleness of soul. It raises the mind by accommodating the images of things to our desires, and not, like history and reason, subjecting the mind to things.1

From this view of the subject, it is obvious that the fictions framed by mankind, or the narratives with which they are delighted, will vary with their feelings, and with the state of society. Since Fiction may be regarded as select and highly coloured history, those adventures would

1 De Aug. Scient. lib. ii. p. 1.

naturally form the basis of it which had already come to pass, or which were most likely to occur. Accordingly, in a warlike age, it would be peculiarly employed in tales of enterprise and chivalry, and, in times of gallantry, in the detail of love adventures.

The History of Fiction, therefore, becomes, in a considerable degree, interesting to the philosopher, and occupies an important place in the history of the progress of society. By contemplating the fables of a people, we have a successive delineation of their prevalent modes of thinking, a picture of their feelings and tastes and habits. In this respect prose fiction appears to possess advantages considerably superior either to history or poetry. In history there is too little individuality; in poetry too much effort, to permit the poet and historian to portray the manners living as they rise. History treats of man, as it were, in the mass, and the individuals whom it paints are regarded merely, or principally, in a public light, without taking into consideration their private feelings, tastes, or habits. Poetry is in general capable of too little detail, while its paintings, at the same time, are usually too much forced and exaggerated. But in Fiction we can discrimi. nate without impropriety, and enter into detail without meanness. Hence it has been remarked, that it is chiefly in the fictions of an age that we can discover the modes of living, dress, and manners of the period. “Finally," says Borromeo, (in the preface to the Notizia de' Novellieri Italiani) should remark the light that novels spread on the history of the times. He who doubts of this may read the Eulogium of Bandello, and he will be satisfied that his Novelliero may be regarded as a magic mirror, which distinctly reflects the customs and manners of the sixteenth century, an age fertile in great events; and it also acquaints us with many literary and political anecdotes, which the historians of the revolutions of our states have not transmitted to posterity. I, myself, can affirm that in these tales I have found recorded authentic anecdotes of the private lives of sovereigns, which would in vain be sought for in ordinary histories.”

But even if the utility which is derived from Fiction were less than it is, how much are we indebted to it for pleasure


[ocr errors]

and enjoyment! It sweetens solitude and charms sorrow -it occupies the attention of the vacant, and unbends the mind of the philosopher. Like the enchanter, Fiction shows us, as it were in a mirror, the most agreeable objects; recalls from a distance the forms which are dear to us, and soothes our own griefs by awakening our sympathy for others. By its means the recluse is placed in the midst of society; and he who is harassed and agitated in the city is transported to rural tranquillity and repose. The rude are refined by an introduction, as it were, to the higher orders of mankind, and even the dissipated and selfish


in some degree, corrected by those paintings of virtue and simple nature, which must ever be employed by the novelist, if he wish to awaken emotion or delight.

And such seems now to be the common idea which is entertained of the value of Fiction. Accordingly, this powerful instrument of virtue and happiness, after having been long despised, on account of the purposes to which it had been made subservient, has gradually become more justly appreciated, and more highly valued. Works of Fiction have been produced, abounding at once with the most interesting details, and the most sagacious reflections, and which differ from treatises of abstract philosophy only by the greater justness of their views, and the higher interest which they excite. And it may be presumed, that a path, at once so useful and delightful, will continue to be trod : it may be presumed, that virtue and vice, the conduct of human life, what we are expected to feel, and what we are called on to do and to suffer, will long be taught by example, a method which seems better fitted to improve the mind than abstract propositions and dry discussions.

Entertaining such views of the nature and utility of fiction, and indebted to its charms for some solace and enjoyment, I have employed a few hours of relaxation in drawing up the following notices of its gradual progress. No works are perhaps more useful or agreeable, than those which delineate the advance of the human mind-the history of what different individuals have effected in the course of ages, for the instruction, or even the innocent amusement, of their species. Such a delineation is attended with innumerable advantages: It furnishes a collection of

« PreviousContinue »