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ENGLISH AUTHORS ON THE CONTINENT.
Sir Egerton Brydges' Note-Book.*
THE gentleman whose name stands at the head of this article, finding that nobody else would puff him or his books, has lately taken to puffing himself. His pamphlet is, "not to speak it profanely," a "puff preliminary," though it differs in some respects from the model laid down by the great master of the art in "The Critic," and seems rather to have been suggested to Sir Egerton Brydges by the practice of a certain set of tolerably dressed personages who annually perambulate the country, mounted on spavined horses, and carrying behind them in bags samples of whatever stuff they have to sell. This is precisely the plan adopted by Sir Egerton; from the title-page of whose long "Note" we learn for the first time, that he had intended to inflict upon us during the last hot weather certain Memoirs, which he has since very properly burnt; and from the Note itself, that he has at present in the press two or three mortal octavos under the same title, of which this pamphlet is at once a specimen and a puff. It appears to be, in fact, a selection of the choicest morceaux from the forthcoming "Memoirs," and an exposition of the author's opinions on all the points of which they are to treat. The staple of the whole, however, seems to be puffs of Sir Egerton himself and his Memoirsand feeble abuse of modern criticism and literature-of successful au
thors, especially those who are enriched by their writings-of what Sir E. calls "mongrel nobility,"-and of that fashionable society from which this new Sir Fretful Plagiary is enraged to find himself excluded.
On these topics alone, therefore, we shall touch in this article; leaving Sir E.'s dissertations on political economy, the civil wars, German quarters and heavy soils,t to those (if such there be) who regard his opinions on these matters. Criticism, literature, fashionable life, and nobility, are the favourite themes to which he always recurs in this little ill-printed brochure; and on all these points, as we shall easily prove, Sir E. is profoundly ignorant. Sir E. puts forth this pamphlet as a foot of the Hercules; and if we show that it is totally destitute of bone, muscle, and marrow, we think it is not at all likely that the body will possess any vigour.
Criticism and periodical literature form the first theme of Sir Egerton's complaints; but the very first sentence he utters on the subject proves him to be profoundly ignorant of the way in which that sort of literature is conducted, and of the mode in which it operates.
"Literature (says he, p. 4,) now acts by combinations: individual strength or wisdom can do nothing.”
* "A Note on the Suppression of the Memoirs announced by the Author in June 1825, containing numerous Strictures on Contemporary Public Characters, by Sir Egerton Brydges, Bart. &c. &c. 12mo. Paris, 1825."
Sir Egerton's topics are sufficiently miscellaneous, and are generally introduced in a manner somewhat startling. For instance, in the middle of a long dissertation on talents, virtue, and nobility, Sir Egerton breaks out in these precise words: "I am sure that about Culford the soil was deep, though it might be too wet!" p. 54.
"The press is now exactly in the same state. Every literary journal is carried on to forward the purposes of a party; nothing is judged by its intrinsic and individual character; and no book is bought or read, except as fashion, or intrigue, or faction dictates. Critics suppress, distort, or disguise their opinions, to secure the favour of their employers, till they lose all discrimination, and cease to have opinions. Publishers always protest that they are under contract not to interfere with the judgments of the editors of their journals. Who can believe them? It may be true in the letter; it cannot be virtually true! An editor must surely know that he would soon meet the cold blank looks' of his employer, if he spoke slightly of a work in which that employer had embarked a large sum! In twenty years I can hardly recollect an impartial article of criticism in any of the popular journals." p. 4.
In another place :
"So goes the world; or, at least, so goes the present literary world. He who is not connected with some of these media (reviews and magazines) of conveying his opinions, is now shut out from any influence on the opinions of society: one or other of these bodies have got possession of all purchasers. Every reader attaches himself to one or other of them; and that body makes demands on him equal to the whole which he can expend in reading." pp. 66, 67.
"An author has no chance against a popular review, because it is mechanically dispersed every where, and read by every one;-read as newspapers are read to qualify a man to join in the conversation of society: its circulation is multiplied at least thirty-fold beyond the average sale of separate publications; and a single copy on the table of a large reading-room affords perusal to hundreds. It is, moreover, addressed to popular prejudices, and takes advantage of all the favourite principles of thinking in daily life."
"At present I never hear a literary opinion uttered in any company which is not taken from one of the reviews." p. 12.
Lastly, towards the end of the pamphlet Sir Egerton exclaims:
"Readers now live upon the food of bitter and poignant criticism ;" -and he perpetually echoes his abuse of modern criticism by crying out: "This is the direct reverse of the spirit in which literature conducted itself till about thirty-five years ago."
It is quite inconceivable to us how Sir Egerton Brydges can have lived and scribbled up to the age of sixty-three, and yet have remained in a state of such lamentable ignorance about periodical literature. Literary journals, so far from being carried on to forward the interests. of a party, are notoriously addressed to all parties, and depend for their very existence upon pleasing all parties. Does Sir Egerton seriously imagine that none but Whigs buy the Edinburgh Review, and none but Tories the Quarterly? And as to a book being only saleable through fashion and intrigue, we deny it altogether. The book that sells best-that is, which pleases the greatest number of readers—is the fashionable book. The Scotch novels are fashionable-and they are anonymous. Who suspected Sir Walter Scott at first to be the author of them? Who knows it even now? Nothing but talent will make a book fashionable, and no intrigue will support a bad book. Booksellers exercise no undue influence over editors. And what, after all,
is the best security for the impartiality of a review? The certain disgrace that will fall on its conductors if they abuse a really good book. Besides, what good author was ever since the flood injured by criticism or critics? Not one! Quid
Contra sonantem Palladis ægida
If reviews and magazines, as Sir Egerton says, have "got possession of all purchasers," surely their opinions must be good for something. Sir E. seems to be quite unaware of the fact, that the cause of their being so popular arises from their being open to all men of talent; and that he himself, if he had been a man of talent, might have been connected with some of these media of opinions." Did it never occur to Sir Egerton, that if he could not get "connected with these media," it was because his opinions were not worth publishing?
Sir E. seems to suppose, when he talks of " literature acting by combinations," that all literary opinions are enunciated by a certain set, or coterie of authors, who have an inveterate spleen against other authors. Nothing can be more absurd. Authors of the present day, at
all events, have no feelings of this kind; and as to coteries of authors, it is quite notorious, that where they do exist, they exist for the purpose of praising, not damning each other. Sir E.'s notion of the blessed state of authors before reviews were known, is equally wrong. For, even to begin with the age of compliments and courtesy-the age of Queen Elizabeth-where is there more abuse of contemporary writers to be found than in the old comedy of these golden days? Look at Milton's criticism on Salmasius. Did Sir E. ever read Dryden's prefaces-or his Absalom and Achitophel-or his Mac Flecknoe-or Scriblerus-or the Dunciad? Was not Dennis a reviewer, and Johnson? Let him compare any of these reviewers with those of his own day, and he will soon discover the difference.
We have seen Sir E.'s notions of the tremendous influence exercised by the periodical press; now we shall see how he contradicts himself. 66 Thus it is with literature. The journals are to follow the popular judgment, because to impose the weight of high opinion on them would be to operate by prejudice !" p. 21.
"The misfortune of the present day is, that the public taste dictates, instead of being directed." p. 15.
Here Sir E. has completely changed sides. First the reviews influence public opinion. Now it is public opinion which influences the reviews, which are only its echo, and of course have no influence at all. But these are not the only curious opinions of Sir E. respecting periodical literature:
"The result of all the conflicting statements, arguments, criticisms, and judgments of all the modern journals and reviews is, to blow up all fixed opinions into the air. All influence of genius and master-minds has passed away." p. 12.
"Avast reading there!" as Trunnion says; "overhaul that article again!" Sir E. first says, that the reviews direct the opinions of the public; then, that the public directs the opinions of the reviews; and now, that neither reviews nor public have any opinions at all! The
ignorance and absurdity of the following paragraph are almost unparalleled.
"It is quite impossible that any review can be honest which is anonymous. If the name of the author was subscribed to an article of criticism, the purpose for which it was written would be seen at once. Every severe article in the fashionable journals would have been defeated of its effect, if the writer's name had been known!" p. 12.
Why is it impossible? It is far more possible than that a criticism signed by the writer of it should be honest. In the one case we should have a frank and fearless opinion; in the other, a dull panegyric. As to "articles in the fashionable journals," every body but Sir Egerton Brydges knows that they are as generally ascribed to the true author as if he signed his name to them.
"The opinion formed of a book when it is first published, is very seldom the opinion entertained of it after a lapse of twenty or thirty years." p. 8.
This is not true; any book which will last thirty years, will then be held in as much estimation as ever. All good writers have been popular in their own day, and the opinion of their own generation has been confirmed by posterity.
The later nobility--or what Sir E. calls "upstart titles"--" mongrel nobility"--" new nobles"-" low families," &c. are, throughout this pamphlet, very much abused, and for a reason which proves Sir Egerton ignorant even of the ridiculous sciences of genealogy and heraldry, about his knowledge of which he makes such a cackling:
"When James I. came to the throne, he paid no regard to the old historic families; and many obscure, secondary, or doubtful families were elevated to the upper house-probably because they could command ready money," &c.
"At the accession of the late king, the ministry were rather sparing and select in their dispensation of peerages. Then came in the Grosvenors and Vernons by force of property, and of ancient provincial (not historical) origin, &c. The famous Bubb Dodington, a political adventurer of great wealtha man of strong ability-said to have been the son of an apothecary in the west, did the same. The immense influx has been from Ireland and Scotland."
"A true aristocracy is a wholesome and even necessary counterpoise to the selfishness and insolence of new wealth. I know that the common opinion is the reverse of this. This or that family,' they cry, is become very rich; therefore give them rank and title!' Now riches are always powerful enough by themselves in the eyes of the base world; they do not want collateral aid to give them dominion." p. 43.
All this is repeated in every form of dulness throughout the pamphlet. Now, did it never strike Sir Egerton that wealth is always sure of obtaining title, for this reason--that the peerage would lose its dignity, if the elevation of peers were always to be regulated by what Sir Egerton calls "historic lustre ?" The oldest families among our nobility are, generally speaking, the poorest; for a reason which could be easily given, and illustrated too if we could spare a paragraph for the purpose therefore, when new peerages are created, they are generally given to persons who have wealth enough to keep up their splendour. As to the Grosvenors, &c. becoming peers "by force of property and provincial origin," it is what occurs every day. Where else should we look for peers but among such families? To elevate poor families to peerages, even if they descended in a right line from
Charlemagne, would be absurd and injurious both to the peerage and to them. Sir E. pretends to descend from one of these "historic families" perhaps it was the mere want of wealth which kept him out of the title?* The assertion about the Scotch and Irish peers is quite ridiculous. Both are far more ancient than the English. The latest-made Scotch peer is 118 years old; and the Celtic nobility trace clearly to a very remote ancestry.
It never seems to have occurred to Sir Egerton that talent had any weight in the business. Bubb Dodington was not created a peer because he was the son of an apothecary, but because he was, as Sir E. confesses, "a man of strong ability." Talent of some kind produces wealth-and wealth is sure to elevate its possessor (if he choose) to rank -if not in one generation, in the next. Let Sir Egerton suddenly become "a man of strong ability”—and perhaps he may be made a peer too! His laudation of historic titles, old nobility, &c. curiously contrasts with his abuse of new peers and wealth.
"I have rarely seen haughty and offensive airs among the nobility, except among the utterly new nobility, and who are not only new nobles, hut persons of very low birth and alliances, and who had obtained their peerage by means either corrupt or at least unconnected with merit. It is known that among the proudest of the modern nobles are those whose predecessors not long ago bought their honours, and whose delight therefore is to busy themselves in shutting the door upon the rights of others!" p. 27.
This is very amusing. This careful distinction between new and old nobility is very necessary when it refers to a class of which the head is a Howard! The family is not 400 years old, and is only descended from a judge of the Common Pleas, in the days of Elizabeth. As for low birth and alliances, there are plenty of examples-six of our twenty-six dukes are descended from illegitimate sources-and almost all the rest from citizens or lawyers--persons who took fees,—and who therefore, in the eyes of Beau Brummell or Sir Egerton, must be necessarily base and contemptible!
But what has fashionable society done to 'Sir Egerton Brydges, that he should pour out upon it all his weak abuse? Has it excluded him? We should think so, from various parts of his pamphlet.
"The new families are they which are most busy and most anxious to take the lead in what is called the Fashionable World, and to distinguish themselves by such paltry means! Even to lead the fashion requires a great deal of exertion and fatigue; though it is exertion and intrigue very ill spent! The richest person from the Stock Exchange will, by a little perseverance, and after pocketing a few airs and insults at the outset, be sure to beat at last by mere weight of purse!"
Nobody in the least acquainted with fashionable life will believe this. Is Mr. Rothschild a leading man in the fashionable clubs? Would his lady have at Almack's a voice potential as double as a duchess?" Noall the wealth of India would not bring a merely wealthy man into fashionable life-he must bring with his wealth address or talent of some kind and at any time a dandy with 500l. a year would eclipse a nabob. Sir E. is constantly complaining of poets who live in society, advising
* The name of Brydges cannot be very old, for of course it was invented long after the construction of bridges in England. Verstegan (in his "Restitution of Decayed Intelligence") gives it an origin decidedly plebeian, and says that low families of the name corrupt it into Briggs.