Morality and Moral Tendency
Since the American Victorian reviewer believed that nature and the real possessed an inalienable moral character, discussion of morality in novels was inevitable as soon as truthfulness became a criterion of novelistic value. Indeed, reviewers appear interested in nature mainly as a channel to morality and were far more concerned with morality than philosophy in their criticism (although to some degree they did not distinguish morality from philosophy). Talk about morality is so characteristic of and so widely prevalent in novel reviewing in the 1840s and 1850s as to indicate that it was taken as part of the reviewer’s job. In the more than two thousand reviews that underlie this discussion, only one reviewer stated that in principle the morality of the books he wrote about was not his business. This was Edgar Allan Poe, who, when reviewing for Graham’s in the early 1840s, savaged (among other novels) Harrison Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes “as a work of art, and without reference to any supposed moral or immoral tendencies (things with which the critic has nothing to do)” (November 1841). In May 1848 Graham’s, whose staff Poe had long since left, reversed his position (though it did not mention him by name): “in criticizing a novel, it becomes important to examine the tendency of the work. We utterly repudiate the idea that a reviewer has nothing to do with the morality of a book. … There can be no medium. A fiction which does not do good does harm. There never was a romance written, which had not its purpose, either open or concealed, from that of Waverley, which inculcated loyalty, to that of Oliver Twist, which teaches the brotherhood of man.”
The closest any other reviewer came to Poe’s position was this in Peterson’s for April 1856, on Southworth’s India: “we speak of it, of course, entirely from a literary stand-point. Of late, it has become too common to praise or censure novels, on other grounds; whereas a critic, so long as a fiction is not immoral, has nothing to do except with the literary merits and demerits of a work.” So long as a fiction is not immoral. The first responsibility of the critic, accordingly, is to determine whether a novel is immoral; only after that determination is made may one proceed to examine the work’s literary merits and demerits. The morality of the novel is not a function of the quantity of overt moralizing it contains, nor of its membership in the category of didactic novels or novels of practical morality. All novels without exception have—must have—moral or immoral tendencies, often operating independently of any inferable purpose of the author. “Here,” a Godey’s reviewer said, “is a volume written with evident pretensions to taste and refinement of language, but which, unwittingly to its author, perhaps, is lamentably deficient and deceptive in its moral tone” (August 1856).
Every journal, even in brief reviews, mentions and assesses “tendency.” “We cannot but doubt the tendency of tales of such unmitigated horror,” Knickerbocker wrote of Martin Faber (October 1833). “We confess that we never could see the injurious tendency of these transcripts of life,” it commented on Bulwer’s works in an Editor’s Table for February 1835, but it later changed its mind in a review of Ernest Maltravers: “we can no longer concede that which we have hitherto claimed for him, a purpose to hold up to the world the rewards of virtue and the consequences of vice. On the contrary, the tendency of his morality seems to be, that we are the victims of destiny, and that circumstances alone determine the phases of character, and prescribe the paths of virtue and vice” (December 1837). A Southern Literary Messenger review agreed: “The tendency of Bulwer’s novels is of an evil kind” (November 1842).
Maria McIntosh’s Woman an Enigma did better with the Southern Literary Messenger: “its tendency is decidedly moral,” it reported (October 1843). “Novels,” the Ladies’ Repository declared, “are, generally, bad in their tendency, it is true, yet some have redeeming qualities” (July 1847). It commented that the “moral tendency” of Scott’s novels “may not be altogether pernicious; but we doubt much whether that tendency can be said to be beneficial” (September 1848). “Well written, and, of course, full of interest to those fond of tales of this character, though there can be but one opinion as to their tendency” (Godey’s on Henry Miles’s Dick Turpin, the Bold Highwayman, August 1848); “of course, the moral tendency of the work is unexceptionable” (God-ey’s on a work by Timothy Shay Arthur, February 1851). Harper’s said that in The Two Families “the moral tendency … is pure and elevated,” and a later review commented more generally, “if novels and romances, of which the tone is low, and the taste bad, and the coloring voluptuous, and the morality questionable, are among the subtlest and deadliest poisons cast forth into the world, those of a purer spirit and a higher tendency are, we honestly believe, among the most effective agencies of good” (July 1852, June 1853).
A January 1851 review in the North American explained that “tendency” in novels derived from the sympathetic instinct. “The appetite for narrative has a solid foundation in the social nature, and must endure. Works of imagination will ever find hearts eager to be made to throb with sympathy for the joys and woes, the physical and moral struggles, of humanity. … In man’s eagerness to know his fellow-man, even imaginary characters and situations are interesting to him; and he is strongly moved by the common fears inseparable from a state of bodily and moral weakness, the common hopes which the very emptiness of the world suggests, the desire to alleviate misery and uphold justice, to return or reward kindness, and all the other emotions and impulses, which, like wheels within wheels, actuate the moving figures offered to his imagination.” Then, if sympathy—which this review sees as an outgrowth of self-love—is called out for immoral characters, the novel’s tendency is immoral also; if sympathy is created for good characters the tendency is good.
As its broadest, most diffuse effect, the novel of good tendency would bring about a love of virtue. A Mirror review for February 9, 1839, approvingly quoted from a preface by G. P. R. James where the novelist claimed that good fiction
excites our good passions to high and noble aspirations; depicts our bad passions so as to teach us to abhor and govern them; arrays our sympathies on the side of virtue, benevolence, and right; expands our hearts, and makes the circle of our feelings and affections more comprehensive; stores our imaginations with images bright and sweet and beautiful; makes us more intimately and philosophically acquainted with the characters of our fellow-men; and, in short, causes the reader to rise wiser and with a higher appreciation of all that is good and great.
The good novelist, according to another comment in Knickerbocker, “enforces a healthier moral tone, awakens a deeper detestation of worldliness and hypocrisy” and “inspires a warmer love for genuine unaffected worth” (October 1855).
More narrowly, the novel of good moral tendency created love and esteem for one’s fellow human beings; one of bad tendency made for misanthropy. Dickens “sees the divine image, where others beheld only squalidness and rags”; he “is doing more than any other living or recent writer, to open the fountains of kindly feeling” (Christian Examiner, March 1843, May 1843). “The heart warms with the narrative as it progresses, and at its close we feel our admiration of virtue increased, and our faith in human nature strengthened” (Democratic Review retrospectively on Waverley, September 1853). Conversely, a Knickerbocker review found Richard Hurdis “vicious in its tendency. … It presents the most hideous distortions of character, and is enough to make a man sick of his humanity” (October 1838). Sartain’s assailed novelists “who, with contempt in their hearts, and bitterness and sarcasm on their lips, go through the world … only to sneer.” Such works “lower the standard of human excellence, they unsettle our faith in human nature” (September 1850). The Christian Examiner, whose reviewers steadfastly resisted the vogue for Thackeray, objected that he “indulged in a skeptical spirit” and “held up to the jeers of the superficial our weak, spotted, perverse, but inexpressively deep human nature; and woman nature especially, which is its redeeming half” (May 1856).
Misanthropic novels had an unhealthy tone, symptomatic of disease or morbidity. The North American in October 1848 attacked the (then anonymous) author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, who, if “he” continues to write novels, “will introduce into the land of romance a larger number of hateful men and women than any other writer of the day. … The reader of Acton Bell gains no enlarged view of mankind, giving a healthy action to his sympathies, but is confined to a narrow space of life, and held down, as it were, by main force, to witness the wolfish side of his nature literally and logically set forth.” This was also Peterson’s objection to The House of the Seven Gables; it was morbid because it had no sympathetic characters. “The fault of the book, indeed of all Hawthorne’s books, in a moral aspect, is the sombre coloring which pervades them, and which leaves an effect more or less morbid on even healthy minds. The only really lovable character in the book is Phoebe” (June 1851).
The earliest theoretical argument on behalf of the moral tendency of novels had risen from a sort of Shaftesburian view of human benevolence. If sympathy is a good emotion and novels always promote it, then all novels were good in tendency. That had been, in the earlier part of the century, a common argument in favor of the claims of fiction against those who were hostile to it. “No fiction can delight, but as it interests; nor can it excite interest, but as it exercises sympathy; nor can it excite sympathy, without increasing the disposition to sympathize, and, consequently, without strengthening benevolence,” a Mirror review rehearsed the argument (June 2, 1838). As the novel’s presence and popularity became ever more pronounced, rendering defense superfluous, it became clear that this argument was too simple. Some novels did not operate on the principle of sympathy so much as its opposite, repulsion. Worse still, many very popular novels aroused sympathy for bad people. A novel operating on the principle of repulsion was, though morbid, still morally correct; a novel making bad people sympathetic confounded morality altogether.
Reviewers therefore assessed the morality of novels according to whether bad characters were made sympathetic; and the complaints were frequent indeed. This example from the Christian Examiner for May 1845 (in an essay on cheap literature) conveys the tone: “vapid and silly romances … appeal to all the baser elements in our nature. They minister to a depraved curiosity. They suggest no elevating conceptions, call forth no generous resolves, prompt to no disinterested deeds, instill no right principles, awaken no holy aspirations. A group of unworthy characters are set forth to utter sickly sentiments, and practice detestable vices. … Villainy is represented as successful, sin garnished and clothed in fine raiment, knaves pictured as happy fellows, debauchees as gentlemen, and treachery and blackest guilt unvisited by any adequate chastisement. … All the novelist has to do is to go on dressing up pollution and publishing the arts of vile rascality!”
And so on throughout the period, chiefly with reference to “cheap” books designed for the populace. “Vice and illicit indulgences are made to assume the garb, appearance, and language of virtue and innocence, and, when the former have produced their natural and inevitable consequences, the sympathies of the reader are awakened, his pity enlisted on the wrong side, and his notions of right and wrong confounded” (Mirror, April 23, 1836). “We find in the work no glossing over of vicious principles, no depravity dressed up in a fascinating garb, which constitutes the greatest objection to books otherwise delightful and useful, for their spirit, taste, and talent”; Bulwer had “lent his fine genius to the sanctification of what the world must deem vice and crime, however gilded” and had ignored “the extreme danger of suggesting a false sympathy with crime” (Knickerbocker, February 1839, March 1841). There are novelists, fulminated a critic in the North American in July 1843, “whose whole employment seems to be to turn vice into virtue, and shame into glory … to represent human nature, when defiled, degraded, and passion-stained, as more elevated than before its fall. … The delusion contaminates the heart that gives it welcome; it conducts many a youth to a wretched life, a lonely prison, an untimely grave, or, perhaps, to the pirate’s doom.” Another critic in the journal wrote somewhat more temperately that “the writer who colors too warmly the degrading scenes through which his immaculate hero passes is rightly held as an equivocal teacher of purity” (October 1848).
Bulwer was one such equivocal teacher, as we have already seen. A Graham’s critic for April 1843 announced a preference for The Last of the Barons over his other novels because of “the entire absence of that pandering to corrupt or vitiated tastes—that palliation of sensuality, and that straining effort to undermine our most sacred institutions and to subvert the morality of marriage.” “He never fails to render vice agreeable when it can possibly be done,” the Southern Literary Messenger stated, “by connecting it with agreeable characters” (January 1847). French novelists were also dangerous. “Under the tinsel decorations of a sickly sentimentality are hidden the pitfalls of vice and iniquity,” the American Review wrote of Sue’s novels; the author “literally revels in the fires of burning passion” (March 1846). When vice is made to charm in French novels, “and vicious people to dazzle, harm must needs be done, especially among the young and inexperienced” (Literary World, February 13, 1847). The Literary World also described “the common error of novelists” as “enlisting the compassion due only to suffering virtue, for frailty and crime, exciting sympathy for objects unworthy, and giving to positive wrongs the gloss of palliation or the support of laborious apology” (July 21, 1849).
Sartain’s complained that in Wuthering Heights there was “no attempt at placing the evil in its true deformity … no apparent shrinking of the writer from the fiends whom he has conjured up from a morbid, though powerful imagination” (June 1848). It praised Mathews’s Moneypenny because, “though introducing to our notice, as must necessarily be done by one endeavoring to illustrate miscellaneous society, the vicious and depraved, care is taken that their view shall not seem attractive.” According to the Tribune, Alice Carey’s Hagar was unworthy of her: “not only does it luxuriate over the records of foul and festering sin, but it throws such a lurid and unnatural glare on the page, that the moral lesson, which is the sole apology for such delineations of perverted passion, is completely neutralized” (January 1, 1853). A Godey’s reviewer faulted Henry William Herbert’s historical novel The Roman Traitor for “describing, so carefully, so repeatedly, and in such glowing sentences, the most revolting scenes of debauchery and shameless profligacy that have ever met our eyes even on paper” (November 1853). “Books—whether fictitious or not,” according to the New York Ledger, “which glorify vice, which make silly girls and sillier boys in love with handsome, dashing villainy,—which make it seem a noble and heroic thing to discard the rules of morality and follow the worst impulses of human nature,—are bad books and cannot be read without damaging the heart and degrading the character” (March 19, 1859).
More extreme reviewers stated that merely to come into contact with vicious scenes, no matter how portrayed, would inevitably corrupt the reader. “A grave reproach to which fiction is too often obnoxious, of stimulating the passions with images of superhuman depravity, and poisoning the moral sense by familiarity with unthought-of guilt” (New York Review, July 1840). “Hearts that ought to remain as pure and uncontaminated as the Alpine snows, are stained with impurity of thought and unholy imaginations” (Ladies’ Repository, April 1843). “This thrilling work must produce something of the evil, that would flow from keeping company with the characters described,” the Southern Literary Messenger said about Sue’s Mysteries of Paris; “its moral tendency can only be sustained upon the principle, which would introduce the young, the pure and the virtuous into all the haunts of vice, debauchery and infamy with which the world abounds” (December 1843). “What good effect, either for warning or example,” the American Review asked about George Sand’s fiction, “is to be drawn from familiarity with characters or scenes such as those above alluded to? There are some things, with which the very contact is an abomination” (March 1846). A September 1854 editorial in Godey’s pointed out that many women temperance novelists, “of refined sentiments and delicate nerves—are employing their talents in describing minutely the scenes of drunkenness which are said to occur at public hotels, and in bringing to light the secret sins of individuals, which, for all the good that can be anticipated from their exposure, might well be left in the darkness and privacy in which they were committed. The object which these good and gifted ladies have in view, as understood, is to teach morality. But would it be safe, think you, for a prudent mother, in order to impress upon the still pure heart of her daughter a warmer regard for the beauty and dignity of virtue, to introduce her to the companionship of the vulgar, the obscene, and vicious, even admitting that she kept her guarded by the presentation of the most vivid contrasts? Would not the experiment be dangerous, we ask, the end and good effect doubtful, to say the least?”
The more moderate view held that the attractiveness of vice in novels derived from its handling by the author; the other suggested that it resided in the scenes or events themselves. Both views, however, implicitly acknowledged that the reader’s imagination was not inherently prepared to defend itself against “vice.” The only reader who can withstand the appeal of vice is an experienced reader; yet the whole effort of the critic is to protect or shield the inexperienced reader from contact with experience, which alone can give one the power to discriminate vice from virtue and choose the latter. The critical shield, clearly, is highly ineffective, since so many novels, even as they are criticized, are acknowledged to be popular. Not the least of the contradictions and conundrums in which the issue of morality involved reviewers was its undercutting of the claim that the best novels were pictures of life as it is. Faced with the idea of a novel of dangerous tendency, reviewers withdrew that claim even as they were in the process of advancing it as the highest justification of novelistic art, in favor of preserving the vulnerable innocence of novel readers—young and female novel readers.
Indeed, though the vices made so dangerously attractive in fiction of immoral tendency are usually left unspecified, it is clear enough that they are those with particular pertinence to the young woman. “Surely, a glowing picture of virtue appeals far more powerfully to our feelings,” Knickerbocker wrote wistfully in November 1836, “excites more agreeable sensations, and offers a finer moral, than those daring freebooters, magnanimous outlaws, heroic highwaymen, and unhappy wives, who, having sacrificed their virgin affections on the altar of wealth and rank, end with immolating their own honor, and the happiness of their offspring, at the shrine of adulterous love.” Note the different rhetoric and emphasis as the reviewer describes male and female vices. Note that the woman’s rather than the man’s adultery concerns him. The locus of distress is the glorification of adulterous love; the chief issue hence the suppression or disciplining of female sexuality, on which the happiness of society depends.
A long review of Fredrika Bremer’s novels in the Christian Examiner took exception to the universal approbation of her books, complaining that they presented and condoned many instances of “unlawful” love. “In The Neighbors, a young man, whom the author evidently intends that we shall like, becomes attached to a married woman. His love is rejected; but there it is; the love is one of the incidents of the work.” In another, “a blind girl falls in love with her Uncle” who “acknowledges that he has loved this niece,—acknowledges it to her! … For what good purpose can such a passion have been introduced at all?” In The Home one is “confounded” by “love entertained unlawfully, for a being consecrated by marriage, and by one in whom the author evidently wishes to interest us. … The whole affair … is not calculated to excite sufficient horror. … Could we believe that such trials often entered the sanctuaries of virtuous homes, and tested the principles of good wives and mothers, we should still think Miss Bremer’s management of this particular illustration injudicious” (July 1843). In the novels referred to no unlawful loves are consummated, nor do any of Bremer’s “good wives and mothers” feel any unlawful emotion: but the Christian Examiner reviewer finds the subject so sensitive that he must deplore the depiction of any situations that test the “principles of good wives and mothers.” The critic must have believed that women readers were likely to be excited by such situations, and that their real-life principles would be weakened by exposure. “The institution of marriage,” according to another review in the journal, this one of George Sand, “is by no hyperbole called divine. … It should remain to be made one of the last objects of public reformatory movements of all the great departments of civilized life” (March 1847). Sand is culpable for making it the first object of reform, for presenting “meretricious pictures of domestic discord and inconstancy,” and for “harping continually, in Parisian dialect and voluptuous touches, on the solicitations and suggestions of animal nature.”
Reviewers in other journals felt the same way. The American Review contrasted Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre: in the former, “the frenzied love, too, so powerfully pictured in these volumes, fresh and undefiled, free alike from sensuality and sentiment, such as men might have felt when the world is young, is unhallowed; and this leads our noblest impulses to sympathize with crime”; while in the latter, “when the mystery is cleared up that makes it crime for Jane, or the reader, to listen to words of love, she flees from its pollution; and its voice is no more heard, till punishment frees the man’s hands, and purifies his soul” (April 1850). “A story of guilty love,” the Southern Literary Messenger reported of Light and Darkness, whose “effect is all the more injurious because, while conducting the charming criminals to the retribution of the catastrophe, the author seeks always to enlist our sympathies in their behalf. … No amount of genius, no display of literary and dramatic skill, can atone for the palliation of vice or the inculcation of spurious morality” (October 1855). In Berenice “the whole effect of the story is bad in enlisting our sympathies for a woman who loves one man while married to another, and this is all the more to be regretted because the book is so readable”; Household Mysteries is “highly objectionable. Nearly all the incidents on which the book is founded are those of real or supposed guilty love. … The author seems by some strange fascination to prefer walking on the verges of the forbidden” (Southern Literary Messenger, June 1856, September 1856).
In these innumerable moralizing comments, sexual attraction is never considered apart from the institution designed to contain it or (to put it more accurately) the institution that depends on its containment—that is, marriage; and it is invariably considered with reference to the feelings and acts of the woman rather than the man. Marriage is “the root from which society springs, the groundwork upon which it stands” (Sartain’s, September 1850); it demands female sexual fidelity. Whether or not reviewers valued female chastity, fidelity, and monogamy as virtues in themselves, they treated them exclusively in terms of their social utility. And they must have devoted so much space to marriage in their reviews because they thought that women, either eligible for marriage or married, composed most of the novel-reading population. In doing so, however, they clearly took it on themselves to write as preceptors, making novel reviewing the occasion for instructing women on their sexual duties and sexual natures, an activity a certain sort of pedagogue always delights in. The reviewing transaction had an erotic dimension of its own.
What also cannot be overlooked is that, evidently, novels provoking this response by reviewers were numerous and popular. The novelist’s “strange fascination” with “walking on the verges of the forbidden” looks not in the least strange, being nothing more than knowing and responding to what women readers wanted to read about: exciting sex and passionate feeling, which, the reviews all too clearly imply, were not likely to be found in marriage. Two basic Victorian assumptions about female character—that women do not experience sexual desire and that they are naturally suited to monogamous marriage where they are the servants of their husbands, their children, and society at large—are here exposed as cultural constructions whose maintenance requires constant surveillance, even to the supervision of novel reading.
“The object of the writer is, to enlist the reader’s sympathies on the side of Benedict and Valentine, on the side of criminal and misplaced affection, and against the bond of marriage,” the North American said of George Sand’s Lélia (July 1841). The moral tendency of Dickens, Putnam’s noted, is “unobjectionable,” because “his subjects are out of the range of a prurient and luxurious fancy. His loves are the pure loves of marriage, or that lead to marriage. He is English, and not French, in his love of home” (March 1855). “Let us be thankful,” Godey’s said, for a novel like Southworth’s The Deserted Wife, “combining, as it does, the strongest incentives to purity and forbearance, with the most elevated sentiments of love and constancy” (December 1855). As its title implies, The Deserted Wife praised the purity and constancy of the deserted woman who remains a “wife” in the situation of abandonment. A relaxing of attitudes toward fidelity in marriage, a greater tolerance of divorce, suggests, Godey’s added, “that there is something radically wrong in American female education, in public sentiment, and even, to a fatal extent, in religious sentiment.” Similarly, the New York Ledger for May 15, 1858, noted with horror that divorces in New York City were running at three a week, a number representing a serious threat to social stability.
“It will hardly do to say that the object of the book is only to amuse,” the Atlantic wrote about Sword and Gown in December 1859. “Dealing with the subjects it does, it must work good or evil. … The moral of the book is not a good one. The author does his best, by various arts, to make the reader look kindly upon a guilty love, and to regard with admiration those who are animated by it. … And such is his undeniable power, that with many readers he will be too likely to carry his point.” It is important to note how sexual passion is automatically defined as extramarital; for these Victorian Americans marriage, whatever aspects of the (female) character it answered to, was not an enabler of sexual expression or an enclave for its satisfaction, but its grave. The reviews were telling woman, as clearly as or more clearly than the novels she read, not to anticipate passion or romance in marriage. They were also attempting to dissuade her from reading novels that located it outside marriage, because they feared she would be stimulated to follow the example such novels presented. What did they fear would follow from this?
The most offending novels in their eyes were the French, which flooded this country in cheap translations during the 1840s. In the North American for April 1843 a reviewer wrote that the novels of Paul de Kock were, “in respect to morality and true refinement, more than half a century behind the English.” But the popularity of the novels in the United States was precisely the issue. Less than a year later—January 1844—a reviewer in the Southern Literary Messenger announced that “during the last two years we have visited almost every section of our Union, and the books which met our view more often than any other, were the pestilent French novels.” In November 1846 a Peterson’s reviewer said “the country is deluged with reprints of French novels, many of them openly, and all covertly injurious to morals.”
In March 1846 the conservative American Review complained that Hugo’s novels show “courtesans exemplifying the duties of maternal fondness—strumpets testifying disinterested attachments—thieves and murderers actuated by the most generous and noble impulses—and the whole foundations of the social system uprooted and overturned, to carry out an idle and absurd theory. … Those who search in the French novelists generally for any traces of a high and pure morality, will lose both their time and their labor.” Sartain’s noted that “Sue describes Fleur de Marie as the purest of human angels, though he gives us to understand, at the same time, that she has lived a life which the experience of all times has shown to be the most thoroughly degrading and destroying to heart and soul, mind and body, of all the varieties of sin and shame. … These impossible pictures we call French, because they are at least nothing else, and they are drawn by people of unmistakable ability. But we cannot consider them edifying, to say the least” (November 1847). Knickerbocker for June 1848 praised a novel by contrasting it to those of Sue and Sand; here “there are no luscious descriptions of brothels, no abortions procured by dissolute ladies, no scenes of madness from rampant lust.”
In a review for February 1854 Sartain’s complained that The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Wandering Jew were “the plainest and most undeniable prostitutions of Art to the cause of impurity” and asserted that “Sue is, in all his views of life, essentially false and corrupt; and Hugo is fond of exploring those moral sinks which exhale the most offensive odors.” A Putnam’s reviewer agreed: “the books of Sue, Dumas, Balzac, and a crowd of lesser names, contain, under the form of fiction, nothing but the history of the corrupt and false social state in which they live and move.” La Dame aux Camelias “is simply the biography of a courtesan, and is objectionable as being calculated to throw around the life of vice, degradation, and misery ineffable, the halo of sentiment, and the interest of beauty, wit, and unperverted nobleness.” La Dame aux Perles “is simply an uninteresting tale of marital baseness and wifely deception, adulterous love being represented as universal and natural, and the art of society as consisting in keeping a veil of external decency over the corruption which prevails in every sphere of life” (December 1853).
Interestingly, the reviewers agree that the virtues praised in these novels are indeed virtues, but they think it is immoral to associate them with persons who live sexually licentious lives. This association puts in question the claim that virtue is a product of the monogamous bourgeois marriage. “Home, just as it is, is about as effective an institution as we have for human salvation. It is the fountain of what is purest and noblest in character” (Christian Examiner, March 1847). If this connection did not exist, on what grounds could women be persuaded to so confining and obliterating a way of life, especially in an era of individualism? The French novels stated what the reviewers’ rhetoric only implied: that women had sexual desires incompatible with marriage as it was then constituted; accepting this, they went on to legitimize passionate extramarital love. “It seems impossible for a Frenchman, however brilliant, to make at the same time a tale of deep interest and preserve a pure moral. The nationality will break out, and that always to the distaste of an American reader,” Peterson’s commented on Dumas (February 1849). But if American readers felt this distaste, their buying habits did not show it. Again, the North American, surveying recent French literature in a series of review essays, commented, “it has been our lot … to read many books which shocked our moral sense and appeared to us as the sign of a moral inferiority in the nation that could crown such works with popularity” (January 1859). But his own nation had so crowned these works.
These reviews provide an interesting context for the reception of The Scarlet Letter, which appeared soon after the revolution of 1848 had reduced the number of French works, but while those written before the revolution were still in wide circulation. “Then for the moral,” a Literary World review concluded: “though severe, it is wholesome. … We hardly know another writer who has lived so much among the new school who would have handled this delicate subject without an infusion of George Sand” (March 30, 1850). “Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter, has utterly undermined the whole philosophy on which the French novels rest, by seeing farther and deeper into the essence both of conventional and moral laws,” Graham’s commented. “He has made his guilty parties end, not as his own benevolent sympathies might dictate, but as the spiritual laws, lying back of all persons, dictated to him” (May 1850). It repeated this assessment in a review of The Blithedale Romance: “as an illustration of the Divine order on which our conventional order rests, [The Scarlet Letter] is the most moral book of the age, and is especially valuable as demonstrating the superficiality of that code of ethics, predominant in the French school of romance, which teaches obedience to individual instinct and impulse, regardless of all moral truths which contain the generalized experience of the race” (September 1852). If we have here an explanation, beyond his artistic merits, for Hawthorne’s favorable reception among critics, we may also have an explanation for his lack of popular success.
Dealing with the question of morality for women, reviewers involved themselves in various incompatible preachments: monogamous marriage was the relation divinely designed for the fullest human satisfactions; sexual satisfaction was animal, hence not included in the design; marriage might more likely than not turn out unsatisfactorily but still compelled fealty, and so on. Tellingly, the idealistic novels of George Sand, which attacked marriage for failing to provide for women’s sexual enjoyment, fared worse with reviewers than novels by Sue, Balzac, and Paul de Kock, which pragmatically accepted marriage for other purposes than sex and looked for an equilibrium of marriage and extramarital sexuality. I wish the reviewers in this instance were all men, but not so. Sartain’s carried a particularly virulent attack on George Sand, by a Miss Maria J. B. Browne, in October 1851: “domestic infidelity and consequent wretchedness, is a theme on which she delights to ring interminable changes. Herself, an unbeliever in connubial love, and the victim of connubial misery, her teachings scatter the winged seeds of moral contagion and with woman’s fair and gentle hand, level malicious thrusts at the very buttresses of social order, by battering against that great God-instituted necessity, marriage.” And other American women also went on record as dissociating their sex from Sand’s ideas.
In a March 1846 review the American Review expatiated on George Sand’s habitual exercise, in her own life, of “the privileged vices which custom and society have restricted to the sex who wear the pantaloons,” thus clarifying the double standard underlying this morality. “We love and revere the female character too much to accept [Sand] either as a fit exponent or advocate of the feelings or sentiments of refined and virtuous women—those intermediate links between men and the angels who, kept apart and above the contaminating influences to which the ruder sex are exposed, preserve inviolate that purity of heart and feeling, which makes a modest and true-hearted wife the best and highest good attainable here below.” The woman’s task is to be good, the man’s to “attain” her, and the task of all society is to keep her above and apart from contaminating influence—in short, to manufacture “woman” from the materials of a variegated human field. Novels were getting in the way of this social regulating. “We would not think of putting the novels of George Sand in the hands of a young female friend,” the Southern Literary Messenger wrote in November 1851.
That novels could have seemed so dangerous testifies to the fragile nature of this enterprise, which is also evident whenever reviewers address it directly, as in this excerpt from the American Review for June 1845 on George Sand, which moved immediately from consideration of her writings to the issue of women’s rights. “By the ‘equality of rights’ thus claimed for women, is meant, we conceive, that the wife should enjoy the same rights civil and political—same in extent and in subject—as the husband. But an equality of this sort is clearly incompatible with the very existence of the social, or even the family, association. No association, domestic or political, possible, without a government. No government without the right in some one to command. No right of command without the duty to obey, without subordination. But subordination and the equality contended for are a contradiction even in the terms. We need not dwell upon the practical objections, which are sufficiently obvious—the consequence of admitting woman upon the arena of politics; the diversion from domestic avocations, the depravation of those qualities that chiefly ennoble her nature and endear her to man; the capricious disregard of the husband’s wishes or weaknesses, with which an independent right of property would not fail to inspire her.” If woman was to any significant extent the being that men claimed, then clearly the independent right of property would not lead so inexorably and immediately to a “capricious disregard” of the husband, or to the other terrible results that are envisaged if she were given equality: making “the fireside a scene of anarchy, the state a system of intrigue.”
It might be an anachronistic mistake to see control of female sexuality as the only preoccupation of reviewers considering moral tendency in novels; it might be more accurate to say that the control of women in all ways was their concern. (Perhaps control of men through women was also an indirect goal.) The “animal nature” of woman was just one quality calling for regulation, receiving particular attention in novel reviews because it was so much in evidence in popular fiction. In fact, throughout the era reviewers were looking for novels featuring heroines who exemplified such virtues as self-sacrifice, self-control, and self-discipline. In the same American Review that excoriated George Sand and descanted on the horrible results of equal rights for women and men, another essayist saw novels as the source of feminine inspiration. “Who ever read a romance that inculcated listless, shapeless idleness? It encourages action and endurance,” the writer claimed. “Among all the young women I have been acquainted with, I should say that the novel-readers are not only the best informed, but of the best nature, and some capable of setting examples of a sublime fortitude—the more sublime because shown in secret and all-enduring patience. … Love, it is said, is the only subject all novels are constructed upon, and such reading encourages extravagant thoughts, and gives rise to dangerous feelings. And why dangerous? Are they not such as are requisite for wife and mother to hold, and best for the destiny of woman? … For the great mark of such an education is endurance—a power to create a high duty, and energy and patience, where both are wanted.” Endurance, fortitude, energy represent the active ideal of true womanhood that is more characteristic of mid-nineteenth-century American ideology than the passive, submissive creature we have sometimes heard about, though perhaps it is no less oppressive. It represents an attempt to persuade women to control themselves, in a social atmosphere where control by main force is less and less possible. And the purpose of the control is to fit a woman to be “wife and mother,” a prospect the writer does not make at all attractive.
“Designed to illustrate the strength of woman’s attachment; the holiness of her zeal; her unselfish labours; her deep and enduring fortitude”; “praise to the young author for her efforts to restrain the blighting influences of a cold and sordid selfishness, which, in her own sex, under the new idea of proprieties in the married life, are destroying all the generous, noble, and refined impulses of love, confidence, and duty” (Godey’s, August 1840, November 1857). “We shall consider Madame George Sand as doing a far better work for her sex and for her race if she will show us a woman, or a married pair, suffering under the miseries which belong to an ill-assorted marriage, with a true and generous forgetfulness of self a lowly spirit of pious submission” (Sar-tain’s, November 1847). “The sacrifice of her own happiness, which the heroine makes … is a trait conceived from a profound knowledge of the nobleness and devotion of a true woman’s heart”(Peterson’s, May 1851).
The question of female sexual morality, then, figures in the larger context of feminine character, which in turn is linked to the issue of social stability and specifically the maintenance of a patriarchy. When reviewers touch on non-sexual moral issues, which they do only occasionally, they preach necessity and resignation. The New York Review praised Three Experiments of Living, a novel based on the Panic of 1837 detailing the successful efforts of a young woman to retrieve the shattered fortunes of her family, “because its influence is so likely to be salutary. … It teaches, so emphatically, that happiness is chiefly dependent on ourselves, and not on our outward circumstances” (March 1837). Constance is about “the losses of a pious family in the late commercial reverses, and the Christian resignation with which the change from riches to poverty is submitted to. The moral of the book is very good” (Mirror, January 30, 1841). In our country, the North American noted complacently, “the tales which will be remembered have been intended to show life as in reality it is, and thus to point out the way of preparation for its business and its duties. … They endeavor to reconcile men and women to the condition in which Providence has placed them, and teach them to accomplish that for which they were designed by Providence” (October 1844).
The Democratic Review praised Bremer’s novels because “we rise from the perusal of one of them with gentler feelings, better satisfied with the world, better pleased with our friends and neighbors, better content with our lot in life, and more sensible of and grateful to our Heavenly father, for the innumerable blessings that we daily and hourly receive at this hand” (June 1843). Peterson’s complained of Geraldine Jewsbury’s Zoe that “its tendency is to unsettle the mind; it points out evils in society, and neglects the remedy” (June 1845). “Irregularities and caprices of passion in the married are not the uncontrollable giants that George Sand and her associates represent them to be, but things that can be controlled, and must be, under penalty of social and personal ruin,” the Christian Examiner wrote in March 1846, “things not to be cured by the detestable, mean, debauching doctrine of a 'change of object,’ but by a small portion—every strong-minded man and woman knows how little and how attainable,—of self-command, by useful occupation, temperate living, and a Christian culture of the thoughts and affections of the upright soul.”
Though Sartain’s was not sure the matter was so simple, it agreed with the Christian Examiner that self-control was the only answer to marital misery. In its long review of George Sand in November 1847, the journal asserted that “marriages are every day contracted with a thoughtlessness, a forgetfulness of the principles that should actuate rational beings in an affair of lifelong importance”; but “to make it easy for such marriages to be dissolved would—to say nothing of the direct prohibition of our Saviour, who 'knew what was in man,’—practically nullify the institution of marriage, and throw society into a confusion and horror which in the worst days of the worst marriages, or even among the most barbarous nations, has never yet been equalled.” Novels “attacking thus any of the institutions which have been adopted by common consent for the well-being of society” are particularly culpable, “since the darts which, if wrapt in dull essays, would fall harmless to the ground, will find their way, winged with fancy and pointed by wit, directly to the susceptible young heart.” The review concluded that “George Sand is the unsuspected flatterer of all who are discontented with their own lot, and who find gratification in shifting the responsibility from themselves to society and its institutions and abuses. As such we cannot consider her a safe companion for youthful or excitable minds.”
Evidently in every instance of a conflict between people and institutions, the institutions needed buttressing. “Away with this mawkish sentimentality, which undermines human responsibility,” declaimed the Literary World in a long general complaint about novels, “and leaves men in that vapid state of nonentity more humiliating, more destructive to a sound morality, than a thousand errors of practice, recognized as errors, and heartily repented” (June 24, 1848). A book subtitled Trials of the Heart, it assured readers, is not about love’s trials but about “a sensitive mind thrown, by the sudden death of an improvident father, on the cold charities of the world, and the trials of that same heart, although aided by a strong and resolute will, to bear the misfortunes of that lot with resignation, patience, and cheerfulness” (October 12, 1850). (We need hardly observe that the “sensitive mind” was a woman’s.) “We gratefully acknowledge” that The Blithedale Romance “has offered to us wise and good lessons which ought to make us strong for truth and duty” (Christian Examiner, September 1852). Concerning Chesebro’s Isa, the American Review observed, “we, every-day mortals as we are, must sorrow to see the bulwarks of our purity and faith levelled without so much as an acknowledgement of wrong. What we prize is dear to us. What has protected us during our whole lives, what we have learned to love with every lesson we have ever taken, must not be discarded” (July 1852).
The Southern Literary Messenger stated that works like A. S. Roe’s Time and Tide “will forever be popular. … And this is as it should be. The writer who purifies in any degree one human heart, or reconciles that heart to its earthly state of probation, has done more for humanity than many a celebrated philosopher and man of science” (August 1852). In a rage over the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it claimed that the book’s moral stance was “absolutely fatal to all human society,” that “it is the very evangel of insubordination, sedition, and anarchy. … In the complicated weave of trials, difficulties and temptations, with which Providence in its wisdom has thought proper to intertwine the threads of human existence, an unbroken career of happiness or prosperity is not to be found. … The very aptitude of this life for that state of probation which it was designed to be, depends upon the alterniation and juxtaposition of weakness and virtue, or joy and misery.” Reviewing works by Timothy Shay Arthur, its favorite author, Godey’s announced: he “is a good man. He puts no idea upon paper, he adopts no precept, he advocates no maxim, he favors no theory that may not safely be connected with the highest and purest interest of society” (March 1853).
“It will encourage many a fainting heart to be not weary in well-doing,” Knickerbocker extolled Jenny Marsh’s Toiling and Hoping (May 1856). “A novel devoted to the virtue of self-renunciation, and the spiritual compensations for worldly disappointment and wretchedness,” Graham’s noted approvingly of Jews-bury’s Constance Herbert (August 1855). “The aim of the author,” Godey’s explained of The Belle of Washington, “is to portray in attractive colors the strength, beauty, and commanding influence of the Christian and domestic virtues in the midst of severe trials”—a woman’s trials, compensated for by virtues it defined as “love, obedience, discipline, and self-control” (May 1858). In Vernon Grove, which “truly deserves to be ranked with the highest of our works of sentimental fiction,” the theme is love, “not love the guilty passion, but that love which, however ardent it may be, elevates and refines the heart, and finds, even amidst the torments of self-sacrifice, those pleasures and those rewards which ever attend upon the consciousness of duties fulfilled” (Godey’s, January 1859). “We feel that the hard discipline of her men and women is like that which we make for ourselves, and the process by which they struggle into greater freedom is that by which we must ourselves emerge from bondage” (North American on Charlotte Brontë, October 1857). The author of Sword and Gown, it said critically, “looks at life from a very low standpoint. … The charms of moral beauty, the dignity of self-denial, the power of discipline, have no place in our author’s thought” (January 1860).
If this is an ideology of individualism, it is advanced in the cause of stability rather than progress, on behalf of duty rather than self-enhancement. It is antagonistic to any kind of change other than the internal reconstitution of the individual in a way that makes her or him—chiefly her—accept full responsibility for her life circumstances. Though the reviews assure readers that institutions help them, their demand is for individuals to help the institutions. Society appears extremely fragile. The only reward for self-discipline and self-sacrifice is, apparently, the consciousness of duty well done. Not one of these reviewers proposes that there is any fun involved in the morality advocated. Or excitement. Or interest. Quite apart from what this morality meant in terms of reader behavior in life, we need to think of what it implied in terms of the reading of novels themselves. Books grounded in this sort of moral expectation could not have been the source of that pleasure, interest, or excitement that reviewers had always identified as the reason for the novel’s popularity. There is an attempt under way here fundamentally to change the novel. If the “serious novel” is thought to be better because of its incorporation of a “serious” morality, with consequent diminish-ment of the novel’s capacity for giving pleasure and for enchaining and enchanting the reader, how are post-Victorians to assess this claim? And how are women to view the assertion that the better novel is one that contains a view of women’s nature as high and noble when those qualities imply willing subordination to a social system that, while granting her an independent self, demands its sublimation in the cause of other, more faulty beings?
Two issues with respect to our own, later age concern me here. First, though Victorian morality is now out of date, the notion of the serious novel with which it was originally confounded is not. “Serious” is itself a Victorian concept of value. And it is worth considering by whom, and for whom, seriousness is defined; it is clear to me that assessments of the novel still often involve the intention to suppress, or direct, or improve, the female reader. If anything, those novelists elevated to “serious” status these days are more severe, more brutal, and more crude in their sexual ideologies than the earlier fictions, and the reviewers are a good deal more strident. The “woman’s novel” for even the most liberated anti-Victorian is an object of scorn and contempt as it never was earlier—indeed, the concept did not really exist in the fully detached form it now takes. The critic seeking to name a deplorable novelist will inevitably come up with Jacqueline Susann or Judith Krantz rather than Irving Wallace or Mickey Spillane; the wonderful author who can’t sell is invariably a William Faulkner rather than a Willa Cather. Blatantly misogynist novels by authors like Norman Mailer, John Barth, or Philip Roth get high praise; the same respect is not accorded the occasional example of misandry. The matter would be different if distinctions were made on formal or aesthetic grounds—if, for example, John Updike (his males all soul, his women all body) were praised as a fine prose stylist rather than a serious explorer of spiritual values. But no.
Feminist critics seem to constitute an exception to this generality, and of course feminists are keenly sensitive to the misogynist portrayals and ideologies in so many so-called major contemporary novelists. But there is in this group as in the others a powerful desire to teach women, improve them, deluge them with “serious” depictions of their own opportunities. In a word, the didactic impulse directed toward the female sex continues very strong in novels and in novel criticism alike.
A second issue is the unexamined assumption in earlier reviews that persists into the contemporary scene: that the moral tendency of a novel really exists, and that it affects people’s actions. Sophisticated as critics claim to be today, they do not seem to consider it possible that women (or men) might read popular novels for the formally and emotionally pleasurable experience of reading novels. This is to ignore the genre as a formal entity with its own pleasures and rules. The contemporary critic, journalistic or academic, is no less naive here than Victorian predecessors. Indeed, many critics who have the most severe definitions of literary language as only self-referential cannot imagine that the reader of a female gothic might be seeking a self-contained—a literary—experience. This is, I think, because they equate naively pleasurable literary experiences with a naive sense of literature or, differently put, because the only “literary” experience they accept as such is the experience of the most sophisticated, advanced, difficult, reflexive texts or those that are made so through classroom or scholarly exegesis.