Her Majesty's Tower

By WILLIAM HEPWORTH DIXON. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
THE story of the Tower of London, from the mythical date of its foundation in Roman times down to our own day, presents the most tragic aspects of English history, as well as the most romantic and picturesque. There is nothing in this fact necessarily dangerous to good literature, if only you suppose the business of telling such a story to fall to a man of imagination, or even of mere good taste, with a tolerable turn for simplicity. As recounted by her Majesty’s Beef-Eaters to sight-seers at the Tower, it has all the advantage of condensation and directness, with the charm of dramatic effect in the narrator’s costume; though there is something — perhaps it is a certain air, of too great use or custom, in the historian — which affects the hearer unpleasantly. As Mr. Dixon takes the story out of the mouths of the Beef-Eaters, we have not this to complain of. He speaks to us with the freshness and enthusiam of a Beef-Eater rehearsing his tale for the first time,—a Beef-Eater somewhat more lettered than common ; read in Raskin, Carlyle, and modern poetry ; yet without other Beef-Eaters’ admirable point and consciousness of having finished on coming to an end. In a word, the story of the Tower has not here fallen to a man of imagination, or of mere good taste with a tolerable turn for simplicity. It makes you doubt his fitness, in the beginning, when he opens with a poor bit of picturesqueness or fancifulness, such as, “Seen from the outside, the Tower appears to be white with age and wrinkled with remorse ” ; and you go on from bad to worse. It is certainly a very fatiguing book Mr. Dixon has made, and nothing but the inalienable fascination of the theme could hold the reader. The style is tinted and tinselled throughout with verbal quaintness and finery of the different periods written about, and has the effect of a morning-coat of our epoch slashed like a doublet and trimmed with gold or silver braid, —brede, we suspect Mr. Dixon would have us say. Yet even in this cheap method of literary adornment the author has no great facility, and recurs again and again to the same scraps and colors. When the water of the Thames broke down the barbican of Henry the Builder, “the Commons went almost mad with joy ” ; Cardinal Fisher “wept with joy” when the Maid of Kent declaimed against Henry the Eighth’s divorce; when the Men of Kent came up in force to London, and the citizens thought Mary would relinquish her Spanish match, they “ ran mad with joy ” ; and quite time, nobody having run mad or wept with joy for many pages back. In personal characterization this kind of writer is sure to be startling. One prisoner in the Tower is “the fair Saxon lady, whose pink and white flesh and shower of golden hair had won for her the wandering heart of Edward the Fourth” ; Elizabeth, when a young woman, was “strong and beautiful as a pard”; Arundel had “serpentine eyes”; and, walking on the Tower wall, “ Raleigh was a sight to see, not only for his fame and name, but for his picturesque and dazzling figure. Fifty-one years old ; tall, tawny, splendid; with the oronze of tropical suns on his leonine cheek, a bushy beard, a round mustache, and a ripple of curling hair, which his man Peter took an hour to dress.” We leave, out for the most part, the account of his clothes ; but we do not mind allowing Mr. Dixon to say here that Raleigh wore “a cap and plume worth a ransom,” and a “jacket powdered with pearls ” to match. Our author shows the same unerring eye for tawdry epithet, the same tendency to vulgar excess, everywhere. Anne Boleyn’s beauty “sets old men’s fancies and young men’s eyes agog” ; “ Violante, Charles’s mother, and Isabella, his betrothed wife, went about the streets of Paris, clad in the deepest mourning”; on the seventh day of Lady Jane Grey’s reign, “the summer Sunday dawned on a country wasting with a passionate pain ”; everywhere are people screaming, leaping to their feet, going out of their senses, from one cause or another; great lords are riding forth, or dashing in; captives are rotting in cells; there are good knights, stout defenders, haughty or gracious ladies, odious lies, foul hearts, hot scenes, gleaming axes,—just as in the poorer sort of historical romances. What a picture have we here, gentles, of Queen Elinor’s reign! “ She has flushed the palace with jest and joust, with tinkle of citherns and clang of horns. But the queen has faults for which her gracious talent and her peerless beauty fail to atone. Her greed is high, her anger ruthless. Her court is filled with an outcry of merchants who have been mulcted of queen-gold, a wrangle of friars who have been robbed by her kith and kin, a roar of tiremen and jewellers clamorous for their debts, a murmur of knights and barons protesting against her loans, a clatter of poor Jews objecting to be spoiled.”
In this Cambyses’ vein the whole book is written ; as if its author had been Mr. Hepworth Pistol. It is bad enough literature, as any one may see, and as history, as mere narration, we cannot believe it of great value in suck passages as the foregoing, or even the following : — In the Tower “ Raleigh was still a centre. Bacon sought in him a patron of the new learning. Percy dined with him in the Lieutenant’s house. Hariot brought him books and maps. Petts came over with his models; Jonson, with his epigrams and underwoods. The magi—Hariot, Hues, and Warner—made a part of Raleigh’s court. Selden was often here, Mayerne sometimes, Bilson now and then. Nor were these all. Queen Anne sent messengers to the prisoner. Prince Henry rode down from Whitehall to hear him talk.” This grouping of events is an essentially untrue picture of Raleigh’s life in prison, unless they were events of frequent, almost continual occurrence; and Mr. Dixon strains thus to present facts wherever possible, making the wary doubt him, and misleading the simple, who do not perceive a trick of historical writing — or perhaps we had better say painting — used at second hand, and misapplied as borrowed tricks are pretty sure to be.
But all this is possibly treating Mr. Dixon with mistaken seriousness. A man must be joking who can say that Shakespeare and other dramatists used the name of Oldcastle for their buffoons, just as comic writers use “ Pantaloon — a degradation of one of the noblest Italian names — on our modern stage ” ; and we suspect a vein of irony and delicate satire throughout, when we read that Shakespeare was a Puritan in faith, because he said “ Oldcastle died a martyr.”